Month in Media – November 2017 [#48]

Sigh I feel like I should just give up on the whole “I’ve achieved a MiM in a timely factor, maybe I can keep this up!” thing. It seems like every time I say that it guarantees I skip the next month. Still, considering I haven’t even finished October 2016 perhaps there is some hope for last month to surface at some point. For now, November will suffice, with a general step back away from media in general making it a lot easier to write up. With that said, as ever be aware of spoilers and on with the reviews.

On-Going Media

TV – Blue Planet II – Beautiful and fascinating but somehow hasn’t quite grabbed my attention yet. Will see how it develops.
TV – The Punisher – The Netflix arm of the MCU returns with an entertaining rip-off of Person of Interest (seriously, the cast even look the same).
Video Games – League of Legends – No, I won’t be stating this every month, but just thought it worth recording that League’s teeth have sunk in deep. I actually went ranked (Bronze III….woo?) and watched most of Worlds… so yes, well into the void.

Film

Joan Didion: The Centre Will Not Hold [Documentary]

Honestly, I had never heard of Joan Didion before watching this exceptionally personal and beautifully shot documentary. Now? Well, I have certainly heard of her, but certainly know more about her life from an emotional perspective than her works. The Centre Will Not Hold is much more a biography than an analysis, which makes a lot of sense considering her family were directly involved in the filming and direction of the documentary. The result is a surprisingly balanced and deeply personal introspective which is riveting to watch. Didion led a fascinating life even without considering her contributions to literature and journalism; the telling of her tale feels rightly deserved and rewarding to watch as a result.

The documentary also comes across as very fair, not eschewing the slightly less positive or beneficial elements of Didion’s character. She comes across as a caring but deeply practical and straight-talking person, which, at times, comes across as lacking empathy. By the end of the documentary any such accusations are firmly put in their place, but it remains incredibly refreshing to hear her directness. Most firmly implanted in my memory is the moment she, as a journalist, came across a young child taking heavy drugs, clearly addicted and in a hugely damaging situation. As a woman with a young child herself, and even just as a human, it would be forgivable and understanding had her reaction been to drop pad and pen and whisk the child out of such an abusive environment. Instead, her self-professed reaction was “What a story”; she saw life through the lens of her work and through, arguably, a clear perception of reality. It’s an uncomfortable, but also very human, reaction which makes her so much stronger for admitting it than glossing over or omitting it would have done. This boldness in the presentation of someone who is rightfully seen as a national treasure is refreshing and excellently executed. In no small sense it reminds me of Scott Card’s concept of “speaking for the dead”, an unbiased and inclusive summation of character that does not shy away from the darker elements of human experience and nature purely for the sake of presenting an elevated memory of an individual.

In the end, my one criticism of The Centre Will Not Hold is that the spotlight is cast away from her work a little too much. As someone approaching the documentary unaware, entirely, of Didion and her work I left with a good idea of who she is as a person but still lacking understanding of her contribution to culture on a broader level. I couldn’t quote a single line she’s penned, tell you the names of her works or discuss her famous articles. In all honesty, coming to write this review nearly a month after watching the documentary, I remember her quite visibly in my memory but had to double check with Google that she was, first and foremost, a writer and wasn’t more famous for other reasons. If you’re a fan already this will probably elevate the documentary but for the completely uninitiated it assumes a great deal of previous knowledge and is possibly the poorer for it.

Still, it is a mild criticism that is also intricately linked with many of the same reasons I feel the documentary, on the whole, is a triumph, so should be viewed as such. Overall, whether you are a fan of Didion already or not the documentary is an excellent watch and a brilliant example of the genre’s best qualities. It is observant, grounded and entertaining all at once and I cannot recommend it enough on those merits. If you’re interested in modern American culture, literature, the evolution of journalism, Didion herself or even just documentary production, The Centre Will Not Hold is a must watch.

tl:dr; A brilliant and deeply personal introspection of an incredible individual. A truly nuanced and exacting character analysis and a documentary style which I hope to see emulated much more in the future.

