It may be a new year but the monthly updates on my media consumption shall continue as unabated as ever. So, realistically, about 1-in-3 actually get published? Well, actually, I’m hoping that a certain new challenge will result in MiMs having a bit more urgency. Of course, it may also mean I spend less time writing reviews… only time will tell.
In the meantime, however, January has certainly seen my media consumption in 2017 get off to a flying start. We finally caved and bought a TV license, so have been catching up on plenty of the BBC’s offerings, plus I’ve set myself a personal goal of reading more this year which has worked out so far. On top of both those elements, January is the month of Wintereenmas, which means I actually set aside some dedicated time for gaming. Largely this was just delving back into various multiplayer modes (think CS:S) but I did take a step back into storeyed games and, my word, did I enjoy it.
The Hateful Eight
The Hateful Eight is, first and foremost, a Tarantino film. There’s his name, splashed in large letters across the poster. There’s good ol’ Sam Jackson, once again in the prime role. There’s the incredibly long shots, atmospheric music, weirdly typeset credit sequences, chapter divisions and, of course, the standard bucket-loads of suspense and gore. Yep, a Tarantino film alright.
Of course, as with just about every Tarantino film, the end result is, largely, exemplary. The cinematography is stunning, the use of sound and colour exceptional, the dialogue superb. Every single character is perfectly cast (yes, even Channing Tatum) and just as developed and layered as the plot requires.
The first two acts, however, are something slightly more noteworthy. I’d argue that the first half of the film, including the very start of Chapter 3, may well be the most exciting and classically Tarantino piece of cinema that Tarantino has ever produced. Sure, his other films may be more exciting experiences overall and, within them, likely contain individual sequences that put the whole first half of The Hateful Eight to shame, but nevertheless there is something wonderfully Tarantino about the slow build of suspense that occurs over the first hour or so.
For me, what Tarantino does better than any other director, period, is suspense. Not suspense like you get in a horror movie, waiting to be grossed out or scared, but genuine, practically tangible mystery. The kind of suspense that hooks you and just keeps building until you can barely contain yourself, yet forces you to remain utterly riveted to the screen. Every one of his movies contains this ingredient, but here it is given centre stage. Here it is thrust into the spotlight. Not since Reservoir Dogs has Tarantino allowed himself to play with pure, unadulterated suspense for this much time and the result is incredible. Every second gets drawn out yet, with the exception of the opening shot, the actual framing of the story is fairly fast paced. Suspense is not achieved by long pans or vast silences; the characters are constantly talking and changing locale. Nor does it rely on behavioural tricks or even, for the most part, sound. There aren’t any Psycho style staccato notes or Jaws like consuming bass lines; no zoom-ins on character’s eyes or clenching fists, nor offset body language. It’s believable, utterly, with no gimmicks or clear manipulation yet it gets to you, draws you in and leaves you trapped. It’s masterful.
So it’s a great shame when, just around the 50% mark or so, it all comes shattering down. Chapter 3 starts brilliantly, setting up severe tension over what Domergue knows and then instantly revealing the secret, which somehow results in creating even more suspense – its like a suspense version of Russian nesting dolls and it is amazing! But then, only moments later, the whole sequence is broken by that other Tarantino hallmark: hyper violence. Poor Ruth and O.B. do not go quietly into the night, instead literally expelling their insides all over the surrounding area as they are poisoned. Suddenly, blood and gore become the focus; suspense is replaced by morbid fascination and the whole, wonderful slow-build abruptly ends.
To be 100% clear, The Hateful Eight is a brilliant film, but I wish it had let the suspense continue to play out. Both Warren and Mannix clearly had more secrets to be uncovered and, whilst unexpected, the revelation that all of the other patrons were working together actually dulled their collective subplots significantly. Had the guessing games continued, with the characters slowly picked off one-by-one, this would have felt like a love letter to the art of suspense. By suddenly pivoting away, the end result was entertaining and a great watch yet, ultimately, not particularly notable. It gives us a lacklustre fourth chapter that helps fill in the blanks but only, cinematically, justifies its existence through the contrasting setup of Minnie’s, before leading into a finale that can’t quite get its feet back on the ground.
The Hateful Eight could have been Tarantino’s personal masterpiece, but in some ways it ironically falls foul of being too much a Tarantino film. The twists and characters are as fantastic as ever, but the ending is lacking in any sort of nuance. A lot of fun, but doesn’t manage to stand proud with the likes of Django: Unchained, Pulp Fiction or Inglorious Bastards.
tl;dr: The first half proves Tarantino is the master of suspense, whilst the second half throws it all away for a healthy dose of hyper violence. Fun but could have been so much better.
The Five-Year Engagement
It has been far too long since I last watched a rom-com, so when The Five-Year Engagement appeared on Prime, with Jason Segel and Emily Blunt on the poster, I figured I’d give the trailer a go. Discovering that it also starred Alison Brie, Rhys Ifans and Chris Pratt, some all-time favourites, plus had the creative minds behind Bridesmaids teaming up with Judd Apatow, made it an instant sale.
Now I imagine you’re expecting me to say that, despite all of the above, The Five-Year Engagement was a total trainwreck. Well… it wasn’t. It has some clunky moments but I haven’t laughed uncontrollably so frequently in a long time. So that takes part of the “com”, but what of the “rom”? That wasn’t half bad either. Blunt and Segel make a compelling couple and, as with most of Apatow’s work, the focus is not so much on the trope-y ‘two people meet, fall for each other and have some laughs along the way’ but rather the real world issues that couples can run into. In the spotlight this time are the strains and stresses that can appear when balancing two sets of career aspirations, as ever portrayed both clearly and meaningfully.
The plot isn’t too much to write home about, but then again this is a rom-com. We’re not here for plot, we’re here for some vague moral story wrapped in laughter and fuzzy feelings, and in that sense The Five-Year Engagement delivers. The characters are just deep enough, with the core couple feeling engaging and realistic whilst most side characters are closer to stereotypes than actual human beings (a standard and acceptable trope of the genre). Crucially though, these stereotypes work well together and, in particular, the juxtaposition between Brie/Pratt and Blunt/Segel is done nicely. Plus, frankly, the film is worth your time just for Pratt’s glorious wedding song; rarely do you see an actor going for the combination of terrified, honoured, arrogant, sincere and romantic (all at once) but I’m not sure it will ever be done better than during this scene.
After finishing the film I wondered how I’d missed such a fun flick, only to look it up on IMDB to discover it was both quite old and fairly poorly received. Honestly, I can’t understand that at all. It won’t be considered a classic, but I’d happily recommend it as a light hearted, frequently hilarious watch to escape with for an evening.
tl;dr: Wonderfully funny and nicely composed, a thoroughly enjoyable movie. Also: aye yay-ay-yay-ay-yay-ay-yay-yaaaaaa!
Hamlet (w/ Maxine Peak)
I’ve now watched more recorded versions of Hamlet than all other (recorded) stage shows combined, which is a bit weird. I do like Hamlet, and admit that it has benefitted from casting actors I highly enjoy (Tennant and Cumberbatch), but it’s not my favourite Shakespeare my some stretch. Still, a friend lent us this “ground breaking” variation so it would have been rude not to. On top of which, repeated viewing does allow for hyper-analyse of the performances which, for theatre, is something I quite enjoy doing.
