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 – September 2017 [#40]

Whilst you wouldn’t know it due to a monumental lack of posts, we’ve been on a steady upwards trajectory for the last few months in terms of films and shows watched. Well, then September hit and we just… stopped. Despite a very clear binge of The Defenders (I think we’re now fully addicted to Netflix’s arm of the MCU), most of this month has been spent not consuming media. Which has been a fun change of pace, in many ways.

Ongoing Media

TV – Rick and Morty (Season 3) Utterly brilliant so far, absolutely hate the weekly release schedule (definitely a show that needs to be consumed in intense hits).
TV – American Gods – Another slow burner, though for different reasons, chiefly how you really need your thinking hat on to stand much of a chance understanding what’s happening. Very good so far, though.

TV

The Defenders

Oh boy were we psyched for The Defenders to drop. Psyched to pretty much the perfect amount, as I’m still amazed at how soon after the last Netflix and Marvel collaboration this series has been released. So, with the fantastic collection of heroes that they have built up, did putting them all in one place pay off? Yes, yes it absolutely did.

I’ve mentioned in previous reviews of both Daredevil and Iron Fist that the aspect I like least about the Netflix branch of the MCU is the overly complicated version of the Hand they have created. In my eyes, these shows are best when they completely eschew huge, world-ending events and focus purely on the street-level, nearly insignificant stuff; the sort of things which actually happen in the actual New York. That’s why villains like the Kingpin and Killgrave are so damned awesome – they feel real, visceral, a perfect grounding influence to the otherwise slightly madcap concept of actual superpowers existing.

So I was a little disappointed, but also slightly relieved, to discover that The Defenders would be the final meeting point of all the story threads the Hand have been involved in. Whilst that means an entire show dedicated to the most boring MCU villains, it also will (hopefully) allow the rest of the solo shows to move on and forget about magical ninjas for a bit. It gives us closure on Elektra (well, okay, no it doesn’t, but it does at least let us know what happened to her) whilst fairly organically pulling together all of the heroes now operating within a few blocks of each other. Oh, and it nicely sets up the various surrounding cast members with some subtle origin stories for their own superhero alter-egos as well (Misty Knight!!!).

As you might be able to tell then, despite mild trepidation, I think using The Defenders to complete the Hand’s story line worked well. They are a villain whose threat requires the four, normally long-wolf heroes to team up and they have had enough of a broad impact to make their meeting plausible. I liked the other members of the evil organisation and felt that the big reveal as to why they exist and what their purpose is was done well. It made them feel a little less mystical and a little more grounded or real, which is impressive for a group of near-immortal super warriors. Using Elektra as the big enemy was a neat touch as well, allowing for some incredible action sequences and choreography without bloating the world with yet more ultra powerful fighters. In fact, given the sheer amount of death in The Defenders it feels a little like Netflix just hit a much needed reset button on the growing escalation of the MCU’s villains.

On top of a decent plot and great excuse, then, The Defenders also nicely juggles the main characters and various side casts. If you like any one of the individual series I don’t think you will have trouble catching up but there was still enough character and relationship development here to make it a worthwhile watch. Pulling all the side characters in to the same room during the big fight was a clever little plot device, allowing the writers to simultaneously explore a lot of their storylines whilst contrasting how they’re coping with knowing superheroes. It lead to some poignant moments, fun juxtapositions, interesting revelations and also provided a good number of humorous moments to cut away from the fighting for.

The main superheroes themselves were also developed nicely. Starting the series with a retired Daredevil was a neat touch to really emphasise how much Matt is struggling with the double life concept and made his refusal to take on leadership far easier to understand. Similarly, having Jess walk away when she realised how crazy everything had gotten was a brilliant moment wonderfully followed up by the realisation even her clients were being harassed, bringing her straight back in to the fight. Whilst Luke and Danny were always going to commit to the fight, these little moments really helped make sense of Matt and Jess committing as well. It would have been simple to have them just agree or suddenly feel like they wanted to be a hero or even pull an Avengers and make it all about ego. Instead, The Defenders take a more subtle approach which will work out much better in the long run.

Perhaps, best of all, is the blossoming relationship between Luke and Danny. Long time fans of the Heroes for Hire are obviously expecting their two series to eventually combine, but having them start out with clear animosity towards one another was just brilliant television, especially if you were ‘in on the joke’. In fact, once again Netflix have shown that they are just as good as the main branch of the MCU at developing in-universe jokes and providing fan service without it feeling odd to non-fans or in anyway disjointed.

