Sunday, 21 February 2021

Adam Curtis' Nostalgia For Radicalism Paints A Bleak Picture Of A World Changing For The Better

Adam Curtis released his latest documentary series, 'Can't Get You Out Of My Head', last week. All six episodes are currently available for UK viewers to watch on the BBC's iPlayer, while worldwide viewers can watch it here. As one might expect from Curtis, it is an expertly made visual collage with a superlative soundtrack, telling the stories of some fascinating figures largely forgotten to history, which Curtis ties together as part of his overall mission statement. This time, he is telling an 'emotional history' of how Western society embraced individualism to compensate for how the radicals of the past failed the change the world for the better, eventually leading to the rise of conspiracy theories and populism.

If that sounds familiar to Curtis' fans, it should: the documentary acts as something of a greatest hits of his previous concerns, ending up feeling almost as much of a retreat into Curtis' own history as that of the world. His signature phrases, '...And then something strange happened' and 'So they went back, into the passed' are trotted out in key moments much as how Marvel deploys beloved characters at unexpected moments for maximum fan excitement. It's as exciting, electric and eclectic as the best of his work to date. But then something strange happened: in going back, into his past, Curtis became infected with the very nostalgia-driven nihilism he attributed to others. In repeating his familiar refrains about our failures to improve the world, he missed how the world has been steadily improving in a different way to how he was expecting.

Sunday, 14 February 2021

Games: Super Mario 3D World + Bowser's Fury (Nintendo Switch) review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo 
Platform: Nintendo Switch
Nintendo's latest console, the Switch, is awash with games carried over from its previous one, the Wii U, which sold far less well. It's a strategy which has been a boon for Nintendo, padding out the Switch's library with games which never got the chance to sell as well as they might have, but less so for those of us who owned a Wii U in the first place, who have found original releases few and far between. In order to combat this, Nintendo has taken to adding extra material to the games in question. On the whole, this material has been half-hearted at best, with an extra character added to Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze and a few token side-missions reusing environments in Pikmin 3.

The headline extra in the port of Super Mario 3D World is a mode entitled 'Bowser's Fury', a more substantive addition which, were it not for its short length - about two hours to see the credits, perhaps four to finish everything - could be called a new game in its own right, one possibly hinting at a more open-world, non-linear future for the Mario series than even Odyssey, the Switch's own original Mario title.

Wednesday, 10 February 2021

Movies: Promising Young Woman review


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Emerald Fennell
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Bo Burnham, Alison Brie, Laverne Cox
Running Time: 113mins

The rape-revenge movie has a long and inglorious history of adopting a false stance of female empowerment in order to fulfil male fantasies, not just in terms of sexualising the traumatic assault, but in the act of revenge itself. Revenge in these movies is typically enacted on the physical bodies of the perpetrators, a male sense of power twinged with BDSM undertones by having a woman as the heroine. Promising Young Woman's most potent idea is to feminise the concept of revenge: what if the heroine's vengeance was not on the body, but on the soul? What if, for a moment, she could make those who inflicted trauma on others see themselves for who they really are and understand the gravity of what they have done?

Promising Young Woman's writer/director, Emerald Fennell, was also the showrunner on the second season of Killing Eve. Despite the strength of its core ideas, Fennell unfortunately carries over the weaknesses of her tenure on that show to her first full-length feature behind the camera, notably an inability to maintain the razor-edge balance between drama and irony which Phoebe Waller-Bridge made look so effortless. The intensity of feeling behind the material and its central character is never in doubt, though perhaps ironically, Promising Young Woman is too wounded to achieve its full potential.

Wednesday, 3 February 2021

2020 Movie Catch-Up Review: Wonder Woman 1984


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Patty Jenkins
Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Pedro Pascal, Kristen Wiig
Running Time: 151mins

Wonder Woman 1984 shares more than a little in common with Gal Gadot's infamous celebrity rendition of 'Imagine': both well-intentioned, yet tone deaf and hopelessly misjudged in every conceivable way. WW84 brings to light how much of its predecessor's success was rooted in its setting. The horrors of WW1's trenches and war-torn landscapes gave the original Wonder Woman an emotional and thematic heft which its sequel's lazy pastiche of Eighties fashions and hues, unsurprisingly, cannot come close to matching.

Wonder Woman emphasized the values and value of its heroine by transporting her - a sheltered, yet powerful and intensely compassionate woman - into one of the most apocalyptic periods of human history and letting the audience experience it with her first as despair, then as hope as she used her power to do something about it. WW84's setting, by contrast, evokes nothing about its heroine and forces the film to resort to meaningless bromides, whose espoused values it itself does not even stick to.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Do You Want To Build A Snowman? The Importance Of Small, Spontaneous Joys

It snowed in London yesterday, so I took the opportunity to walk to my local park. I stopped at one of my favourite spots, a small bridge overlooking a pond with a tree growing out of an islet in the middle and a small waterfall rippling in the background. The pond was partially frozen over and trails had been cut through the thin ice by ducks swimming to and fro from the shore. The bare branches of the tree were dusted with snow which was lightly shaken away whenever a bird landed or departed from them. At one point, geese flew overhead, migrating from the pond on the other side of the bridge for a change of scenery and to take advantage of an elderly woman throwing crumbs from a bag to the ducks in the water.

I've walked across that bridge countless time before, sometimes stopping to enjoy the moment before moving on, but rarely has the simple sense of life in and around it been so noticeable. I've written before about my walks around the park and my enjoyment of the small details which are so easily overlooked. This time, the half an hour I spent looking out across the little pond made me aware of how much the lockdowns of the past year have deprived so many of us of the experience of watching life innocuously unfold around us, whether in trails through an icy surface or snow displaced from a tree branch. It has also deprived us of the human contribution to that tapestry, the traces of our existence we leave behind not only as part of our own stories, but as additions to the stories of others. Specifically, in this case, a tiny snowman.