With that in mind, I really enjoyed this iteration of the seasoned classic. The direction went in some odd, well, directions at times but was pretty interesting on the whole. I liked the use of light bulbs to depict the spiritual realm, so much that I was actually a little disappointed when the King walked on stage. The weirdly jazz infused sound bites during set transitions, however, I would happily have muted.
The casting, though, is what this particular variation is famous for, with Maxine Peak playing the titular role. She is not the first woman to play Hamlet, but it is still a damned rare occurrence. So, for her part, Peak was stunning. Most Hamlet’s, in my experience, go either for overly tortured madness, replete with whacky facial expressions and over-the-top movement, or utterly morose, almost introverted buckets of depression. Peak treads a fine line between the two extremes, one which speaks clearer of the character than either traditional telling, at least for me. She plays her madness very well, letting the humour shine through, whilst retaining the emotional edge required to keep the audience on Hamlet’s side. It is a little rocky at the start but, by the final curtain, is a performance I would highly recommend watching.
The rest of the cast are, for the most part, solid representations. One or two others characters have been gender swapped, though Hamlet is the only truly gender bent individual, with pronouns, titles and even relationships modified for everyone else. Interestingly, for me, the stand out was mother Polonius, a gender swap which made the character far more modern and who was beautifully portrayed. The humour of the part shone through in a way I’d never noticed was lacking in previous iterations. On the flipside, however, was Queen Gertrude, whose wailing, thin voiced performance never felt particularly well embodied and frequently crossed over into distracting. The acting itself was fine, but the casting was off for me and heavily detracted from the pivotal scene in her chamber, despite Peak’s masterful supporting performance.
The production was well cut whilst remaining true to the theatrical spirit. Only once did the editors feel the need to add a TV-only effect, with a small bit of slow-motion which felt unnecessary and a little off. Otherwise, the show was highly enjoyable and something I would thoroughly recommend.
tl;dr: A fantastic Hamlet, with some interestingly modern tweaks that largely hits the mark.
JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time
Apathetic. In one word, that’s how I would describe my reaction to Trapped in Time. There is nothing ostensibly wrong with the film, but ultimately it just didn’t really do much for me. The animation is well done, but the style used is not one I particularly enjoy, with most of the characters appearing malformed to my eyes (even for superheroes). Similarly, voice work and scripting was fine but didn’t fit that well with how I hear these characters in my head already. There weren’t any “a-ha!” moments here, as with hearing Nathan Fillion first take on Green Lantern or Matt Ryan’s portrayal of Constantine.
The plot is average as well, with a contrived story line about two heroes-in-training from the future accidentally unleashing a cryogenically frozen Lex Luthor on the past. Both heroes are trope-filled and two dimensional, with a clear moralistic plot arc with very little complexity. Plus, they also happen to be the key to saving the day, even when the likes of Superman and Wonder Woman can’t hack it – shock, who saw that one coming!?
To be fair, the introduction of Time Turner as the key villain, goading Lex into a temporal trap and then taking control, was neatly done and lent an element of interest to proceedings. However, the reasoning for his desire to take over Earth is never really mentioned, let alone explained. Having been caged like a mythical genie, I would personally have taken my freedom and ran to some lesser planet with less superheroes running around. But maybe that’s just me, and I clearly don’t think like people in this universe. I mean, I would also not have left world-ending super weapons and imprisoned entities of immense power just casually lying around a museum without any more of a security system than a knee-high rope. It’s not like this is the future with immensely advanced technology or anything…
tl;dr: Fun enough but not really anything new or particularly interesting.
It’s definitely a little soon to rewatch Zootopia, despite how much I enjoyed it first time around, but I found myself with some friends who hadn’t seen it so rewatch it I did. Does it stand up to a repeat viewing? Yes, absolutely it does. The humour actually shone through a little more this time around, probably because I was able to spot many more of the neat little touches that litter the background in every scene. The animators clearly had a field day designing a world that caters for so many extremes in body shape. In fact, I think a lot of science fiction writers and illustrators could take away a lot from watching Zootopia through a lens of culture design. Otherwise, there is little to add. The plot remains thoroughly enjoyable, the emotions were all still fired up at the right times and the moral remains one of the most timely and notable of any kids film for some time. This is definitely a movie that all children should watch as these are ideals we desperately need our future generations to do better at embracing than we have.
tl;dr: As powerful as the first viewing and possibly even funnier, a stand-out film of 2016 and one of Disney’s finest all round. An instant classic.
Justice League: DOOM
The worlds greatest detective, Batman has devised methods to “deal with” any his fellow superheroes, should they become not so morally bright and shiny. A villain discovers these plans and utilise them to bring the Justice League to its knees. The plot of DOOM has been retold a number of times in the DC universe, but it remains a particularly strong one. Casting Vandal Savage as the villain is a good choice; he is both intelligent and shrewd enough to have uncovered the fail-safes whilst having the backing to enact them. The one issue with the plot involving Savage though is that the stakes need to be extremely high. Savage isn’t a normal supervillain, content with bringing low the heroes of the world. He needs more reason and purpose than the likes of Lex Luthor or Captain Cold.
The result is a slightly ridiculous scheme to nuke the sun and cause a huge solar flare, rendering half of the planet uninhabitable. We’ll just remove the gaping misuse of science here and explain it away as ‘comic book logic’ but even still it isn’t the most convincing plan. Savage has built an empire on technology, so there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for him to want to revert humanity back to the pre-industrial era. Also, it leaves a couple of issues for one or two of his allies, who are a weirdly chosen bunch. Cheetah, Ma’alefa’ak and Star Sapphire have little to lose (though the latter doesn’t normally go in for genocide) but Bane, Mirror Master and particularly Metallo rely on technology for their abilities and continued existence. Disabling it all with a great solar storm would render them pretty much useless, but none of them appear bothered by that trade off.
On the other end of the scale, we have Savage’s meticulous planning, which requires him to remove the Justice League but also to simply forget that there are other superheroes. The JLA at this point is just 6 individuals, whilst we see a couple of others running around and can presuppose that there are dozens more. They may be the best, but simply discounting the likes of Cyborg does feel a little elementary for the greatest conqueror that has ever lived.
Plot aside, however, the film is very well put together. The animation is slick and very well drawn, feeling like a seriously high-end job. Voice work is provided by some of the greats, including a welcome inclusion of Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan. There is the occasional clunker within the script but largely the dialogue and humour flows well. In short, DOOM is entertaining and well presented, with solid pacing and a decent plot. It’s not groundbreaking but definitely enjoyable and, if you’re a fan of the Justice League, one of their better feature length outings to date.
tl;dr: A solid film with a couple of plot holes. If you’re willing to wave these as standard comic book thinking then the remainder is highly enjoyable.
Before I begin writing anything on the film, there are two things that should be made clear. First, Orson Scott Card is a terrible human being whose opinions I find deeply disturbing; I would never recommend anyone pay him any heed and would rather he disappear in the annals of history entirely. Second, Ender’s Game and its sequel, The Speaker for the Dead, are two of the best sci-fi books I’ve ever read and remain hugely formative for me; they are books I recommend everyone to read, whether you like sci-fi or not, for their philosophical connotations alone. In short, I believe that you can separate the art from the artist and that the actions of one should not impinge the impact of the other. It also means I was extremely dubious going into this film that it could possibly live up to the book.
