Movie Review 16: Blade Runner 2049

br.jpg

*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*

I muted my expectations for Blade Runner: 2049. I was dreading leaving the cinema disappointed, and have been looking forward to this film since the first rumours of a sequel to the original emerged, so kept my hopes low for once. However, there was of course a large part of me that couldn’t help but get butterflies when the lights dropped.

Deckard (Harrison Ford) has gone into hiding after the events of 2019, culminating in Roy Batty’s death and Deckard and Rachel’s escape to the fallout zone in the North. Thirty years in the future, Agent K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with hunting the missing Blade Runner down, but learns an even darker secret along the way.

The Good:

Not in probably my whole life have I seen a film that has so stunned me with how good it is. The overwhelming feeling that washed over me as I was lost in the pink neon glare and growling basslines of 2049 was relief. Relief that finally a blockbuster wasn’t pandering to the classic brain-dead Hollywood audience, relief that a writer-director team hadn’t cracked under the pressure and dumbed down the plot in favour of flashy set pieces and cheap gags, relief that for once a classic had been captured so perfectly and expertly, respecting the series’ roots while simultaneously moving forward in a new and innovative direction. Relief that yes indeed, this is Blade Runner.In this vein, the plot twist is that the plot twist you expected isn’t the plot twist, and I can’t come up with a single example of a film which has done this so well. From the first few scenes, me and my girlfriend were sure that K would turn out to be Rachel and Deckard’s kid, but in reality it’s a very minor character that I don’t think anyone would have expected despite what they may say once they know the truth. This is what plots should be like, and it just makes cash-grabbers like Marvel (okay, I understand they’re aimed at kids, but there are plenty of adult fans out there) and especially DC look even more like trash. On top of that, it’s paced so, so well. The fact that scenes can last for minutes at a time with no dialogue, only subtle sound effects or sweeping musical motifs, and are not interrupted by someone making a joke (see every other film review I’ve written this year) is sheer beauty, and so much more satisfying. Case in point: My girlfriend has fallen asleep every single time we’ve been to the cinema together, save for Moana, and she stayed awake for the whole three hours of Blade Runner 2049. Why, you ask? Because it’s so mentally stimulating, and it doesn’t need giant robots and explosions to achieve that. Although, delightfully, there’s no shortage of the latter.

But it’s not just the plot that’s expertly crafted. The neon glow of the Earth we came to love from the original Blade Runner is back in all its glory, with plenty of new environments to satiate our appetite for a deeper look into the setting. Sweeping birds-eye-views of glass-shrouded farmland, towering holographic billboards, rolling oceans, bombed out cities forming gargantuan deserts, these are all so breathtaking to look at and executed wonderfully. Pair this with the positively thunderous bass notes and electronic tones that are such a great callback to Vangelis’ original score that it hurts,  and you have some world-building to be proud of. Hats off.

Speaking of honouring the past while embracing the future, this film does all that and more. A moment where K asks Deckard if his dog is real and the veteran replies “I don’t know, ask him” perfectly respects the key themes of the book (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep) that if you can create artificial life that’s so realistic you can’t tell the difference, what is the difference? Furthermore, there are just enough little nods to the first film (an audio snippet of Rachel and Deckard’s first conversation, the towering ziggurat of the evil corporation formerly known as Tyrell, and an interview with an aged Gaff, still making his little origami animals) to satisfy fans but not detract from a new audience’s enjoyment. That said, I would of course still highly recommend seeing the original before you watch 2049. There’s also a cheeky moment where Deckard runs for his signature Spinner, only for an incoming missile to completely obliterate it. Seconds later, a new and improved Spinner, sleek and glistening, flies in and lands. If this isn’t symbolism for doing away with the problems of the original in favour of the innovation of the sequel, I don’t know what is.

To be Improved:

Once more, a film with so few issues means unfortunately that those issues must be examined in depth. That’s just the way I like doing things, because imperfections in a masterpiece stick out like nobody’s business.

Let’s start with the villain. I feel bad for Jared Leto, because once again he has been cast as a character who has about as much screen time as he did in the trailers. We all know which character I’m talking about, and though he plays the sinister Niander Wallace well, he is genuinely in just two scenes, which mainly consist of him monologuing. What’s worse is that to add to how underdeveloped his character is, we are given what I shall be calling Chekhov’s Chips. Wallace’s assistant opens a case and selects one of six or so microchips, which she then inserts behind Wallace’s ear, allowing him to see (he is blind) through the use of small, black, hovering robo-pebbles. A cool concept, but what I’m left wondering is what the other five chips do. Why show us if it’s not going to be explained? It’s not even a subtle shot, but a relatively extreme close-up of the contents of the case. Either way, there’s a ‘P’ word I don’t use often when it comes to this sort of thing, but I’m going to have to say it: Blade Runner 2049 is a movie with a pointless antagonist, and it hurts the narrative.

On a technical aside, Rachel’s cameo, though studios are now getting incredibly close to nailing CGI humans, tipped unfortunately into uncanny valley territory. In fact, I’m sure the only reason the animation held up was because she barely moved save for her walk up to Deckard, during which she was mostly shrouded in shadow anyway.