Wednesday, 20 January 2021

2020 Movie Catch-Up Review: Soul


Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non-Functional.

Dir: Pete Docter
Stars: Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade
Running Time: 101mins

Pete Docter's last outing as director, Inside Out, had a lot of big ideas but none of the focus needed to develop them into a coherent whole. It managed to be completely underdeveloped in its thinking while simultaneously too overtly structured around an increasingly predictable Pixar formula. Soul feels like the kind of movie Docter intended to make last time out: its big ideas are grounded in enough internal logic that its abstract and metaphysical questions are communicated with an easy clarity. allowing any little gaps to be glossed over without becoming distracting. Its adherence to the Pixar formula is stronger than ever - similarities in plot and theme to the company's own Coco from 2017 are legion - but the rigour of the writing and world-building allow that underlying structure to strengthen the storytelling rather than highlight its flaws.

Soul tells the story of a struggling, middle-aged jazz musician who dies immediately after receiving his big break. Finding himself as a soul adrift in the afterlife, his attempts to return to his body on Earth lead him to mentor an unborn soul sceptical about the value of physical existence. Despite the premise's potential for saccharine sentimentality, Docter skillfully edges the film in the predictable direction before swerving into a bolder, more intriguing treatise, a hallmark of all the best Pixar movies to date.

Friday, 15 January 2021

Marvel's Wandavision Season 1 Episodes 1 + 2 TV Review

Wandavision marks Marvel's latest foray into the world of television. Prior attempts to connect their big screen output to the small screen have not gone so well: Agents Of SHIELD began as a companion piece to the movies, but such close alignment resulted in a show playing perpetual catch-up and which only developed into a satisfying endeavour in its own right once the cord was severed. Subsequent efforts, including Agent Carter and Netflix shows such as Daredevil and Jessica Jones, tied into the cinematic universe in only the loosest sense.

Wandavision's approach is closest to that of Agent Carter, which featured characters from the movies in a self-contained story arc. Marvel's return to television is this time quite literal: the series draws heavily from the aesthetics of sitcoms from the 1950s and '60s, telling the story of the relationship between an android, Vision, and a telekinetic witch, Wanda, as they attempt to settle into (hyper)traditional married life in suburbia. It is here that a press release would affix the addendum 'except nothing is as it seems', which is ironically the problem: as far as premises go, 'dark mysteries lurking in flawless suburbia' is as generic as they come. On the basis of these early episodes, Wandavision looks to be exactly what it seems and nothing more.

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Donald Trump's Twitter Ban Is A Justified Action Which Sets A Terrible Precedent

Donald Trump's incitement of an attack on the Capitol in Washington DC represented the tipping point for social media companies to do what it felt as though they had been equivocating over for a long time and banned the outgoing President of the United States from communicating on their platforms. That it has taken them so long to do so demonstrates the seriousness of the action taken: his missives have been marked and limited, but never fully banned until now.

Many will say that it was a long time coming and few outside the President's most ardent cadre would deny that he has used the platforms as a means of spreading misinformation in the most cynical, self-serving way. There are many reasons to deny Trump access to such platforms, especially after his (and Rudy Giuliani's) direct role in inciting a mob to storm the heart of American democracy. In the here and now, it is an understandable decision to take. In the bigger picture, it sets a potentially catastrophic precedent in allowing private companies free reign to decide which voices to permit or shut down based on nothing more than their subjective criteria.

Friday, 1 January 2021

Doctor Who 'Revolution Of The Daleks' TV Review

Chris Chibnall's tenure as Doctor Who showrunner has been a mixed bag at best, reaching its nadir when last season's finale saw fit to saddle the series' history and main character with entirely detrimental 'Chosen One' clich├ęs. Mercifully, Chibnall's last new year's special was one of his better efforts and this year's, 'Revolution Of The Daleks', looked set to be a standalone free from the canon-defiling nonsense which tanked last season. The return of John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, absent for all but a short cameo since Russell T. Davies was at the helm, heightened expectations further.

On the plus side, 'Revolution Of The Daleks' was indeed largely standalone, despite featuring a large number of oddly specific callbacks: did anyone remember the second TARDIS stuck on Earth in the shape of a house? On the downside, while the canon revisionism from 'The Timeless Children' was for the most part eschewed, all Chibnall's worst writing habits were present in their most frustrating form.

Wednesday, 16 December 2020

On Her Majesty's Secret Service Is The Great Unrecognised Christmas Movie

While online forum clever-than-thous are busy, yet again, trying to convince everyone that Die Hard is a Christmas movie rather than just a movie which happens to take place during Christmas, Bond fans have long rested merrily on the knowledge that the finest and most under-appreciated seasonal actioner of all rests within their favoured canon: On Her Majesty's Secret Service (1969).

It's worth acknowledging, however, that while OHMSS is a great Christmas movie, the best Bond movie to watch at Christmas is undoubtedly Octopussy, a perfect post-lunch confection big on stunts, scenery and silliness, where any ten minutes are sufficiently entertaining in their own right that you can drift off for half-an-hour of turkey-induced slumber only to reawaken and slot right back into the fun, barely encumbered by a plot which, let's be honest, nobody has ever paid the slightest bit of attention to anyway. That many wrongly think it's one of the worst Bonds due to the title alone makes it even more of a pleasant surprise. Nevertheless, while Octopussy fits the circumstances, it's On Her Majesty's which captures the spirit and themes of the yuletide season.