The Marvel-ous Collection: A Beginning

I’m a pretty big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so it felt a bit ridiculous when I was given Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2 for Christmas. To be clear, the gift wasn’t ridiculous; it’s a fantastic film and one I’ve been excited to rewatch since seeing it in the cinema. The ridiculous part was that this officially marked the start of my Marvel Bluray collection. That’s right, I might be a huge fan of the franchise and own a fairly sizeable solid-media movie collection, but I’m almost entirely absent the MCU!

I say almost, because in truth I do own both Guardians of the Galaxy (now Volume 1, I guess) and Captain America: The Winter Soldier on DVD, but for a 17 film franchise (at time of writing) that’s pretty meagre. Part of that reason is the Bluray dilemma: ultimately, I don’t care that much about the increased resolution for most films, but I definitely care about the extra features. As Bluray has become the de facto release location for collector’s editions and special features, I was increasingly left behind, waiting for both an excuse to buy a Bluray player and then, later, for prices to drop back to the realms of sanity.

Luckily, 2017 saw both goals achieved. Whilst Blurays remain expensive (Marvel’s particularly so), they’re now at an acceptable premium above the respective DVD release, so with bonus featurettes, content and a better picture quality they feel somehow more worthwhile. At the same time, Marvel finally released a collected set for both Phase One and Phase Two, something I find bizarre has taken half a decade. I mean, what other purpose does the marking of “phases” serve then to artificially create film sets? At any rate, the result was a sudden galvanisation to fill in the blanks and finally own some of my favourite superhero films.

Unfortunately, a quick look at the contents of the collected sets left me a little cold. Yes, there are new bonus scenes, animatics and fun Agent Coulson introductions for each of the films, but they also lack a number of key special features from previous releases, especially the big documentaries. As a result, I’ve thrown in the towel! If Marvel/Disney can’t get their act together and release a definitive edition of the MCU then I’ll just create one myself.

The first hurdle was finding out what variations existed, what the actual differences were and then weighing up the pros and cons. Luckily, Reddit came to my aid (after Google summarily failed) with a raft of suggestions for comparison websites geared towards just this kind of task.

Since then, I’ve been slowly going through the films, one by one, narrowing down my options until I’ve found the exact version that most intrigues me. So far, the few I have settled on have been “out of print”, but luckily a robust second hand market appears to exist, keeping resell prices low. It’s slow going, but honestly I’m finding it quite fun. I’m also tracking my decisions and aim to release a full list, and break down of why I chose each film’s specific version, once I’m done.

For now, I figured it would be worth a quick round-up of the websites I’ve found most useful, so without further ado, and in no particular order, here are my top five film hunting locations:

1. DVD Double Dip
Not the prettiest site, nor the most complete in terms of information, but what it does have is extremely easy to read, compare and review. Probably the best starting point I’ve found but take the accuracy with a pinch of salt.

2. DVD Compare
Very accurate, particularly when it comes to extra features, and great for comparing regional differences in films. Take particular note of the “Cuts” and “Overall” sections at the bottom of a search page to see if the film is actively censored anywhere in the world. I wish you could compare films side-by-side, but still easily my favourite comparison site.

3. Blu-Ray.com
Probably the most complete database of film releases on this list but a bit of a pig to search accurately. There’s no way to easily compare film versions without opening multiple tabs, but you can filter by country directly on the search bar and the user reviews are solid, often clearing up any confusion over oddly phrased features.

4. Filmogs
Another very complete database without easy comparison methods. Easier to navigate than Blu-Ray.com but the search is less intelligent (e.g. “Avengers” fails to pull back any collected sets). Again, useful for getting more information, plus acts as a competitively priced marketplace.

5. /r/DVDCollection
If all else fails, ask here and someone will probably either know the answer or own the film and be able to tell you. Really helpful bunch!

Of course, once you’ve narrowed down your options and decided which version is just right, you still need to buy the darn thing. Obviously if you’re looking at buying new then all the normal locations apply, but for second hand movies I’m having most success at the following:

1. Music Magpie – though be wary, several times I’ve spent a while looking at a film, come back later and found the price has shot up. Leave it a few days and it seems to drop back down again.
2. eBay
3. CEX
4. Amazon Marketplace

Happy hunting!

New Year, New Phone? Compare the Camera First

Currently, both myself and my partner are looking into replacing our mobile phones (her slightly more urgently). As a result, we’re both quite deep in the mire of tech reviews, contract comparisons and general research. For the most part, this has only gone to prove what I wrote about several weeks ago: the mobile phone market is stagnant. None of the current generation’s big, flashy marketing gimmicks are even close to being on my list of desirable features, whilst previous years’ genuinely useful innovations seem to have almost entirely disappeared (looking at you, waterproof casings!).

As a result, more so than at any time I’ve previously delved deep into the mobile market, the minor differences and quality of parts are becoming increasingly important. For both of us, one of those now-standard features which can make or break a mobile is the camera, but trying to really tell the difference between two handsets ability is getting incredibly hard. Long gone are the days of pixel wars, where the MP rating was a broadly useable mark of quality. Now all phones have far too many pixels to ever be needed, meaning the calibre of the lens and processing software is much more important. Here, too, though it has become harder to tell pro from imposter, with even relatively basic mid-tier handsets boasting chips and glass from reputable sources like Zeiss and Samsung.

So the discovery of GSM Arena and it’s phone comparison tools (all credit goes to my partner for the actual discovery, of course) is a real boon. It’s a brilliant website – irritating banner ads aside – which is surprisingly fast to load extremely high resolution, balanced images taken with any number of mainstream mobiles. Not just photos, but stills taken from video recordings are present as well, able to be synced between three phones for immediate comparison. It’s a fantastic tool for quickly and accurately comparing models, with some surprising results. Personally, my favouritism of Sony has seen me eyeing up the XZ1 Compact, but having viewed the direct comparison between the Galaxy S8 I’m now a little put off (though oddly the video still seems much sharper). Most disappointing has been the Huawei Mate 10 Lite, which impressed me in store but at this detail is clearly lagging far behind.

Still, personal problems aside, it’s a cracking service and well worth shouting about!

The New 52: A Summary [#52]

So the end is nigh. Fifty-two weeks, fifty-nine articles, two failures and the most complete challenge I’ve ever set myself. Sure, I may not have managed to write once a week, every week, during 2017 but I have managed to write a whole lot more than I would have done otherwise. I’ve documented my plan to record more of my media in 2017 than ever before, only to have innovative new technology create a road block. I’ve shared my ever increasing love and interest in photography, including some very big personal milestones. I’ve received my first genuine comment, not just from an anonymous stranger on the internet but from a creator and individual whom I have followed for years. I’ve discussed my own life, my travels, worries, annoyances and ideas; I’ve had a space to comment on wider industry trends, disturbing news stories and things which I’ve just found interesting.

It’s been a fantastic, frustrating and, at times, not particularly well executed fifty-two weeks. On the whole, though, I’m extremely proud of, and pleased with, the fifty official “New 52” posts that were published (see full list below – now numbered correctly). I’m also a little astonished that only six of them are MiM posts, with most being self contained articles I would likely never have written if it weren’t for this challenge. Sure, I’m annoyed that I missed two weeks, just like I’m annoyed that there are several MiMs and other articles still sat in my drafts folder, but that doesn’t take away from the accomplishments I have made.