But to get back to the subject of the overarching narrative, like the original loads of things are left to the imagination and single throwaway lines are used to cover up massive plotholes. After being saved from drowning, Deckards tells K “You should have let me die out there” to which K replies “I did”. A single exchange that in the moment is simply an interesting way to stop Deckard from being hunted, but because it’s just come after the climactic battle you forget that it solves a lot of other unanswered questions. Why Gosling doesn’t carry out his initial plan of killing Deckard, for instance, or why Wallace’s company will now immediately forget about a man they sought out for years. Someone online recently pointed out that the Blade Runner franchise has always favoured themes and imagery over a thorough plot, but in a film where (as discussed earlier) the twists in the story are so well thought through in some places, it’s such a shame that it falls down in others. For instance, a scene where Joi, K’s holographic girlfriend, sort of merges with a real prostitute so that K can properly make love to her given physical form, is impressive insofar as it’s visually interesting, but to me it lasts far too long and simply sets up the prostitute placing a tracker in K’s jacket (a move which will later be ignored and glossed over completely, because she doesn’t work for the villains at all). There are lots of moments like this and they create threads that seem only there to distract from, rather than convey, any useful information.

Overall: 8/10

All my other film ratings are to be ignored, and this is where I particularly find that the rating system falls down. I give films ratings out of ten based on the individual experience, not in comparison to other movies. Lots of this is aided by nostalgia, yes, like my 9.5 awarded to this year’s Ghost in the Shell, arguably a 6/10 if I unclouded my judgement. This is what I’ve tried very hard to do with Blade Runner: 2049.

To give the film a 9/10 would assume that it is near-perfection. As much as I wish it was, this is not the case. It’s incredible, visually, musically and narrative-wise, and there are so many amazing scenes, though as my girlfriend pointed out, the problem is that they only work as standalone moments, not a whole string of consciousness. The film plays more like a series of wonderful, mildly-interlinked shorts than a whole film. Sure, the nearly three hour runtime doesn’t get boring at all, because it’s paced so elegantly. What’s up for debate is how much is crammed into that runtime, and whether or not they pull it off. Honestly? Though I’m still on the fence, I’m leaning towards yes. Let’s give credit where credit is due: It says a lot about how great a film is that I firmly believe it is one of the best I’ve ever seen even with room for improvement… but sadly that also means that it isn’t perfect.

Advertisements

Movie Review 15: Kingsman – The Golden Circle

Image result for kingsman

Cutting yourself shaving was a lot worse when trying to shave one’s eyebrows.

*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*

I’ve been at university for the past two weeks, how about that? After I’d moved in and met all my flatmates, one of the first things we decided to do before we even knew each other properly was to go to the cinema. I ruled out Stephen King’s IT immediately because, as we’ve learned from my Alien: Covenant review, I despise horror. That sort of only left one more thing we could conceivably see, and that film was Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

This is a direct sequel to the original film (Kingsman: Secret Service) from 2014. One of the recruits from the original agent programme has returned for revenge, working for an insidious drug lord, Poppy (how original), who runs a sinister organisation called the Golden Circle. She injects all her drugs, which are distributed worldwide, with a virus, and after the Kingsmen are all but wiped out they are are forced to activate the Doomsday Protocol and team up with their American cousins, the Statesmen (imaginative, I don’t think) to save the world.

The Good:

There was a lot to be said for the refreshing take on the spy movie offered by the original. The fast pacing, imaginative and multi-layered characters, if a little cliche in places, and overall aesthetic were enjoyable, it must be said. Unfortunately, as with Guardians of the Galaxy 2 (*shudders*), this sequel takes all that was good with the first one and runs with it to the extent of over-saturation. But we’re not here to discuss the negatives, at least not yet, so let’s crack on with a few of the things which were actually interesting. There are some lovely scenes with puppies, which were enjoyable to look at. Some of the little nods to the movie’s form, like naming the two robotic guard dogs of a 70s-America recreational villain hideout ‘Benny’ and ‘Jet’. These little details are very clever, and the film is… Not that full of them, at all, and this is in fact the only example I can think of. Moving on, there is a very cool three second shot of a fighter jet called the ‘Silver Pony’ as it soars through the skies. We all know how much I adore the Transformers franchise, so I’m a sucker for moments of military tech glinting in the sunlight. There were also a few cool moments in action scenes which really flowed, like a suitcase folding out into a riot shield. Interesting, but less a silver lining and more a single pinprick of sunlight smothered by dogshit-brown clouds.