Overall then, I absolutely loved The Defenders and cannot wait for more of, frankly, any of the series (did you see what I did there). There are enough questions answered to satiate my desires for now but plenty still left unknown, particularly with Matt and Elektra missing, presumed various levels of dead. It’s definitely a short show, in fact one that I actually binged through in practically a single sitting, but that makes it tight and keeps the pace moving. Great work, more please.

tl;dr: So much action packed goodness with a great plot and yet further fantastic performances from the central cast. Frankly, Netflix are beginning to rival their silver screen relatives in terms of deserved hype.

A Series of Unfortunate Events (Season 1)

An utterly brilliant adaptation. So brilliant, in fact, that I have very little to say about A Series of Unfortunate Events. I never read the books as a kid so I cannot speak of the faithfulness of the Netflix series, though by all accounts it appears to be scoring highly there as well, but any changes that have been made have worked. The story is tightly woven, well crafted and keeps you interested. The characters are wonderfully well written and acted, wherever they fall on the range between caricature and reality. The locations, set dressing, costumes and general design is impeccable, bringing the world to life in a drearily vibrant way. On top of which, the score, direction, lighting, framing… well, everything is perfect.

There are countless clever nods and ideas, from the ever-changing intro theme (took me a few episodes to notice), to the clever use of narrative interjection and on to the wonderfully heart-wrenching red herring and subsequent come-uppance. The kids are brilliant, Neil Patrick Harris was born to play the Count and the whole supporting cast are perfectly picked. The show is tense, emotional, intriguing and clever, with nearly spot on pacing. The episodes that naturally flow together leave you wanting more, but in a wonderful turn of pace to most TV series you don’t feel the need to binge watch the entire season at once. Somehow that makes the result so much more impactful and interesting, as it turns each individual adventure into a unique sequence without the overall plot ever losing track of itself or feeling disjointed.

In short, if you’re a fan of the book series then you need to watch this adaptation and if you never read them you will still have a wonderful time. I cannot wait for the second season.

tl;dr: A nearly perfect adaptation. Where, in this instance, the word nearly means almost entirely, barring only the slightest possible chance of an overlooked error or two.

 

Month in Media: December 2016

Will I be able to keep on top of December like I managed to do with the (incredibly shallow) November? Probably not, but let’s try anyway! (spoiler: I didn’t, but it was close!)

Films

Wonder Woman

No, not the upcoming live action version that may be DC’s first acceptable superhero movie, but the animated feature of the same name. I’m not the biggest WW fan, not because I think the character is poor but rather I feel most interpretations of her miss the mark, even more so than with her male counterpart Superman. Partly, I feel her attire is to blame: it’s hard to tell a truly feminist, sensitively female yet utterly kickass story when your main role model is permanently bedecked as a 50’s pin-up. On top of that is a desire to keep WW as a major player in the DC universe, but never one truly greater than either Batman or Superman, whose shadows she’s rarely allowed to eclipse.

Despite these misgivings, I’d heard good things about this particular rendition and I’m always a sucker for anything featuring Nathan Fillion so I thought I’d give it a shot. The result is a film that I enjoyed, which treated the source material reasonably but that ultimately lacked any emotional punch. Voice acting, animation, sound and even storyboarding are all on point throughout but the plot felt like it asked for slightly too much suspension of disbelief.

I genuinely enjoyed that Ares was cast as the villain and that they didn’t sugar coat his or Diana’s origins: Ares is clearly a god and both the pantheon and magic definitively exist, albeit as forgotten relics of an ancient era by the majority of the world. I’ve always enjoyed DC’s take on magic and classical mythology more so than Marvel’s, but in more recent years the latter’s rendering of Thor and the Norse gods has utterly stolen the limelight. Here then, with a strong cast and plenty of excuse for magical or mythical moments, Wonder Woman should have shone. Unfortunately, the film spent too much of its time dealing with the ‘blossoming’ romance between our dashing fighter pilot and the titular hero to really explore these avenues. Even when the Greek myths were mentioned, the focus was predominantly on the Amazons themselves, who were rather flatly portrayed and frequently appeared more like stroppy teenagers, bitching about everyone and everything when they weren’t looking, than the finely trained, intellectually superior warriors that they ought to be.