Mulan [rewatch]

Mulan is one of those classic Disney films which, I hope, will remain timeless. There are elements which appear a little dated and some of the dialogue definitely comes across as a little insensitive by modern standards, but we’re talking minor niggles rather than the blatant racism or white-washing that other films struggle with from the same era. That minor complaint aside, the animation, plot, voice work and overall design are just as brilliant now as when they were released and the film remains incredibly entertaining to watch, with classic songs throughout. One to sit proudly alongside more modern examples, like Moana and Inside Out, as a child’s film with a strong morality and beneficial message. Will definitely be a firm favourite for years to come.

tl;dr: Still a brilliant story with a moral underpinning that remains incredibly relevant. A children’s classic that is well enough made to be enjoyable for anyone.

Mulan 2

The straight-to-DVD sequel which is exactly what you would expect: nothing more than a meaningless, paint-by-the-numbers cash grab. To be honest, most of Disney’s spin-off work is exactly this, so I’m not surprised, but the sheer level of pointlessness to this movie left a slightly bitter taste. I can deal with sub-par plots, pointless cameos and even the lack of the original voice actors (though one of the few thing Mulan 2 did right was ensure that Ming Na-Wen returned for the titular role) but there’s much worse on offer here.

For starters, we get the strong vibe from the first film that Mushu is not particularly liked by the Ancestors, but the reason given is that he failed as a previous Guardian in his role. His actions throughout Mulan prove to be his reparation and by the end of the film he is back on his ancient pedestal, where it seems to be the case that he would remain inert until next called upon. Certainly, based on his general state when summoned for the first time in Mulan it would appear that he had been a statue for many years. On top of this, whilst a little cowardly, Mushu remains clearly honourable and never shows any hint of malice, particularly towards Mulan and her family. He is a likeable character with some emotional depth, which is part of his charm; he’s a lovable under-dog. All of this, however, is retconned for the sequel. Here, the Ancestors have a clear hatred for Mushu, probably because, as a Guardian, he is a complete dick. He’s self-serving, arrogant to an extreme, incredibly demanding and completely lacking in empathy. His scheming directly enables much of the storyline and therefore casts him as the antagonist, albeit one who does an about-face the moment the plot no longer calls for him to have these character traits. It makes him into a distinctly unlikeable character, makes the Ancestors seem petty and unkind and generally makes the spirit world seem quite manipulative. That’s problematic from a continuity point of view but it’s also pretty culturally insensitive.

Mushu’s character assassination isn’t the only big step backwards for Mulan 2 though, which seems to go out of its way to also trample on a large amount of the message from the first film. Whilst the core message of the sequel is that “love conquers all” (and also that arranged marriages are bad), it goes about it in a very ham-fisted way and leaves you feeling that Mulan herself is less the impassioned, head-strong female idol and more a victim of Hollywood’s notions of “romance”. Her relationship with Shang is pretty troublesome and it almost validates Mushu’s reaction that perhaps they shouldn’t be getting married (if his reasoning wasn’t so damned evil). They barely agree on anything, they don’t seem to enjoy each other’s company and, frankly, Shang comes across as a complete misogynist. Given how much the first film focused on female empowerment, seeing the sequel instead focus on why men should be manly and women should accept and value that felt backwards.

Overall, then, the film is a shambles. When it isn’t actively erasing the messages and characters of the original classic, it’s scraping by on a poorly written plot full of deus ex machina and pointless side-quests, badly attempted homages at fan favourite moments from the first film or odd attempts at humour (there’s a lot about how women find shoes enrapturing). Overall, it’s not even worth it for kids to watch as it will only serve to annoy or undercut the original. Just rewatch Mulan instead.

tl;dr: Terrible, character blind and very poorly conceived.

Thor: Ragnarok

It’s that time of year again: the winter film release season, bringing with it the next big hitters from both Marvel and DC. Marvel is arriving first with the third (and final?) film in the Thor franchise. Personally, Thor is one of those characters who I find brilliant in ensemble but haven’t really latched onto any of his solo outings. The first film was decently entertaining but didn’t leave a huge impression and then the second was easily the worst Marvel misstep since the creation of the MCU. That said, I get excited for each film because I love the mash-up of Norse mythology and science fiction and see a huge amount of potential for films there. The question, then, is: does Ragnarok finally find that sweet spot?

Well, yes and no. Of the three films Ragnarok is a clear leader, improving on everything the first film did well whilst increasing the stakes and generally feeling a lot more comfortable within itself. Chris Hemsworth has truly become Thor, much like other big Marvel heroes such as Iron Man and Cap, allowing his performance to shine through. Standing head-to-head is Tom Hiddleston as Loki, proving yet again that he deserves the fan fervour he garners. Luckily, as opposed to The Dark World, the new characters introduced (and returning characters) all fit the world(s) they inhabit and aren’t irritating. There were moments I felt the inhabitants of Sakaar were sliding dangerously close to the farce of film two, but luckily they always pull back at the brink and make the punchlines land.