On that note then, if you haven’t already read the book then do not watch the film. It is a pale comparison of the true story line and will, unfortunately, ruin most of what makes the book quite so impactful. If you have read the book then, unfortunately, there’s nothing really new for you here. As a result, I basically wouldn’t recommend anyone watch this film.
Which is a shame, because despite the immensely negative press it received, I think it is a fairly faithful adaptation. There are a couple of odd moments and some elements that I don’t feel were given anywhere near enough screen time. Bean’s character is woefully under served, though nowhere near as much as Ender’s siblings who have been reduced to mere footnotes. Moments of brilliance from the books have been refined to near obsolescence as well, particularly the Mind Game which is a great shame. Film Ender is almost too perfect, rarely making any mistakes and overcoming every challenge without any clear struggle. Book Ender is, therefore, a lot more nuanced as a character. Despite these shortcomings, the pacing is well maintained and the core of the plot is there. Unfortunately, I feel that were the book excels is in the slow builds and sudden reveals, which the film just doesn’t have the time to pull off. Perhaps it would have been better served as a TV adaption.
The casting, however, is worth noting. There are some very strong performances on display by a predominantly teenage cast, most of whom I will now keep an eye out for. There wasn’t a bad performance amongst them, with the worst showing coming from Ben Kingsley’s rather skittish Mazer Rackham. Casting a white man into a role of a half-Maori and then tattooing his face was also deeply distracting.
There isn’t all that much, then, that I can say negatively about Ender’s Game. It hits all the right notes, the acting and direction is decent to good throughout, the CGI is stunning at times and the overall concept is executed well enough. The world building could have been a little better, but again I feel ran into time constraints. Unfortunately, though, the end result is just not as good as the source material and lacks any of the books punch as a result. It’s not a book that ever seemed viable to be converted, in my opinion, as so much of what makes it work is the way Ender thinks about the world. That unique perspective is lost to someone simply watching events unfold and the story is lacking as a result.
tl;dr: Read the book; it’s a story that deserves to be experienced unadulterated. If you have done so, there isn’t much more for you here.
How this script attracted the calibre of actors it did I cannot fathom. The story is tired, trope filled and cookie cutter, with the barest amount of heart and character development to prevent Dirty Grandpa being a total write-off. The acting is decent throughout with some fun moments from Zac Efron, in particular, but nothing that will leave an impression.
The reality is that these are the best things about the film: decent acting and the existence of a story line. But that doesn’t really justify why the films exist; they are the bare minimum a film should contain, which is a good way of summing up Dirty Grandpa. The entire film exists as the bare minimum enabling excuse to have an old man say and enact lewd/offensive “jokes” for just over an hour. Had these jokes been pithy, witty or at least funny then perhaps that would have been enough. Unfortunately, they maintain none of those characteristics, falling flat or coming across as inanity for most of the film. The only moment that ever felt more than telegraphed or shoe-horned was the “flex off” scene, but even this was weirdly broken apart by out of place fart jokes.
At the core, it seems like a writer somewhere wanted to create a story about the pitfalls of spending a lifetime pleasing others. There’s some form of moral mixed up in there but it never really breaks the surface and reveals itself. The clearest message, that you should “live what you love” and not what other people want, is somewhat flat-lined in a finale where Efron’s character does precisely what his grandfather wants him to do. He quits his job, cancels his marriage and runs off with some girl he barely knows, seemingly due to an epiphany but, realistically, because his grandfather has convinced him that this is what will make him happy, despite Efron’s consistent attempts to prove him wrong. Effectively, he breaks free from the controlling clutches of his father directly into the controlling clutches of his grandfather. The women in his life are no better, trading an overbearing control freak fiancee for a free-spirited college-girl who manipulates him into joining her on a year long boating trip. Does Efron want to go off and photograph climate change for a year? It doesn’t really seem so, he just does it because she gives him no other choice. So, what exactly is the message here? As with most aspects of Dirty Grandpa the answer is that there really isn’t one, just a vague form of something that might have been.
tl;dr: Don’t bother. The humour falls flat and the story clearly never got beyond a draft stage. The entire film feels rushed and empty, with no memorable moments to speak of.
Most of what I’ve heard about Lucy is negative. The film was criticised for just about everything, from direction to acting to script, or at least that’s how it seemed. It was also heavily criticised for, once again, relying on a fallacy of modern ‘science’: that we only use 10% of our brain on average.
For that last part it definitely deserves criticism. That ‘statistic’ is pseudo-science nonsense that refuses to die, no matter how many people point it out. That said, as far as the premise goes, at least Lucy ran with it in some interesting directions. Having thrown science out the window to grant it a core concept you can’t really categorise the film as sci-fi, but as fantasy it is a little more interesting. The usual tropes all appear, from metabolism control to Jean-Grey like psychic abilities, but are interspersed with some more unique ideas. The visualisation of data streams, both within plants and the global mobile networks, were interesting (if, again, not particularly accurate) and her driving sequence was damned effective with some clever visual direction on display.
Fun effects aside, Lucy also behaves in a nicely rational manner. It seems that whenever people ‘unlock’ the power of their brain in films they are overtaken by relatively basal desires: greed, lust or revenge are all common. Lucy, on the other hand, actually seems to get an IQ boost, determining that she hasn’t long to live and that the best use of her remaining life is to continue the experiment in a scientific environment. Here, at least, Lucy deserves a thumbs up for portraying genuinely intelligent behaviour. Even if the end result is that she becomes some kind of transcendent computer/god hybrid.
The usual problems with an all-powerful antagonist are clearly also present. At any time Lucy could just wave a hand and kill her opponents. In fact, she stands in front of her main adversary and doesn’t kill him, for reasons that remain unexplained. Here her intelligence should be questioned, as countless people end up dying for her to complete her experiment when her help would take nanoseconds. The result is that most of the action sequences in the latter half of the film feel dumb. It doesn’t matter how much you dress them up or write Lucy off as having to concentrate, they just don’t make any sense.
Overall, Lucy is a fun enough watch but suffers from a silly core premise. Much like the acting or direction, the film is largely fine, but nothing here is going to blow you away or leave much of an impact.
tl;dr: Not as bad as anticipated but still not overly worthwhile.
Because if Lego can turn a children’s game into a major blockbuster and critical hit, why not Battleships! I mean, apart from the fact that one is a whole company whose premise is based on imagination and possibility with myriad potential story lines and the other is a rigid, 2-D board game with strict rules and very little in the way of plot or lore. Still, someone, somewhere thought that it was at least worth a punt and you definitely can’t knock them for trying.
There are certainly liberties being taken with the plot of Battleship. I mean, I definitely don’t remember the game involving an alien invasion, but a lot of those old classics have undergone modern reinventions so we’ll let them off with that. I don’t feel the need to blow up a large satellite array on Hawaii can be so easily shoe horned in… and then there’s the alien tech. Despite having interstellar, hyper speed technology and clearly present biological eyes their actual weapons system appear to rely on some quantified version of aggression in order to target. Basically, fire on them and they will wreck you, but just move around the place and you’re as good as invisible. Whilst on the open ocean. In the middle of the day. In a giant, metal ship brimming with communications technology broadcasting on every frequency man has invented, including the one that seemingly brought you here. Maybe its our atmosphere or something.
