Accio Deathly Hallows

10 years ago today the Harry Potter series came to a close. With the publishing of The Deathly Hallows a large part of my, and many others, childhood came to an end. I find it strange that a decade has passed since, but probably for different reasons.

Whilst I was eager to read The Deathly Hallows when it first came out, I have to admit that the Potter franchise had lost its lustre for me. I grew up alongside the release dates, but as they stretched out over the last three books my own ageing overtook the target audience. By the close of the series I still counted myself a fan, but my life revolved far more around the likes of Lord of the Rings, Pratchett’s Discworld and authors like David Gemmell.

But the release of The Deathly Hallows does mark a pretty big event in my life, though I wouldn’t realise it for another three (!) years. Several days before the book was officially released, a little known channel on YouTube uploaded what would become a viral, fan-favourite and Harry Potter inspired song: Accio Deathly Hallows. The musician was Hank Green; the channel was “Brotherhood 2.0”, the fledgling website that would evolve into the Vlogbrothers. Whilst Hank and his brother John have become far better known for other reasons, ranging from writing The Fault in Our Stars (John) to creating VidCon (Hank), that song was what changed their experiment on YouTube into a community. Both brothers have pointed to Accio Deathly Hallows as a pivot point, the first time either had considered that their involvement in YouTube was more than just a one-year deal. The popularity it gave them on the platform ultimately changed both of their careers and, arguably, the face of both YouTube and the web in general.

That, for me, is the far bigger anniversary today. The Vlogbrothers, their content and their outlook on life have been a hugely impactful and important part of my life as I left home, went to University and officially began to “adult”. They remain one of my most watched YouTube channels, a huge inspiration and a brilliant example to the world of how to be humans. Whilst it feels like Harry Potter ended years ago (which I guess it did), the idea that the Vlogbrothers have been vlogging for over a decade is equal parts encouraging and terrifying. Forget Accio Deathly Hallows, I’m more interested in Accio DFTBA.

Month in Media: July 2016

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

Films

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm

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

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

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

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

The Song of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words!

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Shows

Con-Man (Season 1)

The Good:

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

The Bad:

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

The Ugly:

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

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

Graphic Novels

Black Science: God World (Volume 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month in Media: June 2016

The superheroes remain strong this month. Apparently they’re rapidly becoming my equivalent of soap operas: quick, easy watching to binge on when I just want to switch off.  And speaking of binging… the month has ended with a week-long Harry Potter marathon. Why? Because the one benefit to adulthood is defining what that term entails!

Films

Crazy, Stupid, Love

I really enjoyed Crazy Stupid Love. The plot relies heavily on coincidence, which appears to be a staple of modern rom-coms, but the warmth of the acting and the cleverness of the script help tie it all together neatly. It rarely had me crying with laughter but I was smiling throughout, so definitely more of a feel-good flick than a side splitting romance. Still, the script is far more nuanced than it had any right to be, lending an actual feeling of observational humour and slice-of-life morality to affairs.

Honestly, it’s just a lot of fun seeing this cast combination getting to riff off one another. Steve Carell remains one of the most intriguing and varied comedians in Hollywood for me. I would be happy to never see any of his Jim Carey-esque moments again (40 Year Old Virgin, Ethan Almighty and even, for his part, Anchorman all spring to mind) but when he’s playing a realistic character he is amazingly charming and disarmingly funny. I loved him in the likes of Little Miss Sunshine and I love him again in Crazy Stupid Love. Then you have Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, both actors I just love watching, especially when they’re having this much fun. Combined, they provide a perfect ensemble cast and a very enjoyable film.

tl;dr: Crazy, stupid, fun. A feel good film that stands slightly taller than it perhaps should, thanks in large part to a fantastic cast.

Superman: Doomsday

Ultimately, Doomsday did win me over, but it was a close call. The animation is off at times, particularly for Lex Luthor, and the story managed to be both a retread and require far too much fan knowledge to be accessible. There’s nothing here that truly stands out, not the characters, the voices, music, animation or even the plot. Still, the heart of the film was in the right place and it remained entertaining throughout.