So then, the next question is: fifty-two more? Well, put simply, no. I still plan to post, particularly with media reviews, but 2017 was about finally finding the courage to put my writing out into the world, and forcing myself to do so. That has now been achieved and I’m very happy with the end result. The next step is to focus that energy into new challenges and new skills. I will not be starting 2018 with any specific challenge or checklist of goals; instead, I’m going to forge forward with several ideas. The first step will be to clear out/complete as many incomplete projects as possible, beginning with that drafts folder. It’s ridiculous that I have drafted movie reviews from October 2016 that have never seen the light of day. It’s equally ridiculous that I have spent over a year talking about migrating theAdhocracy; changing the article format; implementing home-brew backed cross posting; and getting some of the travel videos I’ve shot edited, uploaded and accessible. The last year has been about learning new skills, proving that I can balance commitments with creative endeavours and working out where I enjoy putting my energy. I’ve now got a pretty good idea of how that will all work, so the next step is to begin applying it. I’m excited to see what my year-in-review will look like in another twelve months time, but the aim is for it to be even more diverse!

New 52 Challenge Posts:

  1. The New 52: A Challenge
  2. Scrobbling Movies
  3. Rating my Opinion
  4. A New Mozilla
  5. Month in Media: January 2017
  6. Martian Mirrors
  7. Interneting is (Apparently) Hard
  8. The Existential Crisis Question
  9. Awesome Azhdarchids
  10. TV vs Film: The Great Debate
  11. Willow, Wetlands & Nostell Priory
  12. Empathy Just Makes Sense
  13. Thoughts from Around the Web
  14. Month in Media: March 2017
  15. April Foolery 2017
  16. Duping the Genie
  17. Finding the Time
  18. Echoing Frustration
  19. Hyperfocal Stone Rows
  20. Vinyl Scratchings
  21. Factual Distrust
  22. Welcome Home
  23. Mister Vimes’d Go Spare & Assorted Odds ‘n’ Ends
  24. A Gap in Time
  25. Peaks & Troughs
  26. Security All The Way Down
  27. Month in Media – June 2017
  28. Marrs Green
  29. The Poetry of Spam
  30. Untapped Market
  31. That Anti-Diversity Googler & Self Introspection
  32. Where is Superwoman?
  33. The Weight of Opportunity
  34. Stickers, Eclipses and Lighthouses
  35. Life Between the Worlds
  36. When is a Cat a Mongoose?
  37. Sunrise on the Quiraing
  38. Month in Media – September 2017
  39. Month in Media – July 2017
  40. Forgotten & Surreal Instruments
  41. Welcome to the Grid
  42. Asking the Right Answers
  43. Insta Inspiration
  44. Fair Phones & Mobile Woes
  45. Dark Booking Patterns
  46. Month in Media – November 2017
  47. Spiders, Dinosaurs and CVs
  48. Death of the Internet
  49. Remember: Anger Leads to the Dark Side
  50. The New 52: A Summary

Asking the Right Answers [#44]

I have been taking part in Google Rewards for over a year now. For the most part, I complete the various surveys to feed an ongoing habit without feeling like I’m being too indulgent or wasting money. It’s a fast and easy way to make a bit of completely disposable income and, honestly, the service works well.

Broadly, the surveys I get fall into three categories: store feedback, google reviews and marketing surveys. Store feedback is usually a case of confirming that I visited a given location and then rating them out of five. It’s quick, interesting enough to see which businesses feel the service is worthwhile and lets me provide some limited feedback. I don’t really imagine that the data is all that worthwhile, but enough stores do it, some of which having done so for an entire year at this point, that they must get something from the results.

Google reviews are a little more tedious but also have a higher reward, so I quite enjoy receiving them. I’m one of those people that routinely reviews online purchases, fills out in-store questionnaires and generally says “yes” when asked if I have a minute. I totally understand why most people ignore these types of things, but I try to do them whenever I have spare time for two main reasons. The first is that I’ve worked retail, I’ve been the person with the clipboard and I am fully aware how much that role sucks. I literally spent two months, for 4-5 hours a day, wandering around Durham trying to get people interested in taking a flyer for a store I worked for, and that was difficult enough. Getting people to actually engage with you for longer than ten seconds… that sounds like hell on Earth. The second reason is that I like having a record of my opinions, which should be fairly obvious from this website (and elsewhere), and that extends out to the services I’ve used and the items I’ve purchased.

So, the first two groups are easy for me to understand and pretty common. But once every month or so I’ll get a survey from group three: marketing research. Not market research, but questioning me on the adverts that I remember having seen or my awareness of brands. I imagine most of these are Google trying to gauge how well its own advertising algorithms are, something which is totally apparent when I get a survey like the one I received this morning.

That survey was incredibly quick and began by showing me a thumbnail of a Youtube video by Philip DeFranco. The video was several years old (I could see the uploaded date on the image) and the survey wanted to know if I had watched it. Now, I’ve been subscribed to Phil since I first created a Youtube account back in 2009 and had already been watching him for over a year before that. I quite literally created my account just to be able to track which of his back catalogue of videos I had watched. As a result, I could say with pretty high certainty that I had watched the video they were showing me. I also assume, considering that Youtube is tied to my Google account, that they already knew that I had watched the video. The first question on these surveys tend to request confirmation of known information, so that made sense.

But then they did something which I don’t understand, at all. I think what they were trying to do was refine their suggested videos algorithm but the way they went about it was just weird. There were two more questions to the survey and both showed another thumbnail of one of Phil’s videos from over a year ago. Both asked me to rate, out of five, how useful these would be as suggested videos on Youtube. Now, I don’t propose to understand the exact results or answers Google are looking for here, but I can imagine that they’re hoping to confirm that, yes, someone who wants to watch a video on current affairs would like to watch more videos on current affairs. The problem, though, is that their survey is completely ignoring my own video watching history. I am subscribed to Phil’s channel; I have watched every video he’s uploaded in the past decade. I don’t need to have his old videos suggested to me because I’ve already seen them. However, none of that information has been requested by the survey, so from the perspective of the questions I’ve been asked then, yes, based on the fact I enjoyed watching the first video I would want the other two videos to be suggested.

Yesterday I was reading an A List Apart article on why asking the right questions in user testing is key to not screwing up. Perhaps because that was on my mind, this survey through me round a loop. On a personal level, completely honestly, those videos are useless suggestions to me and I would have liked to rate them 0 out of 5 (which is, irritatingly, never an option). However, I’m a huge fan of Phil and want his channel to keep growing. Saying “Yes, I watched that one video of his and never want to watch another” seems wrong. I don’t want Google to take that message away from this survey. On the other hand, I hate how my current suggested videos feed is full of videos I’ve already seen and content from channels I’m already subscribed to. It’s a personal pet peeve of the current Youtube setup because it makes that page incredibly pointless, so I really don’t want to reinforce that behaviour and say that these are good suggestions.

At this point, I’m definitely over analysing what’s going on, but you would hope a company the size of Google would understand that the way they present a survey will have differing impacts. The questions are needlessly broad and non-specific, leaving the interpretation open to the user, but the subject matter leaves me stuck trying to guess what data Google actually want from me. Do they want me to know if I like those types of videos or do they want me to ‘confirm’ that suggesting other videos from channels I’ve watched before is a good thing? Unfortunately, I don’t know which it is, which means I don’t really know what the question is, and if I don’t know that, how can I answer it?

