Category Archives: Reviews

I’ve Started…

Over the years, I’ve appeared on a few TV quizzes, including victory in an episode of 15-to-1 that is thankfully lost to the mists of time—thankfully because of the terrible goatee I sported back then. One show that I would still love to appear on is the venerable Mastermind, BBC’s extra-dramatic test of general knowledge. Just the contestant seated in a black leather chair under the spotlight, as questions are fired at them.

One nice little touch in Mastermind has become the show’s catchphrase: should the final buzzer interrupt a question, the host will still let the contestant answer, with the phrase “I’ve started, so I’ll finish.” Thus there’s no frustrating sense of being cut off, and the contestant’s fate remains in their hands, not those of the inexorable progress of time.

This twist on the quiz format fits my psychology well. I’m a completist, and I get irritated when I can’t wrap my affairs up neatly. (Not to the point of being obsessive-compulsive, though you will occasionally find me straightening the salt and pepper shakers during dinner.) The main impact of this is that if I start reading, or watching, or participating in something, I don’t like to step away until it’s finished.

Given that TV shows and book series can turn bad during their runs, this isn’t the happiest of traits to have. Spending my time and money on entertainment that makes me feel resentful instead of happy isn’t logical behaviour, but the fallacy of sunk costs has a powerful grip. If I give up, aren’t I just admitting that I’ve wasted the effort and attention I’ve already committed? Having come so far, I may as well see things through, right?

Like most personal flaws, once you’re aware of it, you can take steps to rectify it. I’ve gotten better over the years at walking away from activities that I’m not enjoying any more. Not that I’m perfect though. If I’m quitting a TV show, I’ll still watch to the end of the current series. I might abandon a book series if I’m not enjoying it (Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was the first I did this with), but I’ll still finish an individual book, no matter how much the experience drags.

My recent diagnosis was a reminder that I need to get better at this. Though the initial impact has faded away, replaced by a return to something resembling normality, the reminder that the time we have available to us is finite still lingers. Wasting time on activities that I’m only persisting with out of a misplaced need to have a tidy ending isn’t a worse idea than it was a few months ago, it’s just that I’m more aware of how bad an idea it is.

This shouldn’t require some grand audit of how I spend my time, either. Just a metaphorical tap on my shoulder any time that I find myself bored or annoyed at a time when I ought to be engaged with whatever I’m doing. Do I really need or want to be doing this? And if not, what could I be doing instead? (This includes nothing—allowing myself time to recharge and decompress is better than spending my time busy when I’m achieving nothing more than winding myself up.)

So, unlike that metaphorical contestant on Mastermind, I don’t always have to finish. I can just walk away if I want to. Though in one particular instance, I might decide to finish properly. You see, the main reason I’ve never been on Mastermind is that my brother works for the BBC—an organisation that’s a bit touchy about potential impropriety. But it seems that an external company has now taken over the show, so that bar to my participation is no longer an issue. Next time they’re looking for contestants, I might just see if I’m a good fit for that black leather chair.


Cancer Update

Missed a week, didn’t I? That was careless of me. Still, it hasn’t been a fortnight filled with incident, so you’re not missing too much. I’m just about finished my fourth week on (and hence first pack of) Alecensa, and the major side effect has been a reduction in my average heart rate of around 10bpm. You’ve probably heard enough about my digestive issues already, so on that side let’s just say that everything is under control with only minimal interference on my part.

I’ve also been putting on a bit of weight, though whether that’s down to my lowered metabolism or the fact that I’m back at a workplace which is keen to provide as many meals and snacks as possible is hard to say. Maybe both. In any case, a visit to the doctor in midweek suggests that the cancer has paused its advance, though more detailed results won’t be forthcoming until early April. Until then, let’s hope for smooth sailing (and an absence of coughing).

New Year, New Movies

As promised, something a little lighter. The turn of the year brings with it Oscar season and a swathe of awards-bait movies. Somewhat unusually, this year I’ve managed to see a few of them. This has proved to be good timing. Movies gunning for golden statuettes can tend to be desperately self indulgent, but I actually enjoyed most of the movies that I watched over the Christmas period.