In short, Battleship is a woefully idiotic film with the barest excuse for a plot which comprises very little outside of the usual Michael Bay-esque sequences. There’s the hot-yet-competent girl who achieves practically nothing, instead getting the much less competent but far more muscly male characters around her to pull their weight. There’s the overbearing, over protective father who also happens to be our protagonists boss (and Liam Neeson in a role quite suited to him, so it has that going for it). The perfect moral American, handsome, strong and successful that acts as the fairy godmother for the protagonist (due to familial obligation rather than any meaningful connection). The comedy military grunts (also fulfilling our quota of non-white people and other famous person, Rihanna) that are actually the only competent agents in the plot. And, finally, our douche-bag protagonist.
I think the vibe they were going for was down-on-his-luck yet lovable loser with a heart in the right place, aka Mark Wahlberg in Transformers. But somehow they screwed it up monumentally: he isn’t down-on-his-luck, he just always does the exact opposite of what a sane, normal person would do and deliberately sabotages himself. He’s not lovable, he’s just horny and arrogant. His heart isn’t in the right place, ever, even by the end when he’s meant to have “learnt his lesson”. He remains, throughout, a moron with severe psychopathic tendencies, zero empathy and delusions of grandeur. You know, a douche-bag. Actually, an American douche-bag in the most unfair and stereotypical way.
The rest of the plot and characters are cliches. There’s the marines’ redemption story about a man who has given up and finds out he still can be awesome… by being suicidal and negligent of everyone around him trying to help. The nerdy, cowardly scientist who won’t be pushed around by the jocks, but also just needs them to wait up as he has no where else to be. Plus there’s the moment the retired veterans get to don uniform and help rescue the world, because of course they do. Actually, that bit is quite fun and, whilst undoubtedly silly, does have a feel good vibe that they riff off nicely with some humorous scenes.
And really, to be fair, they actually do manage to turn the battle into the board game. It’s ridiculous, completely insane and makes very little sense but dammit it is also a lot of fun realising that the alien’s weapons are pegs that descend from heaven and land in equally spaced locations along a ship before tearing it apart. Oh and thanks to the use of a grid of tsunami buoys the battleship and alien craft literally jump around square-by-square, with the captain telling his gunners to actually fire at “F9!” or “B12!” (“We sunk their ship!!!”). I’m not too sure what part the whirling mechanical fireballs of death are… maybe they’re something that’s been added since the 90’s, like dice? But yes, in short, did they manage to somehow make a semi-coherent plot out of the board game and keep all of the recognisable bits? Yes, yes they did. And for that alone I will forgive a lot of the other awfulness that is Battleship.
tl;dr: Not quite so-bad-it’s-good, but close – a crazy attempt to turn a pretty linear board game into a movie which largely misses but occasionally lands a hit (yeah, Battleships reference).
If Lucy was the recent big budget sci-fi flop then I think it’s fair to say Interstellar was the big hit. Whilst I’d agree that it is certainly a much better film, in pretty much every way, the core concept isn’t much more intelligent and the outcome is just as transparent. The latter point is all the greater a shame for the fact that this is a Nolan film, a director who normally excels at plot twists.
That isn’t to say I think Interstellar a bad film. Far from it, the storyline was interesting, the acting believable and the pacing very well executed. Despite working out the central mystery as soon as the daughter said she felt like she “knew the ghost” in her room, it didn’t massively impact my enjoyment. Nor did I find the whole time travel via gravity manipulation, black holes as magical mirrors pseudo-nonsense that grating. Eye-rolling, initially, certainly, but the plot was entertaining enough that I ultimately didn’t care.
I would, however, have preferred a little more world building. Keeping the root cause of Earth’s plight did lend a little intrigue, but actually I felt that this story was a more interesting one than the (warped) exploration of relativity the film turned into. Admittedly, my opinion is coloured by the fact that the state of the Earth and the technophobic society inhabiting it reminded me intensely of one of my favourite Asimov short stories, Youth. Still, I would much rather have spent my time examining a culture whose schooling system has decided that the Apollo missions were merely US propaganda and that space travel is impossible (all whilst NASA work on a generation ship that will travel via wormhole to a different galaxy).
Plus, the time travel elements don’t work out. It’s one thing for him to be the “ghost”, but another entirely that the Others are future humans. That only works if there was some plausible way for the present humans to escape the Earth and continue living long enough to create wormhole technology, which there isn’t. As it stands, the result is a causal loop without any starting point, which doesn’t work (no matter how many times you say the word ‘gravity’!) and leaves a major plot hole at the core of the film.
tl;dr: A fun enough romp that lacks Nolan’s signature intelligence whilst skirting around the much more interesting story occurring in the background.
The movie based on the short based on a single gimmick. It was never going to be that great, let’s be honest. Still, Hardcore Henry took the logical next step in video games and proved that a two hour long cut scene without even quick-time events as interaction is interesting, but should never be repeated. Because, to be clear, that is exactly what this film is.
If anything, Hardcore Henry is a borderline parody, with consistent use of gaming clichés. The main character cannot speak, something that is explained loosely in the first few minutes, in an attempt (I guess) to increase ‘immersion’. The plot is just a series of action sequences tied together by quick, to the point pieces of dialogue, always delivered by the same character, either in person or occasionally over the phone (a la GTA). Very little detail or background is every divulged; Henry is told just enough to reach the next cut scene, nothing more.
Tim Roth aside, there aren’t many faces here you’ll recognise nor performances worth remembering. The recurring character has fun with the multiple personalities but beyond that we’re still very much in the realm of video game cliches. The result is an interesting execution that should never be repeated, as its true worth is purely in being attempted, rather than achieved. Quite like a video game, then.
tl;dr: Gamers will get a few laughs and find the mix of gaming pastiches in a movie interesting enough but there isn’t much more to recommend this one trick pony.
La La Land
With a record matching 14 Oscar nominations La La Land rapidly went from “that looks interesting” to “I need to watch that film”. Adam Conover would probably have something to say about that metamorphosis but it doesn’t overly both me. I’m rarely suckered in to watching award bait movies, but the premise was intriguing and anything pairing Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling automatically enters my to-watch list anyway.
The real question, then, is whether or not it deserves all of those nominations. Is La La Land an instant classic, worthy of remembrance through the ages? Not really, no. It is a bloody good film with some wonderfully nostalgic, clever concepts, brilliant acting and a competent plot. Best Costumes? Sure. Best Original Score? Definitely. Best Cinematography? When you pull off paying homage to this many classics, absolutely. I can see it deservedly winning all three and likely picking up some of the others, but I do hope it isn’t a clean sweep. The actors were both brilliant but there’s stiff competition and, ultimately, neither role was particularly stretching. The direction was very good but did occasionally slip and the sound syncing, particularly in the opening number, was actively distracting. The editing during both the galaxy dance sequence and the “what could have been” finale are exceptional, but at others times felt a little flat. In short, La La Land is certainly not a bad choice for any of the nominations it has received, but it definitely wouldn’t be near the top of my pick list for several of the actual awards.
