Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bending the Rules

Legend of Korra's second series ended this week with a pretty great double episode, but it brings up something that we really need to talk about. As such, expect massive spoilers from this point on.

It's been obvious for a while now what this series was leading up to. They revealed that the Avatar was created by the melding of a human and the Spirit of Light, they introduced an equal and opposite Spirit of Darkness, and they had a human working with and trying to free that spirit. There was only one logical place this setup was going: a Dark Avatar.

When, sure enough, Korra's pantomime-villain of an uncle merged with the evil spirit Vaatu, his eyes burning with the familiar (yet evil) power of the Avatar State, it looked like this finale was going to be epic.
And it was epic, insofar as it became a giant-monster fight for some reason. That harbour battle (weird bit with Jinora not withstanding) was probably the perfect ending for the series, with Korra finally connecting with her spiritual side and learning to cope without the Avatar State. But the preceding fight, where the two opposing Avatars clashed as equals, felt lacking somehow. Something was off, but I couldn't quite figure out... wait, why is Unalaq only bending water?
Oh. Oh no.

The problem - and it took me far too long to realise this - is that the word "Avatar" no longer means what we think it means.

For three years, Last Airbender opened with Katara's voiceover saying, "Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them." When you say "Avatar", that's the definition that comes to mind. That's what the show and the world it created were about. Naturally, it's the same definition that comes to mind when you say "Dark Avatar", too. But, as this finale made painfully clear, that's not what it means any more.

We've been told from the beginning that the Avatar was also an important spiritual figure - the Bridge between Worlds. This series of Korra, Book Two: Spirits, aimed to explore and focus on that side of the character, which is admirable because its not something we've really seen before. This all came to a head in Beginnings, a big two-part episode set ten-thousand-years in the past, which showed us the origins of the first ever Avatar.
I explained last month how I found Beginnings both wonderful and deeply problematic - but this finale, and the way it treats the Dark Avatar, shows that the problem is much worse than I thought:

Beginnings, and this whole second series of Korra, actually separates the spiritual and physical aspects of the Avatar into two different things. The Avatar is no longer a spiritual being who can bend all four elements - the Avatar is now a spiritual being, and also someone who can bend all four elements for totally unrelated reasons.

The worst part is that "Avatar", as a word, now only seems to refer to the spiritual, glowy-eyed part of that equation. The physical part - the bending all the elements part - does not fall under that umbrella.
Wan, the first Avatar, could bend all of the elements before he became the Avatar. Every Avatar since has inherited this skill from him as a side-effect, but it actually has nothing to do with being the Avatar. In theory, there's no reason the Avatar should necessarily be a bender at all.

In practice what it means for the story is that when Unalaq, a waterbender, becomes the Dark Avatar it has no effect on his bending. It doesn't grant him the power over all four elements, as any sensible person might have expected it to, because that's not actually what "Avatar" means any more. Unalaq is still just a waterbender, albeit a very strong one with glowing eyes.
After a whole series of building up to this ultimate villain, Korra's equal and opposite - the yin to her yang - is nothing of the sort. He's just another super-bender, like the Firelord or the bloodbenders from last series. He may be an Avatar in name, but he certainly doesn't feel like one.

If this new definition of "Avatar" had already been established - if Beginnings had occurred in a previous series - then fine. They'd be stuck with it and they'd have to work around it, with their Dark Avatar limited to just one element. But it wasn't! This series was all planned together as a whole - meaning they chose the Dark Avatar as the villain, and chose to substantially weaken that villain by redefining "Avatar" at the same time. That means it must have been a conscious decision to make things work this way - and it's a decision I do not understand at all! It utterly cripples this finale, and it undermines the rest of the show.
Unalaq is supposed to be a dark mirror of Korra herself, showing us how easily her powers could be used for evil, and how devastating that would be - but that powerful theme is lost because he doesn't actually have her powers. Plus, far more importantly, their fight would have been so much more awesome if Unalaq had been using all four elements. As it was, the battle was far too short and offered nothing we hadn't seen before. It was disappointing, basically, when there was absolutely no reason for it to be.
I'm not saying that I didn't enjoy the fight. It was fun, it was dramatic, it was exciting. I just didn't enjoy it anywhere near as much as I could have.