To be Improved:

There’s no easy way to do this, and I don’t particularly want a repeat of the huge paragraph of pessimism you had to read in the GotG 2 review, so I shall just list the negative points for easy access:

  • The constant whirling of the camera during fight scenes, which (though it has become the style of the Kingsman movies and is impressive because it is usually all one shot or at least looks like it) is nausea-inducing and looks CGI (translation: fake) as hell.
  • Like Guardians of the Galaxy, the constant ruining of epic moments for a little shot of humour (“That’s the only decent shit I’ve had in three weeks” springs to mind) is infuriating, and as soon as it started happening I knew I was going to hate the film.
  • It’s entirely and utterly predictable.
  • The characters are all uninspired and, for the most part, unlikeable. Besides, Channing Tatum’s ‘Tequila’ (his character was named after one of the liquors, I don’t even remember, give me a break) is put on ice, quite literally, when he is cryogenically frozen so we don’t even really get to know him, making him pointless.
  • The overuse of the song ‘Country Roads’ for almost every establishing shot is ridiculous, and my opinion was not helped by the friendly scouser sitting behind me and singing along every time it played.
  • There was just something dead about the action sequences. Perhaps it was the fact that, as mentioned above, it all looked FAKE AS HELL. But in all seriousness, the climactic fight ended at the same meat grinder that was already used to chop a person up at the beginning of the film, meaning there was no satisfaction whatsoever, and whenever a character entered a room you could tell what was going to happen simply because of what was around them. Eggsy holds a vial of antidote in front of him; it’s obviously going to get smashed. Benny (robotic dog) chases Harry into the salon where the Golden Circle members are given their solid gold tattoos; it’s obvious that molten gold and metal don’t mix. The list goes on, but I’ll spare you the pain.
  • Let’s not even talk about Elton John. His lines were almost as bad as Cogman, the ninja robot butler’s in Transformers: The Last Knight. But nothing could ever be quite as bad as “Move, bitch, get out of my way” in an aristocratic English accent, so Golden Circle earns a few points for… Not being the absolute worst, I guess? Whoopty-do.
  • The plot itself was so… dead-ended. It all came full circle (a golden one, perhaps?) but not in a way that the story was satisfyingly resolved. More in the way that it ended exactly where it started with nothing different than it was at the start. Except Eggsy’s now married to the princess he… did anal with at the end of the first film. Incredible, guys, really.
  • Scenes like the one where a tracker can only be placed on a female victim by putting it directly into her uhm… Well, you can guess, are vile. Look, I’m all for a bit of sexual banter (sort of, in the right context) but when you force me to watch a shot of a tracker implanting itself into literal uterus walls, you’ve done something wrong.

Overall: 2/10

In case those last few points didn’t give a single indication as to what I thought of this film, let me spell it out: it was utterly dire. Watching Golden Circle, I found myself in the same situation I’ve been in for what are now my last three cinema trips. That being the fact that I walk in, sit down incredibly excited to see what promises to be an amazing movie, and enjoy about ten minutes, but then find my expectations shattered by a throwaway line or moment that makes me cringe like (as I think I said in my Last Knight review) I’ve just torn a massive chunk out of a lemon. Cinema truly is dying, and I will now enter every film without watching the trailers and with little to no anticipation lest it be destroyed by computer-generated (as aforementioned: fake) action scenes, appalling plot choices and disgustingly awful writing.

Movie Review 14: Alien – Covenant

alien_covenant_ac_152_00459216_rgb.jpg

*AS USUAL, HEAVY SPOILERS FOLLOW, ALTHOUGH THIS REVIEW ADDRESSES MANY MORE THAN MY OTHERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.*

First Ghost in the Shell, next, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (though I’m loath to count that), then Transformers: The Last Knight. Now? Alien: Covenant. I have been spoilt rotten by 2017 when it comes to science fiction, my absolute favourite genre, and will continue to be so with the upcoming releases of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Thor: Ragnarok, and Blade Runner: 2049 come the end of the year. However, every single one of them is a sequel or a remake (yeah, wow, would you look at that, it really is all of them), and so far they’ve both totally enthralled and utterly disappointed, so from here on out my expectations of these movies will be torn between excitement and unpleasant apprehension.

This was a tough one for me. I absolutely despise horror and jumpscares, much to the chagrin of an American Horror Story-loving girlfriend, but I owed it to myself as a sci-fi fan to push through that fear and see this. I never ended up seeing it in the cinema as for some reason the price never seemed to drop below £12.50, a little too expensive compared to the tenner I’m used to forking out. But that’s probably a good thing, as I don’t think I’d be able to handle boo moments on the big screen, and it’s nice owning the DVD as now I have the whole Alien set. The story follows the crew of Covenant, a ship somewhat similar to Prometheus in design but one which differs in its purpose. This is to be the first ever large-scale colonisation of an extra-solar planet. Naturally, highly-trained military scientists forget to wear their helmets on a strange alien (pun intended in every sense?) world, and disaster strikes in the form of angry, hungry, black-shelled Xenomorphs. Delicious.