Regardless of how it performs during award season, La La Land should always be considered as a triumph. It very cleverly pulls from a huge variety of classical techniques and ‘golden era’ styling, everything from aperture zoom ins to reminding you that the film was shot in Cinemascope™! I imagine that every second was packed with Easter Eggs that I missed as well, which true cinema fans will likely rejoice over finding for years to come. The songs are genuinely clever and frequently catchy, with good use of character motifs throughout. The opening ‘Traffic Jam Breakout’ was a rare exception, which largely felt forced and disassociated from the rest of the film. It provided a novel introduction to our lead characters but otherwise felt rather tacked on. This is made all the more a shame because the lead up, as the camera pans past all manner of car each playing different genres, was brilliant cinematography that gets completely overshadowed by a relatively banal following sequence. Plus, have I mentioned how bad the voice syncing was here? Yes, I have, but it’s worth mentioning it twice – it’s that bad.
There were also some odd issues with focus on some of the tight crop zooms, particularly (for some odd reason) with Emma Stone. Now these may well have been an issue with the cinema hardware, as I don’t know why they would have made it through post otherwise, but if they aren’t then the director may need to get their eyes checked. Unfortunately this partially ruined some of Stone’s best sequences, notably her final audition solo, throughout which the only part of the frame in focus was her clavicle.
Performances, especially during the duets, occasionally felt a little forced, almost as if the actors had been directed to tone back their singing. When they’re allowed to let rip both have excellent voices, but some of the earlier songs did seem to struggle as they sing-talked through sections. These are only minor quibbles though and, as I said above, both actors give fantastic showings overall. In fact, this review has turned far too negative, which really isn’t fair. When a film is receiving this much attention it can almost be more fun to point out the problems, regardless of impact, but overall La La Land is brilliant.
It nicely balances golden-era, Hollywood nostalgia with a competent and modern rom-com, throwing in some exceptional jazz and brilliant musical numbers to boot. The amount going on here is extraordinary and the fact that it balances all these spinning plates so effortlessly is superb. Most films with half as many ideas and gimmicks would feel overcrowded, though at no point during viewing does La La Land feel that way. It is happily one of the cleverest and most original (despite all its clear derivations) movies I’ve seen in some time, plus it’s wonderfully upbeat. On top of all of that, the plot takes an unexpected turn towards the end which is both intelligently executed and emotionally mature, helping it truly stand a good head above most within any of its myriad applicable genres. You may feel it has become a little over hyped, but you definitely won’t be disappointed.
tl;dr: A wonderful mashup of homages, genres and styles held tightly together by a clever story, brilliant performances and one of the best original musical soundtracks in years.
Doctor Who: The Return of Doctor Mysterio
It has been quite some time since the last episode of Doctor Who aired. Perhaps that breathing space has been beneficial, both for those involved and with the fans, because I have to admit the show was growing stale for me. I never really clicked with the plotlines that Matt Smith was thrust into and felt that, in the latest seasons, both Capaldi and Coleman could have been utilised much more cleverly. With Coleman’s departure meaning the end of Clara, one of my favourite (albeit overly convoluted) companions, and then the end of the Riversong saga it felt like the show was coming to a natural close.
But, after that extended break, I was happy to see some more Doctor Who on offer, whilst remaining a little wary. Luckily, The Return of Doctor Mysterio was not the final nail in my fandom coffin. Actually, I enjoyed it quite a lot. The story was interesting enough, with some fun moments for everyone involved and a distinctive sense of humour that the show has been lacking. Better still, it didn’t feel rushed, a problem I’ve had with a lot of Moffat’s episodes. There was no deus ex machine beyond the normal “screwdrivers and time machines” variety, the alien invasion was predicated on an actually intelligent plan and the subplots were all neatly self-contained. Matt Lucas makes a wonderful interim companion and Peter Capaldi actually seemed to having a lot more fun in the role whilst being given a chance to still show some level of emotion!
To be clear, the show is still just Doctor Who. The plot remains a bit stupid, the characters aren’t always the most detailed and the alien design was a little… well, Doctor Who! But it was also fun and entertaining, which is really what the series is meant to be.
tl;dr: Certainly not must-watch TV but a welcome return to a more humorous, self-contained version of the classic sci-fi show.
QI (Season N)
Quiz shows are not something I normally add to MiMs, largely because they are what they are: light entertainment. They don’t really need reviewing and they’re never going to be required watching, nor does it particularly matter if you end up rewatching an episode or two without realising.
The latest season of QI is slightly different though. As was frequently mentioned, there has been a “regime change”! Gone is the much loved Stephen Fry, who has hosted the show since its inception. Honestly, when I first heard about Fry’s departure I felt that they should just call it an end. After all, who could possibly fill those shoes? Sure, the format doesn’t overly suffer without him, but the soul would be lacking, even with Alan Davies remaining.
But then they cast the wonderful Sandy Toksvig. It was one of those moments where you just thought “ah, yes, that makes sense”. This wasn’t another Top Gear, leaving you more intrigued than confident. Toksvig just felt right; change enough without, really, any change at all.
And so it has been. The first couple of episodes did seem a little rocky, but once she was felt settled in it has been business as usual. If anything, the show has become (dare I say it!) somehow better. Toksvig has brought just enough “new” to the table to revitalise QI, which I hadn’t even realised was needed. Plus, her presence does appear to have catalysed a lot more participation interest, with a lot of faces not seen for several seasons making triumphant returns. Basically, the Nth season has been just as good, it not better, than those that came before. You can’t really ask for more than that!
tl;dr: Toksvig simultaneously makes it feel like nothing has changed, whilst subtly reinvigorating the classic franchise.
The Entire Universe
Eric Idle convinces a seriously odd assortment of British ‘celebrities’ to act out a weirdly contrived sequence of skits, musical numbers and snippets of a science lecture. On the one hand you have Tim Peake and Brian Cox, largely appearing likeable but utterly out of their depth, whilst on the other you have Noel Fielding, Warwick Davis, Robin Ince and Idle himself mocking everything, including themselves. Oh, plus Hannah Waddingham, who I had never heard of before but is apparently a big deal in the West End, as well as being the Shame Nun on Game of Thrones. Ah, and a ‘resurrected’ Marecombe and Wise because… why not, I guess?
The end result? A weird, mismatching mess of poorly contrived songs, mistimed punchlines and awkward moments. I’m not sure why Brian Cox was made to pretend as if he was against the entire affair, but I think it would have worked a lot better if he’d just gone with it. Only Idle’s solo and the classic Galaxy Song finale were actually interesting to listen to, with most songs seemingly pitched at five year olds (despite the surrounding lewd humour), with often highly telegraphed punchlines.
The guests also felt mismatched. Arlene Phillips made a strange cameo, Morecambe and Wise were baffling and Tim Peake seemed terrified. Even the main guests were heavily stereotyped and whilst I have no doubt they were happy to present themselves in such a manner it did make the show feel quite dated. Having Warwick Davis constantly crack short jokes, putting Waddingham in immensely revealing clothing/scenarios and pitching Ince as nothing more than a nerd (albeit a pretty thick one) felt tired, lazy and a little cringe-worthy, closer akin to watching an elderly relative have one-too-many and start reeling off borderline racist jokes at the Christmas table.
tl;dr: A disjointed meshing of concepts that may have worked on paper but suffered in production. Definitely give it a miss.