This whole thing makes no sense to me. I don't understand why you would even include an evil Avatar if it's not only a version of the Avatar we're unfamiliar with, but not even one we'd associate with the word. Calling him that sets up certain expectations and, in the case of most viewers, I'm guessing those expectations involved bending more than just water. When he didn't do that, what else could we feel but disappointment?
They could have called him something else - the Dark Vessel, say, or the Dark Prophet - and then there would have been no problem. But no, they called him "Avatar", which instantly brings four series' worth of baggage and expectations with it. Unalaq simply doesn't live up to those expectations. It's like they made it disappointing on purpose.

From the perspective of the writers, I cannot fathom the reason for any of this. They chose a potentially incredible villain, with thematic weight and a plethora of elemental powers; then they stripped him of those things, keeping his name but not much else. In doing so, they've forever bent the meaning of the mythology's central concept - they've entirely changed what it means to be the Avatar - and I don't see a single upside to any of that.

On the other hand, from an in-universe story perspective, I understand the reason all too well. What exactly is the reason Korra can bend all the elements, where Unalaq cannot? Why, it's because of those bloody lion-turtles. It always is.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Gravity Review

Gravity opens with a deafening roar - a wave of sound that rises to drown out the world - and then suddenly cuts to silence. As planet Earth hangs there on the screen, hauntingly beautiful, you realise that you’re holding your breath. And so is every other person in the room. You won’t start breathing again for an hour-and-a-half.

I almost feel I should stop there. That’s all you really need to know about this incredible film: it is breathtaking in more ways than one, and it doesn’t let up for a second.

Gravity is a weird one. I don’t want to say much for fear of spoilers, yet it might be impossible to spoil. What actually happens is just a short list of events that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney’s astronauts go through in linear order. No reveals, no twists, not even much in the way of developments, just a fairly simple journey. The story really isn’t the point, so recounting it won’t spoil anything at all.
What can be spoiled is how this journey, and each event along the way, plays out. What makes this film so special is just how incredibly immersive the experience is. We are not watching them take this journey - we are taking the journey ourselves. For the duration of the film we are actually there, in space, feeling all of the awe and fear that comes with that.

Alfonso Cuarón, director of the superb Children of Men and the best Harry Potter film (Azkaban, obviously), has crafted one of the most powerful, visceral movies I’ve ever seen. Using his trademark über-long takes (that first shot of Earth is something like fifteen-minutes long), incredible dynamic camera work, and some of the best 3D since Avatar, this world swallows you up into its reality. Then it shakes you like a ragdoll. Because it’s not enough for Cuarón to simply put his audience into space, in a more immersive way than anyone ever has before, he has to put us through hell when we get there.

The voice of Houston’s Mission Control is provided by Ed Harris. It’s a wonderful nod to Apollo 13, but it should also give you some idea where this is going. Following the destruction of a Russian satellite, a deadly cloud of space-debris is sent hurtling round the planet towards our shuttle, currently docked with the Hubble Telescope. Things go very wrong very fast, and things continue to spiral breathlessly out of control for the whole rest of the movie.
Things fall apart and explode and tumble weightlessly, just out of reach. The astronauts spin off into the void and, worse, fall towards the planet itself. People run out of oxygen, they run out of fuel, they get tangled in wreckage and constantly - constantly - slammed into things as they fall apart. We feel every moment of it on a primal, emotional level; and, all the time, we’re painfully aware of that satellite wreckage, speeding back around the Earth to take another shot.

Everything Cuarón does is designed to pull us in and make this feel as real as possible, and that it certainly does, but there's two things that deserve special mention. First is his absolute dedication to silence in space. There is, of course, no sound in space, but most films ignore this because it feels weird. Here we see collisions and explosions, but the only sounds are ones the astronauts themselves would hear - distant vibrations through the objects they touch, dampened by their spacesuits. As well as making the world more real, it also adds to the sense of isolation and strangeness of the environment.
The second is Sandra Bullock's performance. Clooney's good too, but as the assured veteran astronaut he's basically just playing George Clooney in space. Bullock, though, is incredible as a medical doctor thrown into this impossible situation. She starts off vulnerable and helpless (as you probably would) but she slowly begins to fight back, determined to make it through. What sold it for me is how she slowly opens up - starting off quiet and dejected, but eventually talking to herself and grinning with adrenalin-fuelled madness. It's exactly how I get if I lock myself out of the house, and I totally bought it. Some have said she's not a very fleshed out character, but she doesn't need to be - because Bullock so inhabits this woman, and because we share her trip through hell, we intimately know her even though we know nothing about her.