Below are brief reviews of four of those movies (one of them is not an awards-bait movie, but I did see it over the holidays). I also saw The Irishman, Scorsese’s mob epic, on Netflix, which was probably the best way to watch it, as it’s an interminably long retread of ground that Scorsese has already crossed and re-crossed, mostly in the company of the same actors. I’m not a big Scorsese fan but when all a movie has going for it is familiarity and technical achievement, it’s going to be a lesser work.

For upcoming movies, I still want to catch Greta Gerwig’s Little Women and I’m looking forward to Armando Ianucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield. However, while I wait for those, on with the reviews, in more or less chronological order:


Knives Out, Rian Johnson

Having become the focus of Internet fan ire a year earlier for his work on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson’s return with a wonderful modern version of the classic Agatha Christie detective story is a warming success. Garnished with a truly wonderful cast, led by Anna de Armas and Daniel Craig, it does what Johnson likes doing best: takes apart a well-known genre, figures out what makes it tick, then puts it back together in a form just skewed enough to require the audience to pay close attention.

Paying attention pays off in this case, as Knives Out plays fair throughout, providing all the information that the audience needs to figure out what’s going on. Casually mentioned facts reappear later in the story, and no one is entirely to be trusted. Even better, the film lays out early on exactly what happened, turning instead into an exploration of how and why it happened. It’s a subtle distinction, but it brings the characters and their motivations to the fore, much to the evident joy of the cast.

Often when the people involved in a movie have clearly had a good time making it, the movie itself is a bit of a mess. That’s not the case here. Johnson’s script is tight and purposeful, and his cast are clearly having a ball playing a bevy of horrible, entitled people. Chris Evans, Michael Shannon, and Jamie Lee Curtis are all worthy of note, but Craig’s louche detective Benoit Blanc is a constant joy. All the happier news then that Johnson is planning further movies starring him. Bring them on.


Star Wars: Rise of the Skywalker, J.J. Abrams

It’s been a tough few years for Star Wars fans at the movies. For all the money they’ve made, the Star Wars films have stuttered for Disney, with production on movies outside the main story having been halted. Which leaves only the final movie in the trilogy of trilogies for now. Following on from The Force Awakens, which was predictable but buoyed up by its appealing young cast, and The Last Jedi, which did interesting things with the Star Wars universe but clunked in several areas, we have Rise of the Skywalker, which lands with the dullest, heaviest of thuds.

The problem lies mostly with the writer/director. J.J. Abrams has a talent for tapping into fan nostalgia and grabbing audience interest with mysterious stories, but if Rise of the Skywalker proves anything, it’s that he has no idea how to plot a movie. He got away with it in The Force Awakens, which could devote itself to setting up mysteries for later films and which in any case borrowed its plot from earlier films in the franchise, but here he’s required to provide payoff for at least two and as much as eight earlier films, and he really doesn’t.

What he does instead is deliver a film stuffed from one end to the other with incident, action, and brand new and unexplained twists and turns. In this constantly weaving spaghetti junction of plot lines, the appealing traits of the core cast are lost and no time at all is taken to build suspense or allow the impact of seemingly galaxy-shaking events to sink in. Despite watching Star Wars since I was old enough to follow a story, my sense of wonder only twitched once, a positive reaction far outweighed by my eye rolling at overt fan service and sighing at yet another pointless hint that never gets followed up on. This should have been so much more.


JoJo Rabbit, Taika Waititi

Imagine the trickiest assignment you could give a scriptwriter. A comedy set in the waning days of World War II, told from the perspective of a ten-year-old Nazi fanboy, with Hitler as his imaginary friend? Oh, and it has to deal sincerely with anti-semitism, tragedy, and despair, all without being offensive or trite. That’ll probably be close to as tough as it gets. It’s entirely to Taiki Waititi’s credit that he took on the assignment in the first place and a sign of just how good a writer and director he is that the resulting film is something close to a triumph.

I’ve seen and heard a few reviewers complain that as a satire it’s toothless as a result of its silliness, which somewhat misses the fact that JoJo Rabbit isn’t a satire. It’s a coming-of-age story, told amid the most insane of circumstances, as the titular JoJo is required to confront the Nazi “truths” that have been drummed into him from his earliest days, embodied by Waititi’s Hitler, an imaginary friend who is by turns supportive, manic, and hateful.