The tone of Ragnarok helps massively in this respect, ensuring that any flatter moments are brushed out of your mind quickly by a break neck pace and styling itself in a much less serious and more colourful manner. The influence of certain Guardians in this change of pace is clear and the right decision to have made. There’s also the absence (now permanent) of Jane Foster, whose presence was tolerable in Thor 2 but largely forced the plot to find reasons (not particularly good ones) for her to even be involved. She became less of a character and more of a crutch for the stakes, a classic damsel-in-distress plot point. Without that, Thor is very literally unleashed, allowing him to be a lot more arrogant and effective in battle. Combined with enemies that are a realistic challenge for a demigod, we finally get to see Thor demonstrate his much lauded fighting abilities and the result is awesome.

Which is another area of Guardians influence. Seeing Mjolnir explode through demons and zombies is just as spectacular as watching Yondu’s whistle carve up bad guys, except it feels so much heavier and fittingly forceful. They’re great scenes (whilst they last) and involve some brilliant camera work and choreography. Later, with Mjolnir gone and replaced by the Odin force, Thor’s lightning warfare is stunning and wonderfully visceral. In other words, the action scenes in Ragnarok are great, and that’s before even discussing the much-anticipated gladiatorial fight with the Hulk!

Speaking of which, one area the film is a little, well, hard to process, is the “adaptation” of the Planet Hulk storyline. Personally, this is an aspect of Ragnarok that will improve on rewatch, now I know how it fits in the greater story arc and which parts have been left. As a huge fan of the original comic arc I was a little disappointed, but if you see the Thor story as an homage rather than adaptation it helps a lot. Plus, ultimately, I quite like how it weaves into the greater story of Hela and Ragnarok. It may trample all over the Sakaar I love (and especially the associated characters) but the world it creates still feels interesting, vibrant and alive, plus it makes the ending both a lot more unexpected and interesting. Had the Asgardians just escaped via the bifrost then the destruction of Asgard would have been less impactful and their options far more restricted. Having a literal ark of Asgard floating through space gives future stories a lot more scope to work with (even if the next step seems to be fairly concrete at this point, given what we know of Infinity War and the post-credits scene).

That said, I did struggle with how much they had changed Korg’s identity and can’t help but feel that if they had left him out of the trailer my hopes for the Planet Hulk inclusion would haven’t been quite as high. That element did muddy the water significantly, making me a little less engaged with a lot of what was happening on Sakaar, a little more annoyed at the way the Hulk was behaving and a little less accepting of Valkyrie as a character. That last one is the least fair, as she is a brilliant character done absolute justice, but I had hoped she might have been Caiera Oldstrong, Hulk’s queen, and the trailer shot of her riding a Pegasus was her bringing the Valkyries to battle. As it is, both Caiera and the Valkyries were missing, which was a double-whammy of disappointment.

Also, the plot isn’t exactly the most cohesive. There are plenty of ideas here which could have been much more fleshed out and I can’t help but feel that they just tried to cram too much into the plot. You could easily have removed the Sakaar part entirely and just had Thor pick up Hulk to help him out; plus that would explain how a Terran quin-jet somehow made it to Sakaar? I realise repulsor technology is a little hand-wavey in terms of fuel efficiency, but I do think that a short-flight, terrestrial based transport craft shouldn’t be that efficient at interstellar flight…

The result is that quite a bit of the plot is just left to progress by happen chance. Some of it feels acceptable, like the cameo by Dr Strange to cut out an “Odin hunt” sequence, whilst at other times a little callous, such as when Thor just leaves Loki incapacitated and with a death sentence over his head. That would fly if Thor seemed at all upset with Loki, which would be understandable considering that he is the one responsible for Odin’s death, thereby the destruction of Asgard, Thor’s predicament on Sakaar and the release of Hela, but he just never seems that bothered at all. Or that he shows no worry over how Loki was going to escape from Odin’s Vault after releasing the world-eating demon Sutur. Then there are the pieces which were good but could have been great, like Sakaar or even Scourge, who never really makes it into the character equivalent of the third dimension despite a solid performance from Karl Urban.

