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!
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.
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.