In the end, I just stuck them both at 4/5 stars. Typing this up now I feel that was probably the wrong thing to do, but oh well. At the end of the day, Google asked what seems like a fairly innocuous question, but one which has two wildly different answers. I doubt I’m the only person getting that question but I’ll probably be an outlier in my response. Still, it’s a prime example of where the phrasing, setting and simplicity of a question can leave it horribly ambiguous. The result will likely go on to inform some form of policy at Youtube, which is a shame, because no matter what question they thought they were asking I doubt it’s the one they’re actually having answered.

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.

 

Untapped Market [#31]

I’ve recently been spending a lot of time researching, and ultimately buying, a new camera. From an outsider perspective it might seem a little odd, as I already have a very good DSLR that, whilst by no means top of the line, still serves me very well. I love that camera and actively enjoy using it, but it does have a couple of issues.

First and foremost is the size. I can’t take a DSLR to a music concert, or on a night out, or even around to a friend’s house for a dinner party (well, I could take it to all of those occasions, but it would always be impractical or obnoxious or both). They aren’t the most practical cameras and they’re definitely conspicuous, so I also struggle to take photographs of people. That means we return from holidays to various locations with some pretty great shots of our food, the scenery we visited and any wildlife that stuck around long enough, but rarely anything of the culture or people we met. A large part of that is just me and what I feel comfortable with, but there’s also a practical side to having to carry so much gear.

There are a couple of other issues, too. Whilst my DSLR can be great in low light, it will never be able to get truly sharp, fast low light images without investing in some seriously expensive lenses. It’s also not the best camera in the world for shooting video. The 600D can shoot 1080p well enough, but has no image stabilisation and only manages a maximum 50fps. Whilst it can shoot in 24fps, making it perfect for fixed camera filming, as a travel video camera it isn’t ideal.

So that’s why I’ve bought a new camera. In the end I’ve stuck with Canon and plumped for the G7x Mark II. It’s an impressive camera, with some clever features, but it certainly isn’t cheap. Still, it solves several of my issues: it’s small enough to go everywhere, robust enough to travel well, has enough zoom range to be flexible, shoots well in low light and has in-built multi-axis image stabilisation. It also has a couple of other nice video features, such as an internal ND filter and a time lapse mode. So far, I’m very impressed by the image quality and happy enough with the video (though haven’t given this a huge amount of testing). It has a couple of issues, such as lacking a viewfinder (which I’m struggling to get used to), a poorly designed battery release, partial incompatibilty with my Joby tripod and an insanely stiff mode wheel. Still, so far it hasn’t done anything awfully.

And yet, I can’t help but feel slightly disappointed. Not with my camera, not exactly at least, but with the market in general. With the rise and rise of Youtube, Snapchat, Instagram and similar platforms, it baffles me that there remains no decent all rounder compact system for film and photography. Every major player has a couple of models seemingly aimed at that market, but none of them quite manage to tick all the boxes. The Canon lacks a viewfinder (ignoring the G5, which desperately needs an upgrade to match the specs of the G7x) and only has basic video modes; there’s no slow motion filming, no 4K and you still lose have to crop the sensor to achieve 1080p. The main rival from Panasonic, the LX15, appears to be a clear market leader on paper, boasting 4K, 100fps slow motion, time lapse videos, a larger maximum aperture, smaller crop factor and 5-axis stabilisation. Unfortunately, it performs far worse. Despite having a wider max aperture, the low light performance is better on the Canon and it may have a more advanced stabilisation system, but the Canon routinely out performs in tests. Plus, that crop factor is still not insignificant, the zoom range is only just sufficient and there’s no inbuilt ND or ability to add an external one (clever third party solutions aside). Nikon barely factored in my research, despite their Coolpix line being one of the longest running on the market. They achieve some of the features, such as 4K, but rarely manage to get the right sets of specs together to make much sense. Then there are the Sony rx100 series cameras. These have certainly dominated the market for several years, but they each have two major down sides: the price and the overheating. Sure, they can shoot 4K, ultra slow motion and have great glass which works well at low light (though not as well as the Canon), but they also cost twice as much and can only film in those settings for a seriously limited amount of time. These same problems persist even when jumping to 4/3 sensor mirrorless cameras.

So I’m left baffled. I want a good point and shoot that gives me the best specs across the board and is aimed at the Youtube generation. That means full RAW control, in both photo and video modes, so that I can tweak my output as much as needed. That means the basic level of video features that the likes of Casey Niestat and Peter McKinnon have made the entry level for Youtube, such as 100fps @ 1080p, 24fps all of the time and a decent wide angle crop. It means good image stabilisation, the ability to hook up tripods and external mics, a decent battery life and no overheating issues. It means a viewfinder, touchscreen, selfie rotation and NFC connectivity. But, for some reason, that camera doesn’t exist. I guarantee it would sell insanely well, but for some reason no one is making it. Perhaps, as the LX10 has shown, the tech just isn’t quite there yet? Or perhaps the big manufacturers are scared that making a camera too good will mean less people taking up the 4/3, APS-C or full frame alternatives? Whatever the reason, I really hope at some point in the future they manage to move past it and release the camera I want. Just not too soon – I just spent a whole lot of money and something that isn’t perfect. I don’t want to have to do that again any time soon.

Month in Media – June 2017 [#28]

Will it be as late as May? (spoiler: no!) Hopefully not as late as April! But still, a new idea has cropped up that I’d like to use going forward: ongoing media. Basically, it’s a “what are you watching/reading/playing” right now type thing, mainly to help me keep track of stuff. I’m also interested to see how long it takes me to consume certain types of media and whether there are any underlying trends. I’d assume that books take me the longest, movies the least (I rarely split viewing of films) but I’ll be interested to see if my assumptions are correct.

Ongoing media:
TV – A Series of Unfortunate Events (utterly amazing so far);
TV – Doctor Who (I really hate weekly release schedules, but one of the best seasons in a while).
Video games – Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King [Gamecube] (Much harder than I remember and it could really use more frequent or user-set save points, but just bashing orcs around remains a lot of fun).

Books

The Midas Flesh [vol. 1]

In the past, the tale of King Midas actually happens and the Earth is destroyed, frozen in time encapsulated in gold. In the future, a group of rebels attempt to learn the planet’s secrets, hoping to weaponise the alchemical transformation to bring the rule of an evil empire to an end. In a nutshell, that is the premise of The Midas Flesh. Sounds like a pretty cool What If? storyline, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately, the idea is probably the best part of volume one. The concept of Midas has been taken to an extreme, turning the whole planet gold in a matter of moments after the ‘miracle’ occurs. I can suspend my disbelief to buy that in a fantasy world, but The Midas Flesh tries to set itself within a science fiction universe, with characters that try to ‘explain’ what’s going on scientifically. It’s a minor irritation, but if you’re going to do that you can’t get away with “it was a miracle” as an explanation. It also doesn’t help explain how a planet can be turned to solid gold without any repercussions. The plot has a great potential for exploring the actual knock-on effects of Midas’ curse: is it just anything touching the surface that becomes gold? What happens to plate tectonics in that scenario? Or is the whole planet solid gold? What would that do to the mass of Earth and the gravitational interactions of the solar system? Why isn’t the air transmuted as well, when solids and liquids are both effected equally?

