Time for Luke Wright to step up

Time for Luke Wright to step up.

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Review of Archer Season 5 Episode 5 – Southbound and Down

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So after breaks for the Superbowl and the Sochi Olympics Archer is back on our screens and I couldn’t be happier even if I was munching on one of Pam’s special cupcakes (although my heart would certainly be beating faster).

ImageWell, at least I think that’s cupcake residue. There is the possibility it’s “snowball” related because, in Pam’s words “truck stops are fun”. Warning google ‘snowballing’ and ‘truck stops’ at your own risk. It’s a one way ticket to some dark places that you just cannot unsee.

So anyway, stepping out of one of the internet’s darker alleys, the plot of this episode is a deliberate homage to the Burt Reynold’s film “Smokey and the Bandit”. The gang has to get Charlene aka Cheryl aka the rich crazy railway heiress (I can never remember her name) to Texas in 24 hours.

Que hilarity as Archer brings some cocaine along to sell and Pam tells a every trucker about said drugs betwixt snowball sessions. Leading to the gang’s pursuit by a biker gang.

As you would expect with Archer the episode clips along at a reasonable pace interspersed with laughs. My favourites being 30-year-old Archer getting upset at not getting a Bert Reynold’s doll for his birthday and Krieger forcing Ray to frog march doing a Nazi salute. Reminding us all that he is a possible genetic clone of Adolf Hitler.

So another solid but ultimately unspectacular episode. I’d give it a B-.

I’m left wondering why this is?

I haven’t checked my reviews but other than the first episode there is no single episode of the season that I look back on as being worthy of an A grade.

Now I am I’m all for Archer, the show, growing and taking chances but can they include Archer, the character, in the action a bit more.

He wasn’t the driving force of ‘Southbound and Down’ and looking back through the rest of this season the same holds true for the other episodes. More Archer please!!!

Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

ImageI’m a fan of Iain Banks’ works I haven’t read many of them but what I have read I have really enjoyed. In particular I am enjoying working my way through his Culture series which since I am a big sci-fi fans is really in my wheel house. So when I began listen to ‘The Hydrogen Sonata’ off audible my expectations were high.

Recently, I’ve enjoyed and would recommend ‘Surface Detail’ and ‘Player of Games’. The concepts in this were interesting and gripped me. I wish I could say the same of “The Hydrogen Sonata” (THS).

THS deals with the ‘subliming’ of the Gzilt race into the universe i.e. the ascension of an entire race into the spirit world. This is initially an interesting idea but quickly runs into the fact that the ether or the land you sublime into is inherently unknowable.

So you have a central concept which cannot be explained but everyone makes clear that subliming changes everything completely. It renders former animosities and rivalries as pointless. This of course makes it difficult/impossible to care about the actions of both antagonists and protagonists. Which in turn makes the story hard to care about or be interested in.

The idea of subliming is interesting enough if it was in the background rather than the main thrust of the story. One of the side issues is the ‘scavenger’ races waiting to pick over the corpse of the Gzilt civilization.

If these has been made the central feature of the story it could have been a really gripping story. Space pirates fighting over each other to loot the super-tech of a galactic super-power. Sign me up!

Instead we got this slow boring story with no real stakes. I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to finish the final fifth of the book so I am going to have to regretfully give this a 1 out of 5.

I’d still recommend Banks as an author. I recommend almost any other of Iain M Banks’ works. Steer clear of the Hydrogen Sonata though.

Review of Fleming (2013) Episode 1

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The names Bon… er Fleming, Ian Fleming

Who knew that to make a James Bond TV show without paying royalties to the Broccoli estate all you had to do was repackage your show as a biography of Ian Fleming’s life. I can guarantee you that the pitch for the new show “Fleming” went something along the line of Bond with Nazi’s and the studio executives went “sold”

Anyway, I’m not sure just how accurate the show ‘Fleming’ is to the titular character’s real life war experiences but I’m not going to focus on it because to do so would miss the point. As Fleming himself says in the pilot “call me when you need a first class fantasist” and that is how I treated the show as complete tremendously enjoyable fantasy.

The directors and scene dressers were certainly treating it in the same way because, large sections of the show are shot like perfume commercials. Fleming gets away with this and doesn’t become insufferable however, due to the panache of Dominic Cooper who is fantastic.

Cooper pulls off the role of Fleming brilliantly. Perfect for the role and show. The camera loves him and as the audience you don’t want to take your eye off him.