As a result, key plot points were often ignored. Diana’s infamous invisible jet appears in distinctly modern form without any explanation or reasoning; indeed, we’re given to believe that the Amazons haven’t even cast their gaze at the outside world until a few days earlier. The lack of explanation is just about manageable whilst the craft serves as a method of getting the main characters back to “man’s world” but when the plane later comes equipped with “invisible missiles” not even Fillion’s dry, sarcastic voice work can keep you from sighing audibly. After all, if the citizens of Themyscira can make genuinely explosive missiles out of thin air than Ares’ battalions of demon-spawn don’t really pose that much threat…

Speaking of which, why does Ares decide to attack from a (strangely ocean adjacent) White House? And where do all of his minions come from? Have they just been chilling in some alternate dimension all these years? Plus, he’s clearly shown to still have a cult following somewhere in the Middle East who were armed with modern weaponry, yet come the final showdown Ares’ armies are as primitively outfitted as the Amazons themselves. Very little about the villains plans or even powers are explained. Sure, he thrives off warfare, but then he also seems to get psychic power from simply launching a nuclear missile, so actual conflict seems not to be required? Gah! Nothing is ever cleared up!

tl;dr: Diana is actually well written and Nathan Fillion is great as ever, but ultimately Wonder Woman fails to justify its plot in any meaningful way.

Godzilla (2014)

To be clear, this is the Godzilla reboot with Bryan Cranston in it. At least, that’s how I keep hearing it referred to and, indeed, how I think of it. In reality though, if Bryan Cranston is the main reason you’re thinking of watching this film I’d recommend to look elsewhere. That’s not a knock on Cranston’s acting or even his character, but he doesn’t exactly stick around for very long and ultimately is entirely inconsequential to the plot line.

Unfortunately, these same criticisms pretty much sum up all the main characters. Despite having some decent actors, Godzilla contains no worthwhile interactions whatsoever. Most of our time is spent chasing around Cranston’s son, who is seemingly the incarnate embodiment of American heroism, utter lack of empathy or common sense included. Whilst he goes out of his way to save countless ‘innocents’, including one mildly infuriating child, and is constantly risking his own life for the ‘greater good’, he barely ever gives pause to consider his actual loved ones. Hell, this is such an obvious character flaw that there is an actual scene where his wife complains about how he never thinks to call them to let them know he’s alive. Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, however. I mean, the one time he actually tries she’s casually discarded her phone and is in the middle of happy-play times with their kid, so is clearly not that hung up on his personal welfare herself…

But fine, this is a kaiju movie, you’re not here for the plot or the human characters. Viewed through this lens, Godzilla is an enjoyable romp with some interesting creature design ideas, the occasional jaw-dropping action sequence and a generally coherent plot. Audio and cinematography are decent throughout and pacing never leaves you bored or confused.

Creature design is decent enough. Ultimately, with such a lengthy history Godzilla was always going to be a little ridiculous by modern standards, just to appease old school fans and remain recognisable. That said, there weren’t any jarring or weird movements or noises that pulled me out of the action and in general, stature and build seemed reasonable. Even Godzilla’s infamous nuclear breath was done ‘believably’ enough. Scaling did feel a little off to me. Godzilla now dwarfs all but the largest sky scrapers on the American west coast, which looks okay when he’s aquatic but on land does seem a bit too unbelievable. I see that the King of Monsters has always dwarfed the high rises he tears down, but historically those have been mid 1900 Japanese buildings which were never that tall due to material constraints and earthquake consideration. Personally, I would rather have had his scale kept the same, to show that humans have advanced in the interim. I’m not actually convinced, though, that scale was really considered at all. The various kaiju appear to grow and shrink at will, even within the same battle sequence.

Indeed, Godzilla isn’t the only kaiju in Godzilla, which was a nice surprise. In fact it could be argued that he isn’t even the main kaiju, with much more time spent looking at the back story of the male/female ‘parasites’. These are interesting enough, with some clever and (in my experience) unique body designs and biohistory. I generally like the idea that Godzilla predates humanity and was part of an entire chemotrophic (or… nucleatrophic?) food chain, where abundant radioactivity enabled gigantism on an unprecedented scale. Still, as much as this goes some way to explaining a (pretty unscientific) how for the various kaiju expected to pop up in this latest franchise attempt, it leaves some very large knowledge gaps in the lore. First and foremost, has Godzilla been hibernating underwater? If not, are there a breeding population of these creatures? Either way, how does a megaton nuclear weapon leave no damage, or is Godzilla lead lined? Basically, though a neat idea, it asks more questions than it answers.

