Month in Media – June 2017 [#28]

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!

Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends [#23]

Well, back from trip number two, which was a little more relaxing (though a lot more tiring… I do not understand how bodies work). As a result, I’ve actually been reading a bunch of stuff, including some fascinating finds in my Pocket archive, which I just want to get off my chest.

First up is a pretty recent post from Brynn Metheney, a fantastic artist whose work I’ve followed for years. The post details a recent contribution to an interesting project, the Endangered Species Book. That’s an impressive list of artists to be working on a single project and it seems like a very worthy cause. Definitely one I’ll be keeping my eye on.

Next, are a combination of quite old posts that have taken me far too long to catch up on. Both are written by Richard Thornton, a friend of mine who is currently living/working out in Japan (I say currently, but he’s been out there for years now). The first is a brilliant look at sake culture, which was utterly alien to me but now has leap-frogged up my bucket list for the land of the rising sun. The second is a rather more personal account of shaving-procrastination (I can seriously relate) and snowboarding (I have zero life experience to understand this utter madness). Like everything Richard writes, they are funny, inciteful and make me equal parts jealous of his life and incredibly grateful for my own. Perhaps Japan should be the aim for 2018…

Finally, the oldest of the lot, is a short story I saved to my Pocket account so long ago I have zero recollection where it is from or how I found it. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare is an utterly fantastic piece of Discworld fan fiction; in fact, it’s so good that I was almost convinced it had been written by Pratchett himself. The script, phrasing and language is very witty and the overarching concept is so incredibly correct to the voice of the series that it is definitely part of my head-canon now. I almost added it to this month’s MiM, but I don’t feel fan-fic is something I need to keep track of in that way. If you’re a fan of the main series, you should definitely read this – it provides some clever closure on several key themes and characters.

That suggestion does come with a slight word of warning, however: it may get to you a little bit. Personally, reading Mister Vimes’d Go Spare made me realise I have been avoiding reading Pratchett since he passed away. It hasn’t been an intentional, conscious choice but it is clearly one I’ve stuck to. Reading a story that even mentions, and briefly touches on, several of these characters I love and hold so dearly was, at times, surprisingly hard. Not only that, but the core idea at work was, and remains, incredibly powerful. Vimes has always been one of my favourite characters and, I think, the one that has been most influential on my own personality and life. Part of that reason is the character’s understanding of and relationship with the concept of justice. It’s a very nuanced one, yet contains absolutes which have always appealed to me. Vimes and the Watch storylines shaped my own concepts of morality a great deal.

As a result, Mister Vimes’d Go Spare cut close to the bone. The central concept is that, in the wake of Vimes’ death, his ideals and belief in justice take on a life of their own. That shouldn’t be confused with ‘good’ or ‘right’; Vimes never lived in a ‘good’ world, never had much time for something just because it was ‘right’. But there are standards. Some things have to be done, and they have to be done in a certain way. That’s justice. Not making sure the good guys win and the bad guys lose, but making sure that the result is fair and that everything is equal. It’s a very powerful idea. Talking about why I enjoyed the short so much to my partner, even writing this now, and truly contemplating that idea gets to me. It gets to me because I believe it; because, to me at least, it is true. It also gets to me because it is one of those wonderful Pratchett ideologies that feels important and correct; something that is both worth remembering and striving to obtain in our world. And that gets to me because we won’t be getting any more of those. So be warned: it might get to you, too.

Month in Media: January 2017 [#5]

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.