There are problems. There's one sequence which doesn't really work, feeling too forced and pulling us out of the world, and there's a moment of symbolism that's beautiful and evocative but goes on for far too long. The most problematic is that, while the whole film frequently bends science for its own purposes, there's one crucial story-moment that hinges on some seriously dodgy physics. But that's more or less it - those are the only hiccups in this otherwise believable and completely immersive universe.

In my review of Rush I called it tense - "cripplingly so" - but Rush is a carefree romp next to Gravity. This film is pure white-knuckle terror; except in those few quiet moments of dread, while you wait for the next thing to go wrong. Those parts are somehow even worse. It's a phenomenal film with truly gorgeous visuals and one amazing central performance. It's not much of a narrative but, bloody hell, it's an experience. Gravity is atmospheric and gripping and unyieldingly intense, and once it has its claws in you it doesn't let go.
The crazy thing is that, as much ridiculous hyperbole as I'm using, I'm still selling it short!

You need to see this film. You need to see it in 3D. And you need to see it right now.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Thor: The Dark World Review

Dear Man of Steel,
I saw two different films this year that ended with godlike aliens hitting each other impossibly hard over and over again. One of them managed to keep this fresh and interesting, and had personal stakes for the audience to connect to. The other one was you.

Thor: The Dark World manages to keep its final battle entertaining and engaging, even though it's just a repetitive sequence of blows, by constantly changing the nature of the fight. It keeps shifting location, so the visuals never get stale and the fighters have to deal with their environment as well as each other - caught on a collapsing ledge or sliding down a building. The tone keeps shifting too, breaking the tension with funny moments, which makes the serious parts all the more impactful.
Even though the combatants are pretty much invincible, the fight has real peril and danger because there are human characters running around and helping, almost getting killed in the process. It's a battle over the fate of the world - nay, the universe - but it's the fate of these characters that we actually care about. That's also what the hero cares about, fighting to protect these people rather than just fighting to win.

What I'm saying, Man of Steel, is that Thor 2 does everything you didn't. I hope you're taking notes.

Before the ascension of The Avengers, benevolent god-king of superhero movies, the original Thor was the film that, to me, felt most like a comic book. These are silly films about silly people in silly costumes, and Thor's bombastic, over-the-top tone captured that perfectly. It's just so much fun, from its first frame to its last.
But a lot of people disagree. Thor usually gets ranked at the bottom of the Marvel pile for exactly this reason - people don't like that it's silly. So, when Marvel announced that gritty Game of Thrones director Alan Taylor would be at the (winged) helm of the sequel, and later when all the stills and footage looked like Lord of the Rings, there was a real danger that this light-hearted series had been turned into, well, you.
But rest assured, though it even goes so far as having "Dark" in the title, Thor 2 is every bit as light and breezy as its predecessor.

What Taylor does bring is a sense of realism that was missing from Kenneth Branagh's very operatic original. This is the same thing you were aiming for, Man of Steel, but Taylor understands that it needn't sap the joy out of the experience. The acting here is more naturalistic, and Asgard feels much more like a real place, but the movie still knows how to find enjoyment and humour in that - something you completely forgot. Though it does carve out a more believable world for itself, nested within the larger Marvel Universe, that doesn't prevent it from shoving the massive God of Thunder into a tiny car or having Stellan Skarsgård in his pants. Realistic doesn’t have to mean serious.

Yet The Dark World has its share of serious, too. The plot this time kicks off when Natalie Portman’s Jane Foster becomes the unwitting host of the Aether - an ancient, all-purpose alien superweapon. This is staggeringly convenient, of course, but it works because it immediately gives Thor, and us, a reason to heavily invest in what is otherwise a very bland McGuffin. Thor spirits Jane away to Asgard to figure out what’s going on, and the two quickly rekindle their romance because, in both cases, wouldn’t you?
The seriousness comes from the fact that Jane is slowly dying from exposure to the Aether, and that having it also makes her a target for the villains of the piece. They want to use the Aether to destroy the universe but, problematically, they’re also the only ones who can get it out of Jane. This all works to make her a more active part of the story than last time, as she finds herself at the centre of the conflict rather than watching from the sidelines.