For a storyline named after one of the greatest enemies of the Man of Steel, the titular Doomsday was amazingly lacklustre, a villain whose only purpose was to incapacitate Superman and allow the actual plot to unfold. In reality, this was a closer retread to the Red Son storyline thematically, highlighting how it is not Clark Kent’s powers that make him deserve the capitalised Super, but rather his grounded sense of morality. I haven’t actually read the Death of Superman saga, so perhaps this film was true to the source, but the end product certainly felt a little rushed. Characters frequently had to use dialogue to advance the story, rather than presenting a logical chain of events, and certain subplots were entirely pointless (Jimmy Olsen as a paparazzi? Just why…). Plus, though the ending “reveal” to Lois did lend a certain amount of the warm fuzzies to events, I can’t help but feel that the plot would have functioned a little better had Doomsday taken place in a world where it was Lois Kent, not Lois Lane.

tl;dr: A decent retread of Superman with just enough heart and thought to be entertaining, though at times inconsistent and never novel.

Monuments Men

Lets just start by saying that I enjoyed this film and it’s certainly a lot of fun, with some great comedic performances and a generally stellar cast. Direction, sound and scripting were all sufficient, though none really stood out, and the core message was both worthwhile and refreshing, especially for the war-film genre.

It is a shame, then, that having watched the film and had my interest piqued, it turns out that the plot is heavily fictionalised. Some deviations are understandable, such as the use of the Nero Decree as a key plot point and reducing the scope of the mission to a smaller, more focused group of individuals (underdogs are always easier to root for). Others, however, seem a little odd. Why set the American government as a partial villain, with the Roosevelt administration consistently questioning if the program was even worthwhile throughout the film? The reality is that the government backed a much larger and better funded equivalent than is portrayed and it doesn’t really add anything to the plot. Similarly, why include the death of Jean Claude (over a horse, of all things)? There is apparently no basis for this in fact and it doesn’t serve much purpose in the film, either, given that the earlier death of Jeffries has already provided the “unifying” team moment and central tragedy.

Still, I am glad that someone has managed to make a big, Hollywood war film that focuses on this particular message. War is a terrible thing and the loss of life is appalling, but the destruction of a cultures’ history is arguably as heinous a crime (if not more so), yet we rarely think about it or account for it. The destruction of Palmyra has hopefully highlighted these issues to a wider audience, but cultural loss remains a depressingly common aim of war. Personally, I would argue that the direct targeting of cultural heritage should be a war crime and heavily vilified, yet the reality is closer to the opposite. I doubt the Monuments Men will manage to alter these long standing tactics, but if it introduces even a few doubts across the Western world it could be very worthwhile, in the long run.

Justice League: The New Frontier

If DC needed any inspiration about large ensemble superhero movies containing several new characters, high stakes and meaningful plots, then frankly they should just watch The New Frontier. With a modernised storyline, a little more focus on the more nuanced subplots, a clearer villain and a couple of prequel films to set up key characters and you have an Avengers rival. Damn this was good.

I’ve been on somewhat of a superhero animation binge recently, but The New Frontier has set an entirely new standard for the genre. The animation was flawless and beautiful throughout, borrowing just enough from the very stylised source material to feel somehow period whilst also thoroughly modern. The recasting of several heroes and associates in new (more plausible) job roles, with a slightly tweaked back stories, made the entire plot feel refreshing and new. Acting was top notch (and clearly attracted some big names) and the overall direction was superb. I never felt like the pacing was off or that exposition was being forced down my throat to make time for more action; plus, the Centre was an effective villain, revealing very little until the grand finale and even then maintaining a solid air of mystery and threat.

Sure, it would have been nice to get a little more explanation regarding the Centre, but honestly, with all the hero-based subplots, Mars missions, governmental regulation and just plain fun going on, the villain’s time was sufficient. It provided a very literal core (or centre…) around which the various threads could wind, slowly coming closer and closer together until they all culminated naturally. Except for Aquaman. Why was there an Aquaman? Where did he come from? More importantly, why wasn’t he actually helping! Oh well, never mind, all the other heroes were on point, with solid, character driven dialogue and a general feeling of actual heroism… which isn’t that common these days. Top marks all round!

tl;dr: Beautiful, clever and refreshing introduction to some of DC’s biggest names. Also, surprise Aquaman!

Guardians of the Galaxy [rewatch]

I love this film. At around my fifth viewing, I’m amazed how well the plot, action and characterisation stand up as well as how much it still makes me laugh. Guardians of the Galaxy is a master class of the superhero genre, with perfect comedic timing, stunning effects, a clear moral message and some very clever, comic-panel vignettes. Casting is superb, acting on point throughout and that soundtrack? Stunning! Guardians will remain one of my favourite films and comfort watches for a very long time.

tl;dr: Perfection. A brilliant soundtrack, hilarious cast and wonderful direction combine to make a superhero tour de force!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone [rewatch]

I wouldn’t say I’ve remained as big of a fan of Harry Potter as many of my friends, so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. The opening sequence with Dumbledore “turning out the lights” remains an incredible well paced sequence that is literally thrilling to watch; a feeling that is matched by the entrance of Hagrid moments later.

