Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side [#51]

It is Christmas Eve and the penultimate week of the New 52 challenge! There’s a nice symmetry to that, which, of course, is why I picked today to write a post… and nothing to do with it being the run-up to Christmas as well as the approach to a fairly major shift in life direction (more on that at a later date, I’m sure), leading to a distinct lack of down time.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’ll likely cover the whole 52 project next week (and sort out the numbering), but right now I want to discuss a recent holiday tradition: the annual return to a galaxy far, far away. Keeping to their promise of one a year until people stop watching them, Disney have just released the latest episode of Star Wars, and boy has it been an interesting response. Oh, and just as a heads up there may be spoilers ahead!

I want to state straight away that yes, I’ve seen The Last Jedi, and no, this isn’t going to be my review. I’ll leave that for the December MiM as is the norm, but a quick summary would be that I thought it was enjoyable but a little odd. I think at it’s core there is a good film, backed by some great performances, and even the slightly odder thematic choices have the possibility to pay off in the next episode. I didn’t leave the cinema leaping for joy but I definitely didn’t leave feeling like my childhood had been trampled all over*. Nor did I feel the strong urge to petition for the film’s complete erasure from history.

To say, then, that The Last Jedi has been divisive is a bit of an understatement. It’s fairly rare for a film with a 92% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a critics metascore of 86 on IMDB to receive this kind of backlash. That disconnect, where critics are lavishing praise but viewers are voicing scorn, is generally a bit weird but especially when the film is a main-stream blockbuster, not some hyper arthouse concept. I’d honestly expect people to be doing a reverse BvS and claiming that Disney are just buying good reviews, but can’t find any such claims.

To be fair, the user score on IMDB seems to have settled somewhere around the 7.7 mark, but even that doesn’t tell the whole story. Take a look at the breakdown of those user scores (see graph below) and you’ll notice more oddities in the data. Most people are rating the film at 8 stars or higher; combined with a solid grouping of 7 star reviews and 75% of people think this is a 7+ star film. If you look at its direct predecessor, The Force Awakens, you see a similar trend, with the majority rating 8 or higher and a strong minority favouring 7 stars. In fact, TFA shows a stronger tail-off towards 10 star reviews, which (again, weirdly) are more common than 9 star reviews for TLJ. But despite the similar trends, TFA sits with an average score of 8.1, still lower than its 93% on Rotten Tomatoes but sitting spot on the 81 metacritic score and more inline with general industry trends. So why is TLJ so low? That would be the 6% of people giving this film a 1 star rating, a huge and very uncommon spike. The other low reviews all tail off in a normal trend line, then you hit 1 star and it jumps right back up.

It’s important to note here as well that the initial reaction was much, much more negative. Early aggregate scores placed TLJ at a meagre 5.6 from user reviews, which is even more fascinating. That implies that those who rushed out to see the film, people you can expect are big fans of the franchise, were the least impressed with what they saw.

Graph of user ratings from IMDB for The Last Jedi showing that the vast majority of people rated it 8 or higher but a very large minority is pulling that score down with disproportionate 1 star scores.

Which is a long winded way of saying: this film isn’t just a film some people aren’t getting – it’s a film which some people hate. You only get that kind of anomalous trend when emotions are involved and it’s fairly clear from reading any of the actual user reviews that these are running high. It’s something I find fascinating, as it suggests the kind of emotional response and cognitive shut down normally associated with tribal defensiveness. Its the kind of reaction you get in the US when gun control or abortion is brought up; in the UK when you mention Brexit or class. It’s a hardwired defense of an idea that you see as integral to your in-group, your tribe. It’s not normally something you see on this scale with popular culture.

Sure, there are plenty of instances of fandom infighting and tribalism. Heck, Star Wars vs Star Trek has been raging for nearly half a century and don’t even begin to prod the circle-jerk that is PC vs console, but whilst these ideas evoke strongly worded arguments and never-ending debate they rarely result in the kind of knee-jerk anger and frustration The Last Jedi has kicked up. And yes, some of that is likely misplaced political idealism reacting to a film which glorifies female and ethnic minority characters whilst demonising classic white male figures, but I struggle to believe that’s even close to the majority of the story. As the author of that now infamous Change.org petition himself has stated, most are just fans of Star Wars that feel that The Last Jedi has hurt the franchise.

