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: March 2017 [#14]

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

TV

Terry Pratchett: Back in Black

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

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

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

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

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

Lucifer [Season 2]

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

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

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

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

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

Trevor Noah: Afraid of the Dark

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

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

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

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

Jessica Jones [Season 1]

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

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

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

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

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

Rick and Morty [Season 1 & 2]

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

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

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

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

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

Daredevil [Season 2]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planet Earth II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Games

Pokémon Duel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Films

Logan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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