Month in Media – July 2017 [#40]

We watched a lot of films this month (EDIT: so many it took almost four months to write them all up!). I’m not really too sure why, although entering the summer blockbuster season has definitely helped. Otherwise, it just seems to have been easier to fit a movie around our lives than an on-going TV show. Definitely not complaining about that, though I do wish I could ‘collapse’ reviews once written – the scrolling feels endless! Perhaps it’s time to make some of those long overdue changes (ha!).

Ongoing media:
TV – A Series of Unfortunate Events (definitely brilliant, but really doesn’t hook you like a lot of modern TV, which is quite refreshing);
TV – Iron Fist (just snuck in at the very end of the month, so haven’t seen much, but it’s a lot better than I had expected so far; even if it is a bit of a poor-man’s Arrow).
Video games – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Gamecube] (Honestly, I have stopped playing; will remove next month if I don’t come back to it).

Films

John Wick

John Wick is a film that knows what it is, who the potential fans are, where its actors and characters strengths lie, and which never oversteps any of those boundaries. As a self contained film, it’s nearly perfect; taken in the broader context of Hollywood and it’s a little derivative, a little pastiche and a little ridiculous.

Keanu Reeves is great in the titular role, in so far as anyone can be whilst embodying a character eerily similar to the lead in Taken with much less emotional attachment or charisma. Soulless is a little harsh to describe the performance, which feels very real (in a totally wooden sense), but if you remove the negative connotations it’s also not far wrong. It’s a little hard to explain but fair to say there isn’t much in the way of range required to play John Wick.

Most of the surrounding cast are similarly two-dimensional entities, with clear roles, associated emotions and objectives. The idiot, entitled gangster heir is an entitled, childish idiot; the hard grafting, respected mob boss is a hard-ass, slightly terrifying monster; the morally oblique sexy assassin constantly double crosses people; the overly efficient receptionist is overly efficient, and so on. The same flat feeling can be found in the plot, where criminals have a strong moral code until it gets in the way of pacing or story development, at which point it goes out the window (“more a set of guidelines than a code, Ms. Turner”) and guns are magically never out of bullets until an opportune moment to reload presents itself.

Although, in fairness on that last point, at least the guns are routinely out of bullets. John Wick is not a film seeped in realism but you can tell the director has tried to make the action sequences believable. Guns do not infinite bullets and the magazines they use are consistent in their capacity; reloading isn’t easy and fight sequences frequently devolve into scrappy messes. It still takes an incredibly short amount of time to strangle someone and our lead can still take a level of punishment which would make Wolverine wince without blinking or dying, but props where props are due: the action doesn’t feel ridiculous. It’s gritty, dark and frequently over-the-top, but it never crosses the boundaries it sets itself.

Plus, John Wick is choreographed sublimely. At the end of the day, the plot and characters are entirely derived to facilitate two hours of watching an extremely efficient hitman kill a huge number of people, so the fight choreography is where the film lives or dies. Luckily, it works brilliantly, with some completely ridiculous set pieces which leave you genuinely amazed. The stunt performers, including Reeves himself, are great and are backed up by perfectly smooth film work, with some wonderful ‘one take’ sequences, particularly the first real piece of action in Wick’s home which has a fluidity to the camera which really stands out. Humour is placed well throughout the action to enlighten the mood at times and break up what would otherwise be a tiring experience, sometimes through dialogue but largely physical gags.

The result is a visually stunning collection of set pieces strung together by a good-enough plot and hung around the neck of characters with just enough, well, character for you to not care. Like I said at the start, John Wick knows what it is and chooses to just focus on that and do it well, which it achieves in spades.

tl;dr: A gritty, sublimely choreographed action sequence with some largely forgettable characters and plot. A perfect action film not trying to be anything other than a perfect action film.

Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence can only be described as phoned in. You managed to get Kevin Hart and Dwayne Johnson to star in a whacky buddy cop comedy: this should have been an easy win. Unfortunately, it appears that the studio felt the same way, so just had an intern write the script and then hoped the natural charm and humour of the leads would carry it.

Which, to be fair, almost works. If the script hadn’t been quite as awful as it was, there was a mediocre film to be had. The humour is occasionally funny, the plot is entertaining and the pacing is decent. There are moments which make you sit back and think “Yeah, that works”. But, these are swiftly killed off when Kevin Hart is forced to make weird noises, or Dwayne Johnson’s character flips between loveable idiot to psychopath for the umpteenth time, or literally any other character is given a moment to assassinate their personality or irritate the audience.

Then you have the set pieces, some of which, like the shoot out in Hart’s office, are unbelievable but fun. However, for each of these, you then have a psychiatrist’s office which makes no sense and adds nothing to the film except padding out the run time. These happen a lot and break the pacing, humour and story each time they occur. Even then, if the story underneath was a little more interesting, something could have been salvaged, but it just isn’t. What exactly is the plot? Are we focusing on Kevin Hart being an abject failure and failing to see the positives in his life (trope), or are we focusing on Dwayne Johnson’s CIA agent struggling with emotional trauma from when he was bullied in high school (trope that makes no sense for an active field agent). Or, are we focusing on the “badger” super villain plot device which is, le gasp, all a red hearing to loop us back around to points one and two, but gives us an excuse to have some gun fights. It’s never really clear, though based on the surreal ending (with equally surreal Melissa McCarthy cameo) I guess it was point 2, with point 1 playing a minor subplot role? The thing is, not only is that not overly clear, but none of those options are interesting!

The result is a film which is just dull, with some decent moments of humour which are near universally ruined by everything that happens either side of them. It’s filler, start to finish. I can’t even recommend it as a feel-good film or something to stick on when you just want to switch your brain off. Somehow, it manages bypass both those criteria and come out as infuriatingly poor. Not bad, not awful or rubbish or terrible and certainly not so-bad-its-good. Just poor. Mediocre. Middling. Vague. Do yourself a favour and just pick something else.

tl;dr: Dull. Its not bad; just boring and bland and ultimately pointless. Don’t bother.

Hotel Transylvania 2

I guess the first Hotel Transylvania earned just enough to warrant a sequel, but the plotline really didn’t. I remember enjoying the first film, even finding it funny, but rapidly realised during the opening sequence of part two that almost nothing else had stuck with me. There are monsters, they run a hotel. That much I remembered. The whole love story between Dracula’s daughter and a walking surfer stereotype I had completely forgotten.

Honestly, I think Hotel Transylvania 2 will fit exactly the same niche. Memorable is not a word I would use to describe this film, but nor are rubbish, awful, boring or dull. It made me laugh a couple of times, made me smile a few more and kept me entertained throughout. I feel like they managed to have less fun poking at movie-monster tropes, but then (as I’ve mentioned) I don’t really remember how much of this happened in the first movie. Is there room for improvement: absolutely. Does it really matter to the end film: not hugely.

Which about sums up my experience as a whole. The plot, humour, script, characters, pacing and animation are all perfectly acceptable. Nothing every truly stands out, but nothing ever makes me want to sigh or change channel. The result is a perfectly entertaining kids film that is worth a watch if you have nothing else better to see or just need a cerebral break. I wouldn’t cry if you never get the chance to sit down with Hotel Transylvania 2, but it isn’t the worst use of your time.

tl;dr: Distinctly middle of the road. I will have completely forgotten the film in a few months, but it was entertaining enough for a couple of hours.

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

Not great, at all. I mean, I wasn’t expecting much, but the plot is formulaic (when it’s comprehensible), the characters and script are completely forgettable and the action is actually quite dull. Given that the film isn’t even that old, the CGI hasn’t stood up well either.

I was never someone who played with or watched G.I. Joe as a kid, so I can’t speak of any nostalgia, but the character interactions are just completely bizarre. Why do a major, international elite arms force allow two pretty random soldiers just join them? Sure, the main character (name genuinely already forgotten) has intel they need but he could provide them with it in a couple of hours, at most. Plus, the nature of that intel makes him instantly compromised from a security view point! But oh well, it’s not like the intel makes any sense, so perhaps the Colonel was just keeping him close to work out what the game plan was. I mean, the solider tasked with transporting the latest super-weapon is attacked by a previously unknown group of extremely advanced terrorists, who just happen to be lead by his ex-fiancée. Yeah, no way in hell is a trained military leader going to buy the “coincidence” line here. Especially considering the soldier’s story is that they only broke up a few years back, at which time said terrorist leader was a homely soccer mom type who could barely cope with the knowledge here fiancée was going to war. Now, she’s openly killing dozens of soldiers whilst wielding incredibly advanced technology and displaying a level of hand-to-hand combat skill that would take a lifetime to develop. But that all makes sense because… no, actually, forget explaining it. Maybe it’s a side effect of her brain control injections… given to her by her brother… who she believes to be dead.

Yeah, you know what, I’m done here. This film is just stupid. Not bad, or ridiculous or garbage, just intellectually stunted to the point of pity. Don’t bother, at all. If you want mindless violence framed around a beloved kids play-thing from the late 1900’s, watch Battleship. At least that makes an attempt at humour, understands what it is and is vaguely entertaining.

tl;dr: Terrible, nonsensical and boring.

Transformers: The Last Knight

Yes, we went to see this in the cinema. In our defence, my partner knows one of the actors in it (King Arthur, of all people) and that was the real reason we decided to go. I can honestly say that, outside of his scenes, nothing about this movie was worth watching. Which isn’t to say that he was a stand-out, but more that in the midst of dozens of jumbled storylines and patched together set pieces, watching a giant, robot, alien dragon tear apart some Medieval knights was actually kind of cool. Merlin was awful, but otherwise the “Dark Ages” scenes were quite fun, in a Michael Bay-ish manner.

Back to the ‘present’ day and The Last Knight is yet further proof that the franchise died long ago and any further sequels are merely the equivalent of gas passing from the lungs of the already rotting corpse. The last film, which introduced the Dinobots, was so forgettable I forgot I’d watched it. Twice! To it’s (partial) credit, The Last Knight at least manages to create a plotline so poor that it will likely stick around in my memory.

The plot feels like a rough draft of a Dan Brown book, having long since been discarded by it’s author, was discovered in a Hollywood trash can and somehow ended up on an executive producers desk. Once there, in an attempt to ensure someone would watch it, the Transformers were bolted on. But which Transformers? Well, franchise staples Bumblebee and Optimus Prime are back, though the latter is relegated to a bit roll spending more time as a narrator and transforming a total of once, off screen. For the villains, we get Megatron and assorted Decepticons we’ve never heard of, have zero characterisation and designs straight from a rejected 90’s “x-treme” comic book tie-in. There are no character arcs for any of the Transformers (unless you count inexplicable dino-babies) except for Prime, whose own purpose can be summed up as ripping off The Winter Soldier, but doing so having only read the DVD blurb and watching a single trailer. His ‘brain washing’ and betrayal, followed by a subsequent return to character, really only serve to ensure he isn’t around for years, in which his fellow Autobots are all-but hunted to extinction. Of course, Megatron is still on Earth, but doesn’t both using this time to consolidate any of his own power. Indeed, for the great villain of the franchise, Megatron seems utterly useless; Bumblebee (whose origins are retconned yet again to include serving in WWII) is clearly the most powerful Transformer at this point. Every other Transformer has it’s head cut off and is dead, but ‘Bee just flies back together like some robotic Jedi.

If the story is a mess, the dialogue is almost unbelievable. There are some good actors here, but they have been given nothing to work with. There are lines which make no sense, character revelations which are so forced they feel scripted and pieces of dialogue that feel left over from previous iterations of the plot. Characters explain some actions which have already been explained by other plot lines, creating confusing paradox-like moments, whilst major plot twists aren’t covered at all. Most characters are entirely superfluous as well. Mark Wahlberg returns as the sole protector of the entire race of Transformers, for reasons that are never really explained, but which lead him to the exact position to receive some magical pendant and become the titular “Last Knight”. Except the pendant serves no purpose except to make a magic sword appear to save Optimus Prime from would-be executioners whose presence or actions are never explained. The sword then disappears and is never mentioned again. I think it’s meant to be Excalibur, but honestly have no idea. Joining him are comedy black man (good but played zero role), impoverished orphan child (good but utterly pointless and clearly used because Wahlberg’s daughter refused to return for another film) and discount Angelina Jolie (not great despite being the only character with legitimate reason for being involved). Oh and for reasons probably only known to himself and the debt collectors, Anthony freaking Hopkins. I have no idea why an actor of this calibre would agree to do a Transformers film, but even he couldn’t save the script. His presence did allow us Cogman, the only Transformer with any character (even if it was one which wildly swung between extremes) but beyond that his role was a walking excuse to advance the plot.

Really, there is nothing much to say that is positive about the film. The explosions were big (often far too big to make sense), the CGI was acceptable (but never great) and the pacing existed. I spent more time laughing behind my hand at the serious moments then at any of the (many, many) “jokes”. All-in-all, just don’t bother. Unfortunately, based on the final scene (and box office takings), it looks like The Last Knight will not be the last Transformers film. I think, though, it may be the last one I watch.

tl;dr: God awful, but proves that I would watch a film about King Arthur teaming up with aliens to defeat the Saxons (possibly).

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher

Black Widow & Punisher is set in the Marvel Anime universe, alongside several TV shows and Iron Man: Rise of the Technovore. That means the dialogue, action and characters all follow very Japanese animation tropes and styles. In many ways that’s quite fun, but it does have some negatives.

Chief amongst those is the script, which feels stilted and poorly paced compared to more Western animation. Part of that is just the differences in intonation and phrase emphasis between the cultures, but I imagine a large part is that the translation has been done a little too quickly and forced to fit mouth movements. The result is passable dialogue that occasionally leaves you scratching your head, and which frequently veers wildly away from the standard characterisation of the main heroes on display.

Notably, the villains aren’t as badly impacted by the disjointed script because they’re basically brand new. Whilst the terrorist organisation Leviathan have a long history, they ultimately just exist here to provide nameless henchman for beat-downs. The main villain is Elihas Starr, whose name fans may recognise as that of the villain “Egghead”, but beyond the name the two are utterly different. This version of Elihas is still a scientist, but one that was also a S.H.I.E.L.D operative, close friends with Fury and Black Widow’s ex-lover, thought dead. Elihas is an interesting character, largely because his motivation is something other than world domination or money, but rather a desperation borne out of perceived inadequacy. He believes that, to truly have a shot at a life with Widow, he must become more than just a world-class scientist. Yes, it is a bit contrived and no, it doesn’t have any hidden depths, but it just about works. The one down-side is that it doesn’t really give the film much in the way of stakes, with the super-serum soldiers appearing pretty easy to take down, but that actually allows the script to focus more on the Punisher and his place in the Marvel-verse, which is much more interesting.

Script and slightly dubious villain/love-interest subplot aside, the rest of Black Widow & Punisher is a decent attempt at a fun superhero storyline. Focusing on two non-powered heroes allows for a much more stealth-based plotline, though action is still ever present and wonderfully animated (although the amount of back flips Widow does is often, shall we say, overzealous). Animation in general is good, with clever frame transitions, good use of light and smooth movements. It is, as mentioned, incredibly manga-esque, but that’s part of the fun. Action sequences are generally well choreographed, though the fist-to-fist punch stand-off trope is used far too regularly. The final show down, for which the Avengers and a weird assortment of Z list villains show up to help with, is well paced and interestingly put together. Plus, character design in general is just interesting; not great, but as anime variations go, these are done well. Overall, definitely a significant improvement over Rise of the Technovore.

The end result is a perfectly acceptable movie. It starts a little rocky, with some slightly awkward dialogue, but once the plot is well under way it’s watchable enough. There’s nothing particularly new or unique on offer here, but what you get is interesting, entertaining and fun.

tl;dr: A decent outing for Marvel Anime, though nothing too special.

Jupiter Ascending

I’ve heard both very positive and highly critical reviews of Jupiter Ascending, but I think the reality is somewhere in the middle. I enjoyed the film, but it definitely isn’t one I’ll be rushing back to watch.

The plot is interesting enough, though feels quite derivative of The Matrix, which is a shame considering they’re both Wachowskis films. I mean, at some point I’d like to see a move by the famous duo which doesn’t place humanity at the centre of a plot to use us for fuel. That said, the intergalactic world of near-immortal god like people was beautifully designed and quite intricate at times. I liked that immortality had lead to a slightly more nuanced ‘world’ for once, where hedonism was absolutely indulged in but ultimately had worn off millennia ago to be replaced with various other, longer term appetites which varied between characters. That feels a lot more likely then the infinite life = infinite pleasure concept which is often bandied about amongst science fiction works.

I also enjoyed that this ancient intergalactic civilisation was neither perfect nor thought of itself as such. It was aware that it had failed at times in the past, such as with creating genetically engineered super soldiers which couldn’t be controlled, and allowed the audience to directly see some of the results. Again, though, a lot of these ideas felt derivative. The correlations between Jupiter Ascending and certain parts of the Hunger Games world are likely coincidental, given the timelines involved for both projects, but use of angel imagery, anti-gravity devices and genetic splicing (especially with misrepresented ‘wolf life’ traits) all feel a little well worn if you’re even just a passing fan of the genre.

In honesty, then, the plot and world aren’t too special. They’re passable, entertaining enough and never particularly irksome, but they also won’t be particularly influential. In reality, much of what steps the film up from simply mediocre are the performances and special effects. The latter are simply stunning, with some clever-enough ideas executed well beyond their requirements, such as the blue plasma bursts on the anti-grav boots. As mentioned above, the set building, costumes and general world as shown by the film is visually stunning and if you enjoy that side of film making Jupiter Ascending will not disappoint. Stuck on top of the pretty veneer are some pretty fun performances from most of the lead actors. Both Channing Tatum and Sean Bean (who doesn’t even die!) are well cast as low-class but highly trained police and bring a much higher level of humanity to their characters then the script alone would have conveyed. Eddie Redmayne is characteristically brilliant, giving the megalomaniac dictator role a slightly off-hinged and disconcertingly quite spin. It doesn’t work in every scene but when it hits home it makes him far more sinister then I think anyone else could have managed – definitely not your stereotypical sci-fi bad guy. Then there’s Mila Kunis, who frankly does extremely well to breath a bit of life into a character whose main purpose is to be the largely characterless audience analogue, another tired genre trope. Again, none of these characters are going to stick with me for much time (with the possible exception of Redmayne’s performance) but they’re, frankly, far better then the script and plot deserve and lift the film up from being completely mediocre.

What you’re left with is an entertaining, overlong and trope filled science fiction epic with some clever action sequences and just enough by way of plot to keep you happy. The pacing is done well, the score is forgettable but fitting and the direction is barely noticeable, which is neither good nor bad. If you like the genre you’ll enjoy the film but if it isn’t your cup of tea then definitely one to skip.

tl;dr: Definitely mediocre but fun enough with some decent acting, interesting world building and beautiful effects/sets.

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

Ah, the film the internet loves to hate. Derided for everything from its script, to the casting choices to the special effects, I can’t say I had particularly high expectations going in. Possibly because of that, I ended up having an absolute blast and laughing more than I have done in quiet a while.

To which I should stress that this reboot is far, far from perfect. Considering how beloved the original is (rightfully so, imho) I can understand some of the hate. The film can be considered in two parts: the first half is an origin story, getting the Ghostbusters together; the second half is a paranormal mystery and action film when they begin to actually bust some ghosts. With the exception of the opening sequence in the manor house (effectively a prologue), the first part is pretty awful. There are some nice enough character moments, but for the most parts people are introduced, given a quirk and then never developed further. Several key plot points are never explained, such as why one of the main characters believed so fervently in ghosts she wrote a book about it (very recently based on the photographs) yet is now adamant she is wrong, or even why people have suddenly started reading said book despite it still barely selling in a market littered with competition. In fact the opening half is so full of comedy ex machina (for want of a better term) that it can be quiet painful. Why are Abby and co fired by the Dean (whose entire character is awful) when they’ve just brought an Ivy League professor on board to a failing community college, along with genuine ground breaking evidence. They don’t even end up in the fire station until the end of the film, so this entire sequence appears to be just to setup a partial punchline to the running Chinese food gag. Although, conversely, that gag appears to have only been put in place to serve as reasoning for why they work above a Chinese restaurant, so the whole thing is circular!

Also, no one ever explains whether Leslie Jones has quit her main job or not. At times she seems to say she has, then she brings in clothes “from work”, then complains about quitting her day job. And if they can barely afford to hire a secretary (how do they even afford that?) why does no one bat an eyelid at Jones just rocking up and sticking around? In fact, the whole money thing is too big of a rabbit hole, considering the amount of heavy elements and nuclear devices lying around.

The issue is, the film doesn’t need to be clever. Some of its best moments are when it is just self aware and lazy, like when Jones explains she can borrow a car from her uncle and turns up in a hearse. Of course it’s a hearse, it had to be a hearse and that explanation holds up. Plus it lets Kate McKinnon get a quick quip in about irony which is genuinely funny. When Answer the Call is being self-aware it works, without really having to try. It could have lent on viewers expectations and fan service a lot more, without all the mess that we get in the first half instead.

That feeling of “you came so close, how did you drop it!?” is repeated with the casting. I personally really like the female cast, it twists up things enough to make this a reboot rather than a remake, which allows a lot more creative freedom. I also like the actresses that were chosen, who are all solid comedic actors. Yet they do feel a little wasted and frequently have to make do with less than stellar writing. Perhaps some of that is riffing gone slightly off, but I feel with this much talent present the problems must stem from the base script itself. That said, Kate McKinnon is brilliant throughout and, frankly, worth watching the film for alone. Definitely someone I will be keeping track of in the future, she’s just brilliantly eccentric and genuinely hilarious. A nod of appreciation also needs to go to Chris Hemsworth, whose bumbling secretary is exactly the kind of humour I would normally cringe at, but instead had me laughing. I definitely feel the end sequence making the cops perform Thriller should have actually happened (at least a short sequence) during the film, but he clearly had a huge amount of fun in that role.