Don’t get me wrong, some parts have been thought through in some fun ways. I like that Midas hasn’t been decomposed, because any bacteria that touch him turn to gold. He should still be encased in a very thin layer of gilding, because our skins are crawling with the little buggers, but that’s getting seriously nit-picky (though, given the time period, some tiny golden nits would have been a fun addition). I also like that the ‘curse’ is still going on, with anything that touches the planets surface instantly transmuted; I even like that it is a ‘miracle’ and not a hand-wavey piece of technology (I’ll admit, that’s a little hypocritical, but oh well). Plus, the actual drawings of the golden moment in time are wonderful. The Earth isn’t just a bunch of people standing around, we get to see entire areas caught during blizzards or thunderstorms, with figures and buildings coated in a coral like structure of ‘frozen’ rain drops. They’re a neat visual touch and genuinely interesting to spend time just dissecting.

That cannot be said of the drawing style in general, which (for me, and I own that this is highly subjective) is a little cartoonish for the source material. It feels like an Archie comic, but the world it is set against is much darker than that and would benefit from a more ‘realistic’ art style. Characters and dialogue suffer similarly, feeling like they belong in a different novel instead of this one. The cast of two ‘humans’ and a velociraptor (lacking proper feather coverage, but it is an alien velociraptor so maybe that’s okay) is a quirky choice that leads to some fun situations, and I like that our ship’s captain isn’t clearly male or female (body form suggests female, but personal pronouns are consistently male). Again, much like the general story idea, the concept is brilliant but the execution doesn’t quite live up to it.

In general then, The Midas Flesh feels like it has a lot of potential. I love the concept, the character’s are interesting enough and I’m intrigued to see where the plot line goes. It is begging for better world building and a more nuanced story, rather than the simple ‘evil empire’ trope, but if volume two focuses on both those elements then it could still turn into a very entertaining series. I’ll definitely pick up volume two in the future, but will likely wait for it to be on sale first.

tl;dr: A really cool idea stifled by mediocre execution.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [vol. 1]

I am one of those incredibly rare people who actually enjoyed the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen film, so as soon as I realised that general consensus states that the original graphic novels are far superior, they became a firm fixture on my reading list. At long last, thanks to some frankly ridiculous discounts at Forbidden Planet, I’ve managed to pick up the first two volumes. At even longer last, our weekend away in Cornwall presented a prime opportunity to finally start reading them.

My simply review is this: if volume two is even half as good as volume one, the series will be fantastic. Somehow, it’s actually considered even better, so I’m pretty excited to find out how. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is everything a good graphic novel should be. The plot is intriguing, exciting and clever; the characters are interesting and fleshed out. Artistically, the drawing style isn’t one I particularly gravitate towards but it matches the subject matter very nicely, plus every frame has such a huge amount of detail that the world basically builds itself.

And what a world it is. If there is one thing the League series illustrates better than anything else, it is that modern copyright laws hinder creativity. I knew the vague idea had been to take a group of Victorian (and earlier) ‘superheroes’ from old pulp fiction and penny dreadfuls, and set them in a world alongside one another, creating a grotesque equivalent to the Justice League or Avengers. It’s a concept I absolutely love and the main reason I enjoyed the film so much, but the novels run with that theme far beyond anything I had hoped for. The choice of characters is brilliant and runs far beyond the titular League themselves. The inclusion of Mycroft Holmes and Moriarty was incredibly welcome and a brilliant ‘twist’, but even more so are the little details littering the pages. Literary references abound, with cameos from the likes of the Artful Dodger not just serving to make the reader grin but also to progress the story in clever ways.

The result is a brilliant, ingenious mashup of ideas, characters and tropes that play off one another wonderfully. Combined with excellent imagery, colouring and plot and I can fully understand why The League of Extraordinary Gentleman is seen as a classic of the form. It’s so good I’m struggling to think of anything else worth writing about; it’s just great and I cannot wait for round two!

tl;dr: A brilliantly crafted mashup of literary characters that is a delight to read; one of the best graphic novels I’ve picked up to date.

Movies

Avengers Assembled [rewatch]

Just as funny and action packed as I remember, plus crammed full of Easter Eggs now. It’s fascinating going back and watching a film from so early in the now universally known MCU and seeing background characters that you recognise from major roles in other films or the TV shows. The amount of known Hydra agents on board the helicarrier is insane in hindsight. Serious props to Fiege and everyone else involved for maintaining that level of continuity.

Otherwise, the introduction of Loki is kind of odd now. He’s become such a well known character, but at the time we’d only seen him in Thor, so some of his mannerisms now seem a little off. Still, the overall acting is spell binding and the casting is fantastic, so I’ll forgive the occasional “yeah, you’d do that better now” moment.

It also remains incredibly tight and funny. Marvel has had a run of brilliant films since the first Avengers, each upping the ante of the last, so it’s impressive just how upped the ante already was at this point. The action still holds up to more modern films, the plot still works and the humour is just as unrelenting and brilliant as I remembered.

It was a little funny re-watching one of the earliest post-credit scenes that really had people excited, though, as the Thanos reveal now just seems corny. However, the line by the leader of the Chitauri is not something I’d picked up on before; he specifically states that attacking Earth isn’t as easy as promised, in fact it is like “courting death itself”. That’s a pretty huge statement, given Thanos’ character background. In the comics he spends most of his life in service to, and in love with, Death (which, in the Marvel universe, is a real person; a woman). “Courting death” is what Thanos seems himself doing during the original Infinity War, which is done in her name to win her respect. So, saying waging war on Earth is like “courting death itself” is a pretty clear indication that Thanos now sees Earth, out of all of the planets in the galaxy, as a target worthy of his crusade.

tl;dr: So. Many. Easter Eggs! Remains a hugely entertaining and surprisingly comedic entry point to the MCU.

Avengers: Age of Ultron [rewatch]

Definitely the awkward middle child, Age of Ultron hasn’t aged badly but the flaws are still very present. It definitely sits in the middle of the three heavily inter-related films (Assembled, Ultron, Civil War) and, as a bridge, it’s not awful. As a standalone film though, it is far more forgettable then the source material should be.

I will say, though, that unlike Civil War, Age of Ultron seems to have less plot holes on rewatch. The twin’s introduction makes more sense, as does their actions within the first Hydra base and on discovering Ultron’s plan. I still feel the film doesn’t do enough to patch up their relationship with the Avengers for Wanda to switch sides entirely by the movie’s ending (especially after her brother has just died), but they came across as much more complete characters than I had remembered. Ultron equally benefits from a rewatch, feeling more like someone spiralling into madness then a talking deus ex machina to move the plot along to the next fight scene. In fact, the Hulkbuster scene also now feels a lot less tacked on and more integral to the plot. Plus the Vision remains completely awesome and worth the entire film just to have him pick up Thor’s hammer.

However, Ulysses Klaues’ introduction is a lot more dubious then I remembered, with Stark just seeing a photo and magically guessing that he is the lead they should chase down. Similarly, whilst very cool, Fury’s reappearance with a helicarrier and a whole fleet of S.H.I.E.L.D personnel makes no sense. Beyond Maria Hill and himself, all of the others should either be dead, wanted or reemployed at other federal agencies that wouldn’t exactly grant leave for that kind of thing. I know the existence of the helicarrier is explained in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, but the staff is not and bugged me a lot more than I remembered. Also, obligatory issue with the fact that this was a prime example of when the TV and movies could have crossed over seamlessly. Coulson may not be able to meet the Avengers again, but why not stick a couple of the others on the bridge? Even just in the background! They are the best agents S.H.I.E.L.D has but they weren’t brought in for something important enough to blow Fury’s cover as a hobo? Not buying it, Fiege, not buying it at all!

tl;dr: A decent entry to the series, but ultimately feels a little forgettable.