Overall then ‘Fleming’ was tremendously enjoyable. I’d recommend it and will be watching the next episode. If a man with a golden gun shows up however, someone is getting sued.

Review of Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond

gunsgermsandsteelI took my time in writing this review up because, I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought about it.

I was aware of ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ for a long time before reading it. I hadn’t read it because I was very much aware of the criticism of it that it was “environmental determinism”. Namely that Diamond explained every facet of human development in terms of having an environmental cause.

It’s not that the environment isn’t important to the development of human societies but it is more interesting and worthwhile if the explanations the author offers include other aspects. Even if it is just to explain why these are less important.

Unfortunately, as I was reading the book this criticism seemed to me to be more and more accurate. Not only do I find being told that everything that happened to every human society everywhere was entirely due to structural causes depressing but the repetitive nature of the way Diamond’s argument is presented is dull and for me ultimately unconvincing.

Environmental/structural causes were often very important perhaps even the most important but other causes must have played a role as well. At one point Diamond mentions that religious beliefs played a part in the development of agriculture. I could have done with this idea being explored. Instead it was dropped like a rock.

So whilst I really enjoyed the first quarter of the book when Diamond’s argument was somewhat fresh I quickly became bored. Instead of being enjoyable reading it became more of a chore.

As a positive I did find reading about how early humans would have domesticated certain crops and animals interesting. This tended to come in the first third to quarter of the book however.

Overall, I could not recommend this book to the casual reader who wants to learn about the origins of the development of human society. Reading it is the equivalent of listening to some politician make the same point over and over again. The book does initially raise some interesting issues regarding the development of human civilization and why ‘West’ colonized civilizations in the Americas and elsewhere.

These are questions however that can be found examined more interestingly at other sources i.e. elsewhere online. Especially since Diamond’s arguments are so well known that almost anyone discussing them online is likely to bring him up.

I’d give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Five Movies/TV Shows that are great when you edit chunks out

The Mummy (1999)

mummy1999I have a soft spot for the first Mummy film. I recognise that it is a poor film but I caught it at the right age to enjoy it as mindless fun.

In 10 year old me’s defence the taped off tv copy I had was missing the first 35 minutes or so of the film. This means that the film is pretty much action all the way through and it barrels along at just the right pace to make you not question things to closely. Also, and this is crucially important, the titular Mummy makes an appearance about 20 minutes into the running time.

In the actual cinematic cut The Mummy doesn’t show up for the best part of an hour. I’d take my ‘missed the start whilst taping it’ cut any day.

The Lady Vanishes (1938)

lady vanishesThe plot takes place on a train journey through Germany. It centres around a old lady who the central character has seen after waking up hung over. No body else on the train remembers or will admit to seeing her why is this?

It is a good set up for a film. It is also the best movie on this list by far. If you haven’t seen this film. It is a great film. It is perfect to kill an afternoon or a lazy Sunday.

There’s a caveat to this however (and I can’t believe I’m saying this about a Hitchcock film). This film is better if you skip the first 27 minutes of the film.

I first caught ‘The Lady Vanishes’ from the point the heroine wakes up on the train with the delightfully caring old Grannie sitting opposite her.

This was really fortunate because, it adds entire layers to the film i.e. is the main character reliable? If you see the first 27 minutes of the film however, this question completely disappears.

The 1979 remake with Cybill Shepherd and Elliot Gould also has a beginning out should miss but that one only lasts 15 minutes. It must be the only time in auteur Anthony Page’s career that his editing was better than the Master of Suspense’s.

Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions

matric reloadedI like to call this the ‘Stay in the Matrix cut’. Fast forward your way through the super boring bits in Zion that no body cares about. Such as the new Operator (whose name I cannot be bothered to find) talking to his wife, the orgy scene in the bowels of hell, Morpheus’ religious sermons, the Council of Zion and the fight scene ripped from Aliens.

Remember however, to stop in at ,or just remember, the bit showing that Agent Smith

I make sure I  see this guy as little as possible

I make sure I see this guy as little as possible

is now in Zion also. That bit is the only bit of the Zion sequences important to the plot.

All in all this carves a lot, but sadly not all, the fat off these sequels. It makes them infinitely better to watch.

Prison Break

prisonbreakPrison Break had the sort of insane premise that I can totally buy into. Lincoln Burrows’ is on death row for a crime he didn’t commit and his brother Michael Scofield decides to break him out.