The old ‘buster’s cameos are a little different, feeling just worthwhile enough. They’re a little cringe inducing, sure, but I can almost forgive them. Bill Murray is almost entirely wasted, however, playing the sceptic character and simply killing him off is both an odd choice and jarring. It doesn’t work from a character stand point, it’s clearly telegraphed from a mile away and it creates a large plot hole in terms of why no one is prosecuted for killing a minor celebrity. Just weird.

However, despite all of these obvious and often-irritating flaws, I found Answer the Call funny, nostalgic and with some pretty fun scares. It’s not a horror movie, but it shouldn’t be, so the ghosts go just far enough to leave you a little creeped out but nothing more. That’s how Ghostbusters films should be. The action is adequately campy, the ghosts are ridiculous and the plot leans on all of the standard paranormal nonsense that it should. Again, these are all elements of what a Ghostbustsers film just is and arguing that they’re in anyway wrong would be to miss the point. The film needed to be a lot more self aware, but when it gets it right the result is pretty enjoyable. Plus, for all the issues of the first half, the second half just runs with the logical formula. Stakes are upped, laughs are had and supernatural antics are ramped to breaking point. The actions characters take aren’t always that logical, the money issue never goes away and the sequence with the table-clinging in the diner is just awful, but otherwise the second half is enjoyable. The metal festival is funny (and creepy) and the final invasion is spectacular.

The result is that I actually really enjoyed the film. It felt enough like the originals to work for me, whilst bringing new material to the table that modernised it all a fair bit. Yes, there are a load of big issues, but I laughed a lot and I never asked for much more from the franchise. Ultimately, I would genuinely go and see a sequel in the cinema if they ever made one, and personally hope that does happen. I feel like, with the awkward origin story out of the way, a sequel could be really quite good. Great, even.

tl;dr: Hilarious, campy and just creepy enough. There are some bad parts but overall a very enjoyable reboot of the franchise. Zuul, grant us a sequel!

Miss Congeniality

Full disclosure: I am not a Sandra Bullock fan. Whilst I think she can definitely act well, there’s something about the way she chooses to portray characters that just takes me out of a film and irritates me. As a result, I’m a little biased.

That said, I did enjoy Miss Congeniality… just about. At the core is a fun premise with a decent execution, but I wouldn’t say the film has aged that well. The script, plot and, particularly, the humour feels very 90’s and not in a good way. As a whole, the film seems to simultaneously embody the zany, whacky vibe that the 90’s committed to in big way whilst also attempting a more self-aware type of humour, which became popular in the early 2000’s. Given the Millenium release, that makes a lot of sense, but the result is a film which is too whacky to make the self-awareness stick, whilst constantly calling to attention how ridiculous it is.

There’s also the other spectre of the 90’s looming marge: Girl Power! The film goes out of its way to be Modern and Feminist and embrace the same values as ladette culture, meaning a brash mouth and openly gross female lead. Bullock isn’t just pretending to be “one of the guys” to fit in or advance her career, she just genuinely is one, being so painfully macho that she’s frequently the most “manly” agent in the room. At the time, this hit a societal trend that would have felt refreshing, genuinely modern and actively progressive. By current standards though, it feels a little misguided and blunt. It’s still clearly a lot of fun from a female perspective and at no point comes close to true sexism (in either direction), but there are plenty of moments which made me cringe or feel a little uncomfortable. Some of that is hard to pin down, and Miss Congeniality definitely gets points in eschewing a lot of Hollywood gender stereotypes, but I can’t feel fully comfortable with what happens. At the end of the day, Bullock’s character still has to go through a process where she realises that she isn’t truly ‘complete’ as a woman unless she embraces her feminine side. That would be an acceptable critique on the trope of women having to be uber-manly in order to be treated with respect, but her character isn’t set up as someone who is having to play a role at work to get by. Far from it, we see her male colleagues accept her completely, with the only person standing in the way of career progression being herself (also a bit of a stupid plot device) and through the use of flashbacks we know that she has had a typically masculine personality since she was very young. So instead the film tells her that, despite being exactly who she is (a weird stereotype of Girl Power), she needs to become more feminine, interested in hair and makeup and shoes, in order to be fulfilled. Oh, and she needs to find a man. So yeah… there are points here for progressive gender ideas but also some pretty large problems.

Putting that aside, the film holds up well enough. The plot is genuinely ridiculous and the main villains explanation for attempted murder is never more than “woman scorned” syndrome (albeit scorned by an employer rather than a lover), but the characters you meet along the way feel real enough to keep you invested. The story plays out by the numbers, but the script occasionally sparkles, with some genuinely funny moments. The action is a little clunky but never distracts, much like the soundtrack. Plus, overall, the cast is great and provide perfectly enjoyable performances (particularly if you don’t cringe every time Sandra Bullock starts hamming things up). Miss Congeniality is a fun film with enough positives to be worth watching, but I can’t say there’s anything here that makes me want to watch the sequel.

tl;dr: Feisty fun but definitely beginning to show its age.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Everybody has always said that the only way Spider-Man would ever be done right is if Marvel did. Everybody was (sort of) correct: Homecoming is brilliant and perfectly captures everything Spidey, whilst also managing to be a genuinely clever and interesting film. Right now, Marvel is very much back in its groove and top of the superhero game.

But I say sort of correct because I genuinely don’t think that Homecoming could exist without the original Raimi trilogy or the Andrew Garfield reboot. Why? The original trilogy did the truly comic-book, fan service films that had to come first. Peter Parker was a little wet-behind-the-ears and the third film was awful (though none have stood the test of time), but crucially the characters all felt like they’d been lifted straight out of the Silver Age comics which made them famous. It also contained just enough of the 90’s TV cartoons to appeal to the younger fans. The films are riddled with bad acting, poor scripts and terrible direction and feel completely amateur by modern standards, but they were very definitely Spider-Man films. To contrast, Homecoming takes extreme liberties with the source material. There’s no origin story, there are new characters, Aunt May is young and attractive, MJ is a non-white brunette and there isn’t a hint of Osborne or Oscorp in sight. If Homecoming were the first cinematic outing for Spidey the fanboys would have their pitchforks out screaming blue murder.

Similarly, the Amazing Spider-Man films got a bit of the grittiness out of the system. I will further maintain that Andrew Garfield was an almost perfect casting for Peter Parker, and Emma Stone was brilliant as Gwen Stacy. The films were poorly paced and had terrible villain designs, but the main characters and action were great. They also provided a crucial buffer and got Gwen some well deserved time on centre stage. Again, without these films ticking off the last few items on a fan’s wish-list there would have been much greater pressure on Marvel. Between the original trilogy and the two Amazing reboots, pretty much all of the iconic Spider-Man scenes and plots have been told. Marvel was therefore clear to take the character and truly mould him to fit their vision, making him work within the MCU without having to tip-toe around fan service.

Which is brilliant, because the end result is truly fantastic. In Homecoming Marvel is finally starting to play with the incredibly intricate universe it has built. The villain is directly tied to the Chitauri invasion of New York, but in a human and believable way. Peter is being directly mentored (read: monitored) by Happy and Stark. The US schooling system has a library of inspirational video recordings of Captain America. Not only are the cross overs between the other films genuinely clever and entertaining, they make Homecoming feel incredibly included. Whereas films like Doctor Strange and Guardians of the Galaxy feel divorced from the events in the Avengers franchise, Homecoming is happening around the edges. It’s very well done, often incredibly humorous (“I think he’s probably a war criminal now, but whatever”) and makes these new characters feel like they’ve been there since day one. It’s something the TV shows in the MCU are desperately needing, but for a more street-level hero like Spidey, it works perfectly.

On top of the nods to past events in the MCU I have to mention the possible hints at a pretty major future event: Miles Morales. And by possible I mean that Kevin Feige has heavily hinted that they’re going to happen. Donald Glover is in this film, which is a fun nod towards his year’s long campaign to play Miles in a Sony reboot. Unfortunately, instead of playing the Ultimate Spider-Man, Glover has a role as Aaron Davies, a small time crook. He does, however, mention that he has a nephew in Queens, which instantly made me wonder if that nephew could be Miles. Sure enough, in the comics, Davies is Miles’ uncle. We also have Parker losing his backpack in an alleyway in Queens near the start, which is a similar origin to how Miles original gets his webs in one variation of his origins. It’s an incredibly exciting Easter Egg for long time fans of the black web-slinger and personally I’m so much more hyped for future Spider-Man films now there’s a (good) chance Miles may make an appearance.

All of which is to say that, yes, you absolutely should go and see Homecoming. It’s easily the best Spider-Man film we’ve had to date, with perfect casting across the board, some very clever humour and a genuinely interesting plot. The Vulture may not be top of Spidey’s rogues gallery but Keaton plays him brilliantly, and combined with the twist of his relationship with Peter makes him a genuinely chilling yet believable villain (not something I thought I’d be saying about the Vulture…). The inclusion of Iron-Man does feel a little forced at times but also helps explain Parker’s appearance in Civil War whilst also making the universe a lot more believable, with both inhabiting the same city after all. Plus, that Iron Spider wink-nod near the end is a brilliant fan moment. Homecoming has set up an interesting, nuanced and funny version of Spider-Man whose future outings are now firmly atop my Must Watch list.

tl;dr: The Spider-Man movie you’ve always wanted but never imagined. Truly brilliant and a welcome addition to the MCU.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Probably the least Tim Burton film made by Tim Burton in years. To be clear, I love Burton and his style (in fact I’m a rare believer that his interpretations of the likes of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland are either as good as, or better than, the originals) but it was a little refreshing seeing it take a backseat for once. It also likely helped Miss Peregrine’s feel a lot more unique and original then it otherwise would have done.

Overall, though, the art direction and visuals were stunning. The plot and characters occasionally felt a little over-borrowed (see below) but the film looked incredible throughout. Each “peculiar” person was imbued a real sense of character and the clothing, lighting and – most of all – the locations were brilliant. Blackpool felt real, the Welsh village felt real, the house itself felt… somehow, hyper real. It was cleverly done but simultaneously helped create this fantastical world whilst keeping it firmly grounded in our own. From a character design and art direction perspective alone I would definitely recommend a watch.

In other areas, however, Miss Peregrine’s had some weak spots. For the most part, acting was more than acceptable (though never truly memorable) and it was a lot of fun seeing the likes of Sam Jackson and Graham Linehan in a fantasy. Plus, Eva Green was born to play these sorts of roles; if you want to see her stretched in a fantasy then watch Penny Dreadful, but to see her just having a lot of fun then Miss Peregrine is a great role. It makes me realise that the Harry Potter franchise definitely missed out on casting her within the premiere wizarding world.

Speaking of Harry Potter, if there’s one area I would say Miss Peregrine’s felt flat, then it is definitely the world building. The ideas behind the Peculiars, time loops and Hollows are great and have all the elements to feel like a genuinely unique world. I’ve never read the book, so perhaps that does the world more justice, but there was something about the film which meant you never truly felt immersed. Unlike truly great fantasies, like Harry Potter, Middle Earth or Narnia, the world of Miss Peregrine and co. never quiet feels real. It doesn’t draw you in and make you wish it was real, although I’m not really too sure why. Perhaps it’s the fact that you have to be born a Peculiar, which means that there is less potential for wish fulfilment. Perhaps it’s just that, individually, none of the ideas are truly unique. The result is that the world feels like a mash-up of the X-Men, Potter and (weirdly) Jumper franchises, with a dash of Groundhog Day thrown in on top. Even the Hollows just screamed Internet creepy-pasta, rather than unique creature. They looked like monsters from several Guillermo Del Toro or Burton films mashed together, with a healthy dose of Slenderman blended on top.

All of which is a shame, because underneath these similarities is a genuinely intriguing and well laid out world. Whilst some of the main characters had “run of the mill” super powers, like fire starting and invisibility, others were far more interesting and clever. Dream projection was a fun concept and the animation and control of non-living objects was disturbing but definitely unique! Top of all, though, was the main love interest. Her powers are never fully explained, but she’s effectively an Air Avatar, able to manipulate air and wind. Alone, that would be an interesting but meh power, but combined with her constant struggle to prevent herself floating away it leads to some fascinating visuals and clever plot twists. In a film introducing a whole race of super-powered individuals, you were always going to get some that had been done before (and should do, it makes sense) but Miss Peregrine’s also manages to create some very memorable and unique powers, which is impressive. It’s something the myriad X-Men films have attempted on dozens of occasions and largely failed at.

The disjointedness aside, though, I did really enjoy the film. There’s definite room for improvement but the overall plot, acting, sound work and – above all – visuals are excellent. A couple of tightening screws to the characterisation, a recast for “resurrection boy” (he had a weird role and poor scripting, but also an honestly impressive lack of energy or emotion despite being the centre of a secondary love story) and some more time painting in the details or the world and Miss Peregrine’s would have been one of the most intriguing fantasy tales in years.

tl;dr: A great effort at some genuinely interesting and unique fantasy, let down by a lack of world building and the occasional blunder. Enjoyable but buzzing with greater potential.

The Princess and the Frog

After a string of animated ‘failures’, The Princess and the Frog was somewhat of an interesting pivot point for Disney and arguably kick-started the renaissance of Disney Animation that has gone on to create the likes of Tangled, Frozen and Moana. Yet it’s also one of those films which has always failed to capture my attention, so it was great to finally sit down and watch it. As a result of that lack of attention though, the end result was almost completely unexpected.

I knew the film was a more modern take on the “Disney Princess” formula, being set in a modern (ish) city with non-white (le gasp!) characters in main roles, but I had still expected it to be largely about a ‘princess’ meeting a ‘prince’. I had thought the twist was that the prince in question was going to be the damsel in distress, which is partially correct. I wasn’t expecting the ‘princess’ to also be in the same distress, resulting in the almost total removal of the plot from the vibrant, modern world it was suggestively set within. Nor was I expecting to have this many talking animals.

In some ways, then, it harks back even further then I had anticipated to the likes of The Sword in the Stone and Robin Hood, both firm personal favourites. Unlike those films, however, the animals in The Princess and the Frog are less nuanced personifications of certain emotions or motifs and more personifications of racial stereotypes. We have the Cajun firefly, the idiot alligator with no sense of purpose beyond fun which felt a little uncomfortably similar to a minstrel of ages (thankfully) past and the French frog (I realise the Prince wasn’t literally French but the accent and stereotypes all fit France better then anywhere else). Our main character, Tiana, is a little better and does feel quiet sensitively written, both towards her race and her gender, though her arc isn’t going to be winning any awards for originality.

That said, the heart of the story is distinctly Disney and wholesome as all get-out. Again, it’s nothing too new: one character lives for the future, the other lives for the present, neither are wholly fulfilled – action! But it does remain a plot that works and gives the story just enough direction and heart to take you along for the ride. Which is a good thing, because the ride is completely beautiful.

There were two big elements I was looking forward to from the design of The Princess and the Frog: the animation of the Voodoo world and the soundscape possible with early 1900’s New Orleans. Luckily, the film delivers both wonderfully. The music is frenetic and rich, with plenty of Jazz but also dabs of soul, Cajun folk and even some country which really produces a flavour of the South States. Again, it could be argued that it really is a flavour of the stereotype of the South States, but it’s still a fun ride. Layered on top of that music are some beautiful and arresting visuals. The sequences with the fireflies at night and any time the Shadow Man is in frame are magical, but far and away the living shadows themselves steal the show. The fluidity with which they move through a scene is genuinely horrifying to watch and lend the film some much needed drama and tension, but they are also used for good comedic effect on several occasions.

Unfortunately, with such a solid backdrop of musical accompaniment, the songs themselves are almost entirely forgettable. The animation surrounding them, such as the scenes noted above and also the sequence with Mama Odie, is often fantastic and draws you in to the action, but I’d struggle to recall a single chorus line or title. There’s certainly no equivalent to the Circle of Life or A Whole New World that will have you humming refrains for days, but the music is certainly not bad either.

Which I think is largely how to sum up The Princess and the Frog: nothing on offer is bad, and taken together the sum of the parts is genuinely enjoyable, but it also won’t set your imagination on fire. It’s definitely worth a watch but it won’t be a Disney film I’d particularly bother coming back to.

tl;dr: The shadows are awesome, the jazz is slick but ultimately the story a little flat. Worth a watch but no modern classic.

Les Misérables

I’ve heard the music, I’ve seen the posters and I’ve read about the hype but at long last I can claim to have finally actually seen the film (though not yet the stage show). My thoughts? The hype is real, but I also see why this isn’t a slam-dunk critics choice.

As I’ve never seen the stage show I don’t know how faithful the adaptation was, but from what I gather it sticks pretty closely to the source material. With that in mind, Les Misérables is an absolute triumph as a stage-to-film adaptation. It consistently feels somehow real yet the constant use of verse rather than dialogue never feels at odds. The set pieces have a hint of spectacle but they never feel like a “number”, unlike films like Moulin Rouge. It manages to feel somehow stage like yet doesn’t feel staged or stilted; actors behave naturally and interact with their surroundings on a logical way, but the direction and camera angles emphasise them in a similar manner to stage lighting. It’s clever and beautiful and utterly spell binding.

Indeed, purely from a cinematic point of view, Les Mis is stunning. The colour grading, compositions and shot sequences are brilliant, creating a film as visually entertaining as it is just plain entertaining. Costume, set design and makeup are equally exceptional and really help emphasise the tone of the film. Of course, the sound design is brilliant too, not just the score (obviously great) but the folly work and various sound effects all slot together incredibly well. The result is a brilliant piece of cinematography, start to finish.

That isn’t to say it’s all good. Whilst I felt the casting was spot on and every actor gave a great performance, there are the occasional odd moments. I’ll admit to being pulled out of the film several times during the opening sequences as Hugh Jackman’s vocals flitted between Australian and Irish, leaving me slightly confused as to where his character was meant to be from. This was reinforced by several minor characters also appearing to have Irish accents, something I can only assume was weird casting or poor sound mastering. Above all though, there is the utterly appalling and unintentionally comical sound effect dubbed over Javert’s death. I have no idea why they didn’t have his body hit the centre of the whirlpool, as that seems far more fitting as a framed shot when compared to the style of the film, but even with the impact in shot… why that sound effect? I’d heard it was a bit crap but it took me so utterly by surprise and was so poorly done I burst out into laughter at what should have been a very sombre moment. Misstep is a little too kind.

From a plot perspective, characters were not always introduced in the most straight forward of manners and back stories are sketchy at best. You find out most of the main details the plot necessitates, but these aren’t fleshed out and wildly interesting characters. Everyone you meet is fairly one dimensional, becoming utterly so the further they are removed from Jackman’s focal point. For the most part this is both acceptable and not much of an issue, but it does occasionally leave irritations in the plot. Why doesn’t Valjean just leave France? Why does he try to steal the priest’s silver, despite seeming petrified of going back to jail? Why are the rich aristocrats sons plotting revolution (or is just genuine empathy)? Why doesn’t Valjean flee with Cosette? How are they still living in Paris so many years later? As I’ve said, none of these issues are that great but they do leave you wishing for just a little more exposition. That lack of exposition also leaves you feeling like the film is about to end several times, which does begin to get a little Return of the King-esque in pacing.

Minor niggles aside though, Les Misérables was an excellently crafted, thoroughly entertaining, stunningly acted and brilliantly executed film that no one should miss. The music and vocals are brilliant, the adaptation remains pleasingly theatrical whilst embracing the realism of film, the cinematography is beautiful and the story is wonderfully miserable. Les Mis is not a happy film, but it is a triumphant one, especially with that incredibly emotional ending. You really should hear the people sing.

tl;dr: Superb. A truly brilliant adaptation and well deserving of the praise

Warcraft

Warcraft isn’t quite as awful as I was anticipating. Well, that’s a lie, it absolutely was, but let me explain. Yes, the acting, direction, script and plot are all fairly weak. Yes, the CGI has some dubious moments. Yes, the plot manages to systematically overload you with information whilst managing to remain incredibly hard to follow. But, ultimately, yes I would watch a sequel.

Whilst Warcraft suffers from the source material effectively just pasting together all the most popular fantasy tropes it could get away with, the result is actually quite fun. The one unique (and I use that term extremely loosely) aspect of the games is the divide between magic users (which is effectively the Force divide from Star Wars), which luckily is used as the central question in the film. That works, and allows the world of Warcraft (heh) to be built around it fairly reasonably and very accurately. It has been years since I last played any of the games, and even then it was only ever a passing interest, but the art design feels very faithful. Personally, I appreciated that, but it does give a lot of the races and creatures a bit of an “uncanny valley” vibe. If you don’t know what they’re going for, then, the CGI can look utterly terrible. However, I don’t feel this is a fault of the studio; had they utterly reinvented the look of the universe the existing fans would have crucified them. Basically, they were stuck between a rock and a hard place and I feel the end result was a decent compromise, well executed.

Still, there are several scenes where the backgrounds and large CGI components look incredibly dated, far beyond the actual release of the film. Considering the budget they were given, this feels particularly odd, though some of the main CGI characters (the orcs in particular) are very well designed. The magic is also worthy of mention, though unfortunately the novelty was missed for me because Doctor Strange has done something very similar since.

Alongside the good notes of the visuals, the action is solidly maintained and well choreographed. Battle sequences feel epic yet remain easy to follow and key characters are always clearly framed. Again, you could definitely make the argument that the actions and strategies are a little unrealistic, but they also have the feel of the games about them. Fan service vs realism: fan service wins, and again I can’t really complain about that.