In terms of setting up the world, the core plot threads and the characters, The Philosopher’s Stone is surprisingly well put together. My recollection was that the child actors were awful and the story woefully lacking in depth, but I now feel that was an unfair appraisal. Watson, Grint and Radcliffe are certainly not perfect in their roles, but it rarely bothered me or snapped me out of the story. Plus, the surrounding cast is fantastic, both in acting skills and just plain audacity. It was great fun spotting “new” actors who I had never realised were in the film when I was a kid, such as John Cleese’s Nearly-Headless Nick!

tl;dr: A solid entrance to the franchise which has held up surprisingly well whilst maintaining a sense of mysticism.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets [rewatch]

Far more than The Philosopher’s Stone (but much less than The Goblet of Fire), The Chamber of Secrets definitely felt like a greatest hits of the core sequences from the book. Several key scenes were presented without any real explanation and the foreshadowing that held the first film together was almost entirely absent. Bit characters, such as Gilderoy Lockhart, feel overly like parodies of themselves but do maintain a sense of purpose as comic relief.

On the flipside, the world and (particularly) creature design go from strength-to-strength. The basilisk is wonderfully sinister, yet snake-like enough that the Parseltongue subplot stays meaningful and the various cameos, such as the Mandrakes, remain both grounded yet magical, helping the world feel much more consistent than it rightfully should. Fawkes has always irked me a little, but this time around felt a lot more logical – even if I feel that a phoenix should be more beautiful (and less deus ex machinima) than this portrayal!

tl;dr: Some stilted moments, but a worthy enough successor that greatly improves the world building and nicely increases the stakes.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban [rewatch]

If asked, for years I would quote The Prisoner of Azkaban as my personal favourite film. I’ve always loved the darkness of the book, which for me always held very close ties with Halloween (werewolves, haunted houses, the introduction of wizarding candy etc.) aka my favourite day of the year! Viewing it again after so long definitely highlights that, from a filmography point of view, my long held beliefs hold true. There are some truly stunning sequences throughout the film and it holds up exceedingly well. I’m not as big of a fan as some people when it comes to the famous one-take exposition sequences, finding them a little overly rigid and unnatural, but the camera transitions through mirrors/glass remain mesmerising. The unique soundscape of this film also sets it apart, particularly the frequently utilised “Toil and Trouble” musical snippets that are blended into the more generic themes used throughout the franchise.

Time is obviously a key element to the plotline and the frequent use of clocks and ticking are also worthy of mention, but the cleverest tie-back to this theme is the Womping Willow. The tree plays a much larger role in The Prisoner of Azkaban than in any other film in the franchise, thanks to the hidden tunnels beneath its roots, so utilising frequent wide shots focusing in the willow to also depict the changing seasons is incredibly effective and very clever.

From a storyline perspective, however, film three was a bit of a let down. Key plot points are entirely ignored, such as the authors of the Marauders Map, despite amble time being available to the script writers. These aren’t just the standard annoyances of book-lovers irritated by their favourite scenes being left out, but truly key details that help explain character interaction. Without understanding how close Sirius, Remus and James Potter actually were the events of the storyline lack the same emotional punch. Similarly, Sirius, though played wonderfully by Gary Oldman, switches from raving lunatic to eloquent hero in the blink of an eye without any real explanation. His menacing appearance at the start of the film is never explained, his attack on Ron is lightly brushed aside without any apology and he really presents very little meaningful evidence to suggest he isn’t at least associated with the Death Eaters before everyone suddenly trusts him again. Plus, what happened to Snape! Did he just get blasted out the back of the Shivering Shack? How did he catch them up? Where did he go after Lupin’s transformation?

Then there is Lupin himself, whose werewolf form has aged somewhat. I frequently find films from this time period (and even more recently), suffer from the CGI looking very dated, whereas practical effects tend to be more resilient. From a plot point of view, there’s also very build up to his transformation, with only the slightest of hints here and there, resulting in a total lack of threat. Certainly Hermione’s outburst that she had been “protecting” him feels very sudden and unwarranted as we had no idea he needed protecting! All of this is a shame, because Lupin and his associated condition are some of the more interesting aspects of this story from a wider, real world perspective as an analysis into how we treat people with incurable disease.

