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: 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.

Month in Media: April 2016

Hopefully the first of many. So what have I consumed this month? Well, a whole lot of graphic novels, largely due to a birthday occurring. In case people need reminding, all reviews may contain spoilers, so: Spoiler Warning!

Graphic Novels

The Man Who Laughs (Batman)

I picked up The Man Who Laughs off the back of several recommendations that basically implied that the contained storyline “got” the relationship between the Joker and Batman better than any other run, including The Killing Joke. Unfortunately, I’m not convinced it quite lives up to the hype. It’s a great riff on how the Joker operates and a very clever “scheme” that definitely encapsulates the iconic villains methodology perfectly; you’re kept guessing throughout, with the standard “chaos as a smokescreen” the Joker excels at. What it isn’t, however, is a particularly complex analysis of the relationship between the two characters. Don’t get me wrong, as an origin story it definitely hits the mark, but I’d say The Man Who Laughs is more of a primer/introduction to the Joker than the perfect example of Clown v Bat. If anything, I’d say the analysis of Jim Gordon was more on point than either of the “main” characters.

Artistically, however, the graphic novel is spot on. The effects of the joker venom are wonderfully unnerving and force the eye to linger, enhanced by some great colouring that often amplifies the sense of paranoia and fear. Indeed, it is this sense of fear, of mounting tension and increasing paranoia, that The Man Who Laughs truly excels at and I imagine is why it is so upheld amongst fans of the Joker. I definitely enjoyed the novel and can thoroughly recommend it to anyone intrigued by the Batman universe, or who wants a slightly more coherent, though less emotionally charged, Joker heist than the Heath Ledger incarnation.

Special mention, however, must go to “Made of Wood“, an unexpected second part to the story. I have no idea why the two have been paired together for the trade paperback print, as apart from both occurring during the Zero Hour continuity they aren’t at all interconnected. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed the second story, which offered a nice analysis of Batman’s feelings towards other caped heroes (a little similar to that found in HUSH, as mentioned below) and his place amongst them, as well as providing insight into the early Green Lantern’s life. It was a fun romp, well done with some nice twists along the way; altogether an interesting and competent story arc.

Black Science: Vanishing Pattern (vol. 3)

To say I stumbled onto the Black Science series would be too kind. I bought the initial volume because a staff member at my local Waterstones noticed that I had been idly flicking through graphic novels for almost ten minutes and enquired if I needed some help. I happened to be holding Black Science at the time, had just noticed the price sticker wasn’t present and, more out of societal awkwardness than anything else, asked if they could find out the price. I had no intention of actually buying the book, but when they returned and said it was actually on offer and currently less than £4 I thought “hey, why not”? The fact that, two volumes later, I’m considering putting myself down for pre-order of the entire series until the run (which is very much still on going) is complete speaks to how much I am thankful for that odd moment of consumer obligation. Black Science has become the only series I’ve picked up to date that is constantly just whirring away somewhere in my subconscious, cropping up from time to time as random hypothesise as to how the story will play out. The worlds it has created, the central narrative and the characters themselves have all completely captured my attention and imagination. In other words, I’m quite a big fan.

All that said, Vanishing Point is yet another solid step forward for the series. It helps explain a little bit more of the mystery of what’s actually going on, rounds off a couple of key plot threads (particularly the “rough’n’ready”, time hardened versions of Grant and Sara) and sets up the next chapter wonderfully. I mean seriously, can our Grant ever catch a break? And what the actual fuck just happened! Crucially, though it jammed a wrench in the narrative machinery and allowed the characters to just stop for a few pages and actually analyse everything that’s happened. Quite often, I’d probably be annoyed, feeling the pace had been thrown out to shoe-horn in exposition and help the writers out of a tricky spot, but that couldn’t be further from the truth here. If anything, a little space to breath was exactly what Black Science required after two completely frenetic volumes. It was brilliant to see the interrelationships of the crew actually develop and come to some much needed crunch points. I’ve always loved the main characters and how they feel as a group, but they definitely needed a little development time and that’s exactly what Vanishing Pattern has allowed.