Less well put together are the casting decisions and scripting. I would struggle to say any one actor did a bad job, but they weren’t really given much to begin with. The script is very paint-by-numbers, with the major reveals, plot points and character relationships able to be deduced within the first third of the film. The first moment you meet the captain’s son, a single sentence tells you he will die. Similarly, the amount of hints given that the Archmage (or whatever, I do not remember the incredibly convoluted naming schemes) is evil leaves you wondering why the hell anyone trusts him in the first place. Less obvious was the love interest between female orc and human captain; I mean, again it was clear this was the route the story would take, but there wasn’t any plot development to call it an arc. Instead, midway through one scene, they suddenly go all gooey eyed and declare love for one another. It’s a bit weird, to say the least. It’s also a bit weird that everyone in the kingdom (of importance) is exactly the same age. How is it that the King, the captain of the army and the Archmage are all best friends? How insular or corrupt is this government? And how easy is it to learn magic? The circle of mages (or whatever) who appear to never help anyone are all old men, suggesting it takes a life time to master their spells, but the Archmage looks like he’s 30? Just cast some older actors and the whole plot becomes a lot more believable!

Still, as I said above, I enjoyed the film. The first third is confusing and poorly paced, but once the action gets started and the characters are all defined, Warcraft actually manages to weave an interesting tale. There’s enough novel compared to the likes of Lord of the Rings to make the story intriguing and enough similar to make it entertaining. Now the awkward world building is out of the way, I wouldn’t mind seeing what happens next.

tl;dr: Not great, not completely awful. Yet another flop that I wouldn’t mind giving the chance of a sequel, just to see what would happen.

Spy

I’m starting to think that there is just something about Melissa McCarthy that means she ends up in films that have an awful setup but a genuinely funny second half. Much like Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, once Spy gets the character introductions out of the way and just runs with the premise it becomes a very enjoyable and outright funny movie. In order to get to that part, though, you do need to wade through a swamp of awkward moments and gags that feel like someone found a high school student’s improv diary and just started copy-pasting. I mean, why is the CIA office infested with bats? Even if you buy into the (crap) running joke about how the office staff aren’t treated well, the logical escalation of the gag is to start with suspected infestation, show rats and then end with bats, but instead we go from 0-100 in one scene then just hover around 20 for the rest of the film.

Awkward moments of humour aside, the action, script and plot are all tight enough to keep you entertained. There are no terrible performances, though Peter Serafinowicz should get an award for saving a terribly scripted roll. The outcome remains mildly irritating, but when you look at his character abstractly it had all the Jar-Jar Binks like qualities required to sink a film entirely, so frankly I feel he did an astonishing job. In fact I think it’s fair to say that, for the most part, the incredible cast help lift a lot of mediocre side characters out of poor-writing hell. Both Allison Janney and Jude Law probably also deserve serious credit for making their characters far more appealing and nuanced then their scripts should have allowed. On the other hand, you have Jason Statham going the other route and hamming up his performance so much it becomes brilliantly funny; I can’t help but feel he had an enormous amount of fun in this role.

Which I think is the main takeaway that shines through. It feels like everyone involved in Spy just had a lot of fun, which helps lift the whole film. It feels exactly like the film Mortdecai should have been, but actually pulls it off. It’s not a film I’ll be rushing back to watch and, honestly, you won’t miss anything by skipping it, but if you fancy an easy laugh or two then give it a look.

tl;dr: Funny spy based entertainment. Perfectly enjoyable; not a must see but better than mediocre.

TV

Doctor Who [Season 10 – sort of]

Honestly one of the best season of the show for some time. I biggest issue is that I feel like they have finally begun to write for Capaldi in a way that makes sense… just in time to kill him off!

In fact, killing people off is generally a bit of a trend this season. I guess that’s what happens as we come to the end of Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner (frankly, could not come soon enough). We have one completely new companion, Bill, who makes it a whole one season before being killed, plus returning sort-of companion Nardole who, fittingly, sort-of gets killed off. Oh and then there’s one of the more inventive takes on the Master in ages, with Missy forming a reluctantly willing third cog to the plot. To the show’s credit, it keeps these varying plot lines and characters all neatly moving along without feeling rushed or over complicated. There are several of the normal Doctor Who issues, such as perpetually referencing events yet to come in less of a fore-shadowing way and more an eye-rollingly irritating one, or chucking out a couple of clear filler episodes without much cause to exist, or relying on deus ex machina to save the day. But, again to its credit, these are all present much less than any season in recent history, making it a generally fun and entertaining 12 episodes.

Most importantly, the big multi-part plotlines are relatively linear, at best genuinely clever (i.e. the Cybermen) and at worst a little cliché (the Monks). The Monks had a great build up and were a classic Moffat creation: they’re creepy, unsettling and interesting. I loved the idea of a race being able to plot an invasion via VR, running the simulation enough times that all variables are accounted for. Okay, it’s pretty ridiculous science, but it’s fun fiction so I’ll let it pass. Unfortunately they’re ultimately let down by a final battle which relies, yet again, on love the all powerful God machine that Doctor Who just loves to use as a crutch to get itself out of a corner. It works well enough, but I would love to see some more interesting and intelligent finales in the Whoverse at some point.

On the flipside are the Mondasian Cyber-Men, whose plot is a veritable treasure trove of clever ideas and Easter Eggs to Doctor’s past. The situation that creates them is clever (okay, still a bit ridiculous, but come on) and almost believable. The modern Cyber-Men have slowly morphed into sterile zombie clones, but these original models are deeply disturbing. They’re a race born of desperation, which makes them somehow far more terrifying. It also features two of the best “twists” in recent seasons, with Bill having no hope of recovery from a surprisingly early point in the plot and the inclusion of John Simm once again taking up the role of the Master. That latter twist is genius and it was a huge amount of fun seeing him return to the role alongside his female counterpart, both of whom have created iconic version of the character. The back and forth between them is wonderfully written, as is Missy’s slow realisation that she isn’t him anymore. I was worried the Master’s meeting would result in her total relapse as a villain, but the actual outcome was much more interesting. At the end of things, the Master killing Missy to prevent himself becoming good, just as she chooses to follow the Doctor, was a perfect ending for both the character and the plot.

As a result, it’s slightly irritating that her death was overshadowed by Capaldi’s regeneration. Whilst I like where it’s left the series for the Christmas special, with everything else going on it did leave the final episode a little bloated. We also now have yet another companion who is neither dead nor retired, but rather transformed into a wanderer themselves. Bill becoming a water creature (?) and going off to explore the stars was a nice pay off, and made the season pleasantly circular, but at some point I feel like we’re going to need to finalise some of these characters. Right now we have the Doctor’s daughter… somewhere; Clara off flying around in her own T.A.R.D.I.S.; Bill in water form exploring the universe; Nardole waiting for the Doctor to save him (and the remaining colonists). All I want is for a couple of threads to be tied off, preferably not in some big crossover where they all bandy together to save the Doctor, either from himself or the forces of evil. Could we just have a clever, low key update on these loose ends?

Still, overall, I’m excited for Doctor Who again for the first time in years. I’ll be sad to see Capaldi go, as I feel he is the singularly most under utilised iteration of the character to date, but I welcome Jodi Whittaker and whoever the new show runner will be to build on season 10 and keep it moving forwards. I’d love to see more interconnectedness with the show’s past, more clever alt-history stories and more nuanced companions. Fingers crossed for season 11.

tl;dr: A welcome return to form, even if it’s just a little too late for Capaldi to truly shine. One of the best seasons in ages.

Month in Media – September 2017 [#39]

Whilst you wouldn’t know it due to a monumental lack of posts, we’ve been on a steady upwards trajectory for the last few months in terms of films and shows watched. Well, then September hit and we just… stopped. Despite a very clear binge of The Defenders (I think we’re now fully addicted to Netflix’s arm of the MCU), most of this month has been spent not consuming media. Which has been a fun change of pace, in many ways.

Ongoing Media

TV – Rick and Morty (Season 3) Utterly brilliant so far, absolutely hate the weekly release schedule (definitely a show that needs to be consumed in intense hits).
TV – American Gods – Another slow burner, though for different reasons, chiefly how you really need your thinking hat on to stand much of a chance understanding what’s happening. Very good so far, though.

TV

The Defenders

Oh boy were we psyched for The Defenders to drop. Psyched to pretty much the perfect amount, as I’m still amazed at how soon after the last Netflix and Marvel collaboration this series has been released. So, with the fantastic collection of heroes that they have built up, did putting them all in one place pay off? Yes, yes it absolutely did.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of both Daredevil and Iron Fist that the aspect I like least about the Netflix branch of the MCU is the overly complicated version of the Hand they have created. In my eyes, these shows are best when they completely eschew huge, world-ending events and focus purely on the street-level, nearly insignificant stuff; the sort of things which actually happen in the actual New York. That’s why villains like the Kingpin and Killgrave are so damned awesome – they feel real, visceral, a perfect grounding influence to the otherwise slightly madcap concept of actual superpowers existing.

So I was a little disappointed, but also slightly relieved, to discover that The Defenders would be the final meeting point of all the story threads the Hand have been involved in. Whilst that means an entire show dedicated to the most boring MCU villains, it also will (hopefully) allow the rest of the solo shows to move on and forget about magical ninjas for a bit. It gives us closure on Elektra (well, okay, no it doesn’t, but it does at least let us know what happened to her) whilst fairly organically pulling together all of the heroes now operating within a few blocks of each other. Oh, and it nicely sets up the various surrounding cast members with some subtle origin stories for their own superhero alter-egos as well (Misty Knight!!!).

As you might be able to tell then, despite mild trepidation, I think using The Defenders to complete the Hand’s story line worked well. They are a villain whose threat requires the four, normally long-wolf heroes to team up and they have had enough of a broad impact to make their meeting plausible. I liked the other members of the evil organisation and felt that the big reveal as to why they exist and what their purpose is was done well. It made them feel a little less mystical and a little more grounded or real, which is impressive for a group of near-immortal super warriors. Using Elektra as the big enemy was a neat touch as well, allowing for some incredible action sequences and choreography without bloating the world with yet more ultra powerful fighters. In fact, given the sheer amount of death in The Defenders it feels a little like Netflix just hit a much needed reset button on the growing escalation of the MCU’s villains.

On top of a decent plot and great excuse, then, The Defenders also nicely juggles the main characters and various side casts. If you like any one of the individual series I don’t think you will have trouble catching up but there was still enough character and relationship development here to make it a worthwhile watch. Pulling all the side characters in to the same room during the big fight was a clever little plot device, allowing the writers to simultaneously explore a lot of their storylines whilst contrasting how they’re coping with knowing superheroes. It lead to some poignant moments, fun juxtapositions, interesting revelations and also provided a good number of humorous moments to cut away from the fighting for.

The main superheroes themselves were also developed nicely. Starting the series with a retired Daredevil was a neat touch to really emphasise how much Matt is struggling with the double life concept and made his refusal to take on leadership far easier to understand. Similarly, having Jess walk away when she realised how crazy everything had gotten was a brilliant moment wonderfully followed up by the realisation even her clients were being harassed, bringing her straight back in to the fight. Whilst Luke and Danny were always going to commit to the fight, these little moments really helped make sense of Matt and Jess committing as well. It would have been simple to have them just agree or suddenly feel like they wanted to be a hero or even pull an Avengers and make it all about ego. Instead, The Defenders take a more subtle approach which will work out much better in the long run.

Perhaps, best of all, is the blossoming relationship between Luke and Danny. Long time fans of the Heroes for Hire are obviously expecting their two series to eventually combine, but having them start out with clear animosity towards one another was just brilliant television, especially if you were ‘in on the joke’. In fact, once again Netflix have shown that they are just as good as the main branch of the MCU at developing in-universe jokes and providing fan service without it feeling odd to non-fans or in anyway disjointed.

Overall then, I absolutely loved The Defenders and cannot wait for more of, frankly, any of the series (did you see what I did there). There are enough questions answered to satiate my desires for now but plenty still left unknown, particularly with Matt and Elektra missing, presumed various levels of dead. It’s definitely a short show, in fact one that I actually binged through in practically a single sitting, but that makes it tight and keeps the pace moving. Great work, more please.

tl;dr: So much action packed goodness with a great plot and yet further fantastic performances from the central cast. Frankly, Netflix are beginning to rival their silver screen relatives in terms of deserved hype.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)

An utterly brilliant adaptation. So brilliant, in fact, that I have very little to say about A Series of Unfortunate Events. I never read the books as a kid so I cannot speak of the faithfulness of the Netflix series, though by all accounts it appears to be scoring highly there as well, but any changes that have been made have worked. The story is tightly woven, well crafted and keeps you interested. The characters are wonderfully well written and acted, wherever they fall on the range between caricature and reality. The locations, set dressing, costumes and general design is impeccable, bringing the world to life in a drearily vibrant way. On top of which, the score, direction, lighting, framing… well, everything is perfect.

There are countless clever nods and ideas, from the ever-changing intro theme (took me a few episodes to notice), to the clever use of narrative interjection and on to the wonderfully heart-wrenching red herring and subsequent come-uppance. The kids are brilliant, Neil Patrick Harris was born to play the Count and the whole supporting cast are perfectly picked. The show is tense, emotional, intriguing and clever, with nearly spot on pacing. The episodes that naturally flow together leave you wanting more, but in a wonderful turn of pace to most TV series you don’t feel the need to binge watch the entire season at once. Somehow that makes the result so much more impactful and interesting, as it turns each individual adventure into a unique sequence without the overall plot ever losing track of itself or feeling disjointed.

In short, if you’re a fan of the book series then you need to watch this adaptation and if you never read them you will still have a wonderful time. I cannot wait for the second season.

tl;dr: A nearly perfect adaptation. Where, in this instance, the word nearly means almost entirely, barring only the slightest possible chance of an overlooked error or two.

 

Untapped Market [#30]

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching, and ultimately buying, a new camera. From an outsider perspective it might seem a little odd, as I already have a very good DSLR that, whilst by no means top of the line, still serves me very well. I love that camera and actively enjoy using it, but it does have a couple of issues.

First and foremost is the size. I can’t take a DSLR to a music concert, or on a night out, or even around to a friend’s house for a dinner party (well, I could take it to all of those occasions, but it would always be impractical or obnoxious or both). They aren’t the most practical cameras and they’re definitely conspicuous, so I also struggle to take photographs of people. That means we return from holidays to various locations with some pretty great shots of our food, the scenery we visited and any wildlife that stuck around long enough, but rarely anything of the culture or people we met. A large part of that is just me and what I feel comfortable with, but there’s also a practical side to having to carry so much gear.

There are a couple of other issues, too. Whilst my DSLR can be great in low light, it will never be able to get truly sharp, fast low light images without investing in some seriously expensive lenses. It’s also not the best camera in the world for shooting video. The 600D can shoot 1080p well enough, but has no image stabilisation and only manages a maximum 50fps. Whilst it can shoot in 24fps, making it perfect for fixed camera filming, as a travel video camera it isn’t ideal.

So that’s why I’ve bought a new camera. In the end I’ve stuck with Canon and plumped for the G7x Mark II. It’s an impressive camera, with some clever features, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it solves several of my issues: it’s small enough to go everywhere, robust enough to travel well, has enough zoom range to be flexible, shoots well in low light and has in-built multi-axis image stabilisation. It also has a couple of other nice video features, such as an internal ND filter and a time lapse mode. So far, I’m very impressed by the image quality and happy enough with the video (though haven’t given this a huge amount of testing). It has a couple of issues, such as lacking a viewfinder (which I’m struggling to get used to), a poorly designed battery release, partial incompatibilty with my Joby tripod and an insanely stiff mode wheel. Still, so far it hasn’t done anything awfully.

And yet, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not with my camera, not exactly at least, but with the market in general. With the rise and rise of Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, it baffles me that there remains no decent all rounder compact system for film and photography. Every major player has a couple of models seemingly aimed at that market, but none of them quite manage to tick all the boxes. The Canon lacks a viewfinder (ignoring the G5, which desperately needs an upgrade to match the specs of the G7x) and only has basic video modes; there’s no slow motion filming, no 4K and you still lose have to crop the sensor to achieve 1080p. The main rival from Panasonic, the LX15, appears to be a clear market leader on paper, boasting 4K, 100fps slow motion, time lapse videos, a larger maximum aperture, smaller crop factor and 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately, it performs far worse. Despite having a wider max aperture, the low light performance is better on the Canon and it may have a more advanced stabilisation system, but the Canon routinely out performs in tests. Plus, that crop factor is still not insignificant, the zoom range is only just sufficient and there’s no inbuilt ND or ability to add an external one (clever third party solutions aside). Nikon barely factored in my research, despite their Coolpix line being one of the longest running on the market. They achieve some of the features, such as 4K, but rarely manage to get the right sets of specs together to make much sense. Then there are the Sony rx100 series cameras. These have certainly dominated the market for several years, but they each have two major down sides: the price and the overheating. Sure, they can shoot 4K, ultra slow motion and have great glass which works well at low light (though not as well as the Canon), but they also cost twice as much and can only film in those settings for a seriously limited amount of time. These same problems persist even when jumping to 4/3 sensor mirrorless cameras.

So I’m left baffled. I want a good point and shoot that gives me the best specs across the board and is aimed at the Youtube generation. That means full RAW control, in both photo and video modes, so that I can tweak my output as much as needed. That means the basic level of video features that the likes of Casey Niestat and Peter McKinnon have made the entry level for Youtube, such as 100fps @ 1080p, 24fps all of the time and a decent wide angle crop. It means good image stabilisation, the ability to hook up tripods and external mics, a decent battery life and no overheating issues. It means a viewfinder, touchscreen, selfie rotation and NFC connectivity. But, for some reason, that camera doesn’t exist. I guarantee it would sell insanely well, but for some reason no one is making it. Perhaps, as the LX10 has shown, the tech just isn’t quite there yet? Or perhaps the big manufacturers are scared that making a camera too good will mean less people taking up the 4/3, APS-C or full frame alternatives? Whatever the reason, I really hope at some point in the future they manage to move past it and release the camera I want. Just not too soon – I just spent a whole lot of money and something that isn’t perfect. I don’t want to have to do that again any time soon.

Month in Media – June 2017 [#27]

Will it be as late as May? (spoiler: no!) Hopefully not as late as April! But still, a new idea has cropped up that I’d like to use going forward: ongoing media. Basically, it’s a “what are you watching/reading/playing” right now type thing, mainly to help me keep track of stuff. I’m also interested to see how long it takes me to consume certain types of media and whether there are any underlying trends. I’d assume that books take me the longest, movies the least (I rarely split viewing of films) but I’ll be interested to see if my assumptions are correct.

Ongoing media:
TV – A Series of Unfortunate Events (utterly amazing so far);
TV – Doctor Who (I really hate weekly release schedules, but one of the best seasons in a while).
Video games – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Gamecube] (Much harder than I remember and it could really use more frequent or user-set save points, but just bashing orcs around remains a lot of fun).

Books

The Midas Flesh [vol. 1]

In the past, the tale of King Midas actually happens and the Earth is destroyed, frozen in time encapsulated in gold. In the future, a group of rebels attempt to learn the planet’s secrets, hoping to weaponise the alchemical transformation to bring the rule of an evil empire to an end. In a nutshell, that is the premise of The Midas Flesh. Sounds like a pretty cool What If? storyline, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, the idea is probably the best part of volume one. The concept of Midas has been taken to an extreme, turning the whole planet gold in a matter of moments after the ‘miracle’ occurs. I can suspend my disbelief to buy that in a fantasy world, but The Midas Flesh tries to set itself within a science fiction universe, with characters that try to ‘explain’ what’s going on scientifically. It’s a minor irritation, but if you’re going to do that you can’t get away with “it was a miracle” as an explanation. It also doesn’t help explain how a planet can be turned to solid gold without any repercussions. The plot has a great potential for exploring the actual knock-on effects of Midas’ curse: is it just anything touching the surface that becomes gold? What happens to plate tectonics in that scenario? Or is the whole planet solid gold? What would that do to the mass of Earth and the gravitational interactions of the solar system? Why isn’t the air transmuted as well, when solids and liquids are both effected equally?

Don’t get me wrong, some parts have been thought through in some fun ways. I like that Midas hasn’t been decomposed, because any bacteria that touch him turn to gold. He should still be encased in a very thin layer of gilding, because our skins are crawling with the little buggers, but that’s getting seriously nit-picky (though, given the time period, some tiny golden nits would have been a fun addition). I also like that the ‘curse’ is still going on, with anything that touches the planets surface instantly transmuted; I even like that it is a ‘miracle’ and not a hand-wavey piece of technology (I’ll admit, that’s a little hypocritical, but oh well). Plus, the actual drawings of the golden moment in time are wonderful. The Earth isn’t just a bunch of people standing around, we get to see entire areas caught during blizzards or thunderstorms, with figures and buildings coated in a coral like structure of ‘frozen’ rain drops. They’re a neat visual touch and genuinely interesting to spend time just dissecting.

That cannot be said of the drawing style in general, which (for me, and I own that this is highly subjective) is a little cartoonish for the source material. It feels like an Archie comic, but the world it is set against is much darker than that and would benefit from a more ‘realistic’ art style. Characters and dialogue suffer similarly, feeling like they belong in a different novel instead of this one. The cast of two ‘humans’ and a velociraptor (lacking proper feather coverage, but it is an alien velociraptor so maybe that’s okay) is a quirky choice that leads to some fun situations, and I like that our ship’s captain isn’t clearly male or female (body form suggests female, but personal pronouns are consistently male). Again, much like the general story idea, the concept is brilliant but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

In general then, The Midas Flesh feels like it has a lot of potential. I love the concept, the character’s are interesting enough and I’m intrigued to see where the plot line goes. It is begging for better world building and a more nuanced story, rather than the simple ‘evil empire’ trope, but if volume two focuses on both those elements then it could still turn into a very entertaining series. I’ll definitely pick up volume two in the future, but will likely wait for it to be on sale first.

tl;dr: A really cool idea stifled by mediocre execution.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [vol. 1]

I am one of those incredibly rare people who actually enjoyed the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, so as soon as I realised that general consensus states that the original graphic novels are far superior, they became a firm fixture on my reading list. At long last, thanks to some frankly ridiculous discounts at Forbidden Planet, I’ve managed to pick up the first two volumes. At even longer last, our weekend away in Cornwall presented a prime opportunity to finally start reading them.