Ultimately, I feel that this incompleteness can be found throughout the film. Whilst the visual effects tend to be adequate and are occasionally stunning, they’re also jarring from time to time. Characters are trope filled and not well fleshed out, despite some solid casting choices. Plotlines are left open ended or suddenly brought to a halt without much consideration. Overall, the film is fun but nothing spectacular, which is a shame given the source material.

tl;dr: A fun but basic monster movie, where the kaiju have more personality than the humans.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

First thing first, can we all just agree to forget that the title for this film continues after Rogue One? What do you mean it has a subtitle? No, I think you’re mistaken, it’s definitely just Rogue One, right? Are we all on the same page now? Good, let’s continue.

But seriously, other than the daft addendum to the otherwise well pitched name, Rogue One definitely exceeds expectations as a franchise film. For the first entry in the Star Wars Anthology series, Rogue One stands up by itself incredibly well, telling a self-contained story with absolutely no chance of a sequel that rewards fans of the larger universe without being cut-off from those who have never journeyed to the galaxy far, far away. That’s a pretty big achievement, a remarkably fresh method of film making and one hell of a good creative decision from Disney.

Disney deserves further props for allowing the creative team behind Rogue One to actually stick to their planned ending. Again, this is the first Anthology film which gives it a lot of extra hype that may never occur again. That means, if you wanted to spin-off a TV series or additional properties, this is the film to do it with and yet what we get is a prequel to a story that has already been told, where every main character is dead by the end. There’s no wiggle room here to bring back characters that have rapidly developed a fan following for a sequel – no one survives a Death Star blast. Hell, even the main villain is categorically dead at the end. It’s a brilliant decision for a number of reasons but I’m just amazed a studio with the marketing focus of Disney ever let it happen.

Still, the result is a genuinely impactful war story that serves to flesh out the already beloved universe with a more human, personal tale. Rogue One takes a peak behind the scenes of the classic, beloved franchise and discovers a tale equally as interesting but without any of the grandeur. There are no all-powerful space wizards, princesses or renowned smugglers; instead our focus is on an orphan with no exceptional qualities except being someone’s daughter and a group of, well, grunts. These are the equivalent of Star Trek‘s red shirts, individuals that are only ever seen in the background or maybe heard off-frame, now suddenly thrown onto centre stage. And once there they don’t suddenly become exceptional, skilful heroes; they remain just a group of people, trying and sometimes failing. Even the one person with connection to the Force is a blind beggar, a remnant of a lost religion, who never shows any more powerful a skill than simple faith and courage (well, okay, he does kick ass on several occasions but that’s not the main point here).

It should be clear by now that I approve wholeheartedly of both the plot and the general characterisation found in Rogue One. Despite that, none of the characters really get any true development and are mostly, when analysed closely, just puppets pulled and prodded to be where the plot requires them. Why is Jin imprisoned? How did the Rebellion locate her? What actually happened to Bodhi, a lowly cargo pilot, to choose such a risky, treasonous path? How do the Erso’s know Saw? Why do Chirrut and Baze get involved and keep tagging along? What happened to the other guardians? For that matter, in a galaxy where the Jedi are outlawed, why are the guardians of their temples allowed to continue preaching their ways? If the Rebellion isn’t actually at war with the Empire then what, exactly, is their plan and why do they have an army? There are a lot of questions surrounding the events that occur throughout Rogue One and its a fair criticism to point out that barely any are ever even vaguely addressed. Despite creating some truly memorable characters (K-2SO… too soon!) none of the core cast are given much time to develop or be understood.

Character criticisms aside, however, Rogue One cannot be regarded as anything less than resounding success. The action, effects, design and sound are all on par with the rest of the Star Wars film canon; the acting is probably only rivalled by The Force Awakens and is pretty much flawless. It may also contain the most Easter eggs of any film ever made, with some pretty fun call backs to the original trilogy as well as a lot (apparently) of crossover with the current TV show Rebels, which all make a lot of sense. The CGI renditions of Peter Cushing and young Carrie Fisher are a little unnerving at first but weirdly became less uncanny-valley nightmares as the film went on. Certainly, from a franchise continuity point of view, Rogue One is seriously impressive, putting even the previous kings of cross-overs, Marvel, to shame.