For that reason and others, it’s a stronger and more propulsive story than the first Thor, rushing us through scenes and locations where the original often meandered. This is great in that everything feels very urgent and energetic, but not so great in that is skims over things that probably needed more explanation and depth - namely those villains.
The Dark Elves are a race who existed before the universe (somehow) and who now want to destroy that universe. They have awesome designs and technology, which leads to some brilliant action, but there’s barely anything to them. They feel both underused and underserved - especially their leader, Malekith. There's talk of his backstory and motivations, but there's nothing there we can actually latch onto. He basically boils down to angry guy with grudge. He's certainly no Loki - but the film ultimately gets away with that because Loki is Loki, and he's here too.

In a lot of ways this is actually Loki's movie. He has the strongest character journey, going from traitorous prisoner to untrusted ally and beyond. This is probably Tom Hiddleston's best performance yet, as this arc means he can play more than just the jealous prince. Loki gets to be a brother and a son; an enemy and a friend; wrong but also wronged. More than anything else, though, Thor 2 reminds us that Loki is the God of Mischief, not of Evil, and he gets to be far more of a trickster here than he has in the past.

Loki, like Jane, also has more to do. That’s something that applies to almost every character, actually. Even minor players like Kat Denning’s Darcy, Rene Russo’s Frigga, and Idris Elba’s awesome awesome Heimdall are far more involved in the story this time. Sif and the Warriors Three may be missing a member for some reason, and they may even have less screentime, but they feel more fleshed out and have a bigger impact on the plot. Everyone feels necessary and important.
The only person with less to do, weirdly, is Thor himself. Because the main arcs of the film aren’t his - they’re Jane’s and Loki’s - he sometimes seems to just be along for the ride. It’s never a problem, though, because Chris Hemsworth continues to embody the character so wonderfully. Whether he’s cheerfully destroying rock monsters or angrily confronting his brother, Thor is such a great presence that you don’t mind his reduced role.

Any other problems are similarly minor. An important scene involving Malekith's face is mishandled, and a subplot with Sif is implied but never takes off. There's also nothing that comes even close to that one blisteringly hot kiss from the first film. But these are tiny complaints, drowned out by the overwhelming positives - and when Hemsworth gets his shirt off, in a scene that’s somehow even more gratuitous than the first Thor, you’ll be willing to overlook all of them.

Thor: The Dark World is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe but, far more than that, it’s a great continuation of the Thor series. It takes the groundwork of the original film and builds upwards in every way. The world and characters are both more fleshed out and more grounded; the story is more focused and polished, and gives every single character (except one) something to do; the action is bigger and better; and all the while it sticks to the world and the light-hearted tone established by its predecessor.

The reason I'm telling you all this, Man of Steel, is that the first Thor suffers from many of the same problems as you: characters are underdeveloped or don't have much to do, and the story is nebulous and unfocused. If Thor 2 can build on these problems to become something stronger, then I'm hoping you can too.
Of course, Thor still worked because it offset these problems with an abundance of fun and energy, where you opted for darkness and brooding. You can learn from Thor 2 here, as well. This world feels as real as yours, without having to sacrifice its sense of humour. It feels more real, in fact, because it's easier to relate to the people who live there.

Failing that, at the very least, please try to learn something from that final action scene. When I watch two space-gods repeatedly punch each other, I want to see variety and creativity, I want to see highs and lows, peaks and troughs, I want to feel real human stakes and, above all else, I want to enjoy it.
And that's exactly what The Dark World delivers.

Best wishes for the future,

P.S. One last thing to learn from Marvel is that you should call your sequel Man of Steel 2, either with or without a subtitle. Dropping the numbers from their non-Iron Man films is the one slip-up Marvel have made thus far, and now is your big chance to exploit it. Who knows - being easy to arrange on a shelf might make all the difference!

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Ender's Game Review

Ender's Game is actually a pretty good film. The problem is that it could have been two great films. I've never read Orson Scott Card's novel, so I don't know how long it is, but it's pretty clear that it's too long for a two-hour movie. There's just too much stuff!