My simply review is this: if volume two is even half as good as volume one, the series will be fantastic. Somehow, it’s actually considered even better, so I’m pretty excited to find out how. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is everything a good graphic novel should be. The plot is intriguing, exciting and clever; the characters are interesting and fleshed out. Artistically, the drawing style isn’t one I particularly gravitate towards but it matches the subject matter very nicely, plus every frame has such a huge amount of detail that the world basically builds itself.

And what a world it is. If there is one thing the League series illustrates better than anything else, it is that modern copyright laws hinder creativity. I knew the vague idea had been to take a group of Victorian (and earlier) ‘superheroes’ from old pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls, and set them in a world alongside one another, creating a grotesque equivalent to the Justice League or Avengers. It’s a concept I absolutely love and the main reason I enjoyed the film so much, but the novels run with that theme far beyond anything I had hoped for. The choice of characters is brilliant and runs far beyond the titular League themselves. The inclusion of Mycroft Holmes and Moriarty was incredibly welcome and a brilliant ‘twist’, but even more so are the little details littering the pages. Literary references abound, with cameos from the likes of the Artful Dodger not just serving to make the reader grin but also to progress the story in clever ways.

The result is a brilliant, ingenious mashup of ideas, characters and tropes that play off one another wonderfully. Combined with excellent imagery, colouring and plot and I can fully understand why The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is seen as a classic of the form. It’s so good I’m struggling to think of anything else worth writing about; it’s just great and I cannot wait for round two!

tl;dr: A brilliantly crafted mashup of literary characters that is a delight to read; one of the best graphic novels I’ve picked up to date.

Movies

Avengers Assembled [rewatch]

Just as funny and action packed as I remember, plus crammed full of Easter Eggs now. It’s fascinating going back and watching a film from so early in the now universally known MCU and seeing background characters that you recognise from major roles in other films or the TV shows. The amount of known Hydra agents on board the helicarrier is insane in hindsight. Serious props to Fiege and everyone else involved for maintaining that level of continuity.

Otherwise, the introduction of Loki is kind of odd now. He’s become such a well known character, but at the time we’d only seen him in Thor, so some of his mannerisms now seem a little off. Still, the overall acting is spell binding and the casting is fantastic, so I’ll forgive the occasional “yeah, you’d do that better now” moment.

It also remains incredibly tight and funny. Marvel has had a run of brilliant films since the first Avengers, each upping the ante of the last, so it’s impressive just how upped the ante already was at this point. The action still holds up to more modern films, the plot still works and the humour is just as unrelenting and brilliant as I remembered.

It was a little funny re-watching one of the earliest post-credit scenes that really had people excited, though, as the Thanos reveal now just seems corny. However, the line by the leader of the Chitauri is not something I’d picked up on before; he specifically states that attacking Earth isn’t as easy as promised, in fact it is like “courting death itself”. That’s a pretty huge statement, given Thanos’ character background. In the comics he spends most of his life in service to, and in love with, Death (which, in the Marvel universe, is a real person; a woman). “Courting death” is what Thanos seems himself doing during the original Infinity War, which is done in her name to win her respect. So, saying waging war on Earth is like “courting death itself” is a pretty clear indication that Thanos now sees Earth, out of all of the planets in the galaxy, as a target worthy of his crusade.

tl;dr: So. Many. Easter Eggs! Remains a hugely entertaining and surprisingly comedic entry point to the MCU.

Avengers: Age of Ultron [rewatch]

Definitely the awkward middle child, Age of Ultron hasn’t aged badly but the flaws are still very present. It definitely sits in the middle of the three heavily inter-related films (Assembled, Ultron, Civil War) and, as a bridge, it’s not awful. As a standalone film though, it is far more forgettable then the source material should be.

I will say, though, that unlike Civil War, Age of Ultron seems to have less plot holes on rewatch. The twin’s introduction makes more sense, as does their actions within the first Hydra base and on discovering Ultron’s plan. I still feel the film doesn’t do enough to patch up their relationship with the Avengers for Wanda to switch sides entirely by the movie’s ending (especially after her brother has just died), but they came across as much more complete characters than I had remembered. Ultron equally benefits from a rewatch, feeling more like someone spiralling into madness then a talking deus ex machina to move the plot along to the next fight scene. In fact, the Hulkbuster scene also now feels a lot less tacked on and more integral to the plot. Plus the Vision remains completely awesome and worth the entire film just to have him pick up Thor’s hammer.

However, Ulysses Klaues’ introduction is a lot more dubious then I remembered, with Stark just seeing a photo and magically guessing that he is the lead they should chase down. Similarly, whilst very cool, Fury’s reappearance with a helicarrier and a whole fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D personnel makes no sense. Beyond Maria Hill and himself, all of the others should either be dead, wanted or reemployed at other federal agencies that wouldn’t exactly grant leave for that kind of thing. I know the existence of the helicarrier is explained in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but the staff is not and bugged me a lot more than I remembered. Also, obligatory issue with the fact that this was a prime example of when the TV and movies could have crossed over seamlessly. Coulson may not be able to meet the Avengers again, but why not stick a couple of the others on the bridge? Even just in the background! They are the best agents S.H.I.E.L.D has but they weren’t brought in for something important enough to blow Fury’s cover as a hobo? Not buying it, Fiege, not buying it at all!

tl;dr: A decent entry to the series, but ultimately feels a little forgettable.

Captain America: Civil War [rewatch]

Definitely a more worthy successor to the first Avengers film than Age of Ultron was, or alternatively a solid close to that trilogy. The introduction of both Spider Man and Black Panther is excellent, serving to boost my interest in both stand-alone films significantly again (with not too long to wait now, either). More developed characters are treated more varyingly, with some pretty large plot holes.

I said a similar thing first time around, but there just isn’t enough justification given for why Captain America won’t sign the accords. In the comics, you’re talking about creating a list of anyone with powers, regardless of whether they are vigilantes/heroes, which is a huge privacy invasion and civil rights issue. The film version is specific to the Avengers themselves and never directly targets others, even though two more powered individuals are introduced during the film and we know there are dozens more thanks to the extended universe. Basically, I think they could have made the dispute a whole lot more interesting. Why not play off Parker existing, a kid just trying to do the right thing; they couldn’t replicate his role in the comic but they could have come a lot closer. Or play of T’Challa, whose diplomatic immunity likely prevents him having to sign the accords and making it a story about privilege. There are a lot of ways that could have made the dispute a lot cleaner and more in-character.

Plus, that could have made the villain a little less redundant. I’m torn over Zemo’s part in the plot, as it serves nicely to throw Bucky back into the mix and the revelation over Stark’s parents is a clever one. That said, he still feels largely redundant to the plot and his ‘evil plan’ is completely bizarre. Why go to Siberia just to kill the other Winter Soldiers? Why bring the clip of Stark’s parents with you? The whole plan fails if, say, Vision is the one that goes instead of Stark… it just feels a little dumb.

Still, despite all of that, the action is incredible, the casting remains spot on and the dialogue well balanced. The film has a lot of unexplored potential but it is still a huge amount of fun and one I will definitely revisit multiple times in the future.

tl;dr: Even more plot holes then I remembered, but still a huge amount of fun.

Wonder Woman

Finally, finally DC have managed to put together a genuinely good, interesting and clever superhero film without giant, glaring errors or irritations. That isn’t to say Wonder Woman is perfect, it could definitely have been a lot better, but it is a solidly made, well executed and extremely fun piece of entertainment.

So first of all, the good:

  • A female superhero who takes control, has a leading role and feels both believable and human (despite not being so). She also never scissor kicks someone to death or strangles them between her thighs, which is a nice change.
  • A genuinely brilliant portrayal of a seriously beloved character. Gal Gadot just embodies the role of Wonder Woman perfectly; she feels completely genuine, without shying away from the madder sides of the character (read: she is still an immortal demigod who was created from a clay doll).
  • Perfect casting all around. Chris Pine is a lot of fun, both when taking command and when completely out of his depth and his solid comic timing is used well. The rag-tag group of stereotypes they collect are well paired, creating fun comedy routines, but also manage to develop their own characterisations well enough that you care about them by the end.
  • The villains are decent as well, with Dr Poison the stand out in my eyes. She plays an interesting double to Diana’s heroism, presenting a face of evil that isn’t male nor simply insane.
  • Plus, the big reveal of Ares was brilliant. Everyone knew Ares was going to be the big villain of the piece, but DC deserve credit for covering his identity so well. The Nazi General was such a clear and obvious contender I had largely dismissed him, but personally had expected it to be someone in the background or even Dr Poison herself. When David Thewlis suddenly walked onto the runway I almost laughed; when he didn’t transform into some younger Adonis, my jaw dropped. He was brilliant, a perfect casting by simply being completely the opposite of what you would expect. Even seeing his six-pack wielding youthful self in the flash backs just helped compound the wonderful weirdness of Thewlis being the God of War. It could have been awful, but it worked perfectly and provided a twist I would never have thought DC could pull off.
  • The Justice League theme. It’s barely been used in the wider DC films and even here, within Wonder Woman, you hear it very rarely but when it kicks in, you know it. For all that DC have done wrong with their movie universe so far that theme is not one of them; I think it will become pretty iconic. That’s something Marvel has completely failed to achieve.
  • The action. Holy crap, the action. So. Well. Choreographed. It’s big, brass and in-your-face whenever it kicks off, but that doesn’t bleed out into the surrounding scenes (which are plentiful – I was impressed how little of the film is fighting). Diana’s punches feel powerful, they carry great weight, but they also feel wonderfully precise. There’s an air of Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey Jr. incarnation) about many of the sequences, with time dilating to emphasise Diana’s own martial planning skills. Enemies attack and she leaps into action, then everything slows and the camera pans as we see her glance to one side and note a second attacker. Time returns to normal just as she pivots and lands a round-house kick. It’s great choreography and clever use of slow-motion techniques that enhance the story.
  • The film balances emotions very well. It is at times laugh-out-loud funny and at other times incredibly bleak. For a superhero film set during a genuinely dark time of history, not some alternate mildly dystopic future like, well, all of the others (bar a couple of X-Men films, I guess) it handles the subject matter pretty well. It won’t be winning any awards for nuanced storytelling in that sense, but it also treated the First World War with the respect it deserves without making the plot feel ridiculous.
  • The Chief is actually a demigod, so Diana and the Greek pantheon aren’t the only supernatural beings in the film. It’s a subtle addition but it’s great to see such a wonderfully complex Easter Egg in a DC film.
  • The editors at DC didn’t feel the need to shoe-horn in any quirky characters, off-beat jokes about unicorn fetishes or even subplots introducing spin-off characters or plot lines. They just let a film be a film, tell the story it set out to tell and create a vision of a well known character without any major changes. The fact that even needs to be mentioned says all you need to know about the DC movies before Wonder Woman, but thank the gods it can now be said at all!

But then again, the bad:

  • Dr Poison is under utilised. There was so much more to be said about the fact that “Man’s World” is being threatened predominantly by a woman; that it’s women on both sides of the coin for once. Diana gets pissed about how the men don’t instantly throw down arms and mock them for being easily swayed, but the fact her main enemy is a woman never really gets the screen time it deserves.
  • There’s also very little backstory to Dr Poison. Her mask is clever and looks great but you never find out why she has it. Personally I like the idea that she is just evil, that she has been corrupted just as much as the men whom she serves, but I do wonder if there was meant to be some victimisation in her past used to explain her actions. Again, personally, I would hope her scars and deformities are due to her own experimentations, but feel they may instead have been given to her by another, turning her to evil. Meh, perhaps it’s better we never know the true answer.
  • Zeus’s timeline makes no sense. He was killed by Ares (lol, wut?!) along with the whole of the pantheon (lol, wut?!?!) yet managed to use his dying breath to create Themiscyra, magic the Amazonians there and do so without Ares knowing? Okay, he’s a god (albeit a dead one, however that works) so we’ll give him a pass, but how does Diana fit into this? Hippolyta tells us she moulded Diana from clay and Zeus gave her life, but it also seems clear that Diana was born on Themiscyra. So did Hippolyta manage to create her clay-baby in the instant that Ares killed Zeus? And Zeus decided to both grant her a child and make that child the weapon to kill Ares? Personally, I think they should have just stuck to the comic book stories of gods not wanting to get involved in the mortal world any more. Still, I can see how killing off the whole lot will probably be a lot easier to explain as the movies move forward. Having literal gods running around kind of makes the likes of Batman and Cyborg a bit redundant…
  • Themiscyra is also a little unexplained. So Zeus puts his best warriors all on a single magical island, to stand guard in case Ares ever returns. But they don’t seem to be monitoring the outside world at all. Normally there is a scrying glass of some sort, letting them view the world at large, but Wonder Woman alludes to nothing. They genuinely seem to find out about WWI during the film yet it’s clearly been going on for years. That seems like a bit of godly oversight on Zeus’ part.
  • For all that I loved about Ares, he was defeated too easily. We know this version of the character does grow stronger as war spreads and the Great War is the largest of all time, so he should be the strongest he has ever been. That means he should be stronger then when he fought, and defeated, the entire Greek pantheon, which makes him scary levels of strong. Whilst he has the upper hand for some time, whipping Diana around with ease, his end still feels a little too quick.
  • As much as I will praise the script, plot and acting as being far superior to anything DC have output to date, and actually rank above several Marvel films, there are still some absolute clunkers in here. Several lines fall flat, either because the actual dialogue is a bit poor or the acting/editing just doesn’t quite work. Several elements of the plot take unnecessary diversions from the source material, to the detriment of the film, and others are just never properly addressed. In other words, Wonder Woman is great but it still could have been much better.

tl;dr: Holy crap, DC have created a genuinely clever, interesting, well made superhero movie. Praise be to Zeus!

Shrek the Third

Bizarrely, this is the first time I’ve seen the third instalment in the popular ogre-based franchise. I’ve seen the first more times than I can count, the second well into double digits and the fourth at least twice, but the third has eluded me for years. It finally dropped onto Netflix some time recently so I jumped at the change to ‘complete’ the story. The result? It’s fine.

Honestly, my biggest reaction to watching this now decade old film (woah…) was much the cast has just disappeared. Actors like Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Cleese, Antonio Banderas: these were all huge names in the mid 2000’s. Now, though, I can’t remember the last time I saw them featured in anything, really. It feels like the Shrek train rolled on so long they could all retire, which I could full well believe.

As a film, Shrek the Third is a painting-by-numbers sequel. By the third instalment I feel they had pretty much run out of ideas and were just rolling with the logical sequence of events. If Shrek has married the princess then, some day, he’ll become king: how would he react? Now Shrek is married, the next step is children: how would he react? That’s about as far as the plot goes, with a side-line notion of rounding off Prince Charming’s story from film one. Sprinkle in some toilet humour, get Puss/Donkey into some wacky subplot and add a couple more parodies of well known mythic or fairy tale creatures et voila, you have a Shrek film.

The result is neither good nor bad. It’s enjoyable enough, with some genuinely funny, stand out moments and some great song choices. Snow White’s switch into Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin stands up to any gag from the original film, the Princesses’, in general, had some fun riffs and the medieval American High of Worcestershire was well executed. Beyond that though, little was new or innovative. Shrek’s dialogue felt stilted, and neither Puss or Donkey had any particularly memorable moments. The Frog King’s death was cringe worthy and Charming’s plan, execution and role felt lacklustre. King Arthur (‘Arty’) was a good enough excuse for the plot, but the references to Arthurian legend never really went anywhere, which felt like a wasted opportunity.

Voice work was without fault, which you would expect from a cast both of this calibre and with this much experience playing these characters. Animation looked a little dated by today’s standards but, honestly, is good enough to stand up for a long time to come. The only really odd part was how uncanny-valley Shrek’s face appears sometimes – there just isn’t enough space around his facial features, making it look somehow photoshopped into place. I’d be interested to rewatch either of the previous films to see if this is some change in rendering for Shrek the Third or just dating of the technology used in general.

At the end of the day, Shrek the Third is what you would expect: a quickly put together piece of children’s entertainment, designed to maximise the return from the original’s insane level of (deserved) popularity. As a film with little reason to exist beyond making more money, it does a lot better than it could have done. As a film with little reason to exist beyond making more money, it really isn’t worth a watch. But, if you have a spare two hours and fancy a mildly entertaining romp with well known characters, it won’t overly disappoint either.

tl;dr: Fun enough but a little flat and not on par with either the original or the first sequel.

Tangled [rewatch]

I remember absolutely loving Tangled the first time (and even the second time) that I saw it. I even considered it the best Disney princess movie for quite some time, feeling it struck the balance between classic Disney story animation and modern Disney story telling. I still believe that balance is well struck, and will happily point to Tangled as the turning point for Disney Animation as a studio. I’m not sure, however, that I would continue to hold it in quite as high esteem.

Tangled seems to have aged far more than I would have expected. The facial animations look a little too smooth, giving the characters a slight sense of the uncanny valley. The comedy also felt a little lacking and the plot isn’t as well held together as I remember. Several key characters never really have their motivations explained (why are they stealing the crown?) and Rapunzel is simultaneously weirdly able to cope in the real world and totally incapable of basic skills. This is a woman who has never met anyone but her mother and only has three books to read, yet seems to grasp human culture and social interaction extremely well.

Despite that, Tangled is still a brilliant film, it still made me laugh quite a bit, Pascal remains a favourite sidekick and the story retains a heartfelt emotional punch. Is it as brilliant as I remember? No. Some of that is natural ageing, but I think a lot of it is just the films that have come since. When compared with the likes of Frozen or Moana several themes seem far more antiquated then they were at the time, when Tangled was pretty damn progressive. That isn’t the fault of the film; arguably, that is its legacy.

tl;dr: Still great fun but not quite as utterly brilliant as I remembered; remains well worth a watch and a core part of Disney’s evolution.

The Last Witch Hunter

Vin Diesel plays a gruff, no-nonsense loner with (actually, for once) magical abilities to kick-ass and not die. I feel like The Last Witch Hunter is actually an attempt to logically connect all Vin Diesel films, ever, into one long continuing franchise about an immortal man. Something that would start with being a witch-hunting Viking and end with him killing weird bat monsters on an asteroid in space.

If you think that premise sounds utterly ridiculous, probably give The Last Witch Hunter a miss. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the film, but there’s also nothing ostensibly right with it either. It exists. That’s about it. The cast is ridiculous given the plot. Getting both Elijah Wood and Michael Caine to appear in this movie is arguably the greatest evidence that witches live amongst us I’ve encountered, but the film definitely benefits from the misuse of black magic to achieve this end. No performances are stellar or unmissable, but they’re all better than the source material calls for. Probably the most interesting is Rose Leslie, better known as the Wildling with Flaming Hair (Ygritte) from Game of Thrones. Again, this isn’t a performance that will be remembered through the ages, but it is one which will hopefully pique some other director’s interest. I’d love to see her in a more stretching role one day, I think it would go pretty well.

Less notable is who-ever plays literally anyone else. The blind warlock is a fun character, though introduced as a walking (but not very effective) ex machina to move the plot along. Otherwise, the actual bad guys are pretty forgettable. The witch-queen herself is creepy but already looks quite dated as an effect and her henchmen are barely around. There is a weird cameo by Joseph Gilgun, a brilliant actor who is utterly wasted on a couple of lines of dialogue. Everyone else basically has a single scene then is either killed or never mentioned again.

The plot suffers from similar levels of skin-deep padding. The big ‘twist’ with Wood’s character is far too heavily telegraphed so was pretty expected but also falls foul of too little world building, making his death feel almost irrelevant. Other major plot points turn up and are then forgotten with an air of wantonness that feels almost absent minded. Oh, we’ve got Vin Diesel into a situation where he’s drugged? Lets give the female companion dream walking abilities. Why wouldn’t the other witches prevent that from happening? Make it slightly taboo and rare. It just seems like they had a rough draft of a story and just ran with it.

Which is a shame, because some elements of the world building are quite cool. I liked that we have a world where witches and humans live side-by-side in an almost symbiotic relationship. Sure, there’s a huge amount of borrowing from Harry Potter going on here, but it feels different enough to work. The witches keeping their age a secret with gems (no explanation given) is interesting, as is the parliament of witches that keep the peace with the humans. I even like that the original plan is to create a plague that wipes out human life, but nothing really gets enough time to work. The witch-queen implies that humans are the usurpers but what does that make her? Are they just magical humans or an entirely different race?

Weirdly, based on the ending scene, it looks like someone was hoping for it to spin-off into a new franchise. A sequel has clearly been setup and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch one. I’d like to get a more detailed look at that world, at the very least, plus I quite like where the characters were left. I wouldn’t pay to see it, either at the cinema or on DVD, but I would definitely watch it. For free. When I wasn’t that busy.

tl;dr: Vin Diesel plays his usual character. Some action happens. Parts are quite fun. I didn’t hate it.

Up There

Up There looked like a quirky, British indie flick and it starred Burn Gorman (Torchwood), which was all we needed to decide to give it a watch through on an otherwise empty night. It delivered exactly what we’d expected: it won’t be winning any awards but it is well written, well shot and well acted with a pretty unique plot concept which you just wouldn’t get in a big budget release.

The idea is relatively simple but also wonderfully inclusive. The film follows Martin, played by Gorman, as he tries to make his afterlife work out for him. In Up There, when you die there isn’t some great transition moment. You just enter an in-between space, still stuck on Earth but not quite a ghost either. Humans can’t see the, for want of a better term, astral plane but ghosts can see the living one. Neither can interact with the other, however, which is used to brilliant effect throughout. Ghosts can’t phase through walls or levitate/move objects, which means they can get ‘stuck’. Need to go through a door? You have to wait for a living person to open it and jump through. End up wedged in someone’s car? You’re stuck indefinitely. The film never takes this to any extremes, but plays with it well, using it as a plot device to constrain characters when needed. It does make me wonder what happens if a ghost was to, say, get stuck in a car going through a car crusher – can you die twice?