The Good:

Some unfairly delicious shots (strange description I know, but I just love sci-fi and they really are gorgeous) are peppered throughout the film. David talking to Walter (basically Michael Fassbender being two androids, one American and shiny and new, the other English and living alone on a planet for decades) is so disjointed and good. Teaching him to play recorder, talking about their creator together, they’re some of the best scenes in the movie, clinical and tense. This is because the new version of the android has had a feature taken out of it; the ability to create. “They made the following models with fewer complications.” It lends both positive and negative credit to the film that these two characters have the most chemistry out of the entire rest of the cast, and they’re both played by the same actor. Although I will confess that some of the other characters have vaguely touching moments, I really can’t stress how good the scenes between the androids are. Case in point: “Why did you sacrifice your hand to save her life? What is that if not love?” asks David. “Duty.” Walter responds. On top of this, the fact that the updates to the system are eventually what allow Walter to defeat the evil David. And seeing Fassbender kill himself (not in the original meaning of that phrase) twice in one film is… odd, but enjoyable? Is it offensive to say that? Perhaps I’m the wrong person to review this sort of thing because the more of this aspect, the more I find myself unable to watch a film; but the tension is definitely there. I had to watch a few scenes on silent simply because I didn’t want to be startled by the Alien obviously standing behind someone. The inevitable facehugger scene is obvious and one of the most horrible in the series yet, of course, so if you’re into this sort of thing the horror is really well done. Seeing the vicious, glistening black xenomorph is amazing, the first time you see it, and I sort of wish there were more moments because it’s truly wasted. It’s death is rushed and haphazard.

To be Improved:

As usual, scientists are effing stupid and make ridiculous decisions resulting in massive crew and equipment loss. It seems unrealistic and is just so lacking of the intrigue and subtlety of the original. The film practically opens with a horrific moment of having to watch someone see their lifelong partner burnt alive mere minutes into the film sets up a tone that is more gratuitously violent than necessarily poignant. Speaking of violence, though Covenant is not among the types of films I normally watch, so my bar isn’t very high, it is without a doubt the most violent film I’ve ever seen in my life. To the point of making me feel physically sick. I wasn’t a happy bunny, I can tell you that, and I’m not really going to factor this point into how good the film is because this is just personal taste. But I think it’s useful to point out how sort of… Unnecessary it is, though it does terrify which I guess was the point. For some reason they’ve made one of Michael Fassbender’s characters (he plays multiple androids) American, even though we all know that his accent, though he does put a lot of effort in, is always overridden by his native one. The writers kill not one but five crew members in one scene, each in a different way, meaning that the effect is sort of lost. Sure, the effect of the violence is not lost, but any emotional impact short of sheer fear is blown out of the scene in the explosions. There’s a really, really weird cut when David is going to be killed by Walter, which sets up for the twist that the opposite has happened and the evil android prevails. But it’s just so weird! You see David reach for a knife then it really does just hard cut to something else. It just leaves you distracted for the rest of the film as you wonder about it until the reveal. I will say, this itself is done astonishingly. The pacing of the film is really odd. I couldn’t tell when the end was gonna happen, and after the sort of ‘climactic battle’ which is more anti-climactic (see above mention of xenomorph death), of course, there’s a sudden tense moment and you’re like oop… Hold on… This doesn’t appear to be the end. It goes on for another twenty all-over-the-place minutes. This just means that it’s jarring, and the rest of the film follows this trend. Finally, the characters, save for the androids, are all incredibly poor. There are literally no heroes to root for, especially when, as already mentioned, they get killed off so quickly.

Overall: 6/10

I think it’s safe to say that, any nostalgia out of the picture, the Alien movies went downhill after the first one. Perhaps a very unpopular opinion, but I believe it to be true. Covenant follows that trend, though is somewhat more enjoyable than Prometheus and isn’t as cheesy in its emotion or as wishy-washy in its story. I mean, damn, despite some odd tonal choices and honestly just as many poor scenes as Prometheus, thank god the story at least actually flows and has a beginning-middle-end. I can’t really tell what’s wrong with it. Perhaps it’s how much is left to the imagination, though a darn sight more is explained when it comes to Covenant, which is a joy. Overall, it’s simply nothing special.

Lego Review 20: 70610 Flying Jelly Sub

70610.jpg

I was never into the idea of the Ninjago sets. Ninjas are cool and all, but to me they just don’t work as Lego sets. I think it’s to do with the fact that they don’t really have anything going for them except palaces and other stationary objects which, like that famous scene in Big (featuring the lovely Tom Hanks), are things a kid is going to be able to swoosh around or play with properly. The Ninjago Masters of Spinjitzu line moved in the complete opposite direction, with sickening candy-coloured sets and the cliche evil skeleton baddies, so again didn’t appeal to my tastes. But where the Lego Ninjago Movie was concerned, the trailer had my attention… And the subsequent line of sets (sitting snuggly in between the two previous Lego Ninja extremes) really peaked my interest.

The Flying Jelly Sub comes with the eponymous sub, a Hammerhead pilot complete with mug of tea and bladed fish, Jelly himself complete with harpoon fish, Kai complete with his kusarigama (yes, I did have to look up ‘blade on end of chain’), and a fisherman named Takuma rowing his gorgeous little boat with his oar.