Following a devastating war with the alien Formics, humanity has begun training children for military command, based on their inherent unpredictability and outside-the-box thinking. Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is one such recruit - a young prodigy with the potential to be the greatest strategist this world has ever known. It's a strong and interesting setup, but it sometimes feels lost in the mad rush to fit everything else in.
We see Ender go from an Earthbound military academy to an orbital Battle School; train, learn, and progress through the ranks from bottom to top; graduate to an interstellar Command School; train, learn, graduate again; and, of course, command an actual war. Every single one of those sections is handled really well, and each has great moments but, inevitably, they all get somewhat short-changed. It feels like it all happens in about a week where it's supposed to be a few months at least; maybe years.
The Battle and Command School sections could, and probably should, have made good films in their own right. Each has its own arc and its own climax, and each does interesting and unexpected things with the characters and world. But, presumably because Card's book is an unproven property and not an inexplicably popular YA series, it's all been forced into one movie.

With this in mind, the film makes absolutely the best choices it can, focusing most of its attention on Battle School. Where Command School basically consists of Ender and his team playing Sins of a Solar Empire against Ben Kingsley (who is great, as always), Battle School sees him competing against rival children to become top dog. Unlike the later simulated battles, the competition here is real and physical, as the kids play war-games in the spectacular Battle Room. This is essentially zero-G laser-tag (or maybe closer to paintball) so it's easy for us to understand both the rules and the stakes. These sequences are exciting and inventive and they're probably the movie's highlight.
The Battle School offers conflict outside these war-games, too, as Ender is made to struggle every step of the way. This is a cruel place, where Harrison Ford's unfeeling Colonel Graff actively encourages distrust and even hatred, and the workstations have a built-in anonymous bullying system. As a result, this is the place where we see the characters at their most vulnerable, and witness the most growth.

Yet even here, in the longest and most character-centric portion of the film, you can still feel the squeeze of the runtime. There's no quiet, intimate moments to really explore these people - it's all big moments and flat statements of intent. As a result we never feel as invested as we should. As great as the Battle Room sequences are, we're watching them passively instead of engaging with them. When the finale comes - when Ender finally faces the real horrors of war, in what should be a very powerful moment - we feel almost nothing. It's not that the film has failed to make us care, it's that it simply didn't have time.

There's a similar problem with the central ideas, as well as emotions. We're repeatedly told that Ender is a genius, and that the Formics are an overwhelming threat to humanity, but we never get to see either for ourselves. Ender's tactics are quickly glossed over, and we never even see a Formic until the battles at the end. It's all so rushed.
I keep going back to this because it's really the only thing holding Ender's Game back. It's a very strong film otherwise. Asa Butterfield is brilliant as Ender - both a child and a leader - and he's supported by strong performances from all the kids and adults around him, especially Ford. The ideas are clever and intriguing, the designs are striking - particularly that Battle Room - and the action is unique if not quite spectacular.

I really did like this film, all told, but I'm not sure I can recommend it. The problems are just a bit too pervasive and they sour the experience. I suspect that, somewhere, there's a three-to-four-hour director's cut of this film and, if that's the case, I hope that we one day get to see it. That version I would recommend in a second.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Social Mediation

"Wait!" I hear you cry. "A post about tech on a blog called NerdTech?!"
Ridiculous, I know, but there is a reason. Last week I made an important change to the way I use technology. I thought it was quite a small thing at the time, but it's already changed my life.
First, let me ask you a question:

What is Facebook for?

I mean, really - what's its purpose? I vaguely remember a time when I used to know the answer, but these days I'm not sure there's an answer at all. Facebook isn't really for anything any more; Facebook just is.

If you'd asked me five years ago, I'd have told you that Facebook's purpose was to keep in touch with friends. A place to see what they were doing and thinking, and to chat about it in their comments or on their wall. For an antisocial troglodyte like myself, it helped me feel connected. No, more than that - it kept me connected. Maybe it could be used another way, but this is certainly how I used it and it seemed to be designed with that in mind. The whole interface was based around making statuses as visible and accessible as possible.
Compare that to how Facebook works now. It's almost impossible to hunt down basic text statuses in the sprawling mass of my news feed. It's all pictures and links and videos and bloody Candy Crunch invitations. Statuses are the least visible thing on the page because they take up minimal space and they don't have graphics attached. You have to physically search through this mess to find out what your friends are up to - something which used to be so simple and integral to the site. It no longer serves its purpose.

Maybe - maybe - this wouldn't be such a problem if Facebook had found a new purpose instead, and turned from one