The biggest arguments and most grief seem to centre on the aspect of The Last Jedi that I, and seemingly a large, silent majority of people, particularly liked. TLJ is not a standard Star Wars film. Yes, there are plenty of call-backs to the original trilogy, fan service is still here and the major themes are all still caught up with concepts like the Force and rebels and evil empires, but it also goes out of its way to flip as many of those tropes as it can. There are times this does feel forced, but ultimately it works more than it fails and creates a film which actually forces the audience to question themselves. It is flawed, but it definitely isn’t mindless. I mean this is a Star Wars film which actually tries to argue that bravado and pure heroics are sometimes the worst course of action possible. That’s a bold move for a franchise built on death-defying acts of heroism and concepts of fate, destiny and prophecy.

What we’re left with is a film that delivers on the promise not to repeat the main criticism of The Force Awakens and be just another carbon-copy of stories already told. In doing so, it takes the franchise far outside of its well worn comfort zone and casts it, quite literally at times, out into unknown, unmapped territory (do you see what I did there?). It massively expands or completely obliterates canon and fan theories, elements that the Star Wars universe is particularly heavily associated with, and actually dares to develop several of the main characters from the original trilogy, often in ways that casts past actions in new lights. Most importantly, it ensures that the Star Wars story is about more than just the Skywalker lineage. I can understand why that would piss a whole lot of people off, but frankly it also needed to happen. Personally, what I’m most fascinated by is what the legacy of the film becomes next. Will people grow to love it over time? Will it age poorly, as with the prequels? Will it force Disney to do an about turn and mix up episode IX to be more fan friendly or will they double down on their new, now truly expanded universe? I’m honestly not sure, but I’m excited to see where Star Wars will now boldly go**.

*I’m using that article here in a slightly misleading way. Despite the title, the author does an extremely fair job of both outlining why TLJ was painful for him to watch on a personal level and objectively analysing that feeling. His conclusions are pretty solid and well reasoned, and mostly fall on the positive side regarding the film. I could have linked to any one of a number of genuinely hate filled rants complaining about the loss of precious memories, but honestly most are incoherent and I feel the linked article is a genuinely worthwhile read on the subject. Just wanted that to be clear.

** Couldn’t help myself.

Month in Media – November 2017 [#48]

Sigh I feel like I should just give up on the whole “I’ve achieved a MiM in a timely factor, maybe I can keep this up!” thing. It seems like every time I say that it guarantees I skip the next month. Still, considering I haven’t even finished October 2016 perhaps there is some hope for last month to surface at some point. For now, November will suffice, with a general step back away from media in general making it a lot easier to write up. With that said, as ever be aware of spoilers and on with the reviews.

On-Going Media

TV – Blue Planet II – Beautiful and fascinating but somehow hasn’t quite grabbed my attention yet. Will see how it develops.
TV – The Punisher – The Netflix arm of the MCU returns with an entertaining rip-off of Person of Interest (seriously, the cast even look the same).
Video Games – League of Legends – No, I won’t be stating this every month, but just thought it worth recording that League’s teeth have sunk in deep. I actually went ranked (Bronze III….woo?) and watched most of Worlds… so yes, well into the void.

Film

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold [Documentary]

Honestly, I had never heard of Joan Didion before watching this exceptionally personal and beautifully shot documentary. Now? Well, I have certainly heard of her, but certainly know more about her life from an emotional perspective than her works. The Centre Will Not Hold is much more a biography than an analysis, which makes a lot of sense considering her family were directly involved in the filming and direction of the documentary. The result is a surprisingly balanced and deeply personal introspective which is riveting to watch. Didion led a fascinating life even without considering her contributions to literature and journalism; the telling of her tale feels rightly deserved and rewarding to watch as a result.

The documentary also comes across as very fair, not eschewing the slightly less positive or beneficial elements of Didion’s character. She comes across as a caring but deeply practical and straight-talking person, which, at times, comes across as lacking empathy. By the end of the documentary any such accusations are firmly put in their place, but it remains incredibly refreshing to hear her directness. Most firmly implanted in my memory is the moment she, as a journalist, came across a young child taking heavy drugs, clearly addicted and in a hugely damaging situation. As a woman with a young child herself, and even just as a human, it would be forgivable and understanding had her reaction been to drop pad and pen and whisk the child out of such an abusive environment. Instead, her self-professed reaction was “What a story”; she saw life through the lens of her work and through, arguably, a clear perception of reality. It’s an uncomfortable, but also very human, reaction which makes her so much stronger for admitting it than glossing over or omitting it would have done. This boldness in the presentation of someone who is rightfully seen as a national treasure is refreshing and excellently executed. In no small sense it reminds me of Scott Card’s concept of “speaking for the dead”, an unbiased and inclusive summation of character that does not shy away from the darker elements of human experience and nature purely for the sake of presenting an elevated memory of an individual.