The Good:

  • For a £24.99 set, I’m honestly very surprised that they included such a well thought out little fishing boat. I expected a few brown pieces messily slapped together to form some semblance of a floating contraption. But Lego have put, dare I say it, more thought into the companion vehicle than the titular one! And I love it! I expect this much more often from Lego in the future!
  • The minifigures surprised me. Though the Hammerhead’s eyes are far too comical for my taste, I guess that’s a silly bone to pick when you look at the Ninjago line on the whole. Jelly’s headpiece is wonderfully designed aesthetically (we’ll see my other problem below). Kai and the rest of the ninjas aren’t really my favourites as characters because, like Power Rangers, they’re whiny, cliche-filling teenagers. But Jay is blue, my favourite colour, and though I was originally skeptical of such a chunky blade piece for such a small figure, his kusarigama is the funnest thing about this set. You can whirl it around effortlessly and it hardly ever actually collides with the minifigure, meaning you can truly get your ninja on in your role-playing sessions.
  • Lots of lovely individual pieces included, something I’m taking greater note of as I get older, like the trans-orange chains, the two light royal blue fish, and the many brown and dark brown pieces for the boat.
  • Speaking of great pieces, the inside of the Sub cockpit is just charming. You get a little mug and cupholder for Hammerhead, and the printed control panel is lovely. I’m not particularly fussy when it comes to stickers, and only really find it a problem when there are as many included as there are in sets like the Ferrari, but it’s great to get printed ones of smaller items.
  • The colour scheme for the sub is very appealing, all those sand blue pieces are great.
  • Because there’s two flick-fire missiles, it means that enough tension is created to properly fire them, something I think is probably less to do with Lego and more to do with the fact I have big enough thumbs, but still a positive.

To be Improved:

  • Jelly’s headpiece rattles around far too much for my liking, although that does mean he’s good for spinning during fights.
  • Takuma doesn’t receive a second, more neutral head-print, meaning he’s either constantly being harassed by the Jelly Sub or he just really hates his job.
  • I don’t see why Jay’s headpiece even receives a double printing if we’re not given his hair as well as his ninja mask.
  • The Jelly Sub in its entirety is far too complicated to swoosh around and has too many independent moving parts, meaning that it easily gets tangled or jammed or bits fall off it. The tanks are easy to accidentally knock off the back, the legs aren’t fixed in place so always spin unevenly meaning that they often stop the whole thing from being able to move, and because there’s no stand included for the Sub the chains are always sort of just plonked on the ground. And don’t even get me started on those headlights. Whenever I pick up this set it hardly ever has both of them attached. The matching character has similar flimsiness with his wobbly helmet, which is distracting as well. This is simple to write so makes it look like the criticisms are sparse, but when you consider the fact that these are major constructional flaws with the biggest item in the set you start to see how big an issue it is.
  • I don’t really see why the harpoons on the Sub aren’t flick-fire. If they’re just aesthetic, they’re too stubby to actually do anything.

Overall: 6/10

This is a hard set for me to put a rating on, because aesthetically it’s so pleasing to me, and I love so many of the little touches and intricacies that Lego actually bothered to put in, and play-value-wise you get two villains, an innocent to protect, a hero with a wonderfully ergonomic weapon, and two vehicles. But… It just falls down in a few too many places where the same level of thought paradoxically hasn’t been put in! I feel like if the ungainliness of the sub were fixed, this review would lean much more in favour of the set, but when you look at the overwhelming number of positives on my Republic Fighter Tank, you’ll see that the 6 is fair for this one. Bring on the next wave, perhaps it’ll finally redeem Ninja-oriented Lego themes for me.

Review 22: Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee

30691976.jpg

I read Ninefox Gambit again to prepare for this, read the whole thing. All while Raven Stratagem sat on my shelf, taunting me, tempting me to just open it, cast the first book aside and find out where the story goes instead of reminding myself where it had already been. But I finished Ninefox, which meant I could, at long last, dive into the sequel.

Brevet General Kel Cheris’ fleet has been destroyed, and she has bonded with the undead general Shuos Jedao, stripping herself of her faction and taking over another Kel swarm for herself. Only Kel Brezan, a crashhawk and formation breaker, manages to wrench himself from the General’s influence, and seeks to destroy his swarm’s captor once and for all. But is Jedao trying to defend the Hexarchate, or is he putting into motion an even more sinister plan… A betrayal four centuries in the making?

The Good:

One of the main positives of Raven Stratagem, which, as we shall see, is a staple of sci-fi sequels, is the fact that there are many chapters which explore the origins of certain protagonists. These are much more interesting and fun than the muddled nature of some from the first book, offering insight into the background of a character and adding more consistent and grounded lore to the story on the whole. Other than that, honestly, short of flat out copying and pasting the paragraph from my review of Ninefox Gambit praising Ha Lee’s writing style, I have nothing more to say about Raven Stratagem. So… Let’s do just that, shall we? This is going to be a very short paragraph otherwise. Here we go:

“All of the imagery, description, names of the ships and weapons, it’s superb, it really is. It’s just so well-written. I’m going to have to get specific here, so let’s just list some things. The imagination that has been required to come up with all the weapons, ships, factions and imagery throughout is just staggering. Boxmoth troop transports, Cindermoths equipped with Erasure Guns and Dire Cannons, Kel Ashhawks, Threshold Winnowers, it goes on and on. And they never start to get boring, that’s the main thing. So much new weaponry is introduced that drastically turns the tide of battle (and that’s really what this book is about on the whole, so it just adds to the gritty feel) but none of it done cheaply in dull ex machina fashion.”