Certainly, the afterlife isn’t all happy fun times. The end goal of everyone stuck in this in-between state is to impress the ‘management’ enough to be promoted “upstairs”. Again, Up There steers clear of any overt religious symbology or references, so the “upstairs” could be just about anything from Heaven to reincarnation to simple non-existence. The lack of answers could have been irritating but actually works really well, letting the plot focus on the characters rather than the concepts. Which is a great thing, because it’s in the characters that Up There truly shines.

Burn Gorman is excellent throughout, managing to make the slightest facial twitch convey huge amounts of emotion and creating a sombre yet urgent atmosphere that pervades the film and aids the plot no end. He is wonderfully offset by counter part Rash, a hyperactive, loud-mouthed, crude wannabe who is equal parts hilarious and irritating. The dialogue is generally superb, but the interactions of Rash and Martin are extremely clever and expertly balanced in pacing. Whilst the physical acting is brilliant and the direction solid, the script is easily good enough to be ported to radio or stage without any major edits. Indeed, a stage adaptation would be well worth a watch.

Aside from the main leads, the film also included Iain De Caestecker, aka Fitz from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Honestly, I didn’t even notice he was in there and have no idea what character he played, but it’s pretty cool to get that Doctor Who/Marvel crossover theory going. The rest of the supporting cast ranges from adequate to perfect, with some pretty funny side characters and clever use of British stereotypes and class divisions, even within the communities of the undead.

Overall, Up There is an excellently written, wonderfully acted and incredibly interesting film. The direction is actually much better than I had anticipated and the colour casting of the film is extremely notable for producing a very ethereal feel whilst remaining highly familiar. It’s one of the best BBC/UK Film council productions I’ve seen in a while. The concept is fresh, original and well executed by all involved so, if you have a TV license, I would definitely recommend watching it whilst it’s available in iPlayer!

tl;dr: Smart, funny and very British. A quirky comedy with excellent performances and some very interesting ideas; definitely watch it!

Month in Media: March 2017 [#13]

Holy crap, in all but name this marks one year since my first MiM! Sure, there remain a couple of “in progress” holes in that year, but still I’m pretty pleased with the outcome. Who knows, maybe I’ll even feel galvanised to sort out the format some time before the second anniversary rolls around!?

TV

Terry Pratchett: Back in Black

I laughed, I cried, I learnt. Back in Black was not entirely what I expected, but it was a touching and largely fitting tribute to a writer, and person, whose influence has touched millions of lives, including my own.

Back in Black is neither biography nor tribute, falling somewhere in the middle. It detail the critical events in Pratchett’s life, but fans won’t find many new tales on offer. Instead, it chooses to focus on those closest to the author, including family, friends and various fans. The interviews touch on parts of Pratchett’s life but the emphasis is on his death, the preceding fight with Alzheimer’s and the ensuing tribute event that was held. The footage of the latter is brilliant and not something I’ve seen included anywhere else. As someone who was a massive fan but felt no desire to go to the event it let me experience the crucial parts from afar.

In fact, I’d say more than anything else, Back to Black felt like a dialogue of closure. Personally, it was quite an emotional documentary (I’m not kidding when I say I cried, and not just once) that felt more like a final goodbye than a history lesson. There’s a lot of personal emotion imbued within the interviews, no matter who is on screen, and that emotion frequently spills beyond the screen. I remember seeing a lot of love and thanks being extended by the fan community towards Neil Gaiman, long time fan and friend of Pratchett, after the show first aired. Having now seen his interview I can fully understand why and, frankly, extend my own along as well. For many, Gaiman and Pratchett are intertwined, sharing much of their humour and writing material, as well as co-authoring Good Omens, a book with a huge fandom in-and-of itself. As such, watching him speak so honestly about both his friendship and his grief was incredibly poignant. Just thinking about it is enough to bring the ghosts of tears to my eyes.

The emotion is interspersed with some clever comedic moments, pulling from Pratchett’s past interviews, books and autobiography in equal parts. The writers and producers have done a great job making it feel like Terry was personally involved with the final product; it just feels somehow Pratchett-y. Combined with the emotional intensity and clear narrative arc driving you towards, and ending with, Pratchett’s memorial service (if that is even the correct term for a stadium event with live music), the result is strangely cathartic. A common response from those interviewed for the documentary was that they have a single Discworld book remaining that they simply don’t want to read. By reading it, they have to accept that they’ll never read another Discworld novel for the first time. I was in a similar boat (though personally have several remaining) but, if Back in Black gave me anything, I don’t think I am anymore. That is the documentaries greatest feat: it makes Terry’s death somehow, if not okay, then at least acceptable.

tl;dr: A fitting tribute to an amazing man and author. If you’re a fan of Discworld or anything Pratchett, do not miss this documentary.

Lucifer [Season 2]

Lucifer continues to evolve into an extremely fun and surprisingly intelligent TV show. Despite the much lauded source material, I never really thought that a series about the Devil helping solver crimes would actually work. Luckily, the crime solving elements continue to be used more as counter points to a much broader, celestial plot line, which works well. Chloe and the police force serve as a grounding and humanising factor in a show that is far more Supernatural then it is CSI, allowing the script writers a lot more leeway when it comes to the angelic characters.

The various twists are largely pulled off well and it feels like the production team have a goal in sight when it comes to the whole War of Heaven that is brewing. Certainly, mixing Chloe up directly into the heavenly machinations could have felt like a cop out (hehe) but somehow seems to work. It validates both the first season’s larger plotline and Lucifer’s involvement in her life by presenting a plausible (within the greater context of the show) solution to her powers of will. It also leaves us with almost as many unanswered questions as season 1, which feels surprisingly nice.

A show with this much kept under wraps can have the tendency to become a little Lost (hehe), but so far Lucifer has rewarded viewers by never leaving threads dangling too long. The big reveal over “Mom”, her (known) plans and Amendiel’s fall, which were the main open questions at the end of season one, were all dealt with so swiftly that I actually forgot they weren’t a part of that first season! I genuinely don’t think Lucifer would work without this fast paced narrative, so hopefully they keep it up.

Otherwise, very little has changed since season one. The actors and subplots are all still solid, Lucifer himself remains an absolute delight to watch and the script retains that fine balance of humour and drama which ties everything together. Overall, I would still thoroughly recommend Lucifer and am definitely looking forward to season three!

tl;dr: A solid continuation from the first series, still oozing as much charm and charisma as ever. Dare I say… devilish good fun?!

Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark

I was lucky enough to catch Trevor Noah perform at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival about four years ago, long before he’d become a household name in the US for hosting the Daily Show. It’s not every day you hear of a South African comic selling out the Pleasance multiple nights in a row, with the backing and praise of the likes of Stephen Fry and Billy Connolly, so of course I was going to go. The result was one of the funniest and cleverest stand-up routines I’ve seen, either in person or televised, so when I saw that he had a new show out on Netflix it shot up our watchlist.

Afraid of the Dark is a routine performed by a much more experienced comic, with exceptional timing and a clear narrative arc, then the one I saw in Edinburgh. Noah has matured brilliantly, both into his comedy and his role as a political and cultural pundit. Some of his comedy is so biting you almost struggle to laugh, but the combination of his physicality and love of bad accents normally remedies that situation quickly. You can tell a male comedian has hit their stride when they can perform a ten minute skit based on the power of vaginas with every woman in the audience laughing hysterically (and most of the men). On a meta note, seeing such female centred comedy being written and performed by a man, without any mention of that duality, was incredibly refreshing. I wonder if, like many female comics, Noah found himself facing reviews claiming that “laughing about female body parts is baseline humour” or if, somehow, a man making the same jokes is somehow highbrow and intellectual…

Regardless, Afraid of the Dark was a brilliant hour-and-a-half of tightly written and frequently culturally scathing comedy. The routines were original and challenging, whilst remaining inclusive, so everything you want from a stand-up routine. It wasn’t a perfect show and I didn’t feel as utterly captivated as when I saw him live, but at the core Noah presents a solid piece of entertainment that might just leave you thinking.

tl;dr: Intelligent and hilarious comedy from a rising star.

Jessica Jones [Season 1]

Heavy. In one word, that is how I would describe Jessica Jones. Everything about Netflix’s second superhero outing is heavy. The action, the script, the drama, the suspense, the light levels: all weigh about the same as an ocean tanker. The result is a very clever, addictive TV show that will leave you more than a little flattened, both emotionally and physically.

Jessica Jones has always been a bit of an odd character, with more in common with old noir detectives than the caped superheroes she is set against, so the foreboding tones and motifs that the show is laced with are wonderfully true to character. Whilst Jess clearly has powers, and little compunction in using them, her abilities are not really the focus here. Instead, the masterfully played Kilgrave takes centre stage, a clever decision that somehow emphasises his cunning and malice. By focusing so heavily on Kilgrave the show writers leave us, the viewer, feeling almost like we, too, are under his control. As said, the result is quite draining, so much that we actually ended up taking a nearly two month enforced hiatus in the middle of the season just to recover.

On top of the clever pacing and cinematography, the characterisation in Jessica Jones is top notch. Every character, no matter how small, feels real and coherent, with the one possible exception of Will who always felt a little forced. His introduction was good, but by the end his motives had become a little strained, though it is a minor complaint in an otherwise top notch ensemble. Indeed, the acting throughout the show is exceptional. Many have already praised David Tennant’s portrayal of the Purple Man but he really is stunning; Tennant has an uncanny ability to create characters that equally revolt you and invite sympathy, an ability he uses extensively with Kilgrave. Far from stealing the show though, Tennant is supported by a perfect rendition of the comics hero in Krysten Ritter, who embodies Jess so perfectly I can’t imagine anyone else taking the role. Similarly impressive are Rachael Taylor and Mike Colter, both of whom I look forward to seeing more of in the future. However, for me, Eka Darville was stunning. Malcolm’s ascent from addict to care taker was an incredibly poignant subplot that was acted wonderfully from start to finish and ended up becoming the show’s moral anchor. His is definitely a name I will watch out for in the future.

On top of all that, Jessica Jones manages to take a superhero franchise and weave one of the most poignant tales I’ve watched in a long time. By the close of the season the hero tropes are appearing with increasing pace, but for the first half is much more a story of the dark parts of the human psyche. The obvious plot, done extraordinarily well, is that of domestic abuse and the extent to which both abuser and victim will go to convince themselves there’s nothing wrong. Despite seeming to be on top of things, Jones’ alcoholism and tendency to play straight into Kilgrave’s hands highlights that she hasn’t escaped his abusive control as much as she thinks. In turn, Kilgrave delivers a scary look into the mind of someone who feels somehow deserving of both his powers and abuse of them. But far from just focusing on abuse, Jessica Jones also delves heavily into the concepts of grief, mourning, guilt, addiction and consent. There’s a huge amount here, layered on top of each other, to fully do justice to but I can say that it is a monumental success in almost every way.

tl;dr: A dark and depressing look at addiction, abuse and guilt wrapped up in a surprisingly entertaining superhero show. Astounding.

Rick and Morty [Season 1 & 2]

Rick and Morty is a bizarre, confusing, superbly twisted… something or other. Honestly, it’s pretty hard to explain what Rick and Morty actually is. Coming from the creative mind of Dan Harmon, there are clear parallels with Community, the frankly amazing cult classic that made Harmon’s name. Both do one thing, in particular, extremely well: taking a piece of pop-culture and dissecting it with laser focus. They also both play with their own genre’s tropes, consistently break the fourth wall and generally take liberties with our pre-conceived notions of how TV should work.

Want an example? Take the ending of season two. For two seasons, the show has slowly been building some relatively clever, but not massively complex, characters and interactions. Subplots are weaved in and out of each episode but largely they appear to exist as single, relatively unconnected snapshots; continuity is preserved, but you don’t expect that to always be the case. As a viewer, you will likely have built up a fairly good idea of “what the show is”. But, then the final episode of season two rolls around and tears down your assumptions like a rabid E. coli. You discover that all those little subplots were actually building to something pretty epic and the show uses them to pull off an emotional gut punch that launches out of nowhere. It briefly returns to what you would expect as the credits roll and a fourth wall breaking call back to an earlier episode appears. Except, rather than alleviating the darkness, it just reaffirms it and tells you, without exception, that there isn’t anything more until season three. It masterfully keeps you hooked, thinking at any minute a punchline will surely drop and everything would be okay, but nothing ever arrives. It toys with you, with your emotions and with your sensibilities about what a TV show like Rick and Morty ought to do. And then it ends.

As you might gather, Rick and Morty has converted me wholesale. I am buzzing at the prospect of season three and praying that, unlike Community, R&M is allowed to see out its run without issues. It definitely wasn’t love at first sight thought, so if you do decide to try out the internet phenomenon my one piece of advice would be: stick with it. The episodes are short and, as mentioned, rarely re-tread the same ground, so if one part leaves you a little cold then you’re unlikely to come across it again. To be honest, I was very unimpressed by the pilot, which was full of bad puns, body horror animation (harking back to the 90’s Cartoon Network – I hated it then, I hate it now) and childish ‘adult’ humour that felt like it was aiming at South Park but fell far short. I pushed on and the worst parts became less prevalent, whilst the characters and their interactions grew in interest. A couple of episodes really peaked my interest, with decent parodies of the likes of Jurassic Park, The Matrix and Inception, and these were topped off by consistently clever references and humour. By the end of season one I was happy to nod along and keep watching.

By the end of season two I was a full blown Fan! (note the capital “f”). There were still a couple of dud episodes (I’m really not sure why the inter-dimensional clip show had to come back for a second round, it was one of the worst ideas from season one) but these were spread thinly between some stunning ones. The screen-duplicating antics that took place in the opening episode, A Rickle Through Time, were some of the cleverest uses of animation and syncing I’ve seen, and both Auto Erotic Assimilation and Total Rickall provided clever and thought provoking genre parodies. Overall, Rick and Morty has become one the cleverest, most intelligent and genuinely intriguing shows I’ve watched in a while. Onwards to season three!

tl;dr: Brilliant, genre skewering wrapped up in an animated show that pulls some surprisingly intelligent punches. A slow start but well on the way to being a cult classic.

Daredevil [Season 2]

The first season of Marvel’s Daredevil remains one of the companies crowning achievements. The choreography, the character development, the acting, pacing, scripting and sound – everything was done exquisitely. After a solid follow-up in the form of Jessica Jones we were thoroughly looking forward to seeing what the other powered inhabitants of Hell’s Kitchen were up to. The fact I’m reviewing both in the same month certainly shows that Daredevil retains its “just-one-more” addictiveness, but what about everything else?

Put frankly, everything else was a little disappointing. To be clear, season 2 is still a solid, entertaining and thoroughly well crafted outing. The original actors weren’t about to suddenly lose their flair (and definitely don’t) and new characters are just as well cast, in particular the Punisher. Dialogue, for the most part, is well rounded and believable, without any real fluff, and character arcs are (largely) clear and coherent.

Perhaps season one was just too perfect. It all slotted together wonderfully, creating a story that was equally captivating whether focusing on the people or the powers. Season two does have some of those moments of brilliance, but unfortunately veers too much towards the latter. Whilst season one could get away with a constant tension as Matt tried to keep his identity secret and balance his two lives, season two neither needs nor pulls off this trick. Foggy already knows his secrets, so why Murdoch continues to lie and throw up smoke screens isn’t clear and becomes irritating. Many plot points could have been cleared up had main characters just remembered to communicate with one another, but instead drama is invented that makes them choose not to. It’s an old TV sin that remains unforgiveable, no matter how great everything else going on is.

There’s also the issue of Elektra. In many ways, Daredevil manages to do justice to the much loved character. She is definitely not ‘just a love interest’, nor is she treated gratuitously. Elektra is a strong, independent character that brings something genuine to the storyline. She helps Matt realise that he isn’t just living two lives, he is two people, and he’s beginning to prefer the vigilante alter-ego. It’s an interesting take on the characters and it does feel organic. Unfortunately, it is overshadowed in the first half of the season by the far more interesting, nuanced and clever Punisher plotline and then morphs into a deus-ex-machine laced confusion of magical, immortal ninjas and prophecies. Whilst the revelation that Elektra is a member of the Chaste works well and gives her actions purpose, turning her into a prophetic incarnation of evil serves to destroy her agency as a character. It’s a blow that such a strong female hero has to be reduced in such a way, that her abilities could not just be her own. It also sets up a predictable ending forcing Matt to resume his split life, rather than simply becoming the devil full time. It’s entertaining and contains some wonderful fight sequences, but it also feels a little rushed and lacks the nuance of the first season.

On the other hand, the introduction and development of the Punisher is fantastic. In all honesty, had season two decided to just focus on the Punisher arc it would have been a lot more interesting. His introduction, build up and reveal are all wonderfully executed. The interactions between daredevil and Castle are clever and insightful, serving to shine a light not just on the problems of vigilantes but of wider cultural perceptions of mental illness, PTSD and the morality of law. Castle’s evolution from sociopath to victim during the trial and his actions after his escape serve to push back at Murdoch’s conceptual black/white moral code, friction which is well mirrored in the other characters, particularly Karen. In many ways, the Punisher is a very fitting follow up to Wilson Fisk and his inclusion allows the show to deviate in fresh ways. As mentioned, however, the overlap with Elektra’s storyline feels forced, unnecessary and irritating. Matt’s absence from the trial may serve to setup the characters for a third season but it also feels out of character and dumbly written. The Matt Murdoch of season one was a brilliant lawyer; the Matt Murdoch of season two is an arrogant, self involved ass with a hero complex.

Part of why the first season worked so well is that it focused on the people. Sure, one of those people had superpowers and occasionally dressed up as a demon to beat on bad guys, but that was almost just an extra bit. Entire episodes occurred where Matt barely suited up, but in season two he practically lives in the damn thing. I think the writers were trying to make this all tie together with the Elektra plot, but it didn’t work. To be honest, the entire season feels like Netflix brought the release date forward by about a year, which is a shame. Season one was tight, controlled and powerful as a result. Season two has wonderful moments (Fisk’s rise to Kingpin, the rooftop debate between Daredevil and Punisher, Foggy stepping up at the trial, Karen’s discussion with Frank in the diner) but each one is blunted by a lazy piece of missed/forced dialogue or over use of action in place of plot. It remains entertaining, but it lacks the magic of season one.

tl;dr: Still very enjoyable but fails to match the brilliance of the first season, with too much emphasis on heroes and not enough on humans.

Planet Earth II

Before I begin, I have a confession to make: I haven’t really watched the whole of Planet Earth II. We managed to miss the first three episodes re-airing on iPlayer, so this review can only be considered to cover episodes 4, 5 and 6 (Deserts, Grasslands and Cities respectively), plus any clips uploaded to YouTube.

With that said, my feelings of what I have seen are mixed. The footage is as exceptional as ever, with some jaw dropping sequences. They’ve definitely moved away from the obvious gimmicks, losing the hyper-zoom shots, overhead shadow walking and underwater footage that made the original series so famous. In their place is slow motion and hyper realism; you can tell the break out technologies of the past few years have been stupidly high resolutions and frame rates. Certainly, elongating the time that certain shots take is stunningly done; footage isn’t slowed down to an imperceptible crawl but rather feels like it got a little close to a black hole. It draws you in to the frame and somehow makes even relatively banal sequences tense or atmospheric. It’s a more mature approach to editing, for the most part, but I do feel that the understatement does mean some of the awe is lost. There’s a lot more nuance on display, but much less eye candy. The HDR sequences do go some way to alleviating that and I can imagine in 4K you will still end up awestruck quite often, but it did feel a little less exciting in general.

Part of that, though, may well have been the familiarity of many of the sequences. Rather oddly, Planet Earth II appears to actually reuse footage from Planet Earth. Certainly, if the chase sequences of wolves and caribou are new footage they can be considered shot-for-shot remakes, just with a tweaked ending where the caribou escapes. There are other, similar moments, but amongst them emerges another trend: baby animals don’t seem to die as much as they used to. In the three episodes we watched there were some definitely savage moments (the lion with a face full of buffalo, tigers ripping into a days old rhino carcass, mustangs slamming into one another) but a lot of the hunt sequences seemed to end in escape. About the only animals I saw die were pigeons.

That is, except for the baby turtles, which was an extremely poignant but slightly off putting piece of documentary work. I understand the need to make a statement, and perhaps that is exactly what they were doing, but I genuinely find it hard to believe that dedicated wildlife journalists could simply film endangered species being run over or drown. I understand the whole “nature is long in tooth and claw” mantra, but these aren’t natural deaths. They’re the result of human ignorance and arrogance, so a human intervention doesn’t break any kind of conservationist’s code – it’s an obvious and necessary solution. Perhaps this was happening off-camera, and perhaps they felt mentioning it would do more harm in the long run, but considering how little media impact that sequence appears to have had I’m not sure a gamble of that nature has paid off.

I do have another theory though regarding the lack of death: Americans. For a BBC series, the baffling use of Fahrenheit is a pretty big giveaway that the American market was being heavily targeted. I have to admit to being a little disappointed, both in the BBC and in Attenborough himself, for allowing something so disingenuous to happen. It would be one thing if they redubbed the episodes for the US, but to air them in the UK using such antiquated terminology sends the wrong message. In a show that does a fantastic job of presenting strong arguments for human progression, taking a step back on something so basic seems just odd.