The complexities of the supporting characters are deliberately hinted at rather than delved into: JoJo simply isn’t equipped to understand their despair, devotion, and rebellion. The exception is Thomasin McKenzie’s Elsa, a jewish girl he finds hiding in his house. Older and more insightful than JoJo, she has a drive for survival that he doesn’t understand, and it’s through her that he finds a path to growing up and developing empathy. By turns hilarious and deeply heartfelt, JoJo Rabbit was my favourite movie of the winter.


1917, Sam Mendes

Most of the attention paid to Sam Mendes’ World War I epic 1917 prior to its release centred around its unusual editing. The entire two hours is presented as taking place in more or less real time, with a single time jump in the middle. Any edits are carefully concealed, with the result that the camera almost never leaves its protagonists as they struggle through no-man’s land and across the western front during a lull in the fighting.

Does this structural flourish actually serve the movie? Arguably, it increases the sense of immersion, as the audience has little opportunity to breathe or look away across the two hours of the film. By the end of the movie, they’re likely to be just as exhausted as the survivors are. However, film editing is an almost universally recognised language, and at times the refusal of the editor to cut away or switch to a closeup can be jarring and remind the audience of the artifice of what they’re watching.

What’s left then is a solid, well-told story of desperation and heroism amid the horrors of the World War I trenches. Mendes doesn’t shy away from showing how awful the experience was, though the film is rarely gratuitous in its use of corpses and death. The cast, while not as impressive as that of Knives Out, does provide some highlights for viewers, but it’s the core duo of Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay that impress the most. The weight of having an entire film production focused on you for far longer than normal can’t be underestimated, and succeeding as well as it does marks 1917 as an impressive feat.


Cancer Update: Towards the end of my second week on alectinib/Alcensa, things are settling down a bit. The most notable side effect has been a lowering of my heart rate, which may have knock-on effects in time but otherwise isn’t bothering me too much for now. My weight has also gone up a bit, but the cause of that is harder to identify. Constipation and returning to a sedentary job with ample access to snacks could both be contributing. So it’s probably a good thing that I started running again today.

Well, I say running. It was more of a 5k run/walk/stagger. However, the breathing wasn’t a problem. Instead, the out-of-practice legs were. So, as before, good news worth taking and I’ll run with that. Once I recover, that is.

Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

With a break from the rugby yesterday, I decided it might be a good idea to pay a bit more attention to the world outside of sport. What, exactly, has been going on in the world of politics and culture?

….

Well, that was a mistake, wasn’t it? Let’s retreat into some make-believe instead and take a look at one of the biggest comics stories of the year, Jonathan Hickman’s reboot of Marvel’s X-Men franchise.

(Spoilers below, if you haven’t read it. And you should—it’s good.)

Continue reading Doing the HOX/POX—Hickman’s X-Men

Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

We’re only a few hours away from the finale of Game of Thrones. Having long ago outstripped the A Song of Ice and Fire novels it was based on, the series is now delivering an ending that author George R.R. Martin may not match for years. However, season 8 has already met with a mixed reception, so the odds that the last episode will leave viewers happy, or even satisfied, are not as good as they were. With that in mind, let’s take a look at the runners and riders for the Iron Throne and how they’ve been served by the last few episodes.

(Spoilers, obviously.)

Continue reading Heavy Sits the Arse Upon the Throne…

Game of Thrones—The Long Farewell

Quite a few long-running stories that I’ve been following across different media are coming to an end these days. In the cinemas, there’s Avengers Endgame, the climax of a story that started with Iron Man in 2008 (and which I’ve seen—more on that soon). In comics, there’s Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s The Wicked + The Divine, which has been running since 2014 and is on its final story arc. And on TV of course, there’s Game of Thrones, now two episodes into its six-episode final season.