There! That was easy. But in all seriousness, it’s a problem in and of itself that Raven Stratagem is just consistently good throughout. It becomes sort of… blandly enjoyable. Like a superhero movie, or a dessert that tastes good but is far too big to finish by yourself so you’re left forcing yourself to get through it because you know that even though you feel sick now, it was nice originally so it should be worth it. There are no moments whatsoever that stand out, and whereas with Ninefox I could tell you about Cheris’ duel, the carrion glass flashback sequence, the fungal canister disaster, or the battle with the kaleidoscope bomb. With Raven Stratagem… What happened in this book again?

To be Improved:

Immediately, I actually regretted having read the first book again before picking up this one, because there were many instant discrepancies between this and the ending of Ninefox Gambit. It seems a lot of moments have been tailored for people who decided not to reread the first book so need a little nudging reminder every time something is mentioned. Ah yes, that’s what “lucky unlucky four” is, ah yes, now I remember who the main character is, ah yes, that’s what a boxmoth is. It’s tiresome, and one would think anyone with some semblance of memory wouldn’t need these little prompts. But to go through a more jarring example: Cheris still wears her gloves, despite taking them off in the closing paragraphs of Ninefox Gambit, dramatically stating that she would be Kel no longer. Ooh, scary, but the impact of this is decidedly dulled by the fact that she is now back, once again donning the gloves. To say nothing of the fact that no one is at all surprised to see Captain Cheris alive and well, simply letting her aboard and allowing her to walk straight into the command centre with all her weapons, despite the fact that the entirety of her fleet was just bombed into oblivion. She should be dead and the fact she isn’t should be an immediate cause for concern, yet everyone is hunky-dory about letting an armed captive into the room where all the highest ranking officers are. This is just one example, but it really sticks out and makes me wonder if Yoon Ha Lee even remembered what happened in his own novel before starting its sequel. Very odd. Also, from the first few pages there are spelling mistakes and grammatical errors. This is becoming more than a little tedious, as we saw in my review of Ninefox, so I shall say no more on the matter. Raven Stratagem, on the whole, sees Yoon Ha Lee fall into the same trap as Jeff Vandermeer with the Area X Trilogy, and indeed William Gibson with Neuromancer‘s sequel, wherein the second book in the series is way more political and wooden than the first. It does mean that we get to explore the wider workings of an already-established universe rather than getting bogged down in more of the same, yes, but when the original was as amazing as it was, a little similarity would have gone a long way rather than move backwards. This means that it’s a great shame that Raven Stratagem is as comparatively boring as it is. Many mysterious characters we wanted to know more about are introduced unsubtly and suddenly, obliterating any impact they would otherwise have had, and the characters we know from Ninefox who make a return are bland and lack continuity in relation to how they were before (see above glove example).

Overall: 6/10

Nothing is wrong with Ha Lee’s writing, it must be said. And this book is an enjoyable one to read, unlike Vandermeer or Gibson’s sequels that I couldn’t even get halfway through. However, I should have taken a hint when it came to those two juggernauts, as Raven Stratagem was of course not worth the wait, like my mum told me it wouldn’t be, because sequels hardly ever top the original (perhaps with the exception of Empire Strikes Back). And of course it has left me completely devoid of any excitement or desire to read the finale of the trilogy, if indeed there is going to be one at some point. After Ninefox Gambit, I had so many burning questions that I needed answers to. Those I harbour after Raven Stratagem are embers at best. Sorry, Yoon.

Movie Review 13: Fury

fury_movie-wide-940x400-1414801544.jpg

“Ideals are peaceful… war is violent.”

Fury is one of those films that I always liked the look of when it was on the side of buses, but then never ended up getting a chance to see for whatever reason. It happened with Spider-Man: Homecoming last month, it will probably happen with Thor: Ragnarok when it comes out. But those are superhero movies. This one is about the real heroes. It’s… also the DVD mum got dad for Christmas 2015, so that’s why I watched it in the first place. Whoops!

Fury follows the crew of the eponymous World War 2 Sherman tank, and their new bowel gunner, a totally inexperienced typist who must learn the ropes, and fast, lest he bring down the rest of the tight-knit team who have been together since the start of the war. They move along the German lines, a five-man army taking the country one small town at a time. There isn’t much else to it without major spoilers, but when a film with so simple a synopsis makes it into my top ten, you know you’ve got a gem.