Scott and Grant needed that heart to heart; the Shaman needed to take a stand; the readers needed the revelations surrounding Rebecca and why she’s really there. It aired out the original motto of “Every world better than we found it” and gave it actual, substantive meaning (although, again, that ending…) which in turn pivoted the story from one about survival to one about morality. In short, the entire plot has evolved into something more nuanced, the characters have developed in some very intriguing new ways and the stakes have never seemed higher. So yeah, definitely still a very big fan of this series. I cannot wait for volume 4.

HUSH (Batman)

Quite likely the best Batman novel I’ve read to date. HUSH was fantastic, start to finish, weaving a new antagonist into the Batman universe so smoothly it’s incredible to think the titular villain hasn’t been around since the early days, alongside the Joker and the rest of the familiar foils. In doing so, the creative team behind the novel also provide a wonderful overview of the “Bat family”, from Huntress through to Oracle, even touching on the relationship Bruce has with other superheroes (one Boy Scout in particular) within the DC Universe. The result should be an incredibly broad, confusing mess but actually comes together perfectly; you definitely need a little bit of a primer going in as to who people are and rough relationships to the titular hero, but if you have even the most basic level of knowledge of the pre-New 52 universe then HUSH is an extremely accessible entry point into the deeper ideals and plot threads that were ongoing at the time.

More than simply being a meta-analysis though, HUSH is the turning point in several of the characters relationships. It plays off past failures wonderfully, finally putting to bed certain plot threads that may have been a little “up in the air” from previous big events, all without feeling the least bit like fan service. Similarly successful is the whole relationship subplot with Catwoman, which is spot on. A love interest that has been a previous enemy could have overloaded the entire story (too many cooks and all that) but instead becomes central to the plot, without ever feeling forced for either character; particularly masterful is its conclusion, neatly leaving questions open for the next creative team to play with, without leaving readers jilted. The deftness with which the team handle all these myriad characters is truly remarkable, in fact, with each one feeling unique and the plot never truly feeling rushed. Huntress does feel like there may be something else going on off-page, potentially in another comic run, but otherwise the story is paced wonderfully, which is a real rarity amongst graphic novels I find (indeed, a lot of Marvel’s work could have learnt a lot from HUSH in how pacing should go!).

Plus, it would be heinous of me not to point out that the artwork is stunning throughout, the scripting is practically flawless and the colouring, quite simply, blew me away. HUSH has to be one of the best coloured graphic novels I’ve ever come across, with some incredibly clever use of colour washing panels and using digital techniques to really bring out highlights and darken shadows without looking over-contrasted. Just superb.

The Killing Joke (Batman)

Yup, I read the classic Batman paperbacks in the most hipster order possible. I don’t regret it. So I guess the real question is: were the Amazon reviewers correct? Is The Man Who Laughs a better encapsulation of the Joker/Batman dynamic? Well, no, I don’t think so. The Killing Joke (despite having been thoroughly spoiled online for me multiple times over) definitely lived up to the hype. It is a brutal, ceaseless, gut-wrenching analysis of both characters and the definitive outline of the Joker, both as a person and as a villain, in a way that The Man Who Laughs is not. I can understand the comparisons and, perhaps, as an origin story The Man Who Laughs is more complete and more compelling as a result, but personally that feels slightly wrong. The Joker should be an enigma, with the artist behind The Killing Joke even stating that the “origin” portrayed in its’ pages perhaps should be interpreted simply as one of the possible stories the Joker’s fractured mind has coalesced around, without any weighting of truth or fact about it. Personally I feel that may be a step too far, but the ambiguity to the mythology is far more nuanced than the heavily-hinted but ultimately not confirmed origin portrayed in The Man Who Laughs.

Comparisons aside, as both are fantastic stories worthy of anyone’s attention, The Killing Joke is genuinely stunning. I was expecting that to be the case (frankly you’d be ignorant not to, given the level of critical and fan acclaim) but I was still surprised by how much the craftsmanship exceeded my expectations. The script, in particular, was stunning; Alan Moore is regarded as a master of dialogue but I think this is his finest work (that I’ve had the pleasure to read, in any case). Not a single word was out of place and both the opening line and final interplay were exacted with pin point precision that left me stunned and forced me to reread them both several times over. The phrases, puns and linguistic choices throughout were (almost) flawless. My one niggle would be the initial interaction between Batman and the fake Joker, which felt a little out of character, although I will admit that the Batman I know and love must certainly have evolved since the novel was written. Indeed, though this is a Batman story in name, Batman himself is very much a bit player. Truly, this is a story about the Joker, told by the Joker and for the Joker. That it also manages to give an insightful and poignant outline of the core relationship between the two characters only goes to further show its genius.