Having said all of that, on balance, the film was very enjoyable and a huge amount of fun. By the end I had warmed to the new characterisations of Mieek and Korg, thoroughly fallen for the gorgeous design and palate of Sakaar and the Master, and become completely enthralled by Cate Blanchett’s turn as Hela (which, just to be clear, was on par with either Thor or Loki). I found the mythology intriguing and well explained, whilst retaining a semblance of mystery, the characterisation solid and the design stunning. The action is brilliant (as mentioned) but so is the dialogue, with a sharp wit which should become grating but actually never gets there. The one major flaw is that the film never really has that moment of emotional connection. There’s plenty of laughs and the stakes do feel high, but at the same time you never get a gut punching moment. There’s no feel-good emotional overload, like at the end of the first Guardians film, or crushingly sad instance, such as the second Guardians film. Ragnarok just continues focusing on the humour and the action, right to the very last moment. That lack of depth means I won’t be classing it amongst the finest in the MCU but it sits just outside of that band by a very narrow margin and leaves me extremely excited for Infinity War and some more Norse god mayhem!

tl;dr: An extremely fun, vibrant and action packed ride that lacks emotional depth. Easily the best Thor film but not quite worthy of inclusion in the MCU’s greatest hits.

TV

Archer [Season 6]

How did I forget this absolute gem? Archer is one of those shows which just shouldn’t be as good as it is. The principle ought to lend itself to a lacklustre, episode churning filler program: animated spy parody with just enough humour to hook the lowest common denominator. The Big Bang Theory of the action genre, if you will. For some reason, though, the team decided to go full tilt on the parody, crank up the adult humour to the point of obscenity (though never really going full gross-out, which I thoroughly applaud) and embrace geek culture harder than a Joss Whedon online-only franchise. It was a bold move but has resulted in a very deserved cult status and extremely loyal fan base.

But then they tried to switch things up completely in season five with Archer: Vice. It was a fascinating switch, again very antithetical for a now profitable American comedy, turning the premise of the show on its head and really forging forward with a whole new outlook. Fans opinions were, shall we say, mixed. At the start there was uproar, though like many I personally persevered and placed faith in the showrunners. Still, I feel like that initial kick-back was sufficient for them to do a second 180 turn into season six.

So here we are, back with ISIS, back in the spy industry and back to the same old stories. Barry’s back, Archer’s an employee again, they’ve all been to rehab and the days of drug smuggling are just glossed over with no real implications. Really, you could jump from season four to six without really missing a beat, and apart from the odd meta reference your only confusion would be having missed Lana’s pregnancy. I’ll admit to having enjoyed Vice quite a lot by the end of its run but I’m still glad to see ISIS return. Somehow, the spy genre is just so much more lucrative for parody.

That said, season six is firm proof that, for the show to continue, shaking up the plot will need to happen. The first four seasons worked so well because they leaned so hard on tropes from classic franchises like James Bond and Mission: Impossible but that well has slightly dried up. The big plots have been done and the result is that there isn’t much left for them to play with in season six. It’s still a very enjoyable ride and the humour is back on point but there aren’t many truly, genuinely stand-out episodes. For the most part the show skates by on old plot lines (a la Barry the Cyborg) and the slight shake up that having a baby in the cast was bound to provide (though what exactly has happened to Woodhouse?). That works well enough and has both appeased fans of the first four seasons whilst proving that the fifth really wasn’t all that bad.

As a result, I’m a huge fan of how season six ends. Yes, it was great getting back to the spy-based roots of Archer, but I’m seriously pumped for where they’re going to go next now that ISIS is, once again, toast. There are a lot more action genres out there ripe for parody and the core group of characters are just so well developed and hilarious together that I doubt any are beyond the show’s scope. Hopefully there are several more seasons left for the taking!

tl;dr: A fun if somewhat tired return to the show’s roots, providing both a solid entry to the franchise and a strong argument for shaking things up a bit more as it moves forward.

Archer [Season 7]

Well I wanted them to shake up the settings, plot and genre again after a slightly lukewarm season six and the Archer team have once again delivered. Season seven sees the team leave the espionage business behind (again) to pursue more grounded, yet legal (mostly), work in L.A. as private investigators. For the most part it leaves the show open to tread fan favourite paths, without needing quite so strong of a character shake-up as Archer: Vice did, but still leaves plenty of wiggle room.