How you ask? By tattooing all the prison plans and escape details onto his body and then getting sent to the same prison himself.

Stop it there and I am completely on board with you. The writer’s just couldn’t stop themselves however. Instead of just having Lincoln framed by corrupt cops or gang members or an enemy he has made they decided to make Lincoln Burrows as the patsy for an all seeing shadowy cabal that controls the world.

There was no need for this. Prison Break has a high concept enough concept already. If you are going to sell this then you shouldn’t dump a tonne of stupid on top of it. There is no need to add a conspiracy dimension to your cops and robbers conspiracy movie.

When it first came out on TV I ignored those bits and I did the same when I rewatched it again on netflix. It’s much more fun that way.

Lincoln

lincolnThis one makes the list for knocking an entire star and ruining the end of an almost perfect film. I am of course taking about the last 12 minutes of Lincoln.

Spielberg’s Lincoln was fantastic. It was beautifully shot and brilliantly acted. Plus it was basically an extended version of West Wing, a show that I love. Lincoln dealt with hugely important historical events and gave a sense of the politics of that time.

It showed just how difficult the decisions were that Lincoln had to make. It created in the movie character Lincoln (I don’t know enough about real life Lincoln) a believable politician who also did the right thing. He was flawed but basically saint.

By the end of the film you have created basically a figure who is mythical within his own time frame.

I’m watching this and I feel that Spielberg understands this. He knows where Lincoln is going. The audience knows where Lincoln is going. The whole set up is note for note perfect.

Lincoln is reminded of the hour and goes to leave saying “I suppose it is time to go. Though I would rather say”.

The iconic silhouette of Lincoln with his hat walks down the corridor in the White House and camera shows the Butler as if he also feel the weight of this moment of time. The music plays poignantly and Lincoln exits stage right.

Just cut there that’s the movie. That’s perfection.

Instead it continues for 10 more minutes of utterly pointless footage. He may have been competing against this film at the Oscars but that doesn’t mean Samuel Jackson wasn’t right.

Lord of the Rings : Return of the King (extended cut)

returnofthekingIt’s an obvious one but sure but that doesn’t make it any less true. There is no need for the last half an hour of this film.

Not only is it unsatisfying story telling to keep doing what are essentially extended post-credit sequences but within the narrative of the movie it makes no sense at all either.

Peter Jackson killed off Saruman back at the start of the film some 14 hours ago. So (spoiler alert) Saruman is not around to make a final appearance as a bad guy like he does in the book. There is no need to keep the film going.

The only one of these scenes that is remotely acceptable after the coronation is Frodo and the elves sailing away from Middle-Earth and that should come after the credits.

THE END

THE END

Review of Robocop (2014)

robocopRight off the bat I feel I should warn you that there will be spoilers in this review. I’m not going to go out of my way to provide spoilers and I don’t think the plot is one which is going to be ruined by discussion of the plot but if you want to see the film completely fresh don’t read this.

Also I have never seen the original Paul Verhoven Robocop so I am going into this blind without any nostalgia for the franchise. Although I suspect this might work to the film’s advantage.

The start of this film is gripping. The MGM lion appears and instead of the usual thunderous roar you get this weak growl. This certainly got my attention. What was happening? The ‘roar’ becomes vocal exercises and we fade in on Samuel Jackson.

So right off the bat the film has got my attention. I’m watching it in Imax. Middle of the row Friday midday and Samuel Jackson appears on the screen. Things are going great.

Jackson begins doing his Fox News slight parody. I say slight as it is not far out enough to make you laugh but is instead close enough to the truth to make you ever so slightly uncomfortable. Again well done film.

The Novak factor (Sam Jackson’s show) has an exclusive report inside the US Military’s Combat Machine program. Novak gets passionate but not quite ranty (yet) about how great the machines have been in bringing ‘freedom’ to the world and what a shame it is they cannot be used in the USA to increase freedom at home.

Again this is great. It is the kind of provocative stuff you wouldn’t see from a typical Blockbuster. It is at this point you realise that this film is set maybe at most a decade into the future if that. The exact date is never revealed but what you get is our world today but with electronics more interlinked into the home and holograms on TV. This is a smart choice from the film-makers. Given the increasing use of drones and technological surveillance in the world today. Setting the film a few years into the future is a great way to make it seem more believable and relevant.