In the end, my one criticism of The Centre Will Not Hold is that the spotlight is cast away from her work a little too much. As someone approaching the documentary unaware, entirely, of Didion and her work I left with a good idea of who she is as a person but still lacking understanding of her contribution to culture on a broader level. I couldn’t quote a single line she’s penned, tell you the names of her works or discuss her famous articles. In all honesty, coming to write this review nearly a month after watching the documentary, I remember her quite visibly in my memory but had to double check with Google that she was, first and foremost, a writer and wasn’t more famous for other reasons. If you’re a fan already this will probably elevate the documentary but for the completely uninitiated it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge and is possibly the poorer for it.

Still, it is a mild criticism that is also intricately linked with many of the same reasons I feel the documentary, on the whole, is a triumph, so should be viewed as such. Overall, whether you are a fan of Didion already or not the documentary is an excellent watch and a brilliant example of the genre’s best qualities. It is observant, grounded and entertaining all at once and I cannot recommend it enough on those merits. If you’re interested in modern American culture, literature, the evolution of journalism, Didion herself or even just documentary production, The Centre Will Not Hold is a must watch.

tl:dr; A brilliant and deeply personal introspection of an incredible individual. A truly nuanced and exacting character analysis and a documentary style which I hope to see emulated much more in the future.

Mulan [rewatch]

Mulan is one of those classic Disney films which, I hope, will remain timeless. There are elements which appear a little dated and some of the dialogue definitely comes across as a little insensitive by modern standards, but we’re talking minor niggles rather than the blatant racism or white-washing that other films struggle with from the same era. That minor complaint aside, the animation, plot, voice work and overall design are just as brilliant now as when they were released and the film remains incredibly entertaining to watch, with classic songs throughout. One to sit proudly alongside more modern examples, like Moana and Inside Out, as a child’s film with a strong morality and beneficial message. Will definitely be a firm favourite for years to come.

tl;dr: Still a brilliant story with a moral underpinning that remains incredibly relevant. A children’s classic that is well enough made to be enjoyable for anyone.

Mulan 2

The straight-to-DVD sequel which is exactly what you would expect: nothing more than a meaningless, paint-by-the-numbers cash grab. To be honest, most of Disney’s spin-off work is exactly this, so I’m not surprised, but the sheer level of pointlessness to this movie left a slightly bitter taste. I can deal with sub-par plots, pointless cameos and even the lack of the original voice actors (though one of the few thing Mulan 2 did right was ensure that Ming Na-Wen returned for the titular role) but there’s much worse on offer here.

For starters, we get the strong vibe from the first film that Mushu is not particularly liked by the Ancestors, but the reason given is that he failed as a previous Guardian in his role. His actions throughout Mulan prove to be his reparation and by the end of the film he is back on his ancient pedestal, where it seems to be the case that he would remain inert until next called upon. Certainly, based on his general state when summoned for the first time in Mulan it would appear that he had been a statue for many years. On top of this, whilst a little cowardly, Mushu remains clearly honourable and never shows any hint of malice, particularly towards Mulan and her family. He is a likeable character with some emotional depth, which is part of his charm; he’s a lovable under-dog. All of this, however, is retconned for the sequel. Here, the Ancestors have a clear hatred for Mushu, probably because, as a Guardian, he is a complete dick. He’s self-serving, arrogant to an extreme, incredibly demanding and completely lacking in empathy. His scheming directly enables much of the storyline and therefore casts him as the antagonist, albeit one who does an about-face the moment the plot no longer calls for him to have these character traits. It makes him into a distinctly unlikeable character, makes the Ancestors seem petty and unkind and generally makes the spirit world seem quite manipulative. That’s problematic from a continuity point of view but it’s also pretty culturally insensitive.

Mushu’s character assassination isn’t the only big step backwards for Mulan 2 though, which seems to go out of its way to also trample on a large amount of the message from the first film. Whilst the core message of the sequel is that “love conquers all” (and also that arranged marriages are bad), it goes about it in a very ham-fisted way and leaves you feeling that Mulan herself is less the impassioned, head-strong female idol and more a victim of Hollywood’s notions of “romance”. Her relationship with Shang is pretty troublesome and it almost validates Mushu’s reaction that perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married (if his reasoning wasn’t so damned evil). They barely agree on anything, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company and, frankly, Shang comes across as a complete misogynist. Given how much the first film focused on female empowerment, seeing the sequel instead focus on why men should be manly and women should accept and value that felt backwards.

