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!

Month in Media: July 2016

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

Films

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

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

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

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

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

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Part 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Batman: The Mask of the Phantasm

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

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

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

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

The Song of the Sea

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

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

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

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

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

Bo Burnham: Words, Words, Words!

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

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

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

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

Star Trek: Beyond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TV Shows

Con-Man (Season 1)

The Good:

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

The Bad:

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

The Ugly:

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

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

Graphic Novels

Black Science: God World (Volume 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month in Media: May 2016

Could it be a third in a row? Although my “mini-reviews” weren’t quite so mini in April, I actually enjoyed writing them and the whole process felt a lot easier, so it does appear that this format is working. Still, they may be a little text heavy, even for my own future use, so I’m expanding the format with “tl;dr” sections that will be capped at 100 words. Anyway, on with May, which should herald a little more variety (even if it is Mentalist heavy)! As ever, all reviews may contain spoilers, so: Spoiler Warning!

Movies

The Good Dinosaur

So this was… interesting. Beautiful and visually stunning beyond any doubt, with the most photorealistic CGI world I’ve come across in any media. If this was a rendering engine advert I’d have nothing but high praise for the result. Unfortunately, The Good Dinosaur is supposed to be a kids film, not a demo reel, and in that respect it definitely feels a little lacking. In fact I’m not even sure “lacking” is the correct word, it’s just a bit… odd. The core storyline is okay, a mixture of The Lion King and Finding Nemo that pushes most of the right buttons in terms of a character arc with a moral underpinning, but definitely doesn’t push any boundaries in terms of plot or story telling. The world the film creates is confusing at best, with some dinosaurs having invented agriculture, housing and tools whilst others just live in fear in the depths of the woods (fear from what is never really outlined, given that the large carnivores all seem to prefer mammal meat). Despite this seeming stasis, the mammalian evolutionary path appears relatively unhindered, resulting in foxes, raccoons, marmots and cattle all clearly being present and yet humans are an odd mixture of canine and primate that is, again, never really analysed.

And then there’s the “off beat” moments, which range from a surprisingly Family Guy-esque drug trip sequence (aimed at children…) and distinctly unsettling, undeveloped characters like the Styracosaurus, to the strange direction the film takes around midway by becoming a bit of a Western, filled entirely with stereotypes. In fact, stereotypes would be a good way to describe just about all of the characters in the film (stereotypes that are just a little unhinged). For a generic kids film, that would be slightly excusable, but for a Pixar film The Good Dinosaur feels distinctly out of ideas, happy to regurgitate common tropes and very much at home with a more conservative mind set. Female characters are all smaller, weaker and distinctly more pink than their male counterparts; those family units that are shown are incredibly generic, normally mimicking the standard family unit of the 1950’s of a Mum, Dad and siblings of mixed gender. Even the ending of the film, which could have had a nice touch of inclusiveness-despite-clear-differences, with Spot joining the family and helping out with his innate tool wielding abilities, helping make up for the lack of “Dad” being around to do all the heavy lifting, was instead broadsided by the inclusion of a random group of “humans” (again, perfect family unit of suburban ‘Murica, just with loin cloths) that just appear and then adopt him. In some ways, this is a heart warming moment and rare instances of actual emotional development for the two main characters, but when you look at it any deeper it seems to be slightly off. At best this was poor/lazy story telling, at worst it was a wilful decision to reign in any form of progressive subtext, making it clear that you can only be truly happy with your “own kind”. And that’s before we even get on to wondering why they all walk quadrapedally until the last shot, when suddenly it’s bipedal all the way home! That feels very deliberate (I mean, it would require different movement animations for starters) but I have no idea what it was trying to imply.

Even with the technical mastery shown in the amazing CGI backgrounds, the actual character models feel distinctly tacked on. The dinosaurs are all cartoonish, with very low resolution features and almost no skin textures or detail to them which definitely stands out when contrasted with the visually rich surroundings (or even the smaller animals, who are often far more detailed). Feet “splodging” animation aside, the main characters feel more thrown together than intricately crafted. With all that said, however, I didn’t hate The Good Dinosaur. There’s a core of a good movie here and I imagine most young kids (which is clearly the target audience) will enjoy the ride. Adults, though, should be warned: this isn’t really a Pixar film, it’s just a very nicely animated fable.

tl;dr: A stunningly beautiful but fragmented film with surprisingly conservative leanings. No boundaries pushed here apart from the technological ones.