The Good:

I have to start by praising the sound design in its totality. There is no better word for ‘all of it is stupendous’. Every bolt clattering in its housing rattles your bones, every muzzle flare is a blinding crash of light. Don’t even get me started on the tank shells. It’s the slams of punctured metal and the whistling of high velocity shells (which were created by, of all things, taping a whistle to a frisbee and throwing it past a microphone) that really bring Fury to life and make you feel like you’re the one going to war. It’s not just the sound effects that are tremendous but also the soundtrack. Haunting choral movements roll in like fog whenever Nazis are on screen, in stark contrast to the triumphant, almost electronic bass and sweeping piano utilised whenever the ‘Good Guy’ theme pounds across the battlefield. It’s as guttural and just as much of a beast as the tanks themselves, and it all creates that chilling atmosphere of hollow glory, hollow being the operative word, when the tracks (no pun intended… geddit, caterpillar tracks?) are so mournful and full of emotion. It also helped greatly with placing my shoulders somewhere up round my ears during one of the most tense moments I’ve seen in film, being the one-on-one tank combat scene. Fury circles a growling Tiger 1 tank, taking heavy machine gun fire and narrowly avoiding the fearsome shells. The Tiger itself seems impervious to anything our heroes throw at it, and the perspective given from the cold, efficient German crew just adds to the pressure of the scene. When two rounds are put square into the Tiger’s back end, flames erupting from the massive entry wounds, you have to manually pull your nails out of your armrests. Slow as the operation of tanks may be, Fury’s action is pulse-racing and truly a white-knuckle experience. Speaking of the good guys, though, all the characters, I think, are as strong as each other. This makes Fury the odd one out in the ‘Suicide Squad’ genre, and by that I mean a film or game where all but one or often all of the team of main characters are killed off. Some examples being Halo: Reach, Halo 3: ODST, Rogue One, (click on all of those for my reviews of them) and… Well, the DC flop itself. There is not, I believe, a single weak link in the main group in Fury. The cast is great, too, and that helps, of course. This also allow for greater impact when we are offered the symbolism of all four original Fury operators dying inside the tank, forever entombed in the vehicle that became their home for the duration of the war, and will now be their home forever, and Norm, the new recruit, escaping. It is touching and tastefully done, so tastefully in fact that I didn’t notice it during my first watch of the film. While we’re on the subject of subtle emotion, the poignancy of the closing aerial shot hit me lot harder watching it this time round (not to mention the fact that it’s the only time the camera leaves the ground for the whole film, where it spends all of its time boots on the ground with the soldiers), and is a fantastic visual note to finish on given the content and overarching messages of the rest of the film. Visuals throughout are also grogeous, and we all know what a sucker I am for large, chunky engines of war bristling with radio antennae, wires, spare ammunition and, most importantly, loads of guns. The gritty tone and washed-out visuals (done much more effectively than they were in Dunkirk where everything just looked sort of… wet) are punctuated at regular intervals by split-second shots of violence that are just long enough to imprint the flash of blood and guts on the backs of your eyelids for a few moments, after which the film rumbles forward with whatever skirmish is taking place. The gore, much like Fury’s imagery and emotion, is restrained enough to not become dragging, yet somehow intensely satisfying in its discretion.

To be Improved: 

My complaints are mainly little nitpicks, as is often the case with films that make it into my top ten favourites of all time. The first issue I have is one that I don’t even mind that much, but I feel the need to point out that the constant laser-fire, tracer rounds though they may be, becomes a bit too Star Wars at points. Which, in actual fact, we all know is no problem for me, and to be honest it’s good that we actually get to see the bullets flying rather than a few yellow beams every now and again as per Saving Private Ryan and the like. While we’re on the topic of star wars, another problem with Fury is that, like Rogue One, and in fact Halo: Reach, the protagonists do develop a tendency to drop like flies. It makes more sense in Fury, though, because the whole climactic battle is them becoming drastically overwhelmed, pinned down with one of their treads destroyed, unable to move, fighting quite literally to the death. Speaking of Saving Private Ryan, there is a moment in Fury much like the opposite of the fact that Tom Hanks’ character lets a soldier live, and is then killed by the very same man. In Fury, Norm is forced by Sergeant Collier (Pitt) to shoot a German soldier, and is then, when spotted by an SS trooper while hiding under the tank as the film draws to a close, allowed to live. It’s different… But it’s just as cheesy, and it’s really the only moment that doesn’t hold up in terms of poise or subtlety like the rest of the film’s more intense scenes do. Now, the one big issue I have with Fury is the pacing. I guess in war it’s difficult for this not to be the fact, but the film has a choppy-changey attitude when it comes to knowing when to switch from a lull to an action sequence. It’s very obvious whenever someone or something is going to get shot, or an explosion is going to go off, or a enemy trap is about to be sprung, and is jarring when it suddenly grinds to a halt and spends what feels like quarter of an hour (a lot in film-time) on… breakfast? I guess a lot of it is to show the fragility of civilians, the hopelessness of it all, and, during a particularly cryptic anecdote from Micheal Pena’s Garcia, how close-knit Fury’s crew are, purposefully excluding Norm. It’s hard to follow, a little disjointed, and all in all a rather strange point in the film simply due to how suddenly everything quiets down. But, again, this is interrupted all in good time by the Germans shelling the town, obliterating not only the area itself but also whatever messages that scene was trying to convey, and I use the plural because to me it seemed to be around three or four mish-mash morals. It’s unfortunate that they all become a little tangled and are then forgotten about, because it did add another layer to the narrative, if a little too heavy-handed on the characterisation (John Berthnal’s standoffish Gordo licking a terrified German girl’s eggs and bacon, for instance).