Endings are tricky things, of course, all the more so when stories are as sprawling as these three examples are. But these stories have an advantage: a large cohort of dedicated fans, who have invested in and stuck with the story from the early days. Perhaps the key to getting the ending right lies in making sure that these fans feel a sense of payoff for their dedication. And from the two episodes so far, Game of Thrones‘ creators understand this well.

(Spoilers for Game of Thrones below, but also for sundry other endings.)

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Game of Thrones—In Praise of the Little People

Game of Thrones returned to our screens last weekend, in an opening episode to the final series that harked back to the very first episode. Once again, the major players were manoeuvring around one another, some of them meeting after years apart and others encountering each other for the first time. The Starks and Lannisters, together with Daenerys Targaryen, face the existential threat of the White Walkers and the Night King, while all around them everyone else just tries to survive.

Except that’s not really true, is it? One of the joys of Game of Thrones, both in televisual and novel form, is that its rich cast of minor characters don’t just exist to survive and support the actions of the major players. They have their own lives, their own lusts and drives, and they’re often just as entertaining as, if not more so than, the tragic Starks or the debauched Lannisters.

(There’ll be some spoilers below, but not too many. This is all about celebrating the characters who have enlivened and enriched the tapestry of Westeros for viewers and readers.)

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A Tale of Two Captains

The history of the comics industry, with all its twists and turns, contains fewer stories more convoluted than that of Captain Marvel. A plethora of characters have held that title across multiple publishers, and there’s no way to tell the tale in a straightforward fashion. There’s even an extension to the Captain Marvel story that ropes in a British copy called Marvelman, comics’ greatest writer, and a slew of hard-fought court cases.

Given all of this complication, there must be some cosmic synchronicity at work in two versions of this storied character having their movie debut within a month of each other, in the form of Marvel/Disney’s Captain Marvel and DC/Warner’s Shazam! It might be a little spurious to compare the two movies, but it might also be a little fun and tell us something about the seemingly bloated state of the superhero movie genre right now.

Besides, when has being spurious ever stopped this blog before?

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Not Quite Star Trek—Discovery and The Orville

These are, in theory, great times to be a Star Trek fan. Sure, the film series is currently on hiatus, its spangly attempt to reboot continuity having had, at best, mixed results. Even so, television (where Trek first found fame) has not one, but two Trek offerings. One is the official Star Trek: Discovery, which has just kicked off its second season. The other is the ersatz Trek, Seth MacFarlane’s The Orville, which is several episodes into its own second season.

Both of these series have struggled against a sense that they’re not really Star Trek. It’s an easy accusation to face in the case of The Orville, which was born out of MacFarlane’s love of all things Trek, but despite its often juvenile humour, it regularly harks back to the era of The Next Generation in its storylines and characters. Discovery‘s task as the latest incarnation of official Trek is, if anything, tougher, because treading on fans’ hallowed ground is a sure route to a firing squad at the first sign of deviation from the holy canon. And the first series of Discovery provided plenty of ammunition for those kinds of fans.

But just what is genuine Star Trek anyway? Can there be any such thing for a franchise that’s spread across six main TV series (not counting the animated series) and more than a dozen movies? How do those former offerings inform the Trek and Trek-like shows we’re getting now? Let’s take a look.

The Original Series: Born out of the remnants of 1950s golden-age science fiction and the optimism of the 1960s, Star Trek set the template in a lot of ways. “Its five-year mission, to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations,” is still what people think of when they think of Star Trek. But even Star Trek wasn’t Star Trek at first. The pilot famously had a different captain (Pike) and though the core trio of Kirk, Spock, and Bones was in place when the series began, the rest of the multicultural crew took time to fill in. Even so, the sense of exploration and of encountering the strangeness of outer space was always at the heart of the show.

The Movies (Original Cast): Though the original show died after three seasons and 79 episodes, it never really went away. Fan culture grew up around it, and the massive success of Star Wars in the late 1970s made its rebirth a real possibility. Once again though, Star Trek changed over time. The first movie had a lot of the original series’ wonder but lacked any fun and action. The second movie, the much-loved Wrath of Khan, and especially the fourth, The Voyage Home, redefined the template around the original crew, casting them as wisecracking renegades, with heavily emphasis on fan nostalgia. Sometimes it worked wonderfully, but often it didn’t—the rule of even-numbered movies being good and odd ones bad held for a surprisingly long time.

