Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Doctor Who - The Snowmen

Twenty five minutes in, and I've already written it off. There were nice set pieces, nice scenes, the odd laugh - sure - but nothing was coming together. The Doctor was introduced into the episode in thoroughly unconvincing fashion, the enemy was kinda just weird and unclear and too many leaps of logic were happening too quickly. The Snowmen was well on it's way to becoming another "could have been" episodes of Dr Who - a potentially good story executed badly.

Not that it was bad, so much as it wasn't all that convincing or engaging when not following the footsteps of new companion Clara. Confusingly enough, this isn't Jenna Louise-Coleman's debut on Dr Who. That came at the start of the series, in the fantastic Asylum of the Daleks, where she played Oswin Oswald. She's playing an eerily similar role here, and when she becomes the focal point of the narrative the episode improves for it.

The plot sees Clara trying to persuade the retired Doctor to return to action, in order to take down evil snowmen that seem to be popping up all over Victorian London. Madam Vastra, Jenny and Strax are the gatekeepers, of sorts, although they too are trying to get The Doctor into the game. Aside from excellent scene, Madam Vastra is rather under utilised and Jenny is basically there, but little else. Only Strax gets a good showing, and his comic relief, although rather predictable, brings a very effective lightness to an episode lacking Smith's normal witty interplay between himself, Amy, Rory and sporadically River.

When things start to come together, however, things cascade into motion. The before ill-defined theme of dreams (and nightmares) come to the fore and ties what has come before surprisingly well. The rather shapeless, stammering plot gains cohesion and Moffat's ability to subvert and misdirect the audience's expectations brings tension where there really shouldn't be tension.

After only two episodes of them motor-mouthing off against each other, it's hard to deny that Coleman and Smith have an irresistible chemistry, if at times nigh unintelligible. If this were a rap battle, they'd both be getting told to slow down. When they really start squaring wits against each other the episode spikes dramatically upwards in enjoyability, and never stops rising.

At the halfway mark, I'd given up on the episode actually being good. By the end, I'd been blown away. The fairest judgement would be somewhere between the two, but I'd be inclined more towards the latter. The Snowman, is an unusual and ambitious fairy tale much in keeping of Smith's Doctor, but unlike the past two there are shockwaves to be felt in the main series itself. This is another new beginning of sorts, and great things are promised.

Roll on Series 7(2)!

Friday, 29 June 2012

Novel Review - Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

Uglies, by Scott Westerfeld, is a book with a fantastic premise. At the age of sixteen, you go from being an Ugly to a Pretty, designed to be as pleasing to the eye as possible. Tally Youngblood has been left alone, however, being the last of her friends to turn sixteen. She soon befriends a girl called Shay, however, who shares the same birthday. There's a problem: Shay doesn't want to become Pretty, and when she runs away Tally is given a pretty vicious choice. Betray her friend or lose her future.

This is not as great a novel as it is a premise. It's certainly and enjoyable read that does have a lot going for it, but the most prevalent thing about this novel is that it could be better. The prose is somewhat microcosmic in this sense. Westerfeld writes with a smooth and engaging style that is highly readable, but his prose lacks anything that makes it memorable or evocative. It would be easy to dismiss criticisms of Westerfeld's prose on the back of the YA classification, sure, but good writing doesn't necessarily need to be too difficult for an age in which children have been taught classic novels in school for a good number of years already. Westerfeld's writing is above average admittedly, but that's always somewhat backhanded as compliments go.

The world is well thought out and what we get to see of it is highly engaging. From the more overt things that make up the world to the smaller details that seem to reflect a society based on conformity and aesthetic beauty, there's more thought here than the one-note dystopian future. Westerfeld routes the reader's experience of the world firmly in Tally's viewpoint - inevitably this leads to a fairly small, closed view of the world. As much as this helps keep the onus on the characters, it does detract from the setting and society in a book that is, in theory, about the society.

If we stop talking about the themes and start talking about the characters, Uglies becomes a lot better a book for it. Tally is a lovely girl and an eminently relateable one, and it's a great credit that Westerfeld makes her so whilst pushing her in directions that, at times, even going so far as to almost become an anti-hero of sorts. That she retains personality whilst being actively shaped by her environment is exactly the right way to characterise her, and gives her a real depth and legitimacy.