Captain America: Civil War

If you enjoy superhero films, actions films or just well made genre films, then I have three words for you: watch. This. Now! It looks like Captain America has just pulled off the holy grail of trilogies, what I like to call a Star Wars arc. The First Avenger was a largely overlooked yet surprisingly solid introduction to the main characters, with some flaws but a consistent and well formed core that made it an enjoyable watch that has aged surprisingly well. As a sequel The Wintersoldier is a clear Empire Strikes Back analogue, raising the stakes consistently, advancing plot narratives and being centred around a large plot twist that kept the action feeling fresh whilst maintaining a break-neck pace. Plenty of other franchises have pulled off this one-two punch, but frequently it is the closer that fails to land (I’m looking at you, Nolanverse Batman!).

Not so with Civil War. It’s definitely a little slower than Wintersoldier, with more depth to the storyline which can struggle to breath amidst the required action sequences and as a result doesn’t quite hit the formers heady heights, but much like Return of the Jedi this third outing ties together the core storylines, fleshes out the universe and allows for significant character development across the board. If you hadn’t noticed by now, I’m definitely a fan.

There’s actually not much for me to nit-pick. I felt the new characters were introduced well, with just enough screen time and interaction to make their presence feel warranted, rather than pandering to the fans or setting up spin offs (even though that is certainly the core reasoning behind their inclusion). At the same time, the film had specific roles and ideas it clearly wanted to play out with the returning cast, making sure each hero had a moment to shine. I’d say Civil War did what Age of Ultron ultimately failed to do: produce a film with a huge supporting cast, yet succeeded in feeling both manageable and tight whilst finding time to advance each characters plotline in a meaningful way. Hawkeye definitely came out of the film with the least “impact”, yet still managed to feel necessary. Furthermore, not only did each hero feel like they were needed to make the film work, they each felt realistic in the sides and decisions they chose.

Unlike the comic series on which the film was based, Tony Stark felt like a logical fit for the main antagonist. Rather than sliding into clear villainy, like the comic interpretation, the movie Stark maintained the strong sense of self that Robert Downey Jr. has so cleverly crafted for him, with his actions following logical trains of thought for the character to be having. It makes sense that a visual, human reminder of his failings to end suffering and reduce the human cost of conflict – Stark’s main driving factor since the phase one films – would tip him over the edge and cause him to side wholeheartedly with the Accords. Similarly, Vision and Warmachine have always been straight shooters, who expect everyone to be reading from the same playbook. Widow is a more tangential ally but, as she explains, siding with the government will be in her best interest, which is a very Widow thought process. On the flipside, the story very cleverly turns Wanda against her fellow Avengers, with Falcon sticking with his friend as would be expected and Antman just happy to be included. If anything, Steve Rogers himself may be the sole character whose choices felt a little odd: though the Accords are clearly setup as something that shouldn’t be trusted, they actually don’t seem to do a great deal. Unlike the Superhero Registration Act, the Accords really don’t do anything more than formalise a setup that has been informally maintained until this point. The Avengers were brought together by a government agency, S.H.E.I.L.D, specifically for use by that agency; Cap himself then goes off and works for them, thinking nothing of obeying official orders throughout Wintersoldier (though clear divisions are seeded as well). Stark has long provided military weaponry and tech, even after his change of heart when becoming Iron Man, as can clearly be seen by the fact that Warmachine is still operational – not to mention the whole Extremis suit “army” that the US military seemingly had access to throughout Age of Ultron. My point being that Rogers hasn’t seemed to have any issue with following governmental orders in the past, even those he didn’t fully agree with under Nick Fury. As a result, his instant refusal to sign the Accords feels a little lacking in conviction. In this sense, Hawkeye’s minimal role may actually be an incredibly clever one. The archer has the most to lose at the start of the film, being the only hero with an actual family/life outside of crime fighting (especially as Ms. Potts has gone AWOL), yet he doesn’t hesitate in joining Cap and company rallying against the Accords. That’s a surprisingly big deal, as Hawkeye is the one that has gone from government agent to superhero; he’s really the only character here who fully understands both sides (Widow also has this angle, but even as a S.H.I.E.L.D agent here spying background would have cast her as an outsider). As a result, because he falls where he does, it really lends credence to the idea that there is something off about the Accords and that Captain America has taken the correct stance.