The result is an entertaining, galaxy-expanding adventure casting the spotlight on some very different areas of a much beloved franchise. It definitely isn’t the best Star Wars film ever made, but Rogue One definitely sits further up that list than I’d anticipated and can hold it’s head high in the company of some of the best.

tl;dr: A spectacular and surprisingly intimate look at the characters that usually lurk in the background combines to form an excellent addition to the growing franchise.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 [rewatch]

I absolutely loved the first film in this (hopefully ongoing) franchise. It has brilliant creature design, excellent animation, a fantastic cast and – most importantly – an intriguing, developed, emotional and fairly original story. What it did not do, however, was clearly leave an opening for a sequel, so I have to admit to approaching HtTYD2 with a fairly sceptical outlook.

My first viewing was at a wonderful independent cinema in New Zealand, which was both a lot of fun and a great memory. What I remember of my reaction, however, was distinctly mixed. I can recall feeling that the plot was a little telegraphed and that various characters felt rehashed or a bit weak, rather than more developed. I definitely enjoyed myself, loved the new dragons and considered the animation and humour on par with the original, but the spark that made the original an instant classic felt lacking.

Firing up the film for a second time was, well, enlightening. For some reason, knowing the rough beats that the plot was going to take made the story a lot more interesting. On the whole, the movie felt somehow more complete. The humour and animation seem almost better than the original and characterisation was hard to fault. Most interactions felt natural and consistent with the characters I enjoyed in the first film and the new cast felt like they belonged.

HtTYD2 is clearly a more mature outing than its predecessor and, perhaps, that threw me a little first time around. However, I’m happy to say I think that initial impression was wrong: this is a solid sequel that builds nicely on the original in just about every way. A friend recently pointed out that, though further films are in development, they are clearly not rushing them just to make bank off the success they’ve received so far. Instead, they’re crafting them, taking the time that is required and it definitely shows. If the creative team continues in this vein, and similarly continues to mature the subject matter, when the set becomes a trilogy we could be in for something truly special. I’m definitely a lot less sceptical than I was two years ago.

tl;dr: Lives up to the original to deliver a brilliant yet more mature look into the relationships between dragons and Vikings. An exceptional kids film and a lot of fun for adults as well.

TV

Planet Earth (Season 1)

Whilst seemingly everyone on the planet has become enraptured by marine iguanas battling snakes, we remain in our self-enforced BBC purgatory. Unable to ignore the hype surrounding season 2 of Planet Earth I managed to track down the full first season on Bluray for the cost of a Gregg’s pasty!

Overall, the original series has held up pretty damn well, exactly as I had expected. With a more modern eye (and TV) it is clear where the filming suddenly slides out of the jaw-dropping HD filmography, especially during intense action sequences, but whether in 1080p or 480p the quality and skill of the film work remains exceptional. Sure, the producers get a bit carried away with the heli-pan shots, often reusing particular sequences in multiple episodes, but those slow pan-outs from several miles away were utterly ground breaking at the time and, honestly, have few rivals even today.

In fact my greatest surprise was seeing how many revolutionary tricks Planet Earth packed in. Whilst the series became famous for the helicopter mounted camerawork, it also pioneered stunning slow motion sequences, underwater shots and use of satellite imagery, much of which remains on par with more recent examples.

Production value and filmography aside, it hardly needs mentioning that the voice narration provided by David Attenborough is just as brilliant as ever. There are some re-used sequences and phrasing here as well and, watching them back-to-back, certain terminology gets a little grating – not everything needs to be the “xest in the world”, David, especially when you contradict yourself between episodes! Still, paired with an exceptional soundtrack and audio-scaping, you can’t really fault very much about Planet Earth. It truly may be the greatest documentary series ever produced.

One quick aside, however, is that the Bluray experience was less than, shall we say, enthralling. I have a love/hate relationship with the medium anyway, but convincing our media PC to play the discs was arduous and still resulted in stuttering or skipping issues, seemingly due to decryption problems rather than disc faults. Plus, for what should have been the deluxe, all-singing-all-dancing version of the franchise, the special edition set actually lacks the small featurettes that originally aired after each episode and for which Planet Earth was, once again, a pioneer. I had hoped they would all be sandwiched onto the extras disc at the end but nope. Instead, two additional documentaries were provided, but ultimately the aired behind-the-scenes features were what I wanted. Maybe they’re on the discs somewhere but, if so, they’re buried deep! Frankly, that just seems a bit stingy.

tl;dr: Visually, audibly stunning and loaded with top quality content; a true masterpiece. Disappointing extras on the special edition Blurays, though.