As with most previous seasons the main areas of character development are focused on Archer and Lana’s on-going will-they-won’t-they personal life. Whilst it looked like season six was a turning point for Archer in particular, season seven doubles down on the (understandably) shaky grounds of trust the relationship is founded on. Largely this takes the form of sticking Hollywood starlet Veronica Deane in the crews path repeatedly, providing a clear temptation for Archer himself and a point of jealousy for Lana. Honestly, I feel like the show handles this part well, keeping their interactions fluid and funny without overly leaning on it to move the plot forward. There’s much less of AJ herself, which is fine, and it leaves the rest of the cast open to less serious side plots. I will say that the increased cast, including two brilliant cops and a host of Hollywood elite stereotypes, leaves almost too little time for the normal diversions. Having spent several seasons really fleshing out the side characters to more than 2-D punchlines, season  seven appears to largely reduce them back to these rolls, with Pam and Cheryl particularly badly hit. It’s a shame but, overall, not a huge hindrance.

Possibly the biggest let down of the series was the complete lack of pay-off to the “big mystery”. Clues are dropped from the very first episode that Deane and friends are involved in something a lot more sinister, with files and papers alluding to a particular scheme which never really appears. It is wrapped up in the two-part finale but I didn’t even realise that the reveal was happening until Archer explicitly mentions it. The finale did a good job of resolving several subplots whilst setting up one hell of a closing shot/cliff hanger, but it definitely feels like they dropped a couple of balls near the end of the season. Perhaps the number of episodes was suddenly cut, which would explain quite a lot, or maybe (in true Archer fashion) the whole point was to be pointless, but it results in the series feeling slightly rushed.

Still, a small gripe that allows for the show to lead itself, once again, in a very different direction. I’m pumped for the concept of Archer: Noir and very much looking forward to seeing how they cope with the characters being the versions of themselves that Archer sees. I feel like there is a huge amount of comic potential there and, possibly, an interesting way of having Archer himself go through a series of character strengthening self-realisations. I’m not sure if season eight is going to be the last but it does present a very nice way of tying off the series as a whole. Whatever happens, I’m certain I’ll be watching it very soon!

tl;dr: Another interesting twist and a refreshing switch-up. Definitely puts certain characters on the back burner, but overall a competent dive into new territory which sets up an exciting further abstraction.

Month in Media: February 2017

After the burst of media consumption in January, February feels like a major let down. In reality we’ve been spending a lot of time exploring, going on short breaks and sorting out life in general, so it makes sense that something has had to take a backseat. Plus, I accidentally introduced my partner to How I Met Your Mother so we’ve been ploughing through the last few seasons. It’s amazing how much of a time sink sitcoms can be…

Movies

Planet Hulk

There will be no surprised here if you’ve read the graphic novel of the same name and, frankly, if you haven’t then don’t bother watching the film and pick that up instead. Fans of the novel will likely enjoy Planet Hulk, as it stays remarkably faithful to the source material, but ultimately there’s little new here whilst large segments have been removed to fit into theatrical time constraints.

A lot of the cleverer or more interesting elements of world building have been stripped out, with much more focus placed on events in the colosseum instead. Again, the core elements are all here, including fan favourites like the Wildebots, but the subtleties of the graphic novel have been lost. Similarly, several of the more enlightening subplots have been removed wholesale. Miek never gets to undergo his transformation as the entire slave race, ‘native’ culture backstory is cut; he remains unhived throughout, which is heightened by the lack of Brood as a character. In turn this lends much less time to fleshing out the various “evil” races that the novel helped readers understand. More confusingly, much of the Spike Wars is left unmentioned along with any real character development between Caiera and the Hulk, leaving their eventual marriage feeling a little ham-fisted and sudden.

Instead, Planet Hulk spends its time focusing on the fighting which is done well enough to be enjoyable. The animation is fluid, the stakes are consistently increased and nothing feels totally forced or off. I found the swapping of the Silver Surfer for Beta-Ray Bill a little odd, as the former has a greater history within the Marvel Universe in general. It also highlighted one of the largest departures, in that this version of the Hulk is far more rage monster than nuanced alter-ego. The graphic novel does a much better job of justifying Hulk’s actions and making him a character you both root for and empathise with. There’s a lot less of that on display in the film, which casts Hulk as more of an arrogant, impulsive and self-centered teenager. As a result, the plot loses a lot of the emotional connection and impact, though this isn’t as great considering the film chooses to end on a high note, rather than the destruction of the novel. Again, I understand why this decision was made, but it detracts from the story quite a lot.

tl;dr: An interesting enough film but the problem is that the source material is just far superior. Read that, skip this.