Whichever way you cut it, though, the film stands up. It advances plot threads cleverly, introduces new characters and locations perfectly (I am so excited for Wakanda right now!) and tells the core story succinctly and clearly. Having now seen a couple of interviews with the Russo brothers discussing that Civil War was very much a trial for how they want to weave characters/plotlines together during the MCU’s grand finale, Infinity Crisis, I have to say I’m both impressed and excited. So I guess the next big question is: how exactly is magic going to fit in to everything else, Mr. Strange?

tl;dr: Avengers Part 3, but closer to the original than its actual sequel. Great fun and a great ending to a brilliant trilogy.

Florence Foster Jenkins

“People may say I couldn’t sing, but no one can say that I didn’t sing!”

A distinctly fun film. Took me a little while to get into (not helped by the elderly quartet in the seats around me who consistently felt the need to make asides to each other – and they say the “youth” are the ones ruining cinema!) but, especially after the entrance of Cosme McMoon (pianist) the core characters riffed so well off one another that I was more than happy to be swept along for the ride. On that note, Simon Helberg, best known for his role on The Big Bang Theory, was stellar throughout. I expected (and received) great performances from both Meryl Streep and Hugh Grant, but Helberg was on top form throughout, adding a very welcome level of both humour and rationalism to proceedings.

The film did well to provide a rounded view of the story, which is based in real life events, with subtle hints at the darker sides of what is ostensibly a feel good flick. Of particular note is the conversation between the reporter from the New York Post and St Clair towards the end of the film, in which the former calls out Foster Jenkins possible abuse of her wealth and status amongst society to achieve personal dreams, without a thought for others. The riposte comes across as overly aggressive and unfair, which is accurate for the audience as we’re aware that everyone is lying to Jenkins who is, personally, unaware of her own failings; however, it also plants a small seed in your mind that perhaps, from a modern perspective, there is a little more nuance to this tale.

Overall though the film is a humorous, heartfelt rendition of an extremely odd story. If it hadn’t actually happened you would probably write off the entire thing as preposterous and just an excuse for great actors to have a bit of silly fun, but the reality of the events makes them into more than the sum of their parts. Unfortunately, due to real life not working like the movies, the ending is a little flat, with none of our main protagonists seemingly getting just reward for their efforts. McMoon ends up as a failed pianist, albeit one that has played Carnegie Hall; St Clair seems to lead out his life in guilt, never truly finding love; and Jenkins achieves her dreams and has her bubble firmly burst in the doing so. In the movies, things would have played out differently, but ultimately the story does benefit from the reality.

tl;dr: Absurdist fun that somehow actually happened, resulting in a nuanced, heart warming tale with exemplary performances throughout.

Green Lantern: First Flight

An odd choice, perhaps, but I had some time to kill and no access to a disc drive, so just grabbed something that looked interesting from Prime. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Lantern mythology, though I can’t quite pin point why. Alien design interests aside, I’ve always felt the idea of individuals being uniquely in tune with specific emotions just a very different concept, which is pretty rare in superhero comics. I also remain a fan of the recent Green Lantern: The Animated Series and am still a little bitter about its sudden ending. Unfortunately, this animated outing is closer in spirit to the woeful 2011 film adaptation, although arguably still better than that particular screw up.