A special report from downtown Tehran begins where the US military is “bringing unprecedented levels of freedom” to the area. The citizens of Tehran come out onto the street to be scanned by these machines.

Now this is the best scene of the film. Stealth drones rush over head and US military machines pour down the street. It is a scary display of force. Meanwhile the news-reporter talks about how happy the Tehranians are to have this force in their city. How it has increased their freedom. It is obvious 1984 ‘doublespeak’ and you see an attack begin to develop as the terrorists sneak along the roofs.

Their goal is to not kill the reporters but to “die on film”. They attack the machines and are just wiped out. The son of one of the attackers runs out brandishing a knife at the drone. He is just annihilated. It is shocking. It is great film-making. Like Hitchcock in Physco they have got you rooting for the ‘bad’ guy. You don’t typically want terrorists to win but I would have been quite happy to see the machines get blown back to circuit breakers.

This is the high point of the movie. The rest of the film never quite demonstrates just how powerful these machines are. As such it is never that great an action film or that great a film that is trying to make you think about the use of machines.

In large part this is because, the film draws back from the international side and world building to focus on the use of machines for domestic law enforcement. As it does this there is no focus on whether civil liberties and freedom are being crushed and the consequences. The politics is stripped out and we are left with a by the numbers action film.

So just a few thoughts about this. Firstly, Michael K Williams aka Omar from the Wire omarappears in this film as Robocop’s partner. I struggled to believe that Omar would get put in hospital whereas the guy from the Killing, who becomes Robocop, would survive long enough to be blown up. Omar would have been a much more better Robocop.

Secondly, Gary Oldman really does carry the film along and give you a reason to keep interested. His acting is fantastic. His acting is also necessary because after one Robocop action scene its all a case of been there done that.

Robocop fight scenes are essentially just massive amounts of force bullets flying everywhere as Robocop walks through the raining ammo to slay with brutal efficiency. This is all a bit dull after the first time. Plus this film is a bloodless so you don’t even get the pleasure of seeing bit of brain splattered everywhere or ridiculous over the top deaths. One scene in particular is just darkness lit by muzzle flashes. It wasn’t the most exciting.

Lastly, although the film does stray into the cliched man’s wishes versus the programming of the machine it did this better than most other films. Why it happened was explained instead of it just being a triumph of the human spirit; humanus ex machina.

I would give this film three out of five. It is decent but not good.

I wasn’t bored watching it but I was only gripped in the fantastic first scene. That first scene showed me why Robocop was worth remaking. If they have continued to push the boundaries of comfort by making the film explicitly political it could have been a great film. The action would have mattered more as there would have been stakes behind it. It’s hard to care too much about robots or faceless criminals.

It’s worth seeing for that first scene and Samuel Jackson though.

So overall, a missed opportunity. Oh and the Imax gave me a headache.

Paxman documentary attempts nationalist whitewash

Rah Rah Britain. God save the Empire. God save the King

Rah Rah Britain. God save the Empire. God save the King

It’s the 100 anniversary of WW1. A conflict that did more to shape the world we live in today than any other single conflict or event in the last century. Possibly even the last half a millennium. WW1 deserves to be remembered and discussed. Lessons should be learned from it.

Before going onto the discuss the documentary I should probably just express my own understanding of WW1. I enjoy reading about history. I have read enough about the subject to get a somewhat detailed but in no way expert idea of it. WW1 was on balanced caused by German’s who wanted to the war and they should bare a lot of responsibility for it. There were however, perfectly valid reasons for Germany’s actions in triggering the war. British politician’s going back to the 1890s deserve blame for the decisions they made that stoked the fires of the conflict.

So in general Germany did want the war to get ‘a place in the sun’ but there is enough blame and incompetence with the Russian, French and British leadership to show them as the upper class insular twits that they were. Now onto the documentary.

Jeremy Paxman’s documentary is a complete failure to analyse and understand WW1. It is an attempt at an historical whitewash. It is inaccurate and grating. Let’s begin with the presentation of the program starting with the music.

The music sweeps from being triumphalist when Britain is going well to being downbeat when it is feels a more sombre moment is called from. It is blatant emotional manipulation. It is stomach churning. It is like this supposedly serious documentary has been scored by John Williams.

Now lets turn to Paxman himself. He is an excellent quiz show presenter on University Challenge and interviewer for Newsnight. His strength is his sneering put downs and sarcastic quips. Shorn of this for his documentary narration skills his delivery is poor. Although I am sure he is sincere he seems unable to convey this to the camera. Added to this is the fact that he is not a professional historian or even lover of WW1 history and boy does this fact show.