Hulk vs.

Technically two short films, Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor, with no attempt at connecting the two at all, which is probably for the best. There’s also not much more to say for these; both shorts are just fight sequences with vague plots in place to allow for them to occur. The Wolverine plot line is more fleshed out, factoring in the Weapon X program as a reason for Hulk’s rampage in the Canadian south, but it still largely feels forced. It also makes little sense that Wolverine has no idea who Hulk is, despite the briefing from the Canadian government and the inclusion of characters like Deadpool and Lady Deathstrike which place it quite late in the normal Marval continuity. The result is entertaining enough, with some nice moments of humour, particularly between Deadpool and Wolverine, but offers little real merit.

Thor’s story is at least a little more unique, with Loki transporting Bruce Banner to Asgard during the Odin Sleep and separating him from the Hulk, allowing the monster to be unleashed utterly on Thor and the other Asgardian heroes. It appears to have been Loki’s greatest success, with Thor all but killed had the Sorceress not intervened and most of the other heroes defeated but falls down by presenting very two dimensional versions of the characters. Thor and Banner clearly know each other, yet Loki seems to have almost no understanding of humanity or the nature of the Hulk. There is a nice subplot regarding Banner’s time in Hel where he gets to live the life he most desires, but even here the conclusion is simply more fighting.

The animation is noteworthy, with some great fight sequences and good voice acting, but ultimately there is little more here than fan fantasies with an over-the-top budget.

tl;dr: Entertaining but shallow.

Mortdecai

Mortdecai was utterly slammed by critics but still managed to pique my interest. To be fair, I can fully understand the criticism: Mortdecai is not a good film. It is a comedy that was rarely funny, with a plot that was just nonsensical enough to save it from being predictable yet remained somewhat dull and which stars a host of stereotypes that failed to find their marks. The odd part is that it’s hard to pin down why Mortdecai is a bad film. It feels like an updated version of Austin Powers, with much the same humour and a well cast, well acted ensemble that should work brilliantly together. There are some genuinely clever moments and the script fist the bill nicely, but it never really engages the audience. It’s an odd thing, but the film just fails to be interesting or funny, seemingly through no fault of its own. There just isn’t any spark to the proceedings. Even with Paul Bettany playing a completely atypical womanising henchman (and playing it very well) there was little here that I could recommend. A confusing and occasionally frustrating flop.

tl;dr: It just doesn’t work. I’m not sure why, but the humour falls flat, the plot is banal and the end product leaves you utterly indifferent. The definition of meh.

The Lego Batman Movie

In honesty I can’t really review Lego Batman properly. I’ve been incredibly excited to watch the film since the first trailer dropped and love the idea of a DC movie from the minds behind the first Lego Movie, but it was a bad time to go to the cinema as I felt horrendous. As a result I spent the entire film running a temperature and focusing more on either not passing out or throwing up then what was happening on screen.

What I did catch made me certain that I want to rewatch this film in the future. The scripting and animation didn’t seem to be as intelligent as The Lego Movie but then the subject matter is also a lot more restrictive. In fact I was impressed by how much they tied the two together yet defined clear boundaries; Lego Batman is not a DC movie that happens to be animated in lego, with frequent references to master builders, instruction manuals and the ability to reconstruct the world around them. No, this is clearly a spin-off from the popular movie, not related to the straight-to-dvd DC lego franchise films. That also means that we aren’t restricted to DC characters, with the likes of Sauron, Voldemort and King Kong all making major appearances, which was also refreshing to see.

From the DC perspective, again I was impressed. The character of Batman in The Lego Movie was largely a pastiche, which made sense given the context of that film; he was the idea of Batman as viewed by a 10 year old, so harboured little nuance. Whilst the core of that character has remained for the spin-off, the surrounding cast and overall story arc are far deeper than required. Better yet, the focus is a close retelling of the “Bat Family” storyline from the comics, allowing the writers to dive into some of the aspects of Batman as a character that rarely make it into the big screen adaptations. It was wonderful to see this happen and I think it was done pretty well, given the context of a kids film. Within that context I doubt we’ll see the sequel (if there is one) conclude that arc ‘correctly’ with “A Death in the Family”, of even the creation of Oracle, but I can hope! If ever those stories were to make it through the Hollywood vetting process, an animated and light-hearted kids film might just be plausible.