Despite these misgivings, Planet Earth II is still a wonderful, master class in documentary making. I would have loved to have spent less time re-treading ground already covered by the series, but the entirely new footage that was provided was exceptional. Every knows about the Galapagos racer snakes by now, but the footage of sand grouse in the Namib, urban leopard hunts, harvest mice and serval hunting are all some of the cleverest and most intimate sequences I’ve seen captured on film. Intimacy was clearly a driving factor for the way the series was both filmed and edited, with a lot more emphasis on close up shots rather than grandiose displays of scale. I think that, more than anything else, built up to create one of the best episodes of any wildlife documentary in the final Cities feature. So yes, Planet Earth II has its flaws; so did the original. But these are almost entirely eclipsed by its triumphs.

tl;dr: At times a little derivative, with shameful US pandering, but the overall result is every bit as magical, stunning and jaw dropping as the original and a whole lot more intimate and mature.

Video Games

Pokémon Duel

I had been hoping that dipping into the world of video games with Portal 2 would help spark a trend, but then Pokémon Duel came out. Best laid plans of mice and ‘Mon and all that…

In short, Duel is a clever and highly addictive merging of draughts, capture the flag and Magic the Gathering. You build a deck of figures and ability cards to battle other players, with the end goal of either taking your opponents goal space or forcing them into a stalemate. The actual board is very simple, with relatively few possible moves that can be made. The strategy, then, comes in the deck you build. By selecting complimentary Pokémon and boosting them using specific cards at opportune moments you can tailor each game to match your own play style. With pretty much all of the Pokémon known to date available to unlock, some of whom even have alternate models with slightly different abilities, there’s a huge degree of flexibility possible in building a deck that works for you.

So far, you may be wondering why this is a Pokémon game. In large part, the Pokémon brand has been applied to make Duel easier to market and utilise an already existing fan base, but the core concepts of Pokémon are all maintained. Rather than catching monsters you unlock them through battling or completing specific missions. You can also buy them directly from the shop using the in-game ‘Gems’ currency. Pokémon don’t gain experience from battling, like in the main series games, but instead can be trained and levelled up through ‘Fusion’. Fusion works by effectively converting spare/unwanted Pokémon into experience (a little like Pokémon Go‘s Stardust system) or through the application of fusion material, which is unlocked in the same way as figures. There are no real stats involved, but each Pokémon has a specific set of abilities that effectively grant them high speed, offensive or defensive skills. These abilities can be slightly trained up as well, again through Fusion, but doing so only results in minute gains.

Those abilities are where the most Pokémon-like element of the game comes into play: battling. Whilst in a duel you can pit your figures against one another to try and activate abilities or capture board spaces from your opponent. These interactions are largely controlled by RNG, though through training your Pokémon or using certain cards you can effectively weight the dice in your favour. There are no type advantages, probably to make game balance simpler, though many Pokémon have specific always-on abilities that are related to their type. For example, many Fire types cannot be frozen (yes, status effects do exist and form a large part of certain strategies) and certain flying types can leap-frog other figures. The creators of Duel also occasionally put on Gym events that comprise of special boards, which only last a week or so, but often give certain Pokémon types distinct advantages.

The combination of all these factors means that Duel has a surprising degree of depth to the gameplay. The initial learning curve could be a little off putting for some, as the in game tutorials are not particularly useful, but once you get the hand of the basic tactics you will find increasingly advanced strategies just begin to click into place. There are issues with some figures being slightly OP, leading to a certain staleness to the meta (*cough*Shuppet*cough*) but the developers are good at releasing monthly patches to balance out play styles and every Pokémon I’ve come across has had at least one hard counter.

Really, the only issue I’ve found with Duel is that there is an element of ‘pay-to-play’ that becomes increasingly apparent as you rank up. As someone who has played for two months, unlocked hundreds of critters and built several solid decks, all without paying a single penny, it does get a little discouraging playing in ranked games. Once you enter that arena, you can pretty much guarantee every opponent you play against will have a full deck of legendary or top-tier Pokémon. With that much fire power, RNG becomes an irritation, as no amount of training will level the playing field between a Bulbasaur and a Mewtwo. It is possible to unlock these big-hitting monsters for free by earning Gems from missions, but Gems can only purchase Booster Packs, which also rely on RNG. It is definitely more effective to simply buy top-tier figures with real money, and you can tell that this is the route a lot of players have taken. That said, Duel’s strength is in the flexibility of gameplay, so by adjusting my play style to one which relies on battling as little as possible I have been able to achieve a decent rank and routinely place in the top 10,000 players during Gym events. It would just be really nice to roll a Mew some time soon, please?

tl;dr: Addictive and surprisingly complex take on the winning Pokémon formula. Will more than likely keep me coming back for many months.

Films

Logan

Straight away let’s be clear about what Logan is not: it is not a Dark Knight, nor a Guardians of the Galaxy. It is not a deep, meaningful analyse of the genre, nor is it a perfectly executed romp of action and comedy. So, if that’s what Logan is not, then what is it? Well, to start with, it is the best iteration of Wolverine to be produced in live action, by quite some way.

Hugh Jackman practically is Wolverine in most people’s minds at this stage, and has certainly given great performances as the character in the past. What has frequently lacked is a greater sense of the comic book hero’s purpose, drive and self. That has largely been due to bad plot lines, poor scripting or jarring morality swings, but luckily Logan doesn’t fall foul of any of those problems. There is still the occasional piece of clunky dialogue and the overarching plot never dips too far below the surface, but everything is tight enough to never detract from Jackman’s performance. On top of a “good enough” script, Jackman is deftly propped up by a solid supporting cast; there are no whiny Cyclops’ or emotionless Psylocks in this outing.

Part of why Wolverine works a lot better ninth time around (yeah, I know…) is that the studio finally lets him off the proverbial leash. Though the film makers deny it, Logan likely owes some debt to Deadpool proving that adult rated superhero films can still make bank. The result is a Wolverine who can finally fight properly, going berserker within minutes of the film starting and returning to that primal, instinctive state multiple times throughout the film. There’s no glory in it either, which is a fantastic decision. Where Deadpool was content to splash gore left, right and centre, Logan treads a more realistic line. It is visceral, but it never feels truly gratuitous, perfect for the fighting style of a fully trained soldier with little moral compulsion.

Yet, crucially, Logan himself remains empathetic and nuanced. He is neither an anti-hero nor a hero; he is just a man trying to do the right thing. That’s a core part of Wolverine’s character that previous films have failed with. Logan does care, but he’s driven to coldness by a life of nightmares, loss and conflict. Logan treads this line finely, allowing the titular character to have moments of bull-headedness whilst balancing them with some deeply fascinating relationships.

Because, where Logan truly excels at finally getting Wolverine right isn’t just the fighting – it’s the relationship with Chuck. Patrick Stewart’s long run with the franchise ranks as one of the oddest in cinema history; he is an extraordinary actor we keeps returning to a role far outside his norm. Thank god he has, though, because as with Jackman, Stewart has simply become his mutant alter ego and in Logan he is finally able to put his acting skills to true use. Watching a version of Xavier who is losing his grip on his own mind, and therefore powers, is a fascinating plot but when acted with the sincerity Stewart brings to the role it is frequently heart breaking. If there is one thing I could wish of Logan it is that they cut 15 minutes of the fight sequences for a further 15 minutes of interactions with Professor X. The writers did both characters, and their often argumentative relationship, proud.

The rest of the cast are brilliant as well. Steven Merchant presents a much deeper version of Caliban, though his presence as a character does feel a little odd given the plotline of Age of Apocalypse. X-23 is brilliant and will surely win over even the hardest of fan hearts with her final moment rotating the grave marker, creating a surprisingly clever and poignant scene. Even the antagonists work well, even if they remained a little 2-D throughout. Really, my only major problem was with CG Jackman (I assume CG was involved). The “primal” version of Wolverine, X-24, is a plot element that I can totally get working on paper but was actually unnecessary. Despite plot mandated screw ups, the Ravagers were actually pretty competent and had some scary tech at their finger tips. I can forgive X-24’s existence entirely for the pivotal role he played at the farm house, which was a surprisingly well choreographed plot twist, but ultimately it would have been nice to get a bit more development for him.

Overall then, I really enjoyed Logan. It didn’t leave me wanting to rush out and watch it again, nor did it open up deep philosophical questions, but it is a solidly executed and very enjoyable film. The plot is ultimately a bit shallow but this is more than made up for by the depth of the character interactions. It’s certainly one of the most mature X-Men films and arguably Marvel films in general, and I don’t mean that in terms of film rating. It is the first Wolverine heavy film I’ve seen which left me wanting a sequel, which is almost ironic considering the final ending.

tl;dr: A mature, nuanced take on the beloved character. Jackman can retire from the role knowing that he finally did Wolverine right.

Month in Media: February 2017

After the burst of media consumption in January, February feels like a major let down. In reality we’ve been spending a lot of time exploring, going on short breaks and sorting out life in general, so it makes sense that something has had to take a backseat. Plus, I accidentally introduced my partner to How I Met Your Mother so we’ve been ploughing through the last few seasons. It’s amazing how much of a time sink sitcoms can be…

Movies

Planet Hulk

There will be no surprised here if you’ve read the graphic novel of the same name and, frankly, if you haven’t then don’t bother watching the film and pick that up instead. Fans of the novel will likely enjoy Planet Hulk, as it stays remarkably faithful to the source material, but ultimately there’s little new here whilst large segments have been removed to fit into theatrical time constraints.

A lot of the cleverer or more interesting elements of world building have been stripped out, with much more focus placed on events in the colosseum instead. Again, the core elements are all here, including fan favourites like the Wildebots, but the subtleties of the graphic novel have been lost. Similarly, several of the more enlightening subplots have been removed wholesale. Miek never gets to undergo his transformation as the entire slave race, ‘native’ culture backstory is cut; he remains unhived throughout, which is heightened by the lack of Brood as a character. In turn this lends much less time to fleshing out the various “evil” races that the novel helped readers understand. More confusingly, much of the Spike Wars is left unmentioned along with any real character development between Caiera and the Hulk, leaving their eventual marriage feeling a little ham-fisted and sudden.

Instead, Planet Hulk spends its time focusing on the fighting which is done well enough to be enjoyable. The animation is fluid, the stakes are consistently increased and nothing feels totally forced or off. I found the swapping of the Silver Surfer for Beta-Ray Bill a little odd, as the former has a greater history within the Marvel Universe in general. It also highlighted one of the largest departures, in that this version of the Hulk is far more rage monster than nuanced alter-ego. The graphic novel does a much better job of justifying Hulk’s actions and making him a character you both root for and empathise with. There’s a lot less of that on display in the film, which casts Hulk as more of an arrogant, impulsive and self-centered teenager. As a result, the plot loses a lot of the emotional connection and impact, though this isn’t as great considering the film chooses to end on a high note, rather than the destruction of the novel. Again, I understand why this decision was made, but it detracts from the story quite a lot.

tl;dr: An interesting enough film but the problem is that the source material is just far superior. Read that, skip this.

Hulk vs.

Technically two short films, Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor, with no attempt at connecting the two at all, which is probably for the best. There’s also not much more to say for these; both shorts are just fight sequences with vague plots in place to allow for them to occur. The Wolverine plot line is more fleshed out, factoring in the Weapon X program as a reason for Hulk’s rampage in the Canadian south, but it still largely feels forced. It also makes little sense that Wolverine has no idea who Hulk is, despite the briefing from the Canadian government and the inclusion of characters like Deadpool and Lady Deathstrike which place it quite late in the normal Marval continuity. The result is entertaining enough, with some nice moments of humour, particularly between Deadpool and Wolverine, but offers little real merit.

Thor’s story is at least a little more unique, with Loki transporting Bruce Banner to Asgard during the Odin Sleep and separating him from the Hulk, allowing the monster to be unleashed utterly on Thor and the other Asgardian heroes. It appears to have been Loki’s greatest success, with Thor all but killed had the Sorceress not intervened and most of the other heroes defeated but falls down by presenting very two dimensional versions of the characters. Thor and Banner clearly know each other, yet Loki seems to have almost no understanding of humanity or the nature of the Hulk. There is a nice subplot regarding Banner’s time in Hel where he gets to live the life he most desires, but even here the conclusion is simply more fighting.

The animation is noteworthy, with some great fight sequences and good voice acting, but ultimately there is little more here than fan fantasies with an over-the-top budget.

tl;dr: Entertaining but shallow.

Mortdecai

Mortdecai was utterly slammed by critics but still managed to pique my interest. To be fair, I can fully understand the criticism: Mortdecai is not a good film. It is a comedy that was rarely funny, with a plot that was just nonsensical enough to save it from being predictable yet remained somewhat dull and which stars a host of stereotypes that failed to find their marks. The odd part is that it’s hard to pin down why Mortdecai is a bad film. It feels like an updated version of Austin Powers, with much the same humour and a well cast, well acted ensemble that should work brilliantly together. There are some genuinely clever moments and the script fist the bill nicely, but it never really engages the audience. It’s an odd thing, but the film just fails to be interesting or funny, seemingly through no fault of its own. There just isn’t any spark to the proceedings. Even with Paul Bettany playing a completely atypical womanising henchman (and playing it very well) there was little here that I could recommend. A confusing and occasionally frustrating flop.

tl;dr: It just doesn’t work. I’m not sure why, but the humour falls flat, the plot is banal and the end product leaves you utterly indifferent. The definition of meh.

The Lego Batman Movie

In honesty I can’t really review Lego Batman properly. I’ve been incredibly excited to watch the film since the first trailer dropped and love the idea of a DC movie from the minds behind the first Lego Movie, but it was a bad time to go to the cinema as I felt horrendous. As a result I spent the entire film running a temperature and focusing more on either not passing out or throwing up then what was happening on screen.

What I did catch made me certain that I want to rewatch this film in the future. The scripting and animation didn’t seem to be as intelligent as The Lego Movie but then the subject matter is also a lot more restrictive. In fact I was impressed by how much they tied the two together yet defined clear boundaries; Lego Batman is not a DC movie that happens to be animated in lego, with frequent references to master builders, instruction manuals and the ability to reconstruct the world around them. No, this is clearly a spin-off from the popular movie, not related to the straight-to-dvd DC lego franchise films. That also means that we aren’t restricted to DC characters, with the likes of Sauron, Voldemort and King Kong all making major appearances, which was also refreshing to see.

From the DC perspective, again I was impressed. The character of Batman in The Lego Movie was largely a pastiche, which made sense given the context of that film; he was the idea of Batman as viewed by a 10 year old, so harboured little nuance. Whilst the core of that character has remained for the spin-off, the surrounding cast and overall story arc are far deeper than required. Better yet, the focus is a close retelling of the “Bat Family” storyline from the comics, allowing the writers to dive into some of the aspects of Batman as a character that rarely make it into the big screen adaptations. It was wonderful to see this happen and I think it was done pretty well, given the context of a kids film. Within that context I doubt we’ll see the sequel (if there is one) conclude that arc ‘correctly’ with “A Death in the Family”, of even the creation of Oracle, but I can hope! If ever those stories were to make it through the Hollywood vetting process, an animated and light-hearted kids film might just be plausible.

Overall I enjoyed what I managed to see. The humour still made me laugh on several occasions, the meta concepts and pop-culture references were largely clever and well placed and the featured characters were treated surprisingly cleverly and fairly. Simple sequences like Robin’s descent into Nightwing, replete with voiced reasoning, were done wonderfully well and managed to equally advance the plot, point a finger at the often ridiculous nature of comic book narrative and be humorous to people without the knowledge to ‘get’ the deeper subtext. Definitely a film I would like to spend some less distracted time with in the future.

tl;dr: A clever look at both Batman and superhero motifs in general tied together in a funny, clever kids movie with a surprising amount of heart.

TV

How I Met Your Mother [Seasons 6-8]

There doesn’t seem much point splitting a sitcom up into seasons as, if they do their job correctly, it shouldn’t matter. The story should incrementally move forward but each episode, ideally, will be pretty self contained and uniform. You don’t look to a sitcom to change the way television is written or created; you look to a sitcom to make you laugh, create enjoyable characters and have just enough depth so that you care about them. For these reasons, How I Met Your Mother is one of my all time favourite sitcoms. What started as a slightly gimmicky, catchphrase laden update to the Friends formula has managed nine seasons of gradual maturation and consistently clever humour. HIMYM was never going to break any boundaries or push the envelope, but it has always been well written, enjoyable and laugh out loud funny.

It’s worth diving a little further into the (already noted) parallels between Friends and HIMIYM, because I think they’re a large part of the latter’s appeal and success. The core construct of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between two characters in a tightly knit friend group is something which just works. The characters have been updated from their 90’s counterparts to feel a little more natural in a 21st century environment, but otherwise the two shows are practically identical. A coffee shop has been swapped for a bar, personalities have been reshuffled a little (Ross -> Ted, Chandler -> Marshall, Joey -> Barney whilst the three female Friends become fused into two composites, with Monica + kinky/quirky Phoebe -> Lily and Rachel + kickass/neurotic Phoebe -> Robin) and fashions updated but each episode is still a self-contained story about a group of twenty-somethings in New York.

Less obvious but equally present are the influences of sitcoms such as Scrubs, which lend HIMYM their skit based humour and meta ability to inherently mess with the TV format. As with Scrubs this leads to some standout episodes featuring musical numbers, impossible events and the ever present ridiculousness of Barney’s “plays” to pick up women. Also much like Scrubs, the show gets away with this by having a central gimmick that ties everything together, in this case the fact that everything we see is just the retelling of events by a future version of Ted. That’s why the show revolves much more tightly around a single character than other, earlier sitcoms like Friends did, and why the boundaries of reality can be pushed at will. As with the use of JD’s imagination in Scrubs, Ted’s embellishments as he describes his past to his future children allow the show some breathing room that results in some brilliant sketch based comedy.

If this blend of humour is why the show works then, much like Scrubs, it is also why the show ends up treading a fine line between the hilarious and the inane. For the most part I would say HIMYM walks this line in style and is the reason I think it is one of the finest sitcoms ever, let alone of more recent years. That isn’t to say it is perfect. Season 8 in particular has felt like the writers were becoming a little stretched and the plot a little too convoluted. The constant focus on relationships, much of which seem to be moving incredibly quickly (how many engagements occur in this penultimate season alone?), is handled a little too inelegantly and begins to feel forced. I’d say it was clear that Season 8 was the point that the writers realised they needed to bring everything to a close but had left too many open threads to do so neatly. From the audience’s point of view it is also the point at which the central ‘mystery’ begins to feel too played out. At this stage I will feel equally cheated if Robin either is or isn’t the mother and personally wish they’d just get on with marrying her and Barney off so Ted can meet the oft-cited girl with the yellow umbrella!

That irritation out of the way, Season 8’s main problem may well be that it is directly preceded by arguably the two strongest seasons of the shows run. Both season 6 and 7 balance the show’s humour and heart perfectly, with almost every episode feeling like it has advanced at least one character arc whilst containing multiple moments of laughter inducing humour. It’s incredibly moreish, but not because you’re wanting answers or are constantly left with contrived cliff hangers, but because you find yourself having an immense amount of fun. As a result I’m both hugely glad and deeply saddened at the knowledge that there’s only one season left. Season 8 shows that the series has to end, that the core concept relies on some sense of impending closure (how long has he been talking to those kids?) and that the further this is spun out the less it works. But, Seasons 6 and 7 also show how great these characters can be and how well they work, both as a neat summation of the culture of the early 21st century and as entertainment in their own right.

tl;dr: One of the best sitcoms ever, though by the end of Season 8 clearly showing signs of ageing. I will miss these characters but we desperately need closure on who the mother actually is, and soon!

How I Met Your Mother [Season 9]

Okay, I realise I said I wasn’t going to split up a sitcom, but I wrote the above review in the full knowledge that I wouldn’t be writing any more until March. Only, then some plans fell through and the pacing of the show picked up and, before we’d even realised what was happening, another season had flown by.

If Season 8 was the stumble of fatigue in an otherwise solidly executed run, then Season 9 was the determined final burst of stamina to reach the finish line. The writing, acting and storytelling were all back on point, often rivalling the best episodes of the seasons behind it (a whole episode of rhyme with Lin Manuel-Miranda? Yes please!). There are the occasional over-the-top embellishments that smack of “its the final season, so why the hell not?” (Boys2Men’s sudden appearance felt particularly odd) but the show has always kept one foot in the surreal, so it still works. In fact, given how successful season 9 is at both producing entertaining episodes and wrapping up every possible thread that was still left dangling, I can’t help but feel that season 8 had been elongated to give them time to do the final season justice.

Whatever the reason, the 9th season is the one that cements How I Met Your Mother in the hallowed sitcom hall of fame, in my opinion at least. Every episode weaves a wonderfully fine line between emotional gut-punches and comedy that leaves you in tears. No character is left behind, no matter how minor, with subplots like “Boats! Boats! Boats!” and even the girlfriend-with-no-name coming to tidy, clear ends. It’s masterful story telling and once again highlights how useful a gimmick Ted’s future children are. You can have a slow pan over a half-dozen characters filling in their entire future, because that’s how Ted is telling it. It makes sense, brings perfect closure and is entertaining to boot.

I will admit to finding this final season pretty damn stressful. I honestly don’t think I could have hacked the ups-and-downs of Robin and Barney’s wedding had I watched in a weekly, episodic manner. Even binging as quickly as possible was almost too stressful! Still, the stress proves how much these characters had been imbued with meaning. By the final episode you truly care about each and every one of them, which when you look back at how the show started is an impressive feat. Possibly more impressively is how quickly the viewer falls for “the mother”. With each crossed-path and “Kids, that’s how so-and-so met your mother!” the anticipation builds yet further until that, too, begins to add to the stress. For a show built on the question of “Robin and Ted?” it does extremely well to utterly convince you that, when the characters begin to ask the same question, the answer is actually “No!”.