Captain America: Civil War [rewatch]

Definitely a more worthy successor to the first Avengers film than Age of Ultron was, or alternatively a solid close to that trilogy. The introduction of both Spider Man and Black Panther is excellent, serving to boost my interest in both stand-alone films significantly again (with not too long to wait now, either). More developed characters are treated more varyingly, with some pretty large plot holes.

I said a similar thing first time around, but there just isn’t enough justification given for why Captain America won’t sign the accords. In the comics, you’re talking about creating a list of anyone with powers, regardless of whether they are vigilantes/heroes, which is a huge privacy invasion and civil rights issue. The film version is specific to the Avengers themselves and never directly targets others, even though two more powered individuals are introduced during the film and we know there are dozens more thanks to the extended universe. Basically, I think they could have made the dispute a whole lot more interesting. Why not play off Parker existing, a kid just trying to do the right thing; they couldn’t replicate his role in the comic but they could have come a lot closer. Or play of T’Challa, whose diplomatic immunity likely prevents him having to sign the accords and making it a story about privilege. There are a lot of ways that could have made the dispute a lot cleaner and more in-character.

Plus, that could have made the villain a little less redundant. I’m torn over Zemo’s part in the plot, as it serves nicely to throw Bucky back into the mix and the revelation over Stark’s parents is a clever one. That said, he still feels largely redundant to the plot and his ‘evil plan’ is completely bizarre. Why go to Siberia just to kill the other Winter Soldiers? Why bring the clip of Stark’s parents with you? The whole plan fails if, say, Vision is the one that goes instead of Stark… it just feels a little dumb.

Still, despite all of that, the action is incredible, the casting remains spot on and the dialogue well balanced. The film has a lot of unexplored potential but it is still a huge amount of fun and one I will definitely revisit multiple times in the future.

tl;dr: Even more plot holes then I remembered, but still a huge amount of fun.

Wonder Woman

Finally, finally DC have managed to put together a genuinely good, interesting and clever superhero film without giant, glaring errors or irritations. That isn’t to say Wonder Woman is perfect, it could definitely have been a lot better, but it is a solidly made, well executed and extremely fun piece of entertainment.

So first of all, the good:

  • A female superhero who takes control, has a leading role and feels both believable and human (despite not being so). She also never scissor kicks someone to death or strangles them between her thighs, which is a nice change.
  • A genuinely brilliant portrayal of a seriously beloved character. Gal Gadot just embodies the role of Wonder Woman perfectly; she feels completely genuine, without shying away from the madder sides of the character (read: she is still an immortal demigod who was created from a clay doll).
  • Perfect casting all around. Chris Pine is a lot of fun, both when taking command and when completely out of his depth and his solid comic timing is used well. The rag-tag group of stereotypes they collect are well paired, creating fun comedy routines, but also manage to develop their own characterisations well enough that you care about them by the end.
  • The villains are decent as well, with Dr Poison the stand out in my eyes. She plays an interesting double to Diana’s heroism, presenting a face of evil that isn’t male nor simply insane.
  • Plus, the big reveal of Ares was brilliant. Everyone knew Ares was going to be the big villain of the piece, but DC deserve credit for covering his identity so well. The Nazi General was such a clear and obvious contender I had largely dismissed him, but personally had expected it to be someone in the background or even Dr Poison herself. When David Thewlis suddenly walked onto the runway I almost laughed; when he didn’t transform into some younger Adonis, my jaw dropped. He was brilliant, a perfect casting by simply being completely the opposite of what you would expect. Even seeing his six-pack wielding youthful self in the flash backs just helped compound the wonderful weirdness of Thewlis being the God of War. It could have been awful, but it worked perfectly and provided a twist I would never have thought DC could pull off.
  • The Justice League theme. It’s barely been used in the wider DC films and even here, within Wonder Woman, you hear it very rarely but when it kicks in, you know it. For all that DC have done wrong with their movie universe so far that theme is not one of them; I think it will become pretty iconic. That’s something Marvel has completely failed to achieve.
  • The action. Holy crap, the action. So. Well. Choreographed. It’s big, brass and in-your-face whenever it kicks off, but that doesn’t bleed out into the surrounding scenes (which are plentiful – I was impressed how little of the film is fighting). Diana’s punches feel powerful, they carry great weight, but they also feel wonderfully precise. There’s an air of Sherlock Holmes (the Robert Downey Jr. incarnation) about many of the sequences, with time dilating to emphasise Diana’s own martial planning skills. Enemies attack and she leaps into action, then everything slows and the camera pans as we see her glance to one side and note a second attacker. Time returns to normal just as she pivots and lands a round-house kick. It’s great choreography and clever use of slow-motion techniques that enhance the story.
  • The film balances emotions very well. It is at times laugh-out-loud funny and at other times incredibly bleak. For a superhero film set during a genuinely dark time of history, not some alternate mildly dystopic future like, well, all of the others (bar a couple of X-Men films, I guess) it handles the subject matter pretty well. It won’t be winning any awards for nuanced storytelling in that sense, but it also treated the First World War with the respect it deserves without making the plot feel ridiculous.
  • The Chief is actually a demigod, so Diana and the Greek pantheon aren’t the only supernatural beings in the film. It’s a subtle addition but it’s great to see such a wonderfully complex Easter Egg in a DC film.
  • The editors at DC didn’t feel the need to shoe-horn in any quirky characters, off-beat jokes about unicorn fetishes or even subplots introducing spin-off characters or plot lines. They just let a film be a film, tell the story it set out to tell and create a vision of a well known character without any major changes. The fact that even needs to be mentioned says all you need to know about the DC movies before Wonder Woman, but thank the gods it can now be said at all!

But then again, the bad:

  • Dr Poison is under utilised. There was so much more to be said about the fact that “Man’s World” is being threatened predominantly by a woman; that it’s women on both sides of the coin for once. Diana gets pissed about how the men don’t instantly throw down arms and mock them for being easily swayed, but the fact her main enemy is a woman never really gets the screen time it deserves.
  • There’s also very little backstory to Dr Poison. Her mask is clever and looks great but you never find out why she has it. Personally I like the idea that she is just evil, that she has been corrupted just as much as the men whom she serves, but I do wonder if there was meant to be some victimisation in her past used to explain her actions. Again, personally, I would hope her scars and deformities are due to her own experimentations, but feel they may instead have been given to her by another, turning her to evil. Meh, perhaps it’s better we never know the true answer.
  • Zeus’s timeline makes no sense. He was killed by Ares (lol, wut?!) along with the whole of the pantheon (lol, wut?!?!) yet managed to use his dying breath to create Themiscyra, magic the Amazonians there and do so without Ares knowing? Okay, he’s a god (albeit a dead one, however that works) so we’ll give him a pass, but how does Diana fit into this? Hippolyta tells us she moulded Diana from clay and Zeus gave her life, but it also seems clear that Diana was born on Themiscyra. So did Hippolyta manage to create her clay-baby in the instant that Ares killed Zeus? And Zeus decided to both grant her a child and make that child the weapon to kill Ares? Personally, I think they should have just stuck to the comic book stories of gods not wanting to get involved in the mortal world any more. Still, I can see how killing off the whole lot will probably be a lot easier to explain as the movies move forward. Having literal gods running around kind of makes the likes of Batman and Cyborg a bit redundant…
  • Themiscyra is also a little unexplained. So Zeus puts his best warriors all on a single magical island, to stand guard in case Ares ever returns. But they don’t seem to be monitoring the outside world at all. Normally there is a scrying glass of some sort, letting them view the world at large, but Wonder Woman alludes to nothing. They genuinely seem to find out about WWI during the film yet it’s clearly been going on for years. That seems like a bit of godly oversight on Zeus’ part.
  • For all that I loved about Ares, he was defeated too easily. We know this version of the character does grow stronger as war spreads and the Great War is the largest of all time, so he should be the strongest he has ever been. That means he should be stronger then when he fought, and defeated, the entire Greek pantheon, which makes him scary levels of strong. Whilst he has the upper hand for some time, whipping Diana around with ease, his end still feels a little too quick.
  • As much as I will praise the script, plot and acting as being far superior to anything DC have output to date, and actually rank above several Marvel films, there are still some absolute clunkers in here. Several lines fall flat, either because the actual dialogue is a bit poor or the acting/editing just doesn’t quite work. Several elements of the plot take unnecessary diversions from the source material, to the detriment of the film, and others are just never properly addressed. In other words, Wonder Woman is great but it still could have been much better.

tl;dr: Holy crap, DC have created a genuinely clever, interesting, well made superhero movie. Praise be to Zeus!

Shrek the Third

Bizarrely, this is the first time I’ve seen the third instalment in the popular ogre-based franchise. I’ve seen the first more times than I can count, the second well into double digits and the fourth at least twice, but the third has eluded me for years. It finally dropped onto Netflix some time recently so I jumped at the change to ‘complete’ the story. The result? It’s fine.

Honestly, my biggest reaction to watching this now decade old film (woah…) was much the cast has just disappeared. Actors like Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy, Cameron Diaz, John Cleese, Antonio Banderas: these were all huge names in the mid 2000’s. Now, though, I can’t remember the last time I saw them featured in anything, really. It feels like the Shrek train rolled on so long they could all retire, which I could full well believe.

As a film, Shrek the Third is a painting-by-numbers sequel. By the third instalment I feel they had pretty much run out of ideas and were just rolling with the logical sequence of events. If Shrek has married the princess then, some day, he’ll become king: how would he react? Now Shrek is married, the next step is children: how would he react? That’s about as far as the plot goes, with a side-line notion of rounding off Prince Charming’s story from film one. Sprinkle in some toilet humour, get Puss/Donkey into some wacky subplot and add a couple more parodies of well known mythic or fairy tale creatures et voila, you have a Shrek film.

The result is neither good nor bad. It’s enjoyable enough, with some genuinely funny, stand out moments and some great song choices. Snow White’s switch into Immigrant Song by Led Zeppelin stands up to any gag from the original film, the Princesses’, in general, had some fun riffs and the medieval American High of Worcestershire was well executed. Beyond that though, little was new or innovative. Shrek’s dialogue felt stilted, and neither Puss or Donkey had any particularly memorable moments. The Frog King’s death was cringe worthy and Charming’s plan, execution and role felt lacklustre. King Arthur (‘Arty’) was a good enough excuse for the plot, but the references to Arthurian legend never really went anywhere, which felt like a wasted opportunity.

Voice work was without fault, which you would expect from a cast both of this calibre and with this much experience playing these characters. Animation looked a little dated by today’s standards but, honestly, is good enough to stand up for a long time to come. The only really odd part was how uncanny-valley Shrek’s face appears sometimes – there just isn’t enough space around his facial features, making it look somehow photoshopped into place. I’d be interested to rewatch either of the previous films to see if this is some change in rendering for Shrek the Third or just dating of the technology used in general.

At the end of the day, Shrek the Third is what you would expect: a quickly put together piece of children’s entertainment, designed to maximise the return from the original’s insane level of (deserved) popularity. As a film with little reason to exist beyond making more money, it does a lot better than it could have done. As a film with little reason to exist beyond making more money, it really isn’t worth a watch. But, if you have a spare two hours and fancy a mildly entertaining romp with well known characters, it won’t overly disappoint either.

tl;dr: Fun enough but a little flat and not on par with either the original or the first sequel.

Tangled [rewatch]

I remember absolutely loving Tangled the first time (and even the second time) that I saw it. I even considered it the best Disney princess movie for quite some time, feeling it struck the balance between classic Disney story animation and modern Disney story telling. I still believe that balance is well struck, and will happily point to Tangled as the turning point for Disney Animation as a studio. I’m not sure, however, that I would continue to hold it in quite as high esteem.

Tangled seems to have aged far more than I would have expected. The facial animations look a little too smooth, giving the characters a slight sense of the uncanny valley. The comedy also felt a little lacking and the plot isn’t as well held together as I remember. Several key characters never really have their motivations explained (why are they stealing the crown?) and Rapunzel is simultaneously weirdly able to cope in the real world and totally incapable of basic skills. This is a woman who has never met anyone but her mother and only has three books to read, yet seems to grasp human culture and social interaction extremely well.

Despite that, Tangled is still a brilliant film, it still made me laugh quite a bit, Pascal remains a favourite sidekick and the story retains a heartfelt emotional punch. Is it as brilliant as I remember? No. Some of that is natural ageing, but I think a lot of it is just the films that have come since. When compared with the likes of Frozen or Moana several themes seem far more antiquated then they were at the time, when Tangled was pretty damn progressive. That isn’t the fault of the film; arguably, that is its legacy.

tl;dr: Still great fun but not quite as utterly brilliant as I remembered; remains well worth a watch and a core part of Disney’s evolution.

The Last Witch Hunter

Vin Diesel plays a gruff, no-nonsense loner with (actually, for once) magical abilities to kick-ass and not die. I feel like The Last Witch Hunter is actually an attempt to logically connect all Vin Diesel films, ever, into one long continuing franchise about an immortal man. Something that would start with being a witch-hunting Viking and end with him killing weird bat monsters on an asteroid in space.

If you think that premise sounds utterly ridiculous, probably give The Last Witch Hunter a miss. There’s nothing ostensibly wrong with the film, but there’s also nothing ostensibly right with it either. It exists. That’s about it. The cast is ridiculous given the plot. Getting both Elijah Wood and Michael Caine to appear in this movie is arguably the greatest evidence that witches live amongst us I’ve encountered, but the film definitely benefits from the misuse of black magic to achieve this end. No performances are stellar or unmissable, but they’re all better than the source material calls for. Probably the most interesting is Rose Leslie, better known as the Wildling with Flaming Hair (Ygritte) from Game of Thrones. Again, this isn’t a performance that will be remembered through the ages, but it is one which will hopefully pique some other director’s interest. I’d love to see her in a more stretching role one day, I think it would go pretty well.

Less notable is who-ever plays literally anyone else. The blind warlock is a fun character, though introduced as a walking (but not very effective) ex machina to move the plot along. Otherwise, the actual bad guys are pretty forgettable. The witch-queen herself is creepy but already looks quite dated as an effect and her henchmen are barely around. There is a weird cameo by Joseph Gilgun, a brilliant actor who is utterly wasted on a couple of lines of dialogue. Everyone else basically has a single scene then is either killed or never mentioned again.