To a great extent, the ensuing plot is more melodrama than anything else. Much of the cast outside our heroine aren't as well utilised as they could be - again, there's a lot more potential than there is end product. Nonetheless, highly-readable prose, great imagination and interesting characterisation make this a worthy read. If it's not worth reading to see the central concept at work, then it is worth reading to be involved with an interesting and well-paced character story.

Overall, Uglies is a solid and enjoyable story that will, hopefully, be the awkward growing pains of a series that can evolve to be legitimately fantastic.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Film Review - Prometheus

The Alien franchise is that of strange variations and odd sequel choices. The first was an incredibly simple and effective space horror, perhaps the most definitive example. The second built on the great concepts of the first and re-appropriated them for a military sci-fi, a straight out action blockbuster. So far, so good.

Then things got weird. Alien 3 was a flawed psychological thriller with heavy religious overtones. Alien Resurrection was an attempt to recapture the feel of an action sci-fi but filmed and acted like a black comedy. Both were attempts to recapture elements of past films and executed in a way that was incredibly strange, and both were critical failures.

(Not seen either Alien vs Predator, so not really qualified to talk about them.)

As the newest part of this franchise, Prometheus offers an approach that is, once again, distinct from it's predecessors. This time, however, the differences in genre is not so extreme as it had been previously: Prometheus, as suggested by the title, is a sci-fi based around exploration and discovery.

Two scientists discover cave painting that resemble other carvings from ancient civilisations spread out through history. Each of them contains reference to a configuration of planets that is unique to one particular part of the galaxy. One of those planets has conditions that are required to support life. Unable to turn down the promise of potentially coming across aliens, an expedition is sent to investigate.

The movie takes it's time to establish characters and make sure they all have relateable motivations. In execution, however, this is not done in particularly well. In one early scene the Evil Corporation Guy, played by Charlize Theron, tells the scientist couple that they are to only observe and not to approach if there are any aliens. Just observe and report back. This is a smart move, surely, since they are walking in blind to the unknown. Surely having as much information and letting people prepared best for the encounter make the first approach? But no, our protagonists, Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) huff and puff with entitled notions of them "deserving" to be the ones that do so and there's the sneaking suspicion that the film wants us to agree with them.

Whilst the attempts to inject all of the characters with personality and motivations is appreciated, it's not particularly successful. There's a few undercooked subplots, and characters that are better in concept than execution. The notable exception is David the android (played brilliantly by Michael Fassbender) who remains an enigmatic and ambiguous figure throughout. Whilst Shaw starts off as unconvincing as the rest of them, she seems to genuinely change and develop as the story progresses, becoming a genuine and interesting character as the story progresses.

On top of unconvincing characters, the films suffers from a real lack of subtlety. The almost tourette-ish need to tell the audience exactly what is happening in case the audience have lapsed into temporary blindness. Dialogue stumbles along, awkwardly attempting to convey character and plot details whilst seeming very much like dialogue. Worse, it often feels the need to spell out it's themes to you. The character spend much of the movie talking about answers and asking questions, but the movie doesn't just not have the answers: it never really has much to say about all the questions. It spends its time raising philosophical points which don't tie into the movie well and not doing very much with them.

As flawed as it is, there is no denying that the production values are amazing. If nothing else, the film is amazing looking. Breathtaking scenery and great set design really helps build the world. More than any of the other Alien films, too, this film is about the world that surrounds the mythos. The strange things the find, the alien world, the spaceship - visually, this film is a real treat and to a great extent this really props up the weaker elements.

Tonally, it's unable to properly strike a balance. Some of the earliest moments of horror come across as nigh-comedic, which is definitely unintended. There's a scene or two that seemed as if it were thrown in just to keep the movie's later scenes from being too jarring, but the whole plot can never find a good way to reconcile the two. The result is neither the horror nor the more philosophical and exploratory aspects of the film are ever that effective.

Despite it's array of flaws and the fact that there isn't necessarily all that much about the film that really works, I found myself getting further drawn into the story. As characters died and imaginative concept after imaginative concept was thrown into the mix, my appreciation rose. They may not have been executed to their fullest potential, but a lot of the film's ideas are genuinely compelling. There's an ambition here that pulled me in, and although many critics find fault with the later section of the movie, it was there that piece really grew on myself.