Which leaves only one element for discussion: the ending. Despite what I’ve just written, I think the ending is perfect. Back when it first aired I remember seeing a lot of negativity surrounding it, a feeling of being cheated somehow. We spend nine seasons building up to the “mother” only for her to be in a handful of episodes, die and be replaced with Robin, the girl you meet in the first ten minutes!? In the writers defence, though, HIMYM has never been the story of the “mother”. Right from the first scene of episode one, Robin has been the centre point. Why start telling your kids how you and Mum met with the story of how you met their Aunt Robin? So you can weave in the occasional reference to ankle sightings or the journey of a yellow umbrella? No, it made no sense for the story to take that tack unless Ted was actually telling another story. The story of how he’s loved Robin from the moment they first met, but how life intervened. How he found an equal love with another woman after having his heart (repeatedly) broken. But, most importantly, how six years after that other woman’s death, those feelings for Robin are still there.

How I Met Your Mother is not the story of meeting the “mother”. It’s the story of a widowed father asking his kid’s permission to move on, to rekindle an old flame, someone who has waited for him (this time around). Yes, the “mother” was amazing and I think every viewer ended up routing for her to “win” but the story isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about love. By the end of season nine it’s clear that the answer to “Robin and Ted?” is: yes! It’s just that a bunch of other stuff had to happen first.

tl;dr: A perfect ending to a brilliant show. How I Met Your Mother is one of those shows that I will miss, and remember, for a long time. To put it simply: legend… wait for it…

 

 

 

 

DARY!

Month in Media: January 2017 [#4]

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.

Films

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.

Zootopia [rewatch]

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.

Ender’s Game

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.

Dirty Grandpa

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.

Lucy

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.

Battleship

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).

Interstellar

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.

Hardcore Henry

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.

 TV

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.

Books

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.

Video Games

Portal 2

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.

Month in Media: December 2016

Will I be able to keep on top of December like I managed to do with the (incredibly shallow) November? Probably not, but let’s try anyway! (spoiler: I didn’t, but it was close!)

Films

Wonder Woman

No, not the upcoming live action version that may be DC’s first acceptable superhero movie, but the animated feature of the same name. I’m not the biggest WW fan, not because I think the character is poor but rather I feel most interpretations of her miss the mark, even more so than with her male counterpart Superman. Partly, I feel her attire is to blame: it’s hard to tell a truly feminist, sensitively female yet utterly kickass story when your main role model is permanently bedecked as a 50’s pin-up. On top of that is a desire to keep WW as a major player in the DC universe, but never one truly greater than either Batman or Superman, whose shadows she’s rarely allowed to eclipse.

Despite these misgivings, I’d heard good things about this particular rendition and I’m always a sucker for anything featuring Nathan Fillion so I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is a film that I enjoyed, which treated the source material reasonably but that ultimately lacked any emotional punch. Voice acting, animation, sound and even storyboarding are all on point throughout but the plot felt like it asked for slightly too much suspension of disbelief.

I genuinely enjoyed that Ares was cast as the villain and that they didn’t sugar coat his or Diana’s origins: Ares is clearly a god and both the pantheon and magic definitively exist, albeit as forgotten relics of an ancient era by the majority of the world. I’ve always enjoyed DC’s take on magic and classical mythology more so than Marvel’s, but in more recent years the latter’s rendering of Thor and the Norse gods has utterly stolen the limelight. Here then, with a strong cast and plenty of excuse for magical or mythical moments, Wonder Woman should have shone. Unfortunately, the film spent too much of its time dealing with the ‘blossoming’ romance between our dashing fighter pilot and the titular hero to really explore these avenues. Even when the Greek myths were mentioned, the focus was predominantly on the Amazons themselves, who were rather flatly portrayed and frequently appeared more like stroppy teenagers, bitching about everyone and everything when they weren’t looking, than the finely trained, intellectually superior warriors that they ought to be.

As a result, key plot points were often ignored. Diana’s infamous invisible jet appears in distinctly modern form without any explanation or reasoning; indeed, we’re given to believe that the Amazons haven’t even cast their gaze at the outside world until a few days earlier. The lack of explanation is just about manageable whilst the craft serves as a method of getting the main characters back to “man’s world” but when the plane later comes equipped with “invisible missiles” not even Fillion’s dry, sarcastic voice work can keep you from sighing audibly. After all, if the citizens of Themyscira can make genuinely explosive missiles out of thin air than Ares’ battalions of demon-spawn don’t really pose that much threat…

Speaking of which, why does Ares decide to attack from a (strangely ocean adjacent) White House? And where do all of his minions come from? Have they just been chilling in some alternate dimension all these years? Plus, he’s clearly shown to still have a cult following somewhere in the Middle East who were armed with modern weaponry, yet come the final showdown Ares’ armies are as primitively outfitted as the Amazons themselves. Very little about the villains plans or even powers are explained. Sure, he thrives off warfare, but then he also seems to get psychic power from simply launching a nuclear missile, so actual conflict seems not to be required? Gah! Nothing is ever cleared up!

tl;dr: Diana is actually well written and Nathan Fillion is great as ever, but ultimately Wonder Woman fails to justify its plot in any meaningful way.

Godzilla (2014)

To be clear, this is the Godzilla reboot with Bryan Cranston in it. At least, that’s how I keep hearing it referred to and, indeed, how I think of it. In reality though, if Bryan Cranston is the main reason you’re thinking of watching this film I’d recommend to look elsewhere. That’s not a knock on Cranston’s acting or even his character, but he doesn’t exactly stick around for very long and ultimately is entirely inconsequential to the plot line.

Unfortunately, these same criticisms pretty much sum up all the main characters. Despite having some decent actors, Godzilla contains no worthwhile interactions whatsoever. Most of our time is spent chasing around Cranston’s son, who is seemingly the incarnate embodiment of American heroism, utter lack of empathy or common sense included. Whilst he goes out of his way to save countless ‘innocents’, including one mildly infuriating child, and is constantly risking his own life for the ‘greater good’, he barely ever gives pause to consider his actual loved ones. Hell, this is such an obvious character flaw that there is an actual scene where his wife complains about how he never thinks to call them to let them know he’s alive. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, however. I mean, the one time he actually tries she’s casually discarded her phone and is in the middle of happy-play times with their kid, so is clearly not that hung up on his personal welfare herself…

But fine, this is a kaiju movie, you’re not here for the plot or the human characters. Viewed through this lens, Godzilla is an enjoyable romp with some interesting creature design ideas, the occasional jaw-dropping action sequence and a generally coherent plot. Audio and cinematography are decent throughout and pacing never leaves you bored or confused.

Creature design is decent enough. Ultimately, with such a lengthy history Godzilla was always going to be a little ridiculous by modern standards, just to appease old school fans and remain recognisable. That said, there weren’t any jarring or weird movements or noises that pulled me out of the action and in general, stature and build seemed reasonable. Even Godzilla’s infamous nuclear breath was done ‘believably’ enough. Scaling did feel a little off to me. Godzilla now dwarfs all but the largest sky scrapers on the American west coast, which looks okay when he’s aquatic but on land does seem a bit too unbelievable. I see that the King of Monsters has always dwarfed the high rises he tears down, but historically those have been mid 1900 Japanese buildings which were never that tall due to material constraints and earthquake consideration. Personally, I would rather have had his scale kept the same, to show that humans have advanced in the interim. I’m not actually convinced, though, that scale was really considered at all. The various kaiju appear to grow and shrink at will, even within the same battle sequence.

Indeed, Godzilla isn’t the only kaiju in Godzilla, which was a nice surprise. In fact it could be argued that he isn’t even the main kaiju, with much more time spent looking at the back story of the male/female ‘parasites’. These are interesting enough, with some clever and (in my experience) unique body designs and biohistory. I generally like the idea that Godzilla predates humanity and was part of an entire chemotrophic (or… nucleatrophic?) food chain, where abundant radioactivity enabled gigantism on an unprecedented scale. Still, as much as this goes some way to explaining a (pretty unscientific) how for the various kaiju expected to pop up in this latest franchise attempt, it leaves some very large knowledge gaps in the lore. First and foremost, has Godzilla been hibernating underwater? If not, are there a breeding population of these creatures? Either way, how does a megaton nuclear weapon leave no damage, or is Godzilla lead lined? Basically, though a neat idea, it asks more questions than it answers.

Ultimately, I feel that this incompleteness can be found throughout the film. Whilst the visual effects tend to be adequate and are occasionally stunning, they’re also jarring from time to time. Characters are trope filled and not well fleshed out, despite some solid casting choices. Plotlines are left open ended or suddenly brought to a halt without much consideration. Overall, the film is fun but nothing spectacular, which is a shame given the source material.

tl;dr: A fun but basic monster movie, where the kaiju have more personality than the humans.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

First thing first, can we all just agree to forget that the title for this film continues after Rogue One? What do you mean it has a subtitle? No, I think you’re mistaken, it’s definitely just Rogue One, right? Are we all on the same page now? Good, let’s continue.

But seriously, other than the daft addendum to the otherwise well pitched name, Rogue One definitely exceeds expectations as a franchise film. For the first entry in the Star Wars Anthology series, Rogue One stands up by itself incredibly well, telling a self-contained story with absolutely no chance of a sequel that rewards fans of the larger universe without being cut-off from those who have never journeyed to the galaxy far, far away. That’s a pretty big achievement, a remarkably fresh method of film making and one hell of a good creative decision from Disney.

Disney deserves further props for allowing the creative team behind Rogue One to actually stick to their planned ending. Again, this is the first Anthology film which gives it a lot of extra hype that may never occur again. That means, if you wanted to spin-off a TV series or additional properties, this is the film to do it with and yet what we get is a prequel to a story that has already been told, where every main character is dead by the end. There’s no wiggle room here to bring back characters that have rapidly developed a fan following for a sequel – no one survives a Death Star blast. Hell, even the main villain is categorically dead at the end. It’s a brilliant decision for a number of reasons but I’m just amazed a studio with the marketing focus of Disney ever let it happen.

Still, the result is a genuinely impactful war story that serves to flesh out the already beloved universe with a more human, personal tale. Rogue One takes a peak behind the scenes of the classic, beloved franchise and discovers a tale equally as interesting but without any of the grandeur. There are no all-powerful space wizards, princesses or renowned smugglers; instead our focus is on an orphan with no exceptional qualities except being someone’s daughter and a group of, well, grunts. These are the equivalent of Star Trek‘s red shirts, individuals that are only ever seen in the background or maybe heard off-frame, now suddenly thrown onto centre stage. And once there they don’t suddenly become exceptional, skilful heroes; they remain just a group of people, trying and sometimes failing. Even the one person with connection to the Force is a blind beggar, a remnant of a lost religion, who never shows any more powerful a skill than simple faith and courage (well, okay, he does kick ass on several occasions but that’s not the main point here).

It should be clear by now that I approve wholeheartedly of both the plot and the general characterisation found in Rogue One. Despite that, none of the characters really get any true development and are mostly, when analysed closely, just puppets pulled and prodded to be where the plot requires them. Why is Jin imprisoned? How did the Rebellion locate her? What actually happened to Bodhi, a lowly cargo pilot, to choose such a risky, treasonous path? How do the Erso’s know Saw? Why do Chirrut and Baze get involved and keep tagging along? What happened to the other guardians? For that matter, in a galaxy where the Jedi are outlawed, why are the guardians of their temples allowed to continue preaching their ways? If the Rebellion isn’t actually at war with the Empire then what, exactly, is their plan and why do they have an army? There are a lot of questions surrounding the events that occur throughout Rogue One and its a fair criticism to point out that barely any are ever even vaguely addressed. Despite creating some truly memorable characters (K-2SO… too soon!) none of the core cast are given much time to develop or be understood.

Character criticisms aside, however, Rogue One cannot be regarded as anything less than resounding success. The action, effects, design and sound are all on par with the rest of the Star Wars film canon; the acting is probably only rivalled by The Force Awakens and is pretty much flawless. It may also contain the most Easter eggs of any film ever made, with some pretty fun call backs to the original trilogy as well as a lot (apparently) of crossover with the current TV show Rebels, which all make a lot of sense. The CGI renditions of Peter Cushing and young Carrie Fisher are a little unnerving at first but weirdly became less uncanny-valley nightmares as the film went on. Certainly, from a franchise continuity point of view, Rogue One is seriously impressive, putting even the previous kings of cross-overs, Marvel, to shame.

The result is an entertaining, galaxy-expanding adventure casting the spotlight on some very different areas of a much beloved franchise. It definitely isn’t the best Star Wars film ever made, but Rogue One definitely sits further up that list than I’d anticipated and can hold it’s head high in the company of some of the best.

tl;dr: A spectacular and surprisingly intimate look at the characters that usually lurk in the background combines to form an excellent addition to the growing franchise.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 [rewatch]

I absolutely loved the first film in this (hopefully ongoing) franchise. It has brilliant creature design, excellent animation, a fantastic cast and – most importantly – an intriguing, developed, emotional and fairly original story. What it did not do, however, was clearly leave an opening for a sequel, so I have to admit to approaching HtTYD2 with a fairly sceptical outlook.

My first viewing was at a wonderful independent cinema in New Zealand, which was both a lot of fun and a great memory. What I remember of my reaction, however, was distinctly mixed. I can recall feeling that the plot was a little telegraphed and that various characters felt rehashed or a bit weak, rather than more developed. I definitely enjoyed myself, loved the new dragons and considered the animation and humour on par with the original, but the spark that made the original an instant classic felt lacking.

Firing up the film for a second time was, well, enlightening. For some reason, knowing the rough beats that the plot was going to take made the story a lot more interesting. On the whole, the movie felt somehow more complete. The humour and animation seem almost better than the original and characterisation was hard to fault. Most interactions felt natural and consistent with the characters I enjoyed in the first film and the new cast felt like they belonged.

HtTYD2 is clearly a more mature outing than its predecessor and, perhaps, that threw me a little first time around. However, I’m happy to say I think that initial impression was wrong: this is a solid sequel that builds nicely on the original in just about every way. A friend recently pointed out that, though further films are in development, they are clearly not rushing them just to make bank off the success they’ve received so far. Instead, they’re crafting them, taking the time that is required and it definitely shows. If the creative team continues in this vein, and similarly continues to mature the subject matter, when the set becomes a trilogy we could be in for something truly special. I’m definitely a lot less sceptical than I was two years ago.

tl;dr: Lives up to the original to deliver a brilliant yet more mature look into the relationships between dragons and Vikings. An exceptional kids film and a lot of fun for adults as well.

TV

Planet Earth (Season 1)

Whilst seemingly everyone on the planet has become enraptured by marine iguanas battling snakes, we remain in our self-enforced BBC purgatory. Unable to ignore the hype surrounding season 2 of Planet Earth I managed to track down the full first season on Bluray for the cost of a Gregg’s pasty!

Overall, the original series has held up pretty damn well, exactly as I had expected. With a more modern eye (and TV) it is clear where the filming suddenly slides out of the jaw-dropping HD filmography, especially during intense action sequences, but whether in 1080p or 480p the quality and skill of the film work remains exceptional. Sure, the producers get a bit carried away with the heli-pan shots, often reusing particular sequences in multiple episodes, but those slow pan-outs from several miles away were utterly ground breaking at the time and, honestly, have few rivals even today.

In fact my greatest surprise was seeing how many revolutionary tricks Planet Earth packed in. Whilst the series became famous for the helicopter mounted camerawork, it also pioneered stunning slow motion sequences, underwater shots and use of satellite imagery, much of which remains on par with more recent examples.

Production value and filmography aside, it hardly needs mentioning that the voice narration provided by David Attenborough is just as brilliant as ever. There are some re-used sequences and phrasing here as well and, watching them back-to-back, certain terminology gets a little grating – not everything needs to be the “xest in the world”, David, especially when you contradict yourself between episodes! Still, paired with an exceptional soundtrack and audio-scaping, you can’t really fault very much about Planet Earth. It truly may be the greatest documentary series ever produced.

One quick aside, however, is that the Bluray experience was less than, shall we say, enthralling. I have a love/hate relationship with the medium anyway, but convincing our media PC to play the discs was arduous and still resulted in stuttering or skipping issues, seemingly due to decryption problems rather than disc faults. Plus, for what should have been the deluxe, all-singing-all-dancing version of the franchise, the special edition set actually lacks the small featurettes that originally aired after each episode and for which Planet Earth was, once again, a pioneer. I had hoped they would all be sandwiched onto the extras disc at the end but nope. Instead, two additional documentaries were provided, but ultimately the aired behind-the-scenes features were what I wanted. Maybe they’re on the discs somewhere but, if so, they’re buried deep! Frankly, that just seems a bit stingy.

tl;dr: Visually, audibly stunning and loaded with top quality content; a true masterpiece. Disappointing extras on the special edition Blurays, though.

Daredevil (Season 1)

The fight choreography in Daredevil deserves immense recognition. Let’s be clear here: the entire season is a triumph, from plot to characterisation to soundtrack. But the fight sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in years, probably since the lobby sequence in the Matrix. In particular, the long take in the hallway at the end of episode 2 had me utterly riveted. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a piece of action that so carefully balanced humour, suspense, cinematography and realism in any film or TV show before. That sequence will stay burnt into my memory for many years to come and, for that sequence alone, Daredevil is required watching.

Yet, the fighting is also the shows biggest downfall. I understand that Netflix wanted to present a grittier, more realistic side of the MCU and they’ve definitely succeeded, but every now and then the excessive violence was just that – excessive. The Kingpin would be just as terrifying, arguably more so, if the scene where he exacts his revenge on one half of the Russians was less visceral, even occurring off screen. Yet at the same time, it is refreshing watching a superhero that grows fatigued, with injuries that actually hamper people rather than just extending a fight. So I’ll grant that the reality and gore of Daredevil does succeed in elevating the stakes, even when they do go overboard.

It’s also genuinely refreshing to see a dark, gritty, realistic superhero property where the hero is both clearly super and human. Matt Murdoch is wonderfully cast and portrayed, with a real sense of depth, yet his alter-ego is clearly more than a well trained bloke; they don’t mince around making you guess if he has genuine superpowers, addressing that question within the first few episodes. The end result is a much more tangible show than the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but one that still feels distinctly connected to that universe.

Part of that tangibility, that connected feeling, is definitely the surrounding cast. Every character is perfect, even the ones that are only brief acquaintances. Murdoch feels like a man walking a fine line between hero and monster, whilst accepting an existence that screams double-think so well that it actually makes you question the normally black and white reality of comic book morality. Foggy, Karen and Ben are all solid foils and mirrors, cleverly reflecting or highlighting many of the nuances that make Daredevil such an interesting hero, whilst presenting genuinely enjoyable dialogue and some very well crafted humour along the way.

But a hero is only ever as good as their villain and, once again, Daredevil does not disappoint. Vincent D’Onofrio plays a very interesting Wilson Fisk, arguably one of the best takes on the character in some time. This Kingpin is ambitious, monstrous and chilling yet, somehow, almost sympathetic. Whilst his true plans are never fully laid bare, you begin to believe that, though his methods may be foul, his intent could (just) be pure. Plus, as with Murdoch, Fisk is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast of career criminals. They feel fresh from the pages of a graphic novel, yet equally at home in the real New York; somehow, both wonderfully pastiche whilst remaining nuanced and believable.

Then there is Wesley. The Kingpins right-hand man, an utterly loyal lackey and a character that left me utterly morally confused. James Wesley is clearly intelligent, cunning and ambitious yet he never feels like a Brutus, just waiting in the shadows for his time in the spotlight. No, that he is utterly devoted to Fisk, not just as a businessman but as a friend, is without question. It is this moral slight-of-hand that Daredevil succeeds in so well; both Fisk and Wesley are clearly immoral people yet, as with all the best villains, you can’t help but feel for them, even begin to like them. So when Wesley gets dealt his comeuppance, it doesn’t feel victorious – it hits you like a punch to the gut. The combination of anticipation of Karen’s death and the slow build of incite into Wesley’s mind over the preceding couple of episodes culminated in a moment of incredible television. As with that hallway fight sequence, I believe Wesley’s final scene will stay with me for some time to come. It was simple, unexpected and genuinely shocking without the need for any over the top violence or effects.

So, if you are still in any doubt as to where I stand on Daredevil, let’s put it plain it in one word: brilliance. Utterly enjoyable, cleverly scripted, perfectly paced and an excellent balance of humour, action and moral questioning. I’ve heard great things about the rest of Netflix and Marvel’s team up but I’m not convinced they will ever top these thirteen fantastic episodes. I said it at the start and I’ll say it again, Daredevil is required viewing.

tl;dr: Astounding, riveting, memorable, funny and utterly fantastic. Watch it – now!

Month in Media: November 2016

Yes, yes, yes: I’m behind. I know! Still, look here and see a month completed! At least I think it is. Honestly, I’m surprised myself at how little media I’ve seemingly consumed, but then there are a couple of factors muddying the water. The first is that I am actually playing video games and reading at the moment, but one instance from each genre has dug in. I picked up Pokémon White midway through November and have been playing pretty solidly; I’ll leave a full review to next month (at the earliest) but I will say I’m pleasantly surprised at how much fun it is playing a Pokémon game where I have no idea what each of the creatures are. Every new encounter is a genuine surprise, even when the designs aren’t all that great.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the written word, I’ve just become the immensely proud owner of the entire first ‘season’ of Ctrl+Alt+Del, one of my all time favourite webcomics. Again, a full review will await another month but it has been utterly brilliant re-reading these strips which have impacted my life and social development so heavily. As good as gold!

On top of both of the above, TV is worming its way into daily life once more with on going seasons. Lucifer has just dropped Season 2, The Grand Tour has begun and, lacking a TV license, we’re getting our fill of Attenborough by rewatching the first series of Planet Earth. With all that future content out of the way, then, there has been little to actually comment on this month!

Films

The Magnificent 7

Lets just point out what the Magnificent 7 is not. It is not a blow-for-blow remake of the original; in reality it only borrows the era, small town setting and total number of main characters. It is also not a thoughtful, meaningful, plot-heavy outing.