Still, The Prisoner of Azkaban is a kids film and perhaps these loftier analyses are right to have been left out. Overall it remained a very well crafted entry to the series with some exceptional filmography and clever character development.

tl;dr: Still the best directed film of the series, with some truly stunning cinematography and thematic linkages, but the plot feels a little less well put together than I had remembered.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire [rewatch]

AKA the one where Edward Cullen meets Harry Potter. Quick aside, but how interesting would a cross over between those two universes actually be? Vampires are hinted at in the Potterverse, but never explicitly outlined (to my knowledge), but would magic be a threat to them or as easily brushed off as bullets (daylight spells aside)?

Generally, The Goblet of Fire was exactly how I remembered it: action packed, but an almost nonsensical plot due to the amount of story development that had to be cut. Other, equally long books in the series manage a much finer balance between simplifying the plotline and still presenting the core scenes. The Goblet of Fire, in comparison, feels like a film where they simply took the book and kept cutting stuff until it fit their time limit, then filmed it, regardless of how well connected the resultant story sections actually were.

To be clear, The Goblet of Fire isn’t an awful film. It holds true to the source material, the character design and acting are as brilliant as ever (read: the kids are better than last time, the adults are amazing) and you won’t regret the overall time investment. In pretty much every other way though, from cinematics to scripting, The Goblet of Fire is arguably the worst in the franchise. Sorry, Cedric!

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix [rewatch]

I started my review of The Prisoner of Azkaban by stating that it has long been my answer to the question “Which is your favourite Harry Potter film”. Rewatching The Order of the Phoenix, however, stirred up some long forgotten memories and feelings, as a result of which I will have to revise my answer. This is my favourite film (and book) in the franchise. How on earth had I forgotten that?!

Thematically and cinematically, The Order of the Phoenix is not as tight nor as clever as Azkaban, but the emotional impact it hits me with is far greater. Dolores Umbridge is just a remarkably clever antagonist, walking a tight line between fantastical witch and authoritarian bureaucrat, the latter making her actually relatable to the viewers own lives. It is this relatibility that I feel makes The Order of the Phoenix so much more than the sum of its parts.

Objectively, the plot is very much a bridge, moving the viewer away from a Hogwarts that is beset by annual monstrous threats but ultimately very disconnected from the wider Wizarding world in which it is set, towards a Hogwarts that is very clearly influenced (and influencing) an entire civilisation. This transition is very much a requirement for the over-arching plot to develop, for the impact of Voldemort’s return to be felt and for the (now teenage) main characters to begin their first steps into adulthood. In the same way that everyone’s world expands rapidly during their teenage years, as you begin to grasp the immensity and subtleties of the society you live within, so Rowling forces the world of Hogwarts to expand. The effect is very subtle, but when combined with an almost non-magical threat that could so easily exist in our own world (blood quills aside), the result is a story that feels deeply personal.

The stakes, of course, have also been raised and the repercussions are felt very deeply. The division within the wizarding world over whether He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named has actually returned and, therefore, who to trust: the government or one of the most respected individuals in their society, feel real, both inside and outside of the school itself. Core characters begin making irreversible decisions, with the Weasley twin’s effectively choosing expulsion or the (arguably darker) impact of school kids having to train themselves for war, effectively choosing a side in doing so.

Ultimately, others may not feel as strongly about The Order of the Phoenix as I do, but it clearly speaks to something buried deep within me. The underlying themes of racism, particularly with the introduction of “half breed” characters such as Grorp and the increasing feud of the centaurs, are very cleverly woven into the plot. They feel neither forced nor centre stage but, unlike The Goblet of Fire, the film makers have managed to make them fit. Sure, a lot has still been cut and even more has been simplified, but the result is arguably the most internally consistent film in the franchise.

tl;dr: Turns out, this is my favourite. A dark yet relatable plot, with a strangely realistic vision of evil in Umbridge, make for some very interesting social commentary and a much deeper, more personal experience. Harry Potter grows up!

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince [rewatch]

I find the sixth entry into the Harry Potter franchise almost entirely forgetful. Rewatching the films has reminded me how much I still remember about the books and many of the cinematic scenes have stuck with me over the years. Not so with The Half Blood Prince. I remember almost nothing of the film (so much I’m genuinely unsure if it is a rewatch or not), don’t recall the book at all and actually just had to Google the title whilst writing this review!