Due to my reluctance to go into spoilers, it's difficult to talk about where the movie really comes good. Later sections in the movie make it clear that answers are not going to be offered, and it seems to really be on better ground with what the movie is about. Prometheus is probably the Alien sequel that reinvents the franchise the least, perhaps ironically, but it offers up an interesting and complex and ambitious piece of fiction. It's imaginative and it's ambitious; at the end of the day, Prometheus is a film that is far better than it's flaws should really allow it to be.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Film Review - Lockout

A secret agent, Agent Snow, has been framed. Emilie Warnock, the president's daughter, goes to a space station that is being used as a prison, in order to investigate their rather unusual way of keeping the prisoners in order. Locked in an artificial sleep, or "stasis". Emilie wants to investigate the psychological side effects of stasis, but her appearance prompts a breakout by the prisoners. Sent in to rescue the kidnapped president's daughter, Snow is given the chance to clear his name.

Not only is this film fairly heavily edited for violence, I got the feeling that it was sped up too. Maybe it was just the overdubbing from French to English that created this effect, but it seemed like a lot of the scenes have a dramatic flow and the right dramatic beats. They just came too quickly. There's a lot of cheeky energy to the film, however, and there's a childish wit that keeps entertained whilst the movie fails to find any decent pace.

The wit, really, is rather unusual. Both the comedic styling and plot fall under this barrier. Relatively recently a film called In Time came along and tried to pander to Hollywood action cliches without really understanding them - Lockout is relatively similar in this respect. The real difference is that whilst In Time did not seem to really put any stock in the cliches, throwing them in almost off-handedly, Lockout misses the target in a really strange way and hits a strangely ironic button. Characters talk strangely, strange colloquialisms being slipped in at really inappropriate times, possibly just to keep it from being obvious that the film is dubbed.

As Snow fights the evil space Glasweigans - yes, they're all Weegies - it's best to go with the flow. Plot holes abounds, cliches revelled in - the whole thing has about as much depth a paddling pool. If you are determined to have a film that is sturdily plotted and unpredictable, then it will inevitably fall flat. Characters exist only to say funny things, be evil or be saved. Nonetheless, the B-movie feel and weird tone of the movie, I feel, make these complaints rather pedantic. Sit down and go with it. It's a crazy fun time.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Film Review - Chronicle

It was always going to end like this. Each step of the way we are on board, and it makes sense. We'd probably fall too.


Andrew has decided to film everything: his abusive father, his sick mother, his loneliness and oppressive school life, his pretentious cousin who doesn't want to be seen with him. It's a situation anybody would struggle to cope with, but Andrew isn't even coping. When his cousin, Matt, persuades him to come to a party, he is approached by Matt's friend, Stephen, to come film a discovery. A hole in the ground containing dark secret that'll change all over their lives.

This is, if you were to take a person through the plot and character arcs, a pretty well trodden path. There's a lot of imagination and creativity here, some originality, but really the strongest points of this movie are things we have seen before. A rise and fall narrative, the weak becoming the strong, the self-perpetuating cyclical misuse of power. The film doesn't seem to hide it's intentions, either, and the direction the plotting is heading seems, from the outset, to be obvious.

I think this works in the films favour. The air of inevitability, the dark tone that acts as an anacrusis to any super powers or real character changes, hangs like a guillotine blade over the narrative. When we see our protagonists learning and growing, a nigh palpable sadness seems to add a new layer to every scene. Despite this, we invest in them: really, this is what makes the film so special.

The characters are relateable and flawed and complex. They have motivation that make them likeable, each one just trying to find their way, still early on in their life. The film makers have realised that the characters are the most important part, and the end result is a movie which does not have that much of a plot - certainly when you consider the central premise. Instead it's about getting to know these three youths as the invisible fourth gang member, watching how the powers change their life.

Chronicle builds to an impressive finale, a climax that really puts you through the emotional ringer. The limited budget is compensated for brilliantly by the central gimmick and the characters are pushed to the edge. Coming out of the film, it is no coincidence that myself and the people I watched it with all felt as if we had been put through the ringer. Towards the end, there was a few moments where the framing device broke down, became so contrived that suspension of disbelief is stretched thin.

This a great sci-fi, a great tragedy and a great film.

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Film Review - Haywire

tl;dr I'm really not sure how summarise this one.

We're not just desensitized to violence. Hollywood seems to have endeavored to neuter any fight scene of anything that can be construed as really violent in any relateable sense, leaving us only with a strange choreographed dance. No one, really, is getting hurt after all.