Overall I enjoyed what I managed to see. The humour still made me laugh on several occasions, the meta concepts and pop-culture references were largely clever and well placed and the featured characters were treated surprisingly cleverly and fairly. Simple sequences like Robin’s descent into Nightwing, replete with voiced reasoning, were done wonderfully well and managed to equally advance the plot, point a finger at the often ridiculous nature of comic book narrative and be humorous to people without the knowledge to ‘get’ the deeper subtext. Definitely a film I would like to spend some less distracted time with in the future.

tl;dr: A clever look at both Batman and superhero motifs in general tied together in a funny, clever kids movie with a surprising amount of heart.

TV

How I Met Your Mother [Seasons 6-8]

There doesn’t seem much point splitting a sitcom up into seasons as, if they do their job correctly, it shouldn’t matter. The story should incrementally move forward but each episode, ideally, will be pretty self contained and uniform. You don’t look to a sitcom to change the way television is written or created; you look to a sitcom to make you laugh, create enjoyable characters and have just enough depth so that you care about them. For these reasons, How I Met Your Mother is one of my all time favourite sitcoms. What started as a slightly gimmicky, catchphrase laden update to the Friends formula has managed nine seasons of gradual maturation and consistently clever humour. HIMYM was never going to break any boundaries or push the envelope, but it has always been well written, enjoyable and laugh out loud funny.

It’s worth diving a little further into the (already noted) parallels between Friends and HIMIYM, because I think they’re a large part of the latter’s appeal and success. The core construct of the will-they-won’t-they relationship between two characters in a tightly knit friend group is something which just works. The characters have been updated from their 90’s counterparts to feel a little more natural in a 21st century environment, but otherwise the two shows are practically identical. A coffee shop has been swapped for a bar, personalities have been reshuffled a little (Ross -> Ted, Chandler -> Marshall, Joey -> Barney whilst the three female Friends become fused into two composites, with Monica + kinky/quirky Phoebe -> Lily and Rachel + kickass/neurotic Phoebe -> Robin) and fashions updated but each episode is still a self-contained story about a group of twenty-somethings in New York.

Less obvious but equally present are the influences of sitcoms such as Scrubs, which lend HIMYM their skit based humour and meta ability to inherently mess with the TV format. As with Scrubs this leads to some standout episodes featuring musical numbers, impossible events and the ever present ridiculousness of Barney’s “plays” to pick up women. Also much like Scrubs, the show gets away with this by having a central gimmick that ties everything together, in this case the fact that everything we see is just the retelling of events by a future version of Ted. That’s why the show revolves much more tightly around a single character than other, earlier sitcoms like Friends did, and why the boundaries of reality can be pushed at will. As with the use of JD’s imagination in Scrubs, Ted’s embellishments as he describes his past to his future children allow the show some breathing room that results in some brilliant sketch based comedy.

If this blend of humour is why the show works then, much like Scrubs, it is also why the show ends up treading a fine line between the hilarious and the inane. For the most part I would say HIMYM walks this line in style and is the reason I think it is one of the finest sitcoms ever, let alone of more recent years. That isn’t to say it is perfect. Season 8 in particular has felt like the writers were becoming a little stretched and the plot a little too convoluted. The constant focus on relationships, much of which seem to be moving incredibly quickly (how many engagements occur in this penultimate season alone?), is handled a little too inelegantly and begins to feel forced. I’d say it was clear that Season 8 was the point that the writers realised they needed to bring everything to a close but had left too many open threads to do so neatly. From the audience’s point of view it is also the point at which the central ‘mystery’ begins to feel too played out. At this stage I will feel equally cheated if Robin either is or isn’t the mother and personally wish they’d just get on with marrying her and Barney off so Ted can meet the oft-cited girl with the yellow umbrella!

