Month in Media – June 2017 [#28]

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

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

Books

The Midas Flesh [vol. 1]

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

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

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

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

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

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

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen [vol. 1]

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

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

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

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

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

Movies

Avengers Assembled [rewatch]

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

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

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

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

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

Avengers: Age of Ultron [rewatch]

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

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

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

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

Captain America: Civil War [rewatch]

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

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

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

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

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

Wonder Woman

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

So first of all, the good:

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

But then again, the bad:

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

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

Shrek the Third

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tangled [rewatch]

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

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

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

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

The Last Witch Hunter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up There

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Month in Media: December 2016

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

Films

Wonder Woman

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

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

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

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

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

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

Godzilla (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Train Your Dragon 2 [rewatch]

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

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

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

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

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

TV

Planet Earth (Season 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Daredevil (Season 1)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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