Sherlock (Season 4)
They’re finally back for a proper season, rather than a weird one-shot mixed in with a period drama, and they are certainly not holding their punches back. Season 4 comes roaring out of the gate with The Six Thatchers, which promptly pushes the mystery of Moriarty to one side and focuses on the character’s developing relationships. Watson has a full family, one of whom we now know is a highly trained assassin capable of keeping up with all but Sherlock’s most ridiculously intricate plans. It’s a lot of fun watching Mary juggle motherhood whilst still finding time to indulge her intellectual side with Sherlock. It’s also sad, yet clever, to begin playing on our emotional heartstrings as John’s infidelity comes to light and Mary’s past starts to unravel. The result is a classic Sherlock episode, filled with intrigue, incite into human nature, suspense and mind games. And then it culminates with a gut punch that suddenly throws everything up until that point into stark contrast.
There are few series around today that will end the first episode by killing a major character that had rapidly become a fan favourite, but Sherlock still is a league ahead of most series around today. It was a painful but very well executed moment of television that, personally, deserves serious applause. How much it was predicated by Moffat and Gatiss genuinely planning to remove her from the show or whether the IRL split of Freeman and Abbington made it a preferential route, I doubt we’ll ever know. The result, though, was exceptional and led very nicely into The Lying Detective.
The general consensus amongst my friends and selected media bubble is that episode two was the only one worthy of the Sherlock brand. My words on episode one above probably show that I don’t overly agree with this sentiment, but the following will finalise that message. Personally, The Lying Detective was the weak rung in the ladder of season 4, acting more as a self contained loop of filler than anything bordering true character development or progression. The central concept is one we’ve seen before and it felt recycled as a result: Watson is pissed at Sherlock, Sherlock must solve a case to heal the wounds. There are some neat moments, particularly the use of Mary’s ‘ghost’, both in Watson’s delusions and Sherlock’s more tangible pre-recordings. These achieve the closure that her character both requires and thoroughly deserves. Plus, the core mystery is an interesting one, positing that with enough wealth and influence a serial killer could simply become invisible to society. There are clear parallels with the real world revelations about high profile British paedophiles in the last few decades, which results in some interesting thought experiments being enacted. Overall, The Lying Detective achieves what it needs to by sealing off the pain from episode one and setting up the antagonist for episode three. That it also does so whilst twisting and turning all over the place, in true Sherlock fashion, with some neatly timed editing and excellent dialogue is practically par for the course. It is by no means bad television; most shows would count themselves lucky to produce an episode this strong. But still, personally, it feels a little tired and repetitive.
Neither of which phrases can really be applied to The Final Problem. I do understand why many Sherlock fans felt a little miffed that this was both the season’s grand finale and the answer to the Moriarty problem. Whilst I agree having his “return” be nothing more than an orchestrated manipulation using pre-recorded sound bites (a bit of a theme for season 4; even the first episode had a sub-plot involving one) is a little less exciting than had he strolled out onto the lawn of Buckingham Palace, it would also have been pretty hard to explain. We saw Moriarty die. There aren’t many ways you can argue your way out of that which wouldn’t feel like a cop out and, personally, I feel his presence was used to good effect. His image and association lend a sense of meaning to Eurus’s purpose which is hard to explain.
I also understand that The Final Problem isn’t really a Holmesian mystery. It’s more a character dissection (or vivisection, to quote Holmes himself) allowing the viewers a much greater look into the core of these beloved fictions. It is brilliant fun to finally have an excuse to pit Holmes against Holmes and adding a third Holmes into the mix just ups the stakes. Letting Mycroft get some personality and genuine screen time is refreshing as is his utter lack of ability to cope with what’s happening. The aircraft metaphor was a little forced, but it worked well enough and it is immensely refreshing to have a sympathetic antagonist. So far, the only people on the Sherlock universe that could even come close to matching the titular character for wit and intelligence have been monsters, most of whom live amongst us camouflaged from our view. Eurus is their polar opposite, someone who has been confined and hidden from society for her entire life, feared and revered equally, but yet her yearning and desire isn’t some awful evil. She just wants forgiveness, empathy, friendship. She understands, somewhere in her psyche, that her manipulation and childhood crimes are wrong but they’re a path she feels trapped on, reinforced by her living conditions and assigned place in society. She is an incredibly meta analysis of the show in its entirety, literally flipping the usual messages on their head and blurring what remained of the lines of morality. I thought she was incredibly effective and, by the final curtain, one of Sherlock‘s most inspired creations.
tl;dr: A continuing masterpiece that hits the ground running, slips a bit and then rises to the challenge magnificently. There have been few shows to rival Sherlock in the history of television – long may it continue.
Treasure (A Dirk Pitt novel) by Clive Cussler
I’m not sure anything written by Clive Cussler should really count, but still I am pretty excited to have actually read some books this month. It’s an age since I managed to set aside reading time and, honestly, I wasn’t too sure if it would work this time either. As a result, I decided to start on something that I knew would draw me in; a good page turner, not high literature. In that respect, Treasure was a perfect fit.
I’ve never actually read any of Clive Cussler’s works before, though I’ve heard a great deal. They’ve become somewhat infamous within my partner’s family for their unintentionally hilarious action sequences. I believe someone, at some distant point in the past, picked one up whilst on holiday at a charity shop and it became a source of amusement during a rainy evening. The end result is that we frequently pick them up second hand, if for no more reason than to read and laugh at the ridiculous plot lines.
For ridiculous they are. The focal character of most of his works is Dirk Pitt, a man born of the union of James Bond and Indiana Jones, a Major in the US airforce, part time archaeologist and serving operational adviser for the fictional NUMA, an US agency specialising in underwater exploration (an oceanographic NASA, basically). Pitt is an expert in close quarter combat, weapons (particularly vintage guns), vehicles (particularly vintage cars), history, archaeology, oceanography and seduction whilst being merely competent in just about everything else.
His adventures are formulaic, opening with a chapter set in the past that gives the read some otherwise unknown information, normally to do with some aspect of history we have incorrect that Pitt will later “discover” and release to the world. In Treasure, the particular historical discovery is one I deeply wish were true: the lost contents of the great Library of Alexandria. Apparently, they’re buried in Texas. Because rewriting the ancient history of the old world wasn’t enough, Pitt also needed to be the one to discover that the Romans and Egyptians did trade with and explore the new world as well.
With the stage set, the next part will be some extraordinary sequence of life threatening events, normally involving Pitt himself or the eventual love interest. Treasure opts for the latter, throwing the immeasurably beautiful (as every male character notes) UN Secretary of State through three separate assassination attempts whilst on board a flight to New York. Somehow she survives and the plane crash lands near where Pitt happens to be searching for a lost Russian nuclear submarine because reasons. The rescue is launched, she is saved and they seek refuge in a nearby archaeological site where Pitt helps them uncover a 2nd century shipwreck that proves that Romans made it to Greenland, as well as containing the map to the lost archive of Alexandria. Of course, Pitt doesn’t take the credit, instant palming that off (gallantly) to the red-headed, beautiful archaeologist whose dig site they’re at; enter the true love interest (Pitt/Cussler, hard to tell which, has a thing for red-heads). It tells you something of a Dirk Pitt novel when I say that at this stage the main plot line hasn’t even begun, though all the seemingly unrelated threads introduced so far will, ultimately, weave themselves together for the finale.