Overall, then, the film is a shambles. When it isn’t actively erasing the messages and characters of the original classic, it’s scraping by on a poorly written plot full of deus ex machina and pointless side-quests, badly attempted homages at fan favourite moments from the first film or odd attempts at humour (there’s a lot about how women find shoes enrapturing). Overall, it’s not even worth it for kids to watch as it will only serve to annoy or undercut the original. Just rewatch Mulan instead.

tl;dr: Terrible, character blind and very poorly conceived.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s that time of year again: the winter film release season, bringing with it the next big hitters from both Marvel and DC. Marvel is arriving first with the third (and final?) film in the Thor franchise. Personally, Thor is one of those characters who I find brilliant in ensemble but haven’t really latched onto any of his solo outings. The first film was decently entertaining but didn’t leave a huge impression and then the second was easily the worst Marvel misstep since the creation of the MCU. That said, I get excited for each film because I love the mash-up of Norse mythology and science fiction and see a huge amount of potential for films there. The question, then, is: does Ragnarok finally find that sweet spot?

Well, yes and no. Of the three films Ragnarok is a clear leader, improving on everything the first film did well whilst increasing the stakes and generally feeling a lot more comfortable within itself. Chris Hemsworth has truly become Thor, much like other big Marvel heroes such as Iron Man and Cap, allowing his performance to shine through. Standing head-to-head is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, proving yet again that he deserves the fan fervour he garners. Luckily, as opposed to The Dark World, the new characters introduced (and returning characters) all fit the world(s) they inhabit and aren’t irritating. There were moments I felt the inhabitants of Sakaar were sliding dangerously close to the farce of film two, but luckily they always pull back at the brink and make the punchlines land.

The tone of Ragnarok helps massively in this respect, ensuring that any flatter moments are brushed out of your mind quickly by a break neck pace and styling itself in a much less serious and more colourful manner. The influence of certain Guardians in this change of pace is clear and the right decision to have made. There’s also the absence (now permanent) of Jane Foster, whose presence was tolerable in Thor 2 but largely forced the plot to find reasons (not particularly good ones) for her to even be involved. She became less of a character and more of a crutch for the stakes, a classic damsel-in-distress plot point. Without that, Thor is very literally unleashed, allowing him to be a lot more arrogant and effective in battle. Combined with enemies that are a realistic challenge for a demigod, we finally get to see Thor demonstrate his much lauded fighting abilities and the result is awesome.

Which is another area of Guardians influence. Seeing Mjolnir explode through demons and zombies is just as spectacular as watching Yondu’s whistle carve up bad guys, except it feels so much heavier and fittingly forceful. They’re great scenes (whilst they last) and involve some brilliant camera work and choreography. Later, with Mjolnir gone and replaced by the Odin force, Thor’s lightning warfare is stunning and wonderfully visceral. In other words, the action scenes in Ragnarok are great, and that’s before even discussing the much-anticipated gladiatorial fight with the Hulk!

Speaking of which, one area the film is a little, well, hard to process, is the “adaptation” of the Planet Hulk storyline. Personally, this is an aspect of Ragnarok that will improve on rewatch, now I know how it fits in the greater story arc and which parts have been left. As a huge fan of the original comic arc I was a little disappointed, but if you see the Thor story as an homage rather than adaptation it helps a lot. Plus, ultimately, I quite like how it weaves into the greater story of Hela and Ragnarok. It may trample all over the Sakaar I love (and especially the associated characters) but the world it creates still feels interesting, vibrant and alive, plus it makes the ending both a lot more unexpected and interesting. Had the Asgardians just escaped via the bifrost then the destruction of Asgard would have been less impactful and their options far more restricted. Having a literal ark of Asgard floating through space gives future stories a lot more scope to work with (even if the next step seems to be fairly concrete at this point, given what we know of Infinity War and the post-credits scene).