It is a bit of fun, with a great ensemble cast giving decent-to-noteworthy performances, well choreographed action sequences and just enough plot to keep you captivated and interested. Denzel is, well, himself, albeit himself clearly having a lot of fun and proving thoroughly suited to the Western genre. Chris Pratt is as funny and riveting as ever. Ethan Hawke is as weird and gritty as ever.

Basically, you get what you expect: guns, horses, cowboys and a clear delineation of morality. Sure, the “7” aren’t exactly the most angelic of individuals, but heroes in Westerns never are, whilst the villain of the piece so clearly evil he seems permanently one step away from cackling maniacally.

The elephant in the room is Django Unchained, the masterpiece that arguably reinvigorated the genre and likely lead to this remake being funded. Clearly, Django remains in an entirely different league to Magnificent 7, with far more interesting characters, settings, plotlines, action and dialogue. There are some clear (even if unintended) homages at work here too; indeed, with a black, lynch survivor collecting bounties as your main character this could easily be ret-conned into a sequel. Similarities aside, however, the reality is that Magnificent 7 was clearly never trying to be Django and does successfully manage to tread its own path.

Where Magnificent 7 actually elevates itself is in the diversity of the cast. Sure, it still isn’t amazing, but the core group of heroes contains four nationalities, five races and two genders, which is pretty good. Better yet, the diversity doesn’t feel forced or needlessly highlighted. For the era, the characters remain racist and sexist in their language, morality being reflected in their actions instead. They’re also a well picked group for the setting, playing with stereotypes that oftentimes feel far too relevant today. Each of the 7 is a social reject, whether due to their race, gender or political affiliation. The only one who doesn’t have a clear disadvantage is Pratt’s character, whose presence helps ground the rest and blur their boundaries whilst having the clearest redemption arc of the lot. I genuinely found this aspect of the film both clever and refreshingly simple and believe that the writers deserve much credit for that fact.

tl;dr: Diversity done, if not right, then certainly better than required in an entertaining, action packed retelling elevated by an excellent cast.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I never thought I would be hugely excited about a new series set in the Potterverse, but Fantastical Beasts has continuously impressed with its design, marketing and concept. Luckily the film genuinely stood up to all of those expectations. The beasts are fantastic, the action is impressive and the world building remains as magical as the main series. Honestly, I don’t really have many negative comments at all.

Getting to view a new part of the wizarding world was exciting and the clever use of a (wonderfully portrayed) “No-Mag” as the foil through whose eyes the wonder of the audience could be expressed worked seamlessly. I never really expected anything else, but it was great to see how different and diverse the American witches and wizards were compared to their more familiar British counterparts. The film also managed to create a nice balance between referencing the original series just enough to feel connected without ramming it down our throats (*cough*Hobbit*cough*).

Dan Fogler may have been the stand out performance, but the whole cast works wonderfully. I never doubted Eddie Redmayne, nor Colin Farrell, but both bring truly brilliant performances (Redmayne admittedly more so) to the table, and Ezra Miller and Katherine Waterstone only help round out an impressive cast.

The plot isn’t too imaginative, though it retains its twists and turns neatly and had far more depth to it than the trailers belied. Again, Fantastic Beasts finds itself in debt, really, to the continued expansion of its lore through Pottermore and similar side projects Rowling has worked on since the main series ended.

The one instance which felt like a true nostalgia trip, rather than an exciting exploration of regions unknown, were the beasts themselves. Here, once again, serious credit must go to the attention of detail present throughout the film. Each beast feels real, with truly exceptional CGI throughout, even those whose illustrations appeared too abstract to work. Indeed, this may have been the first instance of a film where the practical creature effects were noticeable in their lack of life in comparison to the CGI offerings (despite remaining exceptional themselves).

In reality, my only disappointment is that the beasts were not centre stage more often, though on the flipside getting the time to study some (such as the stage stealing Niffler) to greater detail was immensely rewarding. There is definitely a rich and expansive world here left to explore! Which is lucky, given four more films are on the horizon… a prospect that now fills me with excitement rather than trepidation!

tl;dr: Fantastic, brilliant beasts and an epic return to a wonderfully detailed, intriguing world.

Month in Media: July 2016

So June was, frankly, ridiculously long… and I’m fairly certain at least one film was lost to the sands of time! Hopefully, over the next few weeks, that will all be changing – including a new writing method I’ve trialled a little bit this month (we’ll see how it goes). Until then, on we roll, with yet another barrage of ill ordered words and thoughts!

Films

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 1) [rewatch]

A perfectly decent yet ultimately forgettable entry into the franchise. It does what it needs to: sets up the various character arcs and story points necessary for the big finale. The mood is distinctly sombre, far more than in any previous part of the franchise, which can get a little dragging at times. Also, despite having split the book into two films, several key details are still skipped out which makes several scenes less impactful overall. The various colour filters are also back from film six in force.

Despite all the above, I enjoyed the film. The moments with both Dobby and Luna’s father are solid instances that highlight the growing stakes and real repercussions that are beginning to occur, even for relatively minor characters. Actually, a shout out to the scene with Mr. Lovegood. There is no reason for this scene to stand out in my memory as much as it does, but it’s wonderfully well put together and very powerfully acted, even if the betrayal is a little telegraphed. In stark contrast are the scenes between Harry and Ron leading up to the latter ultimately leaving (and then suddenly returning). Though I understand it shows the evil of the horcrux, the ultimate payoff is lacklustre. I remember feeling the same way in the book, but because the book was one story it felt less important by the end. By splitting the film in two, this plot line had to carry a lot more and unfortunately does feel a little flat. It’s also clearly lifted directly from LotR

Ultimately, Part 1 is entirely overshadowed by the climactic conclusion in Part 2, but as a setup film it does what it needs to, remains entertaining and helps the franchise take further steps away from its childish roots.

tl;dr: A decent bridge film with some very powerful moments that does suffer from having to focus on the less interesting story arcs of the book.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)

Nope, that isn’t a mistake, this is genuinely a first time viewing for me. I’m not really too sure what happened that meant I never got round to watching the final film in the franchise, but I now realise I’ve been missing out.

The Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the conclusion I have been craving, without ever realising it. The battles are epic and moving, with clever moments of comedy interwoven with grand, sweeping scenes which genuinely feel like the world is teetering on a knife edge. Its not immensely clever stuff, but it is damn impactful and completely riveting. It also provides the payoff to all the dark, brooding, depressing build up of Part 1 (and, to a lesser degree, The Half Blood Prince as well).

Do I feel that the revelation of Snape’s true character could have been a little better handled and impactful? Yes, but Alan Rickman closes out his role on a seriously impressive performance and the scene with Harry and the pensieve was very well done (that CGI effect was on point throughout the films actually). I also felt the moment that Neville uses the Sword of Gryffindor could have been done better. I’ve heard so much about that scene and how much of a fist-pump moment it is that it felt kind of deflating actually watching it. Maybe it’s just suffering from being hyped up but I definitely feel the music and framing could have made it more epic somehow.

Overall though I’ve not felt as connected with the Potter franchise as I have since watching all the films again. In particular, seeing the ending done so well and on such a grand scale has completely reawakened my love of these characters and seriously amped up my anticipation for Magical Beasts later this year.

tl;dr: The epic payoff to the darkness of the last few films, creating a cracking ending to a classic franchise. Magical!

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)

The Dark Knight Returns, irritatingly, blew me away somewhat. Irritating because Part 2 isn’t on Prime yet, which is a real shame because the proposition of the Joker combined with this animation and scripting team is something I am genuinely excited for.

There are issues here – it is by no means a perfect film. Voice acting took me a little while to feel comfortable with, particularly for Wayne and Gordon, although eventually they slotted into place in my head. The Mutants never truly feel that menacing and the complete lack of capability shown by the police feels a little overblown, even for Gotham. The gang’s leader is also a little, well, 90’s in design. Between the horns, red eyes, sharpened teeth and clear cannibalistic traits I was half expecting him to turn out to be Dracula; what with all the rain and grime, Blade actually wouldn’t have felt out of place as a cameo (universe crossing issues aside). As it is, these clearly abnormal traits are never explained or even really mentioned.

Despite these flaws, however, the core conceit of an ageing, retired Batman feeling himself honour bound to take up the mantle once more is a refreshing and intriguing spin on the usual Gotham fare. Pacing is handled nicely, with Bruce realistically stumbling back into his alter ego with plenty of road bumps before a triumphant (and intelligent) return. Batman never truly gets back to his glory days, but instead shifts gear to play to his remaining strengths. Its a subtle but clear message that the stakes are a little different to normal.

Interwoven with this semi-origin story is a clever meta-analysis of the Batman as perceived by the wider internal society, with a running subplot focusing on whether Batman and similar vigilantes effectively attract or create their nemeses. It cannot be argued that this hasn’t been done before (The Dark Knight, anyone?) but the use of TV chat shows and the conclusion of Two-Face’s character arc all weave together nicely to add a little more thoughtfulness to the plot than would ever be required for a superhero animation. Plus, telling this story with an aged Bruce Wayne allows for some very clever dissection of why Batman even exists and whether the use of fear as a mechanism of control actually works in Gotham.

Animation, that is, which is stunningly drawn and very well colour caste. The tone of The Dark Knight Returns is definitely dark, gritty and rough around the edges. The panels are drawn with harsh lines and muted colours, that really emphasise the decay of Gotham and amplify Batman’s nightmarish tactics of fear induced civility. The undercut score and dialogue is similarly roughed up, with plenty of staccato. The result is far more spectacular but creates a wonderful sense of atmosphere.

tl;dr: A gritty, brooding, ageing Batman who doesn’t roll his punches, resulting in an impactful tale with some interesting analysis on whether Bruce has done more harm than good, in the long run.

Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm

Holy Retro Animation, Batman! The Mask of the Phantasm is certainly a blast from the past, with clear connections to the animation styles of the late 80’s and early 90’s Batman TV shows I grew up with. Unfortunately, the plot suffers a little from similar dating, never quite managing to break out of what are now trope filled contours and predictable connecting sequences.

Still, the overall result is an enjoyable stroll down memory lane, to a time when Batman was a little less nuanced and a little more sexist; when the Joker was nothing more than a crazy gangster; and before years of continuity had weighed the franchise down. The titular Phantasm was a fun character, though suffered most from predictability, with abilities that are never really explained. The side cast are largely forgettable, with an exception of Alfred, for whom a step back in time enabled frequent attempts at cheesy 90’s cringe humour. The gags fall a little flat, but they’re endearing in their attempts.

Most interesting was the rapidity at which Gotham turned against their resident hero, resulting in a realistic and almost fatal confrontation between the cops and Batman. Here, the lack of mythology surrounding Wayne enabled some far more interesting storytelling with higher stakes than would be possible in a modern equivalent. Today, armed with a multitude of impossible gadgets and superhuman intelligence, such a contest would feel distinctly one sided.

tl;dr: Enjoyable, archaic superhero fare that unfortunately pales in comparison to more modern outings.

The Song of the Sea

Beautiful, stunning, gorgeous (literally) and amazingly well crafted! The Song of the Sea has a fairly grandiose reputation but I can honestly say it deserves it. The plot is a simple yet poignant weaving of many Celtic folk tales and fae mythology, all centered around a wonderfully captured human family. Almost human, anyway.

The art style is exquisite, mildly reminiscent of the classic game Wind Waker but with buckets more charm and detail in every frame. Motion, in particular, is wonderfully captured, resulting in some stunning seascapes (both above and below the waves) as well as a truly memorable character in Macha, the owl-witch, whose flowing, weighted-balloon of a body grants a wonderful other-worldliness to her character. Combine these highlights with eerily dainty light specks, humorous canine friends, impressively unique faery characters and possibly the cutest seals ever imagined and the result is enchanting from start to finish.

Soundscapes are pitch perfect as well, with the entire film infused with the sound if Irish folk blending with clever, whimsical melodies denoting the faery folk themselves. The combination of animation, stylistic direction and score can only be considered art; The Song of the Sea sits up alongside the best of Ghibli, Aardman and Disney in terms of charm and wonder.

Though certainly a brilliant film for kids, with a story that hits all the right moral, emotional and human beats whilst remaining distinctly fantastical and wondrous, it is definitely not a ‘kids film’. No matter your age, The Song of the Sea will move and amaze you. Simply awesome (literally).

tl;dr: Beautifully drawn, animated, composed, directed and crafted with a whole bucket-load of heart. Watch this film!

Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words!

Having listened to the album of Words, Words, Words! on repeat for the best part of two months when it originally came out, I have to say there was very little extra to the show itself. In some ways, that made it quite a bit of fun, as I already knew most of the lyrics so, particularly for the tongue twisters, could fully appreciate the many levels Burnham weaves into his seemingly simplistic jokes.

On the flipside, however, it meant there was very little to surprise me, so actual laughter was a little lacking. As a result, my attention was inordinately grabbed by the audience interaction; I noticed heckling and laughter hits/misses far more than most stand-up routines, because I was less engaged. To say the audience for this performance was a little odd would be overly polite as the theatre was clearly rammed with serious fans, who don’t lend themselves massively to stand-up comedy. They were clearly more interested in hearing the songs they new or loved (even singing along occasionally) rather than laughing at the new material. I almost felt sorry for Bo towards the end – it’s a pretty weird situation for a comic to find themselves in and you can’t help but feel that, despite launching his career, the cloud of Youtube will likely mar his trajectory for many years to come.

Despite all of this, though, Wordsx3 remains a very solid routine. Burnham’s talent shines through, especially when addressing topics such as religion and several of his comedy songs are incredibly well put together as tracks in their own right.

tl;dr: Not much more than the CD, but well worth a watch if you love musical comedy.

Star Trek: Beyond

I enjoyed both of the previous entries to the modern Star Trek reboot franchise, though definitely felt neither lived up to their potential. In many way, Beyond evokes similar feelings, but I definitely feel it has come the closest of the three.

If 2009’s Star Trek became too entangled in its own timey-wimey space stuff and Into Darkness felt too centred around Earth for a galactic civilisation, Beyond hits a bit of a sweet spot. Sure, ultimately most of the people at risk are humans, but the overall settings feel distinctly alien. Purely from a design point of view, both Yorktown space station and Altamid (the main planet) are stunning, surreal creations that make the universe feel far more alive and diverse than either of the previous films managed. The crew of the Enterprise also benefits, with some distinctly intriguing new species designs.

Overall, Beyond spends far more time emphasising the world in which it is set, the beliefs the Federation is held together by and the motives its various citizens have for upholding them. In focusing on broader themes, the result is much more mature feel to the plot and the unfolding events, which was exceedingly refreshing. Yes, the angst between Spock and Kirk returns, with both yet again questioning their life decisions and (yet again) concluding that they’ve made largely good ones by the close, but third time round the emotions feel somehow more informed, logical and real.

Unfortunately, Beyond does still suffer from being made in Hollywood. Having been presented with a wonderfully designed, diverse galaxy by the film makers I was largely left yearning for similar diversity in plot. Alas, understandably, the stakes must be higher than ever in order to validate another sequel, so once again the apocalypse is nigh! I would love for the modern franchise to spin off into a long-form TV series for a little bit, akin to Sherlock or The Night Manager in episode length and scope, to tell some of the smaller stories which are momentarily glimpsed in the background of the blockbusters. In reality, however, such a show would almost certainly be too expensive and couldn’t utilise the same effects or actors which would make it worthwhile.

Despite this misgiving, a mention must go to the antagonist of Beyond, the somewhat boringly named Krall (not even Kraal? maybe too Klingon I guess…) who managed to become something more than just an alien war chief. The final twist was neat, something I really wasn’t expecting at all, and made Krall’s motivations somewhat more meaningful. The end result was a surprisingly interesting meditation on the nature of war, especially when set against the peaceful mantra of the federation. Idris Elba certainly helped with his portrayal of the ‘alien’ madman, but the script writers also deserve credit for crafting a genuinely interesting character.

Indeed, Beyond perhaps feels the closest in mood to the original TV series due to its meditations on ‘bigger picture’ philosophies. The main arcs of personal fulfilment and whether war is somehow necessary for civilisation to exist, as well as once again putting Star Fleet itself under scrutiny, are all cleverly done without feeling brutally obvious. Perhaps even better are the brief moments of inter-character dialogue that alight, ever so fleetingly, on other relevant topics. Clearest, and perhaps best of these, is the moment when Spock, Bones, Jayla and Scotty are discussing the implications of Spock’s gift to Uhura effectively being a tracking device. The character’s realisation is done with genuine disgust and worry, whilst not feeling at all forced; a master class in progressivist screen writing.

Similarly, Jayla herself is a much more neatly written female lead than most recent genre attempts. At no point did I feel that she was frustratingly weak or required aid from any of the men around, but nor were her capabilities and strengths constantly thrown in my face (*cough* Skyfall *cough*). In other words, the fact she was female never once crossed my mind, yet she was a new character I both enjoyed and routed for. Again, well played to the writers.

tl;dr: A solid third round, building on the strengths of its prequels whilst maintaining a strong identity of the original franchise. Highly enjoyable, but not ground breaking.

TV Shows

Con-Man (Season 1)

The Good:

  • Though I was one of the initial backers when Con-Man was being crowd funded, I remain genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed the final product. It made me laugh out loud on several occasions (which is rare for a sitcom) and there were several moments I felt were truly original (again, rare for sitcoms these days).
  • The cameos! My word, they really pulled these out of the bag, right from the first scenes. Aside from the (practically expected) Firefly cast appearances, having individuals like Sean Astin turn up made the whole concept far more believable – plus everyone involved clearly had a lot of fun! Special mention here to both Wil Wheaton and Felicia Day: the former for a cameo so disguised I totally missed it first time through; the latter for completely stealing the show! The running gag of Felicia always wearing the exact costume as Ray, down to the arm through the wrong sleeve, was brilliantly executed. I definitely hope she returns in Season 2!
  • That, though clearly drawing on real life occurrences and situations, the script felt unique and distinct in its own right. I was worried this would be a “too close to the bone” look at the life of main actor/script writer Alan Tudyk, but the reality was far more nuanced and interesting. I didn’t come away believing Ray = Alan, nor was he just a parody of Alan, but a unique character in his own right. In other words, both the characterisation and scripting was far better than I had anticipated.

The Bad:

  • Cringe humour is not, shall we say, my favourite form of comedy and Con-Man relies on it frequently. Some people will love that, but for me it was a little bit of shame. That said, however, Con-Man largely managed to walk the fine line between humour and despair that this form of joke telling requires. Unlike other modern “classics” that rely on cringe humour, such as The Office (UK) and The Inbetweeners, the gags in Con-Man did just enough to make the cringe worthwhile.
  • Though the majority of episodes flowed nicely into one another, occasionally the short run time led to some forgotten subplots or jarring intercuts in order for the main story to progress. Characters, in particular, felt a little off centre occasionally and would have benefitted from a slight bit more development.
  • Despite appreciating the running joke regarding Nathan Fillion’s character never being in the same place as Ray, I really hope they don’t keep it up in Season 2 as it was beginning to get a little old by the final episode.

The Ugly:

  • That title sequence. I mean, I know it was filmed on a budget, but when that budget can easily accommodate an entire plane set and a recreation of a whole spaceship set/sets that looked very genuine, surely they could have managed better here!

tl;dr: Genuinely funny and far more original than I had hoped for, a fantastic watch for any genre/comedy fans. Hopefully many more seasons to follow.

Graphic Novels

Black Science: God World (Volume 4)

After my rave review of Vanishing Pattern back in April it’s no wonder that I jumped at the opportunity to pick up the next installment as soon as it was available in my local bookstore. Luckily, Black Science continues to impress me with both its depth and pacing, with even more vividly imaginative worlds and a distinct feeling of conclusions on the horizon in this fourth outing.

God World definitely feels like a narrative bridge. After the frantic, break neck pace of the first two volumes, Vanishing Pattern was a wonderful switch up that allowed the characters to really begin to shine through. Picking up several years after the dramatic conclusion, with the central characters scattered, enables us to both reflect on the revelations afforded in Vanishing Pattern whilst carefully switching back up a gear or two by the close of God World. Basically, once again I can only be impressed with the masterful pacing on offer.

An initially confusing (likely deliberately) opening few chapters allow for some much needed further introspection. If Vanishing Pattern allowed Black Science‘s supporting cast to be fleshed out, God World refocuses back on Grant McKay, our core protagonist, diving into his past, his relationships with the others, his demons and his desires. The end result is a necessary reforming of Grant towards a hero who can actually deliver though more than blind luck, someone who may be capable of achieving his lofty goals. The Grant we are left with come the close of volume four feels a lot more exciting and invigorated than he has at any point since the initial accident that set up the whole plot line so far.

As God World, like Grant himself, switches viewpoints to a more reasoned, broader scope we also get our first true conclusion (other than death) in the series. Arguably, in fact, we get several as Grant goes on a mission to collect the scattered dimensionauts and happens upon the remains of those we already know to have fallen to this crazy journey. Most poignant, however, is catching up with the surprise antagonist of the third volume. The resultant revenge by Grant feels viscerally dark and exacting in the extreme, yet I cannot help but also feel like justice has been done.

God World closes, then, on much less of a cliff hanger than previous volumes. Where 1-3 ended by pulling the rug out from beneath your feet and leaving everything back in the balance, the story loaded with unknowns and confusion, volume 4 places Grant and, by extension, the reader in a rare position of power. For the first time in Black Science he has both purpose and the necessary tools to exact his goals. Combine these elements with an increasing realisation of just what exactly is occurring throughout the multiverse, and the stage is set for a very conclusive fifth volume. I cannot wait!

tl;dr: Cleverly refocuses the increasingly sprawling story back onto the central character, allowing some much needed closure alongside a growing sense of purpose. Riveting, exciting stuff.