As I said, somewhere between Bond and Jones, but with even more ridiculously over the top plots filled with twists and revelations. In this respect, Treasure does not disappoint. Without going into too much detail, the ensuing story involves two attempted coups orchestrated by the same Mafia style crime family, one in Mexico and the other in Egypt (though why they pick these two countries remains relatively unknown). The UN Secretary of State is standing in the way of the Egyptian plan, as she is much loved and a friend of the current president, hence the assassination attempts. Pitt gets dragged into the show by first saving her life in Greenland, then again by racing an out-of-control vintage car (with them both inside) down a black run ski slope to escape an Egyptian hit squad, then a third time when her yacht at a world peace talk in Uruguay is abducted with his father also on board (a US Senator on a secret mission; it runs in the family, of course). Finally it all comes full circle when the archives of Alexandria are located on the border of Mexico, bringing that coup back into the spotlight as the crime family attempt to claim the ancient knowledge for themselves because… ancient oil fields, I think? That seems to be the US armies main concern about them as well, not the immense amount of knowledge and historical answers that they contain. Of course, Pitt manages to conjure some elaborate plan which succeeds in killing both coup leaders without further blood shed, disbanding the thousands of Mexicans protesting on the US border and ensuring that the contents of the vaults remain both intact and within US control. It’s certainly a whirlwind.
Honestly, though, it was also a lot of fun. It is ridiculous throughout, with everyone dying in reality about a dozen times over. The portrayal of women is, shall we say, interesting at best. Whilst they frequently are presented in roles of high standing and intellect, such as lead archaeologists and high ranking UN officials, their actual descriptions focus almost purely on their looks and their willingness to bed Pitt. It’s not exactly sexist, but it does make your eyes roll heavenwards frequently. Especially when Pitt is described as a “man no woman could ever completely posses” during a brief moment of inner monologue from Lily (archaeologist and chief fling for this entry in the series), someone “a woman desired for an impassioned affair, but never married”. In other words, a womanising bad boy stereotype, just perhaps a tad less rapey than the Bond’s and Jones’ of the world.
Female character issues aside, most of the surrounding cast are fleshed out sufficiently. There’s a lot of tropes on board here, but where it counts most (male) characters are given just enough humanity to make the difference. In particular, the lead assassin, Suleiman Aziz was a genuinely interesting foil. Whilst Pitt could still effortlessly work out his intricately laid plans and see through the best smoke screens with an ability bordering on the supernatural, Aziz remained a threatening adversary throughout. Plus, his planning was genuinely interesting and far more intelligent than the plot called for, resulting in creating one of the more memorable characters of the piece.
By the final chapter I would definitely say I had enjoyed the novel. One or two of the myriad plot threads took a little too long to weave back together, but ultimately Treasure was a page turning, exhilarating piece of light entertainment, exactly as anticipated.
tl;dr: It’s a Dirk Pitt novel. That should tell you everything you need to know, except this one has a more interesting villain than normal.
Pacific Vortex (A Dirk Pitt novel) by Clive Cussler
Apparently, this is the first Dirk Pitt novel Cussler ever wrote; not the first published, but the first he actually drafted. You can tell that this is probably true. The majority of the formula is here: Pitt gets himself embroiled in a multi layered adventure of political and historical intrigue whilst falling for a red haired beauty and surviving enough brushes with death to make a cat blush. Having said that, there are enough departures from the norm to make it clear that this was a prototype, not a fully realised vision. There’s not introductory chapter, Pitt almost comes across as depressed or melancholy at times, rather than the usual sarcastic fire cracker and most of the other mainstays of the series are absent. Plus, most intriguingly, the love interest plot actually involves love, with Pitt genuinely falling for the girl with the gray eyes, Summer, that attempts to kill him. I haven’t read many of the series, but I’m told that this lost love is what effectively turns Pitt into the womaniser I know from the sequels; it’s a play-by-play retread of the Bond/Vesper plot, including her drowning at the end.
There are also no huge, history altering revelations, which is a shame. The titular Pacifix Vortex, a Bermuda Triangle analogue, doesn’t actually exist in real life so uncovering it as a hoax doesn’t have the same impact as discovering Roman forts in Greenland or an ancient civilisation in the Amazon basin etc. etc. I guess the revelation here is the island of Kanoli, but again this is a myth Cussler invented for the plot, rather than one based in actual Hawaiian legend. Nor does it really get answered as, once discovered, it is nuked unceremoniously, taking its secrets with it.
The introduced characters are also not that interesting. Hunter’s 101st naval unit are a fun enough concept and I like the idea of tactical salvage being a tool of international espionage, but otherwise the rest are largely forgettable, including the golden-eyed giant cast as the villain. Still, as with other Pitt novels, Pacific Vortex is a decent enough page turner with some fun dialogue and outlandish action sequences. You can clearly tell this isn’t as neatly designed a package as its chronological sequels but it is close enough to not matter that greatly.
tl;dr: A clear prototype for what would become the long running Dirk Pitt series with little of novel interest. A page turner, nothing more.
A Natural History of Dragons (A Lady Trent Memoir) Marie Brennan
From the first time I saw A Natural History of Dragons it has been on my to-read list. Largely that was due to the fantastic cover illustration from Todd Lockwood, a fantasy illustrator and artist I’ve followed for over a decade and am permanently in awe of. I must admit, then, to having been a little disappointed that the book itself wasn’t actually a fictional treatise on the anatomy, life behaviour and ecology of dragons brimming with further colour illustrations. Instead it is the first of the Lady Trent Memoirs, a series set in a fictional, alternative Victorian universe where dragons are very much living, apex predators (most of the time).
The story follows the titular Lady Trent as she embarks on a career as a dragonologist (indeed, one of the first), despite the significant problem of her gender (this is Victoriana, you understand). The result is a surprisingly witty, relevant and wonderfully imaginative tale about dragon hunting in frigid mountains, beset both by the beasts themselves and the local political goings on. The plot is exceedingly well scripted, developing a rich and diverse world whilst forging ahead at an impressive pace that borders on turning the novel into a page turner. Luckily, the clever humour and strong characterisation prevent the action from taking centre stage, resulting in a surprising amount of emotional investment. The characters are full bodied, with a pleasing lack of perfection yet few truly irritating traits, so you empathise with most of the cast. As a result, the finale’s sudden death comes as a genuine shock. You may not get to know her husband all that well but he is a likeable enough fellow whose absence I will mourn in the sequels.