In terms of plot, there’s nothing new here. Its the standard introduction to the Green Lantern Corps, Hal Jordan and everything associated: Abin Sur crash lands on earth, the ring chooses flight pilot extraordinaire Jordan who travels to Oa, meets the other Lanterns and ultimately wins their trust (and his ring) by foiling the uprising of the Yellow Lanterns/Sinestro. Frankly I don’t even consider that plot synopsis a spoiler, given how incredibly “by the numbers” it unfolds. In and of itself, however, a retreading of an origin story is fine by me; what isn’t is doing so without any real character development, background or world building. All the usual players are here, but beyond introducing themselves and the occasional catchphrase (ya poozers) there’s very little character interaction. The whole concept of the Green Lanterns is covered in a couple of rapid cut sequences, which actually never even mention the emotion-is-power angle. The initial villain is literally never explained (a single line from Jordan about him being a warlord is all we get and how does Jordan knows that is left unanswered) and even Sinestro feels very one sided. There’s no heroes story here, Jordan is the perfect boyscout right from the first outing, mastering his ring without question or training within seconds; nor is there a villainous downfall, with Sinestro very firmly evil without any redeeming traits at all. His first interactions appear sinister and mocking, he openly defies the council within minutes of us meeting them and every time he interacts with any non-Lantern it is with contempt and frequent physical violence. Basically, everything is as simplistic as possible, which is a real shame.

All that said, as a fan, I did enjoy the movie. Ultimately, it hit the right beats, the final battle was well choreographed and they did just enough to validate the plot. However, I think anyone new to the series would struggle and probably find it quite dull and confusing, simultaneously. Luckily, I know this story and its characters pretty well, so I could fill in the gaps. The animation was consistent, although some characters (normally not the Lanterns) felt lacking in detail, as if they’d only been partially drawn. Again, nothing ground breaking, good enough but not even as internally consistent as great TV adaptations like Young Justice or the Justice League: Unlimited runs. Overall I don’t think I’d recommend First Flight and I doubt I’ll be rushing back for a sequel, if one is even in the works.

tl;dr: Give it a miss unless you’re a total Green Lantern fanboy, and even then don’t expect anything great.

Moomins on the Riviera

A charming yet surreal animation, as with most Moomins works, that just about holds together. It’s been a while since I properly watched any of the Moomins adventures, so I can’t really say how well (or not) Moomins on the Riviera fits into the rest of the mythology but I would imagine being a fan already would help whilst watching. The characters are never really introduced (nor should they be), the plot is fittingly sporadic and off-beat and a certain level of familiarity is certainly assumed. There are some questionable decisions made throughout, particularly regarding the equal parts controlling/jealous/uncaring relationship of Snorkmaiden and Moomin, which I don’t remember being this twisted in the classic TV shows. I’d also like to know exactly what they released into the Riviera during the show’s finale; I mean, that was a plague, right? Did the Moomins just cause the downfall of an entire civilisation?

Yet despite the occasional misstep and surprisingly conservative tones, the film is certainly enjoyable and the core messages are positive, centred around trust and self identity. The riffs on aristocratic ignorance and the slightly perverted romanticism of poverty are also well crafted, set up as silly set pieces for kids but with a surprising amount of complexity for adults. The film is also genuinely funny in parts, with wry humour paired with trademark absurdity scattered throughout and some truly bizarre subplots that anyone, no matter what age, should enjoy (Catdog much).

tl;dr: An amusing and acceptably surreal entry into the much loved series. If you (or your kids) are a fan then definitely worth a watch, but this isn’t quite an instant classic.

Television

The Mentalist: Season 6

Woo boy, where to even start! I am a huge fan of The Mentalist, which rapidly staked its claim as one of my favourite Holmesian TV shows during the opening seasons and has just consistently moved from strength to strength. If you enjoy deductive reasoning or procedural shows I would definitely recommend giving Patrick Jaynes’ exploits a shot, especially now the storyline has actually come to a conclusion – and what a conclusion!

Obviously, I went into Season 6 knowing that there is also a Season 7, albeit a much shorter than normal one. As a result, I had expected Season 6 to play out the premise that had been set up at the end of the previous season, namely that Jayne had narrowed down the pool of Ref John suspects to a manageable number. Honestly, I’d expected the whole setup to be yet another twist, one in which Red John had (once again) manipulated Jayne into doing his bidding; I had predicted that the “suspects” would actually be a rival organisation that had been preventing Red John’s own clandestine network from spreading even further. Boy, oh boy was I wrong! The Mentalist has never been a slow show, even during the mid seasons when the story was clearly elongated a bit to make the most of its booming popularity, but the start to Season 6 can only be described as rapid fire. I guess they were worried about cancellation and wanted to wrap it all up ASAP, but the result is some riveting TV.