That said, I did struggle with how much they had changed Korg’s identity and can’t help but feel that if they had left him out of the trailer my hopes for the Planet Hulk inclusion would haven’t been quite as high. That element did muddy the water significantly, making me a little less engaged with a lot of what was happening on Sakaar, a little more annoyed at the way the Hulk was behaving and a little less accepting of Valkyrie as a character. That last one is the least fair, as she is a brilliant character done absolute justice, but I had hoped she might have been Caiera Oldstrong, Hulk’s queen, and the trailer shot of her riding a Pegasus was her bringing the Valkyries to battle. As it is, both Caiera and the Valkyries were missing, which was a double-whammy of disappointment.

Also, the plot isn’t exactly the most cohesive. There are plenty of ideas here which could have been much more fleshed out and I can’t help but feel that they just tried to cram too much into the plot. You could easily have removed the Sakaar part entirely and just had Thor pick up Hulk to help him out; plus that would explain how a Terran quin-jet somehow made it to Sakaar? I realise repulsor technology is a little hand-wavey in terms of fuel efficiency, but I do think that a short-flight, terrestrial based transport craft shouldn’t be that efficient at interstellar flight…

The result is that quite a bit of the plot is just left to progress by happen chance. Some of it feels acceptable, like the cameo by Dr Strange to cut out an “Odin hunt” sequence, whilst at other times a little callous, such as when Thor just leaves Loki incapacitated and with a death sentence over his head. That would fly if Thor seemed at all upset with Loki, which would be understandable considering that he is the one responsible for Odin’s death, thereby the destruction of Asgard, Thor’s predicament on Sakaar and the release of Hela, but he just never seems that bothered at all. Or that he shows no worry over how Loki was going to escape from Odin’s Vault after releasing the world-eating demon Sutur. Then there are the pieces which were good but could have been great, like Sakaar or even Scourge, who never really makes it into the character equivalent of the third dimension despite a solid performance from Karl Urban.

Having said all of that, on balance, the film was very enjoyable and a huge amount of fun. By the end I had warmed to the new characterisations of Mieek and Korg, thoroughly fallen for the gorgeous design and palate of Sakaar and the Master, and become completely enthralled by Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela (which, just to be clear, was on par with either Thor or Loki). I found the mythology intriguing and well explained, whilst retaining a semblance of mystery, the characterisation solid and the design stunning. The action is brilliant (as mentioned) but so is the dialogue, with a sharp wit which should become grating but actually never gets there. The one major flaw is that the film never really has that moment of emotional connection. There’s plenty of laughs and the stakes do feel high, but at the same time you never get a gut punching moment. There’s no feel-good emotional overload, like at the end of the first Guardians film, or crushingly sad instance, such as the second Guardians film. Ragnarok just continues focusing on the humour and the action, right to the very last moment. That lack of depth means I won’t be classing it amongst the finest in the MCU but it sits just outside of that band by a very narrow margin and leaves me extremely excited for Infinity War and some more Norse god mayhem!

tl;dr: An extremely fun, vibrant and action packed ride that lacks emotional depth. Easily the best Thor film but not quite worthy of inclusion in the MCU’s greatest hits.

TV

Archer [Season 6]

How did I forget this absolute gem? Archer is one of those shows which just shouldn’t be as good as it is. The principle ought to lend itself to a lacklustre, episode churning filler program: animated spy parody with just enough humour to hook the lowest common denominator. The Big Bang Theory of the action genre, if you will. For some reason, though, the team decided to go full tilt on the parody, crank up the adult humour to the point of obscenity (though never really going full gross-out, which I thoroughly applaud) and embrace geek culture harder than a Joss Whedon online-only franchise. It was a bold move but has resulted in a very deserved cult status and extremely loyal fan base.

But then they tried to switch things up completely in season five with Archer: Vice. It was a fascinating switch, again very antithetical for a now profitable American comedy, turning the premise of the show on its head and really forging forward with a whole new outlook. Fans opinions were, shall we say, mixed. At the start there was uproar, though like many I personally persevered and placed faith in the showrunners. Still, I feel like that initial kick-back was sufficient for them to do a second 180 turn into season six.

So here we are, back with ISIS, back in the spy industry and back to the same old stories. Barry’s back, Archer’s an employee again, they’ve all been to rehab and the days of drug smuggling are just glossed over with no real implications. Really, you could jump from season four to six without really missing a beat, and apart from the odd meta reference your only confusion would be having missed Lana’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to having enjoyed Vice quite a lot by the end of its run but I’m still glad to see ISIS return. Somehow, the spy genre is just so much more lucrative for parody.