I think it may have something to do with the plot feeling very much open ended. A large part of the storyline concerns itself with setting up future plot threads or resolving lingering inconsistencies, particularly with inter-character relationships, which are focused on a lot. I can fully understand if the emphasis on teenage romance is why The Half Blood Prince feels so lacklustre, but I think the film almost amplifies the effect. The titular mystery doesn’t so much as take a backseat in the film as it is almost entirely ignored. The text book that introduces the character has been reduced to a simple plot device allowing Harry and Slughorn to coherently form a relationship, though simultaneously is undercut by Dumbledore’s belief that being the “boy who lived” is reason along for Slughorn to desire Harry’s entry to the collection of students he prizes so much.

As a result, the end revelation regarding the identity of the Half-Blood Prince, the subsequent betrayal of Dumbledore and the conclusion to the whole Snape question (seemingly) feels somewhat lacking. The book is arguably the one entry in the series which focuses on a character other than Potter and Voldemort: Severus Snape himself. The relative lack of the occlumency lessons and, particularly, the insights into Snape that they reveal means that the character remains far more mysterious and open to interpretation in the film. Instead, the emotional impact has been shifted onto a “will they, won’t they” circus of teenage angst surrounding Harry, Ginny, Ron and Hermione. Ultimately, I feel they cut the wrong plot line.

Still, the tone of the movie is well placed, with some nice colour manipulation throughout that give the film a real sense of foreboding. This isn’t the work of a master producer, but it’s still nice to see and lends itself particularly well to Draco’s subplot. Indeed, arguably the best crafted sequences in the film are the frequent panning shots or subtle framing used to constantly remind the viewer about Draco. Without spending too much time with the character centre stage, the crew keep us in permanent suspense as to what his plans are whilst making it clear that he is being manipulated beyond his will, isolated from his friends and family. Subtle but poignant, it’s a shame the same level of care wasn’t taken with the similar issues playing out between Snape and Dumbledore themselves.

tl;dr: Unfortunately focuses on budding love interests rather than the real stories at the heart of the plot and the parallels of Snape, Dumbledore, Draco and Harry. Very much a setup movie for the big finalé.

TV

Constantine: Season 1

Definitely calling #TooSoon on this one! Of course, I had the luxury of knowing the rug was going to be swept out from beneath me come season end, seeing as it was cancelled several years ago now, but still… too soon! Sigh.

So yes, as you can probably tell, I am a fan of Constantine. The pilot was a little rocky, though technically amazing, but once the show hit its stride it achieved a great deal. The plot line rapidly pushed past the possibility of being just another monster-of-the-week setup, largely thanks to the angelic driving force of Mannie. The characters were all well portrayed and interesting, both keeping you guessing whilst constantly revealing little bits that made the pacing feel pretty decent. Matt Ryan was so accurately cast that I truly don’t think I’ll be happy with anyone else ever playing the titular character again. Plus, a seriously honourable mention needs to go to Charles Halford who played the eminently likeable yet mysterious Chas; Deadpool take note, this is how you script/play the likeable buddy to the wisecracking anti-hero.

The monsters were also great. Again, Constantine was definitely not afraid to try out some of the weirder denizens of the spirit world. Sure, we got possession, soul-eaters and similarly usual paranormal scares, but also Cobylnau and the Brujeria!? Ballsy, Constantine, ballsy indeed. Plus they were all done pretty well. TV effects are constantly advancing, but I still expect the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D‘s Kree warriors outside of finalés, yet Constantine‘s critters were consistently top notch and frequently actually unsettling.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D: Season 3

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D continues to be a seriously solid piece of must-watch television for us. Season 3 definitely felt a little less impactful to the wider MCU, but with the Inhumans movie #cancellednotcancelled and the total lack of overlap with Civil War I feel that is less the fault of the TV-verse than those involved with the big screen. Hopefully some more tie-ins can be conjured in the future, even if it’s just with the Netflix shows!

Still, season 3 had a bucket load of new plotlines whilst nicely tying together the open threads from season 2 and setting up some interesting new avenues for future seasons to explore. Ward is finally in the ground for good, which feels right; he may have become one of the best TV villains in a long time, but at some point they had to let him go. Hydra, too, finally seems to have been dealt with, hopefully allowing us to move along with the Inhumans plots a little more. Lincoln’s fate was a shame, as he had become a useful foil to the occasional insanity of military thinking, but it’s also refreshing to see some real, permanent implications for the cast (Bobby and Hunter, I’m looking at you as well).

Overall though, I remain impressed by Agents ability to maintain a breakneck pace whilst juggling a large cast and keeping everything pretty grounded. There were definitely a few instances towards the end of this season that felt a little rushed, but as a transition away from Hydra and towards more Inhumans I felt the storyline worked very nicely. I’m intrigued to see what will happen now with a much reduced cast, seemingly heavily demoted, going forward into Season 4.