To be clear, A Natural History of Dragons is a very enjoyable, well crafted book; it is not an instant classic or a must read. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in fantasy novels, strong female characters or speculative zoology. The latter point, personally, is where the series looks set to shine. If musing over the anatomy of fictional or imagined beasts is as enthralling to you as I find it then there is a lot to like here. The main dragons in the story are given considerable description and it’s a lot of fun reading a tale where the characters are genuinely attempting to study and record the fictional behaviours of these fantastical creatures. Better yet, dragons in this universe are not merely giant winged killing machines. The book starts with Lady Trent’s musings on the “Sparklings” she collected in her youth; tiny little firefly like creatures that are widely regarded as insects but may hold some deeper secrets. From the telling (and the illustrations) they’re closer to micro-dragons, found in huge abundances all over farmland, forests and even in back gardens. They’re a brilliant addition and bode well for a diverse, varied and biologically intriguing cast of species yet to be discovered.
tl;dr: A wonderfully illustrated and surprisingly detailed world of fantastic creatures; a great work of fantasy with strong characterisation and some genuinely interesting speculative biology. An instant favourite franchise.
Bill Bryson’s African Diary Bill Bryson
Does this actually count as a book? Maybe not, but it was an enjoyable and insightful read. Despite its relatively small page count, Bryson manages to make less than a week feel like a month (in a good way, honest!) as he relates the various places and peoples he encounters throughout Kenya.
African Diary isn’t another of Bryson’s travelogues, but instead was released to raise money for CARE International* and their work within the country. As a result, the focus is clearly on broad strokes and heart strings. That’s perfectly acceptable for a charity release and Bryson’s writing is as witty and clear as ever. The picture painted of Kenya feels fair (though it would be ignorant to claim any personal knowledge), presenting the country as rich in history, natural wonder and cultural heritage yet facing a worrying future.
Despite the consistent warnings and reminders of the darker side of the Dark Continent, ultimately African Diary serves as (what would appear to be) a very good itinerary for a holiday. Sure, you would probably skip the worst of the shanty towns, but the visits to the verdant highlands, tropical coast and incredibly interesting ancient city of Gedi have all shot up my bucket list. The latter, personally, would be reason to visit alone, regardless of bandits or storm clouds.
*Don’t make the mistake I almost did: CARE International is very different from the distinctly religious CARE organisation (whose motives I find a little less acceptable). CARE International are a non-religious not-for-profit that focus on helping communities achieve stability. They have pioneered work with innovative micro-loan banks and have helped thousands of communities work their way to a better standard of living.
tl;dr: Funny and informative, plus all for a good cause. Can’t really complain.
I’m going to say this once and then never again: I am woefully late to this party. Currently, I’m around 6-8 years behind in video games in general with a current list of “next to play” including the veritable antiques of Assassins Creed 3, Arkham City, Dishonoured and Shadow of Mordor. I haven’t owned a console since the 360 and still have launch titles from that which I haven’t played (looking at you, Perfect Dark). In short, pretty much any video game review that appears on this website will be pretty behind the times, but that doesn’t bother me very much. It means I can limit my gaming to the franchises and sequels that rise to the top (I’m aware AssCreed 3 doesn’t exactly fit that requirement but it was free with a graphics card I bought) and pretty much exclusively buy games at >75% off their retail cost.
None of the above really explains why I’ve failed to previously play Portal 2, however. I was given the game as a gift months after it was released, whilst I was at university and still actively gaming. By all accounts it is a worthy successor to its predecessor, with near universal acclaim and I absolutely adored Portal. Really, I think that adoration has been the block – I genuinely didn’t believe that they could pull it off a second time.
In many ways, with Portal 2, Valve hasn’t pulled it off a second time. The original game fired out of the gates with a clever puzzle element that rapidly took on a life of its own as an intricate, hilarious and downright stunning story emerged. Half of Portal‘s success was that it dropped, fully formed, an instant classic, out of nowhere. There’s no way that a sequel could ever recreate that sense of wonder and excitement. But that’s not really Valve’s fault and, despite the massive odds, Portal 2 does live up to its first part in just about every other way.
You can definitely tell that Valve put together a full team and a large budget for this sequel. The game itself is happily four times as long as the original, with very little retreading of ground and a number of genuinely interesting, clever new gimmicks up its sleeve. The environments are huge, varied and exceedingly well designed so that you never feel like your hand is being held but are consistently nudged in the right direction. Learning to read the clues left in the level layout almost becomes part of the puzzles itself. Finding an angled wall made out of portal bearing material gives you a hint that you’ll need to use it; there are rarely red herrings or elements added just for the sake of it. Every stone feels specifically placed to help or hinder your attempts at locating the solution and these, in turn, allow for very little deviation. The result are a set of puzzles that get increasingly complex but remain utterly rewarding.
The voice acting is also worthy of mention. Ellen McLain returns as GLaDOS in as fine form as ever (that voice work is utterly perfect) but is joined by Stephen Merchant and J. K. Simmons, both of whom are exceptional. Merchant’s mechanical Wheatley plays a fine line between antagonist and comic that works well, keeping the game refreshing to play as the (much longer) plot unfolds. The inclusion of Simmons’ Cave Johnson fits a similar niche as you travel back through the various ages of Aperture Science and learn, through his pre-recorded announcements, a genuinely humorous and insightful history of the company. Between them they provide a fantastic excuse for massively extending the game time and the early era testing facilities, in particular, are a brilliant touch that prevent the game getting stale or repetitive by mixing up the environment and introducing new mechanics.
Despite that, my one aside would be that the game’s pacing doesn’t quite hit the sweet spot the original managed. Whilst I was still left wanting more, there was also a twinge of relief that the game was completed once the credits rolled. A few sequences dragged on a little long and there were times that the dialogue felt a little encumbered, even if it was all exceptionally well written and frequently very funny. A little more signposting of your progress would have been welcome, especially as you slowly made your way up through the epochs of past laboratories with no real knowledge of when it would end. Sure, it’s clear you start in the 1950’s, but when is Portal even set? Do you have four decades or forty to puzzle your way through? A couple of quick comments from GLaDOS would have been sufficient to give you a sense of how far off the “end” you actually were, without breaking immersion.
My other reservation is that the game spends so much time fleshing out the world it is set in, the history of the antagonists and the corporation that build them and generally building a clever, interesting story but fails to address the most crucial plot point: why is Chell still in the facility? At the end of Portal she can escape back to the surface yet Portal 2 begins with her being brought out of suspended animation yet again. At no time is this discrepancy addressed or even mentioned, despite GLaDOS sounding pretty surprised to see Chell again.
These incredibly minor niggles aside, Portal 2 remains a brilliant game. The story is humorous and immersive, the characters are fantastically well animated, written and acted, the game design if incredibly tight and the puzzles are intriguing, well paced and immensely rewarding. Valve did well to not constantly feel the need to reference the original; there’s no mention of cake and only brief nods to other concepts like the companion cube. Instead, they built on those elements they needed for this plot to work and fleshed them into something new and just as interesting. They also managed to expand on the puzzle elements from the original very nicely, keeping in just about everything that Portal had whilst augmenting the puzzles with new mechanics that genuinely worked. Everything from the light paths to the various interactive gels were intelligent additions that added depth to the game, rather than being just one off throwaway concepts they could have developed into. A seriously worthy game to use as a return to the medium.
tl;dr: A more than worthy successor, with brilliant voice acting, intelligent level design and some very fun new game mechanics.