The Next Generation: Born as the original-cast movies were at their height, The Next Generation (TNG) was an attempt to recreate the original series for, well, a new generation. By any measure, it was a massive success, but once again it took time to become itself. Its multicultural crew now included an alien and an android, as well as more than one woman, but it took a step back from the action of the movies at first. Only with the introduction of the Borg as an adversary with real thematic heft did TNG take flight. Likewise, the intellectual Picard was a contrast to the action-hero Kirk of the movies but not quite so far from the curious, emotional Kirk of the original series, showing just how the sense of what Trek was had divided. Moreover, just as the movies were telling an ongoing story, The Next Generation started to move away from single-episode stories towards longer arcs—a trend that would continue in both Star Trek and television series in the wider world.

Deep Space Nine: If TNG was an attempt to recreate the Original Series, Deep Space Nine (DS9) was an attempt to do something different. Different from Star Trek anyway—its resemblance to the contemporaneous series Babylon 5 was widely noted. In this series, humans were almost in a minority, acting as peacekeepers between multiple alien races. Actively political compared to previous series, it still suffered the Star Trek curse of taking time to become itself. Uncomfortably bumpy at the start of its run, it remains deeply loved by its fans, not least because it leaned into its own strangeness, mysticism, and character relations. An ever-increasing focus on long-running story arcs allowed it to develop real depth and the stories it wove to have massive payoffs across its seven seasons.

Voyager: By the time Voyager showed up, Star Trek was suffering from diminishing returns. TNG had just ended, DS9 was still running, and several more movies were released during its run. Like DS9, Voyager had a fascinating concept: a misfit crew flung across the galaxy trying to make their way home. Unlike DS9, Voyager never quite managed to make the most of that concept; unlike earlier Trek series, it never quite became itself. It had its high points, but the possibilities of a long-form story were largely ignored, and the characters remained mostly bland remixes of what had gone before. Kate Mulgrew’s Captain Janeway was easily a match for any prior lead, but her own crew’s voyage never inspired.

The Movies (Next Generation cast): With the original cast aging out of being action heroes, the obvious step was to replace them with the popular TNG crew. And at this stage in its evolution, Star Trek was nothing if not obvious. The Next Generation crew would get four swings at the ball, but only one of those proved to be a strike. Generations was a clumsy handover from the old to the new, giving Kirk an underwhelming death that spin-off media has done its best to retcon ever since. First Contact brought back the Borg in fine style, as well as plenty of the signature Trek optimism that TNG had done so well, delving into Trek history with a time-jumping plot that raised memories of The Voyage Home. Insurrection was mostly forgettable, though it wasn’t as bad as it is remembered, being mostly an expanded Next Generation episode. It was Nemesis that killed the franchise at the movies, flinging too much CGI at the screen and criminally underusing a young Tom Hardy as it stumbled through an action-oriented plot and chickened out of the one interesting character move it made.

Enterprise: At this point, the travails of Voyager and the movies had clearly spooked Star Trek’s guardians, because Enterprise was a weird mishmash of familiar elements, shoehorned into Trek continuity. With Scott Bakula (best known for the Quantum Leap series) at the helm as Captain Archer, the show centred around a previously unmentioned USS Enterprise, from the early days of Trek’s Federation. This put it in the odd position of being a step back from earlier series, as its crew was more homogenous and its world building was largely restricted to “first encounters” with already established bits of Trek lore. In the latter half of its four-season run, Enterprise did push towards becoming itself, rather than warmed-over Trek bits, but it was too little, too late. Enterprise died in a final episode that just reiterated everyone’s affection for other, better Trek series, and with it ended 18 consecutive years of Trek on TV.