The plot suffers from similar levels of skin-deep padding. The big ‘twist’ with Wood’s character is far too heavily telegraphed so was pretty expected but also falls foul of too little world building, making his death feel almost irrelevant. Other major plot points turn up and are then forgotten with an air of wantonness that feels almost absent minded. Oh, we’ve got Vin Diesel into a situation where he’s drugged? Lets give the female companion dream walking abilities. Why wouldn’t the other witches prevent that from happening? Make it slightly taboo and rare. It just seems like they had a rough draft of a story and just ran with it.

Which is a shame, because some elements of the world building are quite cool. I liked that we have a world where witches and humans live side-by-side in an almost symbiotic relationship. Sure, there’s a huge amount of borrowing from Harry Potter going on here, but it feels different enough to work. The witches keeping their age a secret with gems (no explanation given) is interesting, as is the parliament of witches that keep the peace with the humans. I even like that the original plan is to create a plague that wipes out human life, but nothing really gets enough time to work. The witch-queen implies that humans are the usurpers but what does that make her? Are they just magical humans or an entirely different race?

Weirdly, based on the ending scene, it looks like someone was hoping for it to spin-off into a new franchise. A sequel has clearly been setup and I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t watch one. I’d like to get a more detailed look at that world, at the very least, plus I quite like where the characters were left. I wouldn’t pay to see it, either at the cinema or on DVD, but I would definitely watch it. For free. When I wasn’t that busy.

tl;dr: Vin Diesel plays his usual character. Some action happens. Parts are quite fun. I didn’t hate it.

Up There

Up There looked like a quirky, British indie flick and it starred Burn Gorman (Torchwood), which was all we needed to decide to give it a watch through on an otherwise empty night. It delivered exactly what we’d expected: it won’t be winning any awards but it is well written, well shot and well acted with a pretty unique plot concept which you just wouldn’t get in a big budget release.

The idea is relatively simple but also wonderfully inclusive. The film follows Martin, played by Gorman, as he tries to make his afterlife work out for him. In Up There, when you die there isn’t some great transition moment. You just enter an in-between space, still stuck on Earth but not quite a ghost either. Humans can’t see the, for want of a better term, astral plane but ghosts can see the living one. Neither can interact with the other, however, which is used to brilliant effect throughout. Ghosts can’t phase through walls or levitate/move objects, which means they can get ‘stuck’. Need to go through a door? You have to wait for a living person to open it and jump through. End up wedged in someone’s car? You’re stuck indefinitely. The film never takes this to any extremes, but plays with it well, using it as a plot device to constrain characters when needed. It does make me wonder what happens if a ghost was to, say, get stuck in a car going through a car crusher – can you die twice?

Certainly, the afterlife isn’t all happy fun times. The end goal of everyone stuck in this in-between state is to impress the ‘management’ enough to be promoted “upstairs”. Again, Up There steers clear of any overt religious symbology or references, so the “upstairs” could be just about anything from Heaven to reincarnation to simple non-existence. The lack of answers could have been irritating but actually works really well, letting the plot focus on the characters rather than the concepts. Which is a great thing, because it’s in the characters that Up There truly shines.

Burn Gorman is excellent throughout, managing to make the slightest facial twitch convey huge amounts of emotion and creating a sombre yet urgent atmosphere that pervades the film and aids the plot no end. He is wonderfully offset by counter part Rash, a hyperactive, loud-mouthed, crude wannabe who is equal parts hilarious and irritating. The dialogue is generally superb, but the interactions of Rash and Martin are extremely clever and expertly balanced in pacing. Whilst the physical acting is brilliant and the direction solid, the script is easily good enough to be ported to radio or stage without any major edits. Indeed, a stage adaptation would be well worth a watch.

Aside from the main leads, the film also included Iain De Caestecker, aka Fitz from Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Honestly, I didn’t even notice he was in there and have no idea what character he played, but it’s pretty cool to get that Doctor Who/Marvel crossover theory going. The rest of the supporting cast ranges from adequate to perfect, with some pretty funny side characters and clever use of British stereotypes and class divisions, even within the communities of the undead.

Overall, Up There is an excellently written, wonderfully acted and incredibly interesting film. The direction is actually much better than I had anticipated and the colour casting of the film is extremely notable for producing a very ethereal feel whilst remaining highly familiar. It’s one of the best BBC/UK Film council productions I’ve seen in a while. The concept is fresh, original and well executed by all involved so, if you have a TV license, I would definitely recommend watching it whilst it’s available in iPlayer!

tl;dr: Smart, funny and very British. A quirky comedy with excellent performances and some very interesting ideas; definitely watch it!

Rating my Opinion [#3]

How do you determine quantitative worth for a de facto subjective experience? Is there even any point? Can you make related “values” actually relatable if those “values” are arguably arbitrary?

I’ve toyed with somehow ‘rating’ the films, books etc. that I keep track of in my Month in Media posts since I started that series. It initially appears like a logical framework to include; after all, each piece of media is just a single node in a much larger and, crucially, definable category such as “Film” or “TV”. Each month I state my opinions on a selection of these data points, but why do I bother? Collectively, reviews alone don’t allow for any insight into viewing habits or present any meaningful conclusions. I can look over the lists that I’ve effectively generated and work out whether I watch more science fiction than animation, or vice versa, but it can only offer broad strokes without any real depth.

However, the moment you start attempting to quantise reviews, which are by their nature highly personal and often adapt over time, you hit on some pretty big issues – see opening enquiries. The first hurdle is that your own thoughts and opinions can vary depending on your emotions, your current location or the setting in which the media is consumed. A decent movie, when watched with a group of good friends, can become a brilliant movie simply due to the associations that are created. The second hurdle is that, even if you can overcome external influences, you still have to apply the ratings consistently. In the basest form, this implies a need for a checklist, a system of simple requirements for a piece of media to rank within a preset bounding range. But that checklist must, therefore, be utterly fair; it cannot weight one element above another, nor arbitrarily inhibit the progression of positive or negative elements. If you were to dissect a film rating, for example, would you expect the soundtrack to receive equal weighting to the direction? What then happens when a film is considered a ‘must-watch’ because of the direction but the score is utterly laughable? This highlights the third and final issue with rating content: once something is quantised, it is able to be ranked. Now every review no longer sits independently of the others, instead they become utterly connected. It may be simple to decide that a film is a good film, but is it better than that other good film you saw last week? Should it get the same score, a higher one or a lower one? Once ranked, the collective now have an intertwined meaning, a meaning that is (circularly) only as strong as the methodology behind it. That means, once you’ve put everything in place and gone through all that effort, if at any time you realise that some element is incorrectly weighted, missing or false, the entire dataset is corrupted.