That irritation out of the way, Season 8’s main problem may well be that it is directly preceded by arguably the two strongest seasons of the shows run. Both season 6 and 7 balance the show’s humour and heart perfectly, with almost every episode feeling like it has advanced at least one character arc whilst containing multiple moments of laughter inducing humour. It’s incredibly moreish, but not because you’re wanting answers or are constantly left with contrived cliff hangers, but because you find yourself having an immense amount of fun. As a result I’m both hugely glad and deeply saddened at the knowledge that there’s only one season left. Season 8 shows that the series has to end, that the core concept relies on some sense of impending closure (how long has he been talking to those kids?) and that the further this is spun out the less it works. But, Seasons 6 and 7 also show how great these characters can be and how well they work, both as a neat summation of the culture of the early 21st century and as entertainment in their own right.

tl;dr: One of the best sitcoms ever, though by the end of Season 8 clearly showing signs of ageing. I will miss these characters but we desperately need closure on who the mother actually is, and soon!

How I Met Your Mother [Season 9]

Okay, I realise I said I wasn’t going to split up a sitcom, but I wrote the above review in the full knowledge that I wouldn’t be writing any more until March. Only, then some plans fell through and the pacing of the show picked up and, before we’d even realised what was happening, another season had flown by.

If Season 8 was the stumble of fatigue in an otherwise solidly executed run, then Season 9 was the determined final burst of stamina to reach the finish line. The writing, acting and storytelling were all back on point, often rivalling the best episodes of the seasons behind it (a whole episode of rhyme with Lin Manuel-Miranda? Yes please!). There are the occasional over-the-top embellishments that smack of “its the final season, so why the hell not?” (Boys2Men’s sudden appearance felt particularly odd) but the show has always kept one foot in the surreal, so it still works. In fact, given how successful season 9 is at both producing entertaining episodes and wrapping up every possible thread that was still left dangling, I can’t help but feel that season 8 had been elongated to give them time to do the final season justice.

Whatever the reason, the 9th season is the one that cements How I Met Your Mother in the hallowed sitcom hall of fame, in my opinion at least. Every episode weaves a wonderfully fine line between emotional gut-punches and comedy that leaves you in tears. No character is left behind, no matter how minor, with subplots like “Boats! Boats! Boats!” and even the girlfriend-with-no-name coming to tidy, clear ends. It’s masterful story telling and once again highlights how useful a gimmick Ted’s future children are. You can have a slow pan over a half-dozen characters filling in their entire future, because that’s how Ted is telling it. It makes sense, brings perfect closure and is entertaining to boot.

I will admit to finding this final season pretty damn stressful. I honestly don’t think I could have hacked the ups-and-downs of Robin and Barney’s wedding had I watched in a weekly, episodic manner. Even binging as quickly as possible was almost too stressful! Still, the stress proves how much these characters had been imbued with meaning. By the final episode you truly care about each and every one of them, which when you look back at how the show started is an impressive feat. Possibly more impressively is how quickly the viewer falls for “the mother”. With each crossed-path and “Kids, that’s how so-and-so met your mother!” the anticipation builds yet further until that, too, begins to add to the stress. For a show built on the question of “Robin and Ted?” it does extremely well to utterly convince you that, when the characters begin to ask the same question, the answer is actually “No!”.

Which leaves only one element for discussion: the ending. Despite what I’ve just written, I think the ending is perfect. Back when it first aired I remember seeing a lot of negativity surrounding it, a feeling of being cheated somehow. We spend nine seasons building up to the “mother” only for her to be in a handful of episodes, die and be replaced with Robin, the girl you meet in the first ten minutes!? In the writers defence, though, HIMYM has never been the story of the “mother”. Right from the first scene of episode one, Robin has been the centre point. Why start telling your kids how you and Mum met with the story of how you met their Aunt Robin? So you can weave in the occasional reference to ankle sightings or the journey of a yellow umbrella? No, it made no sense for the story to take that tack unless Ted was actually telling another story. The story of how he’s loved Robin from the moment they first met, but how life intervened. How he found an equal love with another woman after having his heart (repeatedly) broken. But, most importantly, how six years after that other woman’s death, those feelings for Robin are still there.

How I Met Your Mother is not the story of meeting the “mother”. It’s the story of a widowed father asking his kid’s permission to move on, to rekindle an old flame, someone who has waited for him (this time around). Yes, the “mother” was amazing and I think every viewer ended up routing for her to “win” but the story isn’t about winning or losing, it’s about love. By the end of season nine it’s clear that the answer to “Robin and Ted?” is: yes! It’s just that a bunch of other stuff had to happen first.

tl;dr: A perfect ending to a brilliant show. How I Met Your Mother is one of those shows that I will miss, and remember, for a long time. To put it simply: legend… wait for it…

 

 

 

 

DARY!

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.