But the moment the first blow hits home in Haywire, I found myself wincing. What's this? This is violent! You could hurt each other if you keep doing that!

As much as Haywire looks to put the violence back into fighting, it also looks to take the action movie out of an action movie. Normally, a kind of introduction to the plot is a good idea round about now, but for Haywire it's not really relevant. What plot Haywire does have is relatively token - it's there to link each event, each scene, to another. There's a lot unclear and muddled in there, and in the end everything comes out feeling a bit shaky.

Character motivation, too, seems very much their because it's necessary. With this they do take great care making sure you understand why "X" does "Y" at each part of the story, but you never invest in those motivations or are really convinced. It does just enough and no more, although certain later twists in this respect feel very weak.

Normal action movie fare places a great amount of onus on plot and character motivations, and if you attempt to look at it as an action movie then everything rather falls apart. The script features rather a lot of lines which are just plain clunky, and there are moments of forced whimsy that really don't work. Despite all this, I have to say that I found Haywire to be very much a worthy watch. Scenes are often drawn out, and shot in unusual ways, and the film has a very interesting flow to it. Whilst, alone, this is isn't necessarily enough, the fact that this is happening in an action film that doesn't really work as an action film kind of makes it interesting in a round about way.

The star of the show, a professional fighter leading an all-star cast of Hollywood actors, is very much part of the appeal. She's not exactly a good actress, but she's a damn convincing action heroine, and in that she is effective. This creates a problem however: when she fights the likes of Fassbender and McGregor, you don't ever believe they can stand up to her. In this film, acting itself seems to detract from the strange flow rather than add to it.

This is a difficult film to recommend. For what it's worth, I enjoyed it and you might too. It's one of these films you just don't know until you give it a shot.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Film Review - Sherlock Holmes: Game of Shadows

tl;dr Did you like the first movie? If so, go see it, if not, don't. Simples.

The most recent spate of adaptations of Conan Doyle's iconic detective was always going to be a rather unusual affair, what with the way it keeps the setting and styles of the book's original context, whilst bringing highly Hollywood action blockbuster sensibilities to the table. But between Guy Richie and Robert Downie Jr., this is a film series with an incredibly strong sense of character.

In this, the second outing in the series, we see our inimitable Mr Holmes go up against the shadowy figure from the first film, his arch nemesis: Moriarty. Meanwhile, Watson is getting ready to marry, and talks about stopping his crime-busting partnership with Holmes. As the two chase down Moriarty we meet Sherlock's brother Mycroft, French gypsies and German bomb factories. Moriarty has plans - evil plans - and it's up to our mismatched couple to save the day. Can you tell I dislike summarising films?

Anyway, this second installment runs with a very simple philosophy: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. We get more action, more explosions, more audacity and a plot convoluted enough to become enjoyable through it's innate silliness. With a tongue firmly in cheek and a disregard for any loftier ambitions than just entertaining the hell out of you, the second film is perhaps even an improvement on the first.

Character wise, there's certainly nothing new going on here. Holmes is as flamboyant and silly as ever, hyper-articulate and incredibly observant. Watson is still proper, upright and socially more concious than his erstwhile friend. Their passive-aggressive need for each other is still as fun as it was the first time around. The treatment of female characters here is far from stellar; the film isn't sexist, but it clearly isn't particularly interested in them either. The biggest success of the pool of characters here was Stephen Fry's Mycroft Holmes, whose comic relief is always a welcome addition to the story rather than a tone disrupting annoyance.

As a villain I found Moriarty to be a fun and well executed Hollywood villain who was a little bit blander than I feel one of the most iconic criminal masterminds in literature deserved. He was not as interesting or as fun as his counterpart in Holmes. This, perhaps, was part of the point - to make him far more straight laced and academic than the off-beat Holmes, but the result came out a little too beige. 

There's an irresistible energy to everything about this film, the way it shudders along like a train that is about to go off the rails. Richie's direction is sharp and, as already mentioned, helps to lend the flick a distinctive flavour. With a tight, funny script and tactical use of slow motion and flash forwards, this is a not inconsiderable film. The music is incredibly good too, Zimmerman turning in a score that has grandeur and excitement and more than little cheesiness mixed in.