That said, season six is firm proof that, for the show to continue, shaking up the plot will need to happen. The first four seasons worked so well because they leaned so hard on tropes from classic franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible but that well has slightly dried up. The big plots have been done and the result is that there isn’t much left for them to play with in season six. It’s still a very enjoyable ride and the humour is back on point but there aren’t many truly, genuinely stand-out episodes. For the most part the show skates by on old plot lines (a la Barry the Cyborg) and the slight shake up that having a baby in the cast was bound to provide (though what exactly has happened to Woodhouse?). That works well enough and has both appeased fans of the first four seasons whilst proving that the fifth really wasn’t all that bad.

As a result, I’m a huge fan of how season six ends. Yes, it was great getting back to the spy-based roots of Archer, but I’m seriously pumped for where they’re going to go next now that ISIS is, once again, toast. There are a lot more action genres out there ripe for parody and the core group of characters are just so well developed and hilarious together that I doubt any are beyond the show’s scope. Hopefully there are several more seasons left for the taking!

tl;dr: A fun if somewhat tired return to the show’s roots, providing both a solid entry to the franchise and a strong argument for shaking things up a bit more as it moves forward.

Archer [Season 7]

Well I wanted them to shake up the settings, plot and genre again after a slightly lukewarm season six and the Archer team have once again delivered. Season seven sees the team leave the espionage business behind (again) to pursue more grounded, yet legal (mostly), work in L.A. as private investigators. For the most part it leaves the show open to tread fan favourite paths, without needing quite so strong of a character shake-up as Archer: Vice did, but still leaves plenty of wiggle room.

As with most previous seasons the main areas of character development are focused on Archer and Lana’s on-going will-they-won’t-they personal life. Whilst it looked like season six was a turning point for Archer in particular, season seven doubles down on the (understandably) shaky grounds of trust the relationship is founded on. Largely this takes the form of sticking Hollywood starlet Veronica Deane in the crews path repeatedly, providing a clear temptation for Archer himself and a point of jealousy for Lana. Honestly, I feel like the show handles this part well, keeping their interactions fluid and funny without overly leaning on it to move the plot forward. There’s much less of AJ herself, which is fine, and it leaves the rest of the cast open to less serious side plots. I will say that the increased cast, including two brilliant cops and a host of Hollywood elite stereotypes, leaves almost too little time for the normal diversions. Having spent several seasons really fleshing out the side characters to more than 2-D punchlines, season  seven appears to largely reduce them back to these rolls, with Pam and Cheryl particularly badly hit. It’s a shame but, overall, not a huge hindrance.

Possibly the biggest let down of the series was the complete lack of pay-off to the “big mystery”. Clues are dropped from the very first episode that Deane and friends are involved in something a lot more sinister, with files and papers alluding to a particular scheme which never really appears. It is wrapped up in the two-part finale but I didn’t even realise that the reveal was happening until Archer explicitly mentions it. The finale did a good job of resolving several subplots whilst setting up one hell of a closing shot/cliff hanger, but it definitely feels like they dropped a couple of balls near the end of the season. Perhaps the number of episodes was suddenly cut, which would explain quite a lot, or maybe (in true Archer fashion) the whole point was to be pointless, but it results in the series feeling slightly rushed.

Still, a small gripe that allows for the show to lead itself, once again, in a very different direction. I’m pumped for the concept of Archer: Noir and very much looking forward to seeing how they cope with the characters being the versions of themselves that Archer sees. I feel like there is a huge amount of comic potential there and, possibly, an interesting way of having Archer himself go through a series of character strengthening self-realisations. I’m not sure if season eight is going to be the last but it does present a very nice way of tying off the series as a whole. Whatever happens, I’m certain I’ll be watching it very soon!

tl;dr: Another interesting twist and a refreshing switch-up. Definitely puts certain characters on the back burner, but overall a competent dive into new territory which sets up an exciting further abstraction.

Month in Media – July 2017 [#41]

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

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

Films

John Wick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Intelligence

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

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

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

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

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

Hotel Transylvania 2

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

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

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

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

G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra

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

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

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

tl;dr: Terrible, nonsensical and boring.

Transformers: The Last Knight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avengers Confidential: Black Widow & Punisher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jupiter Ascending

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghostbusters: Answer the Call

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Congeniality

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

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

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

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

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

Spider-Man: Homecoming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Princess and the Frog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Les Misérables

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Warcraft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spy

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

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

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

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

TV

Doctor Who [Season 10 – sort of]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month in Media – 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!