I’m not going to go into too many details, despite the spoiler warnings. If you like this kind of show, or watch The Mentalist at all, you deserve to watch it yourself without any knowledge of what is going to happen. Instead, I’ll just say that it was one hell of conclusion to the shows longest running plot thread. I have a great deal of respect that they kept the characters rooted in the behaviour we’ve seen develop since day one and allowed them the clear ending arcs that they’ve been setting up; there’s no “Hollywood” ending here and there shouldn’t have been. The good guys come out on top but Red John stays as manipulative and intelligent as ever, with his final unmasking being quick, clever and (crucially) not left open ended. The final showdown between Jayne and John is brutal and definitely leaves some minor plot threads open/unexplained (you know the one I mean), but largely does a very good job of bringing both characters to a clear resolution.

And then there’s the rest of the season… which is different, to be sure. Personally, I definitely felt a little at a loss as to why the show was continuing, almost up to the actual season finale, but now the dust has settled I have to give the show’s team a massive thumbs up. They almost certainly saw a drop off in viewers once the “main” plotline was over, so the decision to focus half a season going in an entirely new direction for the show was ballsy, but it worked a charm. Most importantly, and why any fan should definitely stick it out and keep watching, the second half of the season helps resolve so much that I hadn’t even realised had been left open. I guess Season 5, in particular, was so Red John heavy that the other plot threads bubbling away under the service became slightly forgotten, but the writers obviously still had plenty of plans for them. I guess this is one of the reasons the show was so great: it was very definitely not a one trick pony.

In terms of the new direction that the show is going in, I love it. I know that it obviously didn’t take commercially, as the show has officially ended now, but the whole FBI angle worked far better than I thought it could do. Importantly, it has finally made Jayne and Lisbon equals, enabling them to actually interact with each other in new ways, which has been amazingly refreshing. It was sad to see some characters get left behind, although their reasoning was very well explained and, again, their story arc was given the just amount of time to wrap up organically, rather than feeling forced. Plus, the new team members have slotted into new roles very neatly. Crucially, it doesn’t feel like a reboot (which, lets face it, is what this is), it feels like a logical progression. So seriously well done to the writers and everyone else involved. I did not think that would have been possible.

tl;dr: A riveting conclusion to one of the series greatest plot lines, executed with surprising swiftness to allow for a wonderful level of closure for fans of the series. Season 6 was as strong as ever!

The Mentalist: Season 7

Now lets be clear here, before allegations start flying: I watched most of Season 6 during April, Season 7 is much shorter than normal and, no, I do not have a problem! At least, I guess I don’t any more. It’s taken quite a few days before I felt up to writing this review because The Mentalist has definitely become something special. The adventures of Patrick Jayne and Theresa Lisbon have slowly climbed up and up in my esteem, season on season, to cement themselves as one of my all-time favourite TV shows. The occasional filler episode aside, each week was a thrilling ride of intellectual curiosity wrapped up as a detective show, all neatly held together by fantastic, believable performances and scripting. Jayne may well be the greatest remodelling of Holmes in quite some time (Sherlock himself aside). Sure, way too many of their bosses were entirely corrupt or downright psychopathic and, sure, the office romances never really trod outside of the tried and tested. And yes, the show often setup sub plots only to resolve them in a rush one or two episodes later, which often felt more like an admittance that the side cast rarely got any nuanced time on camera (wasn’t Cho addicted to pain killers for about two days?).

Negatives aside, however, the show maintained its heart, character and (crucially) its vision. I was a little worried that the final season would have no ideas left, but actually, as with season 6, it concluded with a real sense of completeness. Yes, there are still some Red John threads left hanging, but the main characters all have closure to a degree that is seriously impressive. I’m not sure any other popular TV show has ever treated its ending with this much care, especially one that had been stretched out to abuse its popularity.