Personally, the artwork felt a little dated (as I would expect, given the publication date) but its tonal quality cannot be undermined. The Joker’s malevolent gang of carnival stereotypes are truly unsettling in their portrayal and the entire fun house sequence is breath-takingly executed. As I read the modern re-published edition, I can only comment on the digital colouring that was redone for that run, but I would say that the book looked fantastic. The use of colour in the flashback sequences is particularly notable, but the whole story was beautifully done. Perhaps a little garish here and there, particularly for Barbara’s initial scenes, but again a nitpick rather than a true criticism.

Finally, on the note of Barbara Gordon, I feel it wrong not to at least mention that scene. I’ve heard plenty of arguments about it, but ultimately felt it was played very well. The whole story was dark, right from the start, but the shooting of a major character in such cold blood (and so early on) made that tone concrete and gave the entire plot an anchor point. Insinuations that rape was too dark, I feel, are a little overplayed. Each person will read that scene differently and I haven’t researched whether the creators themselves have gone on record as to what happened “off page”, but to me it didn’t read as rape. Declothing her, showing her completely vulnerable and dying, just helped emphasise the Joker’s psychological tactics; jumping to the conclusion of rape occurring is out of character for the villain and also didn’t feel inherent to the script. But that’s just my two cents.

As for the other scene iconic for its ambiguity, the ending shot, I have to say it didn’t quite hit the target for me. The joke was on point, but what happens next, personally, just felt like a writer leaving it open ended because there was no way to end it. Did it work? Yes. I have no qualms with leaving the story without a definitive conclusion, indeed I think it fits nicely, but do I think Batman, there and then, strangled the Joker? No. In fact, for my own personal head canon, I see everything after the close-up of Batman’s face and “heh” dialogue as taking place in Batman’s head; the action he wants to take, feels he should take, but can’t, hence his own maniacal laughing. Perhaps it’s even the Joker’s own desire, the ending he wants, given so much of the story seems to be from his point of view rather than the readers or Batman’s. Ultimately, though, who knows? And isn’t that the whole point?

Movies

We’re The Millers

I really only decided to watch We’re The Millers to kill time; Prime has been suggesting it for a while and I remember it being in cinema without any obvious negative, so heck, why not, right? Well, as it turns out, the suggestion was spot on.

I really enjoyed We’re The Millers, which consistently exceeded expectations. The story isn’t ground breaking, but it was much tighter than I would have presumed and actually a lot more heartfelt. The initial setup, both of the plot and the core characters, is definitely a little “by the numbers”, but I was really surprised that the stereo types really ended there; definitely side characters remain nothing more than comedic over exaggerations, but the core “family” fleshes out very nicely and doesn’t just stick to tired tropes. The stripper has had bad luck in love and clearly regrets some life choices, but actually spends the entire film showing how together she really is, becoming the emotional and moral rock. The drug dealer isn’t just some low life layabout with no desire to engage with life, but a clearly intelligent individual who just became a little trapped and is still unsure of where the next step is. Basically, everyone was far less two dimensional than expected.

Then there’s the supporting cast. Nick Offerman is fantastic, making a number of “could have been awkward” scenes instead very amusing, often via his own brand of understatement (I’m looking at you, “swingers in a tent” scene) and rounded it all off with possibly the funniest action sequence I’ve seen in a long while: big gulps have never been as deadly! Plus, Ed Helms is great. His crime lord buffoon could have been hammed up to high heaven, a la Mugatu in Zoolander, but instead he tread a fine line between caricature and reality that made his character far more enjoyable.

All in all, I have to say, I was really pleasantly surprised. Not sure what they’re possibly going to do in the proposed sequel and definitely don’t think it needs to happen, but as a standalone couple of hours of fun I would recommend We’re The Millers.