The Movies (Kelvin crew): Once again, Trek was resurrected at the movies. This time, under the stewardship of JJ Abrams, the outcome was a reboot rather than a continuation. A new Kirk, Spock, and Bones inhabiting a glittering universe of action and drama, with wisecracks and high-flying action as standard. There was some of the Trek optimism in the new movies but little exploration, and in recreating the original series there was little room for anything new. The presence of Leonard Nimoy’s Spock in the first movie just drove that point home, as did the second movie, Into Darkness, a ham-fisted recreation of The Wrath of Khan. While the third film, Beyond, was altogether more joyful and interesting, it still hewed to the action and explosions formula. The three films made plenty of money at the box office but perhaps not enough, because whether or not they’re going to come back again is up in the air at this point.

So we’ve had many different versions of Trek, born from the original series and spinning its ideals of exploration, optimism, and camaraderie in different ways. TNG succeeded in bringing back those values twenty years after the original, and DS9 successfully transplanted them to a very different setting, but every other Trek has had more limited success. Voyager never quite settled on an identity of its own, and that failure likely pushed a subsequent sense that sticking with already known Trek lore is the best idea. That need for familiarity is poison to a franchise that was once about discovery and the new, and Enterprise suffered from a fatal dose, for all its efforts to find its own identity as other Treks had done before it. Then there’s the movies: the blockbuster need for spectacle and action leaves little room for the wonder of the universe, though the one thing that the movies have consistently succeeded at is evoking the camaraderie between the various crews.

So we now have both Discovery and The Orville now on their second seasons, having spent both of their first seasons finding their feet. First-season Discovery took a lot of chances: shoehorning the story into existing Trek lore, set a few years before the original series, gave it little room to manoeuvre. Its season-long story arc was packed full of deceptions, and its sense of discovery was limited to the story of the war it revolved around. For all that, it was entertaining, with interesting characters trying and occasionally succeeding in building relationships as the plot and character revelations overturned things every other episode.

The Orville was a lot more predictable in its first season, using a Trek-like setting to tell Trek-like stories, leavened with Seth MacFarlane’s frat-boy humour and jokes about alien bodily functions. There was no ongoing story to speak of, but the show did make a gradual effort to deepen its characters as it went. Even so, it rarely hit levels that TNG had managed on its off days, and its sense of being Trek-lite was pretty solidly confirmed.

With the arrival of the second season, not much has changed for The Orville. It’s matured to the point where it’s a fun watch, and the juvenile humour has eased to the point where it won’t put off someone who can’t stand that kind of thing. It stands or falls by the strength of its characters though, as there’s no ongoing plot and only a paper-thin universe to inhabit. Luckily the cast is generally appealing, so it’s likely to hang around and maybe become even more Trek-like in its ability to find itself.

Second-season Discovery is a very different beast. The first episode of season two was an exhilarating left turn from the darkness and deceit of season one. With the arrival of Anson Mount’s Captain Pike, transferring across from the USS Enterprise to the USS Discovery, and the provision of a genuine scientific mystery to explore, this feels closer to the core of Trek than any series in years. Yes, it’s still shoehorned into existing Trek lore and filled with CGI and action sequences, but if one episode can be any indication, there’s a real sense that Discovery has figured out what worked about season one and decided to build on that. An increased focus on crew and camaraderie and the joy to be found in exploring the wonders of the galaxy seems to have been transplanted into the heart of the series. Maybe it’s just me, but that seems pretty hopeful.

And isn’t hope what Trek is really all about?

The Not-So Subtle Knife—The Favourite

Do you have a favourite? Not just a best friend, though they can play that role. Perhaps a sibling or a spouse, someone whose judgement you trust, someone who knows you as well as you do yourself. Someone you could rely on so much that they could take over your life. What if the power you gave to this favourite was, effectively, power over an entire nation? What, then, if you found yourself with two potential favourites? What would that reveal about where the true power lay?

The Favourite*, the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, sees men play games of war and politics as women wield the real power.

Continue reading The Not-So Subtle Knife—The Favourite

Memento Mortem—Return of the Obra Din

The best stories in games are those that the player has a part in telling. Usually this role is one of making choices that determine how the story goes. The story in Return of the Obra Dinn (Mac / PC) is of a different kind. Here, the story has long ended, and it’s up to the player to piece it together from scraps of information, building their understanding of what happened, when, and to whom.

Some spoilers for Return of the Obra Dinn below, and if you’re planning on playing it, spoilers are worth avoiding.

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