There's lots of nitpicks to be had here: the female chars aren't well done, the plot is silly, Moriarty is a touch too bland. These are most definitely nitpicks however - this is a polished and highly enjoyable film that offers something a bit more colourful than most other action blockbusters out there. D'you like the last one? Really, that's the only question that you need to answer when deciding whether or not to see this movie.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Television Series Overview - Welcome to the NHK

This is your happy ending.

Wikipedia tells us  "in Japan, "NHK" refers to the public broadcaster Nippon Hōsō Kyōkai" - it's more or less the Japanese BBC. Sato, the main character of Welcome to the NHK, however, thinks it is more than just that. The NHK is also a conspiracy. Take a look at his life: he's unemployed, friendless and harbours an acute fear of even leaving his untidy apartment. All things which are exaggerated problems that come with being an otaku (Japanese geek), and don't the NHK show things like anime that drag people into such categories in life? Ergo, the purpose of the NHK is to turn people, most specifically Sato, into the urban hermit. One day he meets a girl and everything changes, but trust me: that sentence isn't what it sounds like.

Some more background is, perhaps, required: Sato's specific situation is actually a recognised sociological condition in Japan, affecting young men. They lock themselves away, don't seek out education or employment, and spend all their time gaming or on the internet. Romantically and socially they struggle, and often it overlaps with depression. Last year, there was an estimated 700,000 of them, wikipedia informs me.

Welcome to the NHK is an entry in the slice of life genre, a drama about the happenings of every day life of a man who suffers from this. In truth, it feels a tad disingenuous to call NHK a show about normal life: even when it's not taking into direct visual metaphors of Sato's very unusual mind, it deals with people who are suffering from rather extreme personal and social problems. Watching our maladjusted cast try to cope with life is more or less the entire premise of the show.

What the show does very well is to balance tones. Taking what is a pretty dark and cynical view on the world could have lead to a serious and frowny show, heavy with self-importance, but there's a manic energy to the show which counter balances the depressing elements. We get moments of absurdity, strange and perhaps disturbing viewings directly into Sato's mind; we get moments of comedy that give the show a sitcom-esque feel at times; we get moments of quite tenderness, where suddenly the show seems like romantic story; we get moments of drama that reveal the show's angst ridden characters. That all of these elements keeps the others in balance makes the show a real treat.

The animation and music are both top notch, and the writing is all sharp as far as I can tell - it being translated, I'm not really qualified to comment on the dialogue, but the story is certainly brilliant. The core cast are engaging in there oddness, and very much relateable because, although things are taken to an extreme, their insecurities are, on a fundamental level, something that pretty much everyone has to cope with at some point.  The perhaps predictable message that we are all screwed up on some level is well delivered and not at all forced. And the show does acknowledge that some people are definitely screwed up worse than others.

Welcome to the NHK is two opposing things at once: very cynical, yet oddly uplifting, and in that contradiction there is a humanity that is difficult to resist. It's an absurd, funny, dramatic, touching journey that is very much worth taking.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

Sporting Diaries - Bloodbowl

Hey guys, I'm looking to kick life back into my blog by doing a series of posts on a league I've joined: Blood Bowl!

For those uninitiated, Bloodbowl is a tabletop game based in the Warhammer world. Think American Football with Orcs and Elves and Dwarves and a rather more lax approach to violence. Hell, there are many teams whose entire game plans around stomping their opposition into the ground before the ball is even brought into the equation.

Part of the attraction of the game is the rich diversity of interesting and cool races that are available to players. Wanting to choose something interesting or different, but realising from a quick scan of the net that my team of choice (of those teams not already taken) was considered one of the worst in the game, I decided instead to elect to go the Amazons. My sparse research had not really turned up anything about them, so I was getting them without really knowing anything about them.

So as I've a team of Amazons, wearing the team colours red and green, and although the team has been named (each one with a mini-story behind them) I've yet to name the team. I'll write updates on each match and little backgrounds to each of my players as the season goes on.

If I go and see a movie tomorrow I'll get another review up too.

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Time is a funny thing

I'm not old. By most people's accounts, I'm actually rather young. Still, time seems to have taken to be a silly bugger already. Something happened two years ago, yet the age I would have been two years ago doesn't correspond to the age I think I was when this stuff happened. I'm an absent minded guy at the best of times, but the fact that I've already been struck by the fluffiness of time is almost disorientating.

Ah well, here's to 2012! Hope it treats you guys well.