Years ago I “wrote” video game reviews for a friends website, with the aim of getting them pushed out to several big gaming forums at the time. The ambitions never paid off (I was consistently too young) but the experience was my first time attempting to fit subjective experiences within rating systems. Different websites ranked video games differently. Places like IGN used an x/10 system, Nintendo Official Magazine rated out of 100%, Ctrl+Alt+Del based worth on five stars. My reviews tried to fit all these systems (and more) by heavily compartmentalising my scoring system. The soundtrack was x/5, the animation x/10, the story x/10 and so on until I had a final score, hopefully weighted in a balanced manner, resulting in a total that was divided into parts, each of which I could then convert into one part of a star, percentage point etc. The whole system took me days to come up with and refine so, when it was ‘done’, I wanted to test it. I wrote a couple of reviews of popular games at the time (Twilight Princess is the only one I can remember) and used my checklist to score them. I converted the scores into the various ratings systems and then compared my given rank with that of the actual website. Needless to say, most were quite different but I was expecting that. My opinion would not necessarily gel with the other reviewers. What I was surprised by was how differently my review scores ranked within each organisations charts. Sometimes, a game was right up near the top of the pile on one website but in the middle somewhere else. Between services, a single review score could dramatically alter the perceived worth of a game from being a GOTY contender to an average, barely notable experience. Internally, my reviews were consistent (I made sure of that) but when placed in the context of another persons ranking system… they fell apart.

In other words, I’ve overthought this to an extreme level and been burnt in the past, so when it came to writing my MiMs I just didn’t bother. But now it’s the end of the year and I would like a way to do a “Year in Review” type set of articles. I need to be able to rank the films, books etc. I’ve consumed in 2016 but I don’t want to do it from memory; that adds a secondary level of subjectivity to proceedings. No, I want to see what I thought of them when I wrote their reviews, not what I think of them now that months have been and gone. So I’m going to give some thought to a simple, yet fair, set of criteria that I can use to quantise my enjoyment of a product. I’ll begin with movies and TV only, as books are too different a beast to be mixed in. I’m already keeping track of my initial gut reaction over on Trakt for the films I’ve watched so far in January. Hopefully I can use that to backfill once I’ve sussed a system I’m content with. In the meantime, I guess its time to start trying out some systems!

Where are the Reviews?

Given the increasing diversity of web based (and meat space) services it is a source of constant confusion and annoyance that there aren’t any far reaching, respected, crowd-sourced review sites out there. Places where services can be thoroughly named and shamed, that coalesce market pressure to enable consumers to actually push back against dodgy practices.

I’ve recently been shopping around for breakdown cover (I know, living the rockstar dream right now!) and found myself desperate for somewhere I could compare user experience and ratings for major services. Whilst looking for hosting I frequently found myself directed to Reevoo and Feefo when searching for reviews, so wanted to just go their directly this time. The problem is, neither website’s homepage actually lets you search for specific companies or websites, let alone reviews. Some further searching turned up the shopping microsite for Reevoo, but Feefo pages can only be reached by Googling “feefo+company name“. In other words, these services are aiming themselves squarely at companies, not consumers.

Trustpilot does a better job, but I’m not a fan of searching on URL rather than company name. It’s also clear that Trustpilot reviewers are not truly representative and often show clear bias towards negative experience. It could definitely be argued that this is due to the relative immaturity of the service, but I would expect Trustpilot themselves to be using this as a marketing strategy. Certainly, some breakdown services actively showoff their Trustpilot scores, whilst other (often far larger and better known) services appear not to care.

Personally, this appears to be an area that is just begging for a startup to pop up and begin making waves. Hopefully Trustpilot is just such a startup and within the next year or so it will invest heavily in promoting itself, both to companies and consumers, as well as refine how it works. Either way the market sorely needs some form of people powered leverage.

theAdhocracy Mark II: The Rehosting

CSS? Fonts? Italics? Sidebars? What witchcraft is this? Is this not theAdhocracy, the home of plain HTML and nothing more (despite the clear problems associated with that)? Well: yes! But at the same time: No! Technicalities! Either way, welcome to theAdhocracy Mark II (no purchase required)!

There’s nothing too fancy about this change. Updated visuals are provided courtesy of the 2016 default WordPress theme, not my own endeavours. And yes, that means the backend remains WordPress (for now). The host, however is entirely new! I haven’t had the best experience with iPage, what with the multiple outages, lacklustre support, terrible interface and the many, many other headaches I’ve had over the past year. So when I received a frankly extortionate renewal invoice edging towards £200, the the final nail was struck into the coffin.

Since that email I’ve been steadily shopping around and I have to say: woah! The hosting market in the UK has really stepped it up a notch. Prices have plummeted, monthly contracts (rather than annual) are now far more common and generally high quality, well trusted hosting has become affordable. Last year’s runner up was 123-Reg, which would be a simple switch for me as I already host all of my domains with them. However, in the end (and this still amazes me), despite some great offers they just weren’t competitive enough.

Instead, I’ve thrown in my lot with SmartHosting (.co.uk, not .com, there appears to be a difference). It was a close call between several new options, but SmartHosting’s immensely positive reviews and clear web design swayed me; their price wasn’t too big of a problem either! So far the switch has been wonderful. It is such a pleasure to be using a modern, up to date version of cPanel again (I really don’t think I can stress that enough)! Installing WordPress was quick and easy and allowed me to simply Export/Import my databases. Domain pointing is much simpler and I can already tell that it will be less of a headache to host several websites (i.e. possible) than with iPage.

It hasn’t all been butterflies and rainbows, though largely due to my own errors. I had become “used” to iPage’s archaic folder structure, so just assumed all web content had to reside in the “public_html” folder. As a result, I tried installing two separate websites there and pointed my various domains at the relevant subfolders. Unfortunately, because my “main domain” (this one) seemingly had to be pointed at “public_html” rather than a subfolder, a little bit of URL manipulation allowed you to navigate from this site to any of my others. I was confused and a little frustrated, even if this behaviour made sense to me, because I couldn’t “repoint” this domain.

In the end I opened a support ticket. The reply was disheartening, but frighteningly prompt (I’m used to iPage response times, measured in hours or days) arriving in less than five minutes. Unfortunately, I couldn’t change where the “main” domain pointed; however, I could point my other domains at folders outside of “public_html”. That’s right, the support staff actually offered a constructive solution that served my needs far better than the one I had proposed! This is how support tickets should work and definitely reinforced the smug feeling that I’d made the right decision.

iPage, on the other hand, have had a hit’n’miss final few days. Initial efforts to disable “auto renewal” were rendered moot as the system refused to save/update my preferences. Irritating, but by that point I had already migrated and was happy to just cancel my account. Searching how to cancel, however, requested that I disable auto renewal… a dead end. Instead I attempted to “chat” with their support and was greeted by a five minute count down. It was the weekend, so this seemed fair, but after 10 minutes of “We’ll answer any moment now!” I caved, refreshed and started the count down again. Three attempts (and almost an hour) later I gave up completely and just rang them.

To their credit, this part of the process was swift and painless. I had feared a nightmarish entanglement of prompts and options followed by a fight and multiple offers. Luckily, I received a clear option path to the cancellation team followed by a courteous staff member who only offered his deepest regrets (rather than discount vouchers etc.). The whole process took less than ten minutes and two days later the account (and all my details, web files etc.) are deleted, as I had requested.

To be clear, iPage are not an awful company. They have never seriously screwed me over and the few times I have asked for help, I’ve received it (albeit slowly), but they’re also not great. Their software could be better, their website could be better and their support could be better. At the moment, everything is just about passable, but that means they’re increasingly being left behind by the competition. It also means I wouldn’t recommend them.
Currently, SmartHosting are doing a lot better. Only time will tell if that initial warm glow fades away and, if so, by how much.