My season 6 notes have covered plenty, but there are a couple of points worth noting on season 7, mainly the one slight hitch in an otherwise perfect farewell: Michelle Vega. Don’t get me wrong, I think her character was well done, well acted and her own conclusion definitely created some much needed tragedy. On the flipside, however, she did feel like a square peg in a Kim Fischer shaped hole at various points throughout the series. I have no idea what happened with the latter character, or why she was written out so abruptly, but it definitely felt a little strange. It also felt like it happened after earlier scripts had already been finalised, which could account for Vega’s flip-flop of the heart away from Cho and towards Wylie (who, quickly, was an excellent foil throughout season 7). Whatever happened, it made her character arc a little rushed, borrowed too heavily from the early character development of Van Pelt/Rigsby and made her death feel less impactful than if, say, it had been Fischer i.e. a character with slightly more history with the cast.

That said, it was still a wonderful season, a fantastic ending (albeit painfully tense… I could barely watch the final episode) and a series I will miss a great deal.

tl;dr: A brilliant closing chapter to a fantastic detective show. I will miss Patrick Jayne and co. a great deal indeed and would urge any fan of Holmesian drama to give The Mentalist a watch: you won’t be disappointed!

Lucifer: Season 1

Lucifer isn’t going to be winning any awards (or likely even nominations) for its initial season, but I’d definitely recommend it. I have never read the source material, either the directly influential Lucifer graphic novel series or the more broadly involved Sandman series, but there is a hint of Neil Gaiman remaining in the TV show from time to time that reveals its roots. The premise is a distinctly unusual one, what with Satan himself being the protagonist rather than antagonist, but this worked better than I had hoped. I really didn’t feel the need for another supernatural detective thriller; indeed, when I saw the first trailer I openly laughed and wrote off the entire plot as ridiculous.

Luckily, a couple of friends recommended it to me and Amazon Prime secured the UK rights, which meant no/little delay in release dates, so I decided to give it a shot. I found the whole cop-show element lacklustre but surprisingly warranted. Lucifer takes no risks in the murder homicide, LA cop side of its plot, which is just another by-the-numbers police show that pales in comparison to certain other series (*cough*Mentalist*cough*), but this seems to work in the shows’ favour. The whole heaven/hell dichotomy, analysis of the cultural and Biblical renditions of the devil and the general supernatural subplots are actually very entertaining, well scripted and genuinely interesting, with the “cop show” effectively becoming a plot device to advance the more interesting events transpiring around it. Tom Ellis’s portrayal of the Prince of Hell is fantastic throughout, with a duel personality combining total irreverence for everyone around him, which feels distinctly satanic, yet with a clear moral code and resultant superiority complex. The end result is a character that feels incredibly nuanced and intriguing and helps tie most of the less than perfect elements of the show back together.

The writers are also not interested in taking it slow or teasing out reveals. I had assumed that the first half (or possibly the whole) of this season would be a “is he, isn’t he?” scenario where the audience is forced to question whether Lucifer is the genuine artefact or just delusional. I feel that this would have gotten old, fast and luckily the show runners must have agreed as by about episode 3 we had received definitive evidence that Lucifer was immortal, routinely interacted with angels and could scare the (very literal) crap out of people with the flick of an eyebrow. With the show then firmly set on expanding the pseudo-Christian mythology and digging into the deeper philosophical questions a “risen” devil would logically run into, Lucifer actually had a surprisingly complex and layered variety of subplots, all of which were neatly and clearly tied up by the finale. Quite where this leaves us for a second season isn’t exactly clear, with the final big reveal leaving me a little cold. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely returning for more, but “Mum” is going to have to be handled extremely well for the show not to feel like its teetering towards either becoming another Grimm (all the factions! all the backstabs! all the deus ex machinima!*) or just deeply sexist. Only time will tell which transpires.

tl;dr: Devilishly good fun with a great lead, some surprisingly deep analysis of the Biblical character of Satan and a format that triumphs despite its absurdity. Well worth a watch.

* in this case, in a very literal sense.