Britain is painted as hapless victim. The show accepts that Britain had the “greatest empire the world has ever seen” but still paints us as the plucky underdogs who had never fought a war anywhere. There is some truth to this narrative in terms of the size of the BEF compared to Germany’s force at the outbreak of war, but this fact is grossly and distortingly overplayed.

hardcore historyIt is important to remember that the BEF were the only wholly professional force at the outbreak and that the defensive was king in this war. These factors allowed the BEF to punch above its numbers. If you want to find out more about this I would recommend Dan Carlin’s ongoing series on WW1 which makes this Paxman documentary look like it was made by a child.

The show focuses on the drive to recruit volunteers to the the army. It paints this in gloriously patriotic terms. The men who signed up were patriots. At no point however, does Paxman look at how this patriotism was being manipulated. Streets were cornered off for recruitment and bands played. The establishment was recruiting cannon fodder by putting on a show. Paxman fails to investigate how this was done and what were the motives of the authorities that did so. He doesn’t do this because it is ‘A’ to clever for this show and ‘B’ might present the British establishment in a less than glowing light.

The low point of the show is the description of Lord Kitchener as an “intensely moral man”. Kitchener spent his military career killing off ‘natives’ in colonial wars and believed in ‘the white mans burden’ and such racist nonsense. He cannot by any modern standard be described as “intensely moral”. He is also the idiot who came up with the idea of ‘pal’s battalion’ to increase recruitment, because why not kill off as many member of one community together all at once. The show of course fails to examine the concept of “Pal’s battalions” in any seriousness.

I will give some credit to the show though. The photography of WW1 it uses is top notch. It did give a sense of the times. It was clear that the full weight of the BBC was behind its production. It also showed me just how much like Lord Kitchener Stephen Fry’s Blackadder looked. Their mustaches really did match. So bravo Stephen Fry.

Also the coverage of the shelling of the coast of Britain by the German Navy was something I had never heard of. It’s just a shame that Paxman and the BBC didn’t put the materials to better use.

If you want an interesting and thoughtful pop culture examination of WW1 try both the podcasts ‘When Diplomacy Fails’ and Dan Carlin’s “Hardcore History”. Both of these are more accurate, balanced and interesting than the jingoistic nonsense that the BBC has put out in this documentary.

Sadly, I fear this documentary has set the tone for the £50 million plus that has been green lit to remember WW1.

2 out of 5 stars (It only gets 2 stars for the excellent original pictures used)

Review Season 5 Episode 4 Archer Vice : House Call (Spoiler and Skeleton inhalation Klaxon)

pambeast

Run Cokey the Beast is loose! Oh and Lana !!!! Archer told you so

So it’s episode four of the new season of Archer.

Pam’s cocaine addiction has increased/continued at such a rate that Mallory has decided that she needs to go to rehab. A newly slimline Pam (because cocaine is a great diet drug, don’t know why Doctors don’t recommend it) doesn’t want to go.

Que the entry of everyone’s favourite side character Kreiger and the side character that everyone could kinda do without Woodhouse.

The old drughound Woodhouse deals with the “grass” the only way a grass deserves and conks Pam over the head with a frying pan. In the process he also delays Archer’s breakfast (so bad old timey British butler who may or may not be Archer’s father). Kreiger however has perfected (not sure if his definition of prefected and mine agree) the mind control device and wants to use it to cure Pam’s cocaine addiction.

Being so strong that “She might as well be green and half deaf” Pam destroys the ropes and escapes with Cheryl. Oh, and there’s an FBI agent running loose in the building so that probably needs checking into.

Anyway there are some good lines in this episode such as

“This is only somewhat like that old gypsey woman said”

“Hi, welcome to Nazi Canada. Glug, Glug, Glug Eh”

“I’m coming, I’m coming” Archer – “are we not saying phrasing anymore?”

“I’d spend five minutes before you begin your escape giving that nice guy Archer a combination goodbye/thankyou blowjob”

and finally “I think I inhaled a skeleton”

Kreiger “No you definitely inhaled a skeleton”

So all in all a good episode of Archer but probably not one that I’m going to revisit anytime soon. The next episodes however, promise to get “international” so buckle your seatbelt, get your shots and don’t forget your second and third fake passport.