Daredevil (Season 1)

The fight choreography in Daredevil deserves immense recognition. Let’s be clear here: the entire season is a triumph, from plot to characterisation to soundtrack. But the fight sequences are some of the best I’ve seen in years, probably since the lobby sequence in the Matrix. In particular, the long take in the hallway at the end of episode 2 had me utterly riveted. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a piece of action that so carefully balanced humour, suspense, cinematography and realism in any film or TV show before. That sequence will stay burnt into my memory for many years to come and, for that sequence alone, Daredevil is required watching.

Yet, the fighting is also the shows biggest downfall. I understand that Netflix wanted to present a grittier, more realistic side of the MCU and they’ve definitely succeeded, but every now and then the excessive violence was just that – excessive. The Kingpin would be just as terrifying, arguably more so, if the scene where he exacts his revenge on one half of the Russians was less visceral, even occurring off screen. Yet at the same time, it is refreshing watching a superhero that grows fatigued, with injuries that actually hamper people rather than just extending a fight. So I’ll grant that the reality and gore of Daredevil does succeed in elevating the stakes, even when they do go overboard.

It’s also genuinely refreshing to see a dark, gritty, realistic superhero property where the hero is both clearly super and human. Matt Murdoch is wonderfully cast and portrayed, with a real sense of depth, yet his alter-ego is clearly more than a well trained bloke; they don’t mince around making you guess if he has genuine superpowers, addressing that question within the first few episodes. The end result is a much more tangible show than the likes of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but one that still feels distinctly connected to that universe.

Part of that tangibility, that connected feeling, is definitely the surrounding cast. Every character is perfect, even the ones that are only brief acquaintances. Murdoch feels like a man walking a fine line between hero and monster, whilst accepting an existence that screams double-think so well that it actually makes you question the normally black and white reality of comic book morality. Foggy, Karen and Ben are all solid foils and mirrors, cleverly reflecting or highlighting many of the nuances that make Daredevil such an interesting hero, whilst presenting genuinely enjoyable dialogue and some very well crafted humour along the way.

But a hero is only ever as good as their villain and, once again, Daredevil does not disappoint. Vincent D’Onofrio plays a very interesting Wilson Fisk, arguably one of the best takes on the character in some time. This Kingpin is ambitious, monstrous and chilling yet, somehow, almost sympathetic. Whilst his true plans are never fully laid bare, you begin to believe that, though his methods may be foul, his intent could (just) be pure. Plus, as with Murdoch, Fisk is surrounded by a wonderful supporting cast of career criminals. They feel fresh from the pages of a graphic novel, yet equally at home in the real New York; somehow, both wonderfully pastiche whilst remaining nuanced and believable.

Then there is Wesley. The Kingpins right-hand man, an utterly loyal lackey and a character that left me utterly morally confused. James Wesley is clearly intelligent, cunning and ambitious yet he never feels like a Brutus, just waiting in the shadows for his time in the spotlight. No, that he is utterly devoted to Fisk, not just as a businessman but as a friend, is without question. It is this moral slight-of-hand that Daredevil succeeds in so well; both Fisk and Wesley are clearly immoral people yet, as with all the best villains, you can’t help but feel for them, even begin to like them. So when Wesley gets dealt his comeuppance, it doesn’t feel victorious – it hits you like a punch to the gut. The combination of anticipation of Karen’s death and the slow build of incite into Wesley’s mind over the preceding couple of episodes culminated in a moment of incredible television. As with that hallway fight sequence, I believe Wesley’s final scene will stay with me for some time to come. It was simple, unexpected and genuinely shocking without the need for any over the top violence or effects.

So, if you are still in any doubt as to where I stand on Daredevil, let’s put it plain it in one word: brilliance. Utterly enjoyable, cleverly scripted, perfectly paced and an excellent balance of humour, action and moral questioning. I’ve heard great things about the rest of Netflix and Marvel’s team up but I’m not convinced they will ever top these thirteen fantastic episodes. I said it at the start and I’ll say it again, Daredevil is required viewing.

tl;dr: Astounding, riveting, memorable, funny and utterly fantastic. Watch it – now!