Overall: 8/10

Despite the above-mentioned awkwardness of the one scene that tries to cram emotional exposition into a film with such explosive subject matter, it still conjures up some touching subjects to consider. The bond between brothers in arms. The futility of war itself. The despair of it all. However, none of the sentiment delivered in Fury is rammed down your throat, as it is in so many films. There are no downright ‘sad’ scenes, which is why I haven’t used that word until now, yet it still hits home on the poignancy front. It also, luckily, hits home when it comes to the front that is the film’s setting, and the glorious fight scenes complete with a wholly appropriate and satisfying aesthetic, along with the expert sound design and the score’s tone, create a war movie that is as intimate as it is fiercely action-packed. One for the history books (pun well-deserved).

Lego Review 19: 75182 – Republic Fighter Tank

178361700.jpg

I don’t know what it is, but I’ve been a sucker for sci-fi vehicles with aerials and radio antennae on them for as long as I can remember. I think it just adds a gritty quality that I like, for some reason. Because of that, and also because I just fancy tanks in general, especially twenty pound Lego ones (see my Imperial Hovertank review), I’d wanted the Republic Fighter Tank for a while. As my parents have issued the ultimatum that any more Lego in the house will make them very angry, I was hesitant when me and my girlfriend stood in the Lego section of John Lewis before going to see Dunkirk (review of that here). But to be honest, I’d just been paid, and the set was rather cheap, so I thought I might as well. I remember saying to her after I’d built it that I was appalled I’d even considered passing it up.

The Republic Fighter Tank comes with the main build (a tank, what were you expecting?), a Phase 2 clone gunner which, as far as I’ve been led to believe, isn’t actually canon, Jedi Knight Aayla Secura with her blue lightsaber, two battle droids with a blaster pistol each, a wrench and rifle for the clone, and six studs to be shot.

The Good:

  • Lots to be said about this set despite it’s relatively small size and very affordable price point. That’s a positive in and of itself.
  • First off, the lovely light green and sand-red colour scheme (I believe those are the official Lego colour names, but I’m not an expert expert) really pops. This isn’t so much a positive as a personal preference, but I do like it so what else can it be classed as other than a good thing?
  • Lack of stickers, a major plus, but in turn no lack of detail therein. In fact, there are loads of little touches included which really add to the personality of the build, like:
  • the printed control panel,
  • the wrench, a lovely addition,
  • the small transparent cheese slope pieces (official name) to make up the windscreen, a great piece of fine detailing that I’d like to see more of from Lego,
  • and the control sticks inside the cockpit (in reality a Lego bucket handle piece) which, though barely seen, are wonderful.
  • The clone figure himself is intensely good, with some fantastic leg-printing and a Phase 2 helmet to die for (in fact, he’s the first one I own!).
  • Much to my surprise, I don’t actually mind the Jedi figure because she’s blue and I think that’s appealing to my better nature. Besides, now I can do some roleplaying that she’s stranded in the desert somewhere and this one lone grizzled gunner operating his tank pulls up on her, then they form a begrudging partnership to take down a battalion of droids. See? If my imagination can run that wild just by looking at two minifigures and considering what chemistry they may have, that’s an achievement on Lego’s part.
  • I got, very pleasantly, a spare of the rapier pieces used as mock antenna on the back end.
  • Stud shooters are actually integrated nicely, which Lego seems to be getting better and better at.
  • The build process itself is very intuitive but is also very fresh; loads of techniques I’ve never used before and some great new pieces included along with some classic ones really make it feel modern and exciting.
  • The wheels, even though they’re much different to the Hovertank’s big transparent ones, works exceptionally well and really make it roll like… Well, a tank!

To be Improved:

  • This isn’t even an issue with the set, but rather with the design on the whole; it just looks a little piddly without a forward turret. In fact, even the original Lego version has a gunner position complete with cannon, and though the hatch does open up very nicely on this new model I’ve had to order a Brickarms Hotchkiss turret (and also heavy machine gun for the clone to wield just because I thought it would be sad only buying one gun).
  • The biggest kick in the teeth has got to be the minifigures. One clone operating a whole tank? I get that it isn’t very big but it just seems like laziness on Lego’s part every time they include the flimsy battle droids, which most people don’t even count as minifigures anyway. To be frank, I am not among those people, and don’t really own enough battle droids myself, so in all fairness I’m not unduly upset, but perhaps replace the Jedi with another clone and this would be perfect.
  • Lego still haven’t fixed their rifles, despite the fact that the tranquilliser guns from the Lego Dino range had the bottom of the stock flush with the minifigures’ arms, meaning they could actually hold it without it being bent at a funny angle. Why this has not carried over to the other lines is beyond me.

Overall: 8/10

The majority of criticisms I’ve seen online for this tank cite the original version’s major size difference (that being the fact that it was way bigger) and the rubbishness of the battle droids. I, in case you hadn’t noticed, don’t whole-heartedly share these opinions, and believe this update to be far superior in nearly every way save for the lack of a second clone. It’s more streamlined, more fun to play with, there’s sort of an implied backstory and lore to it that wasn’t there before, and small though it may be it still took me the duration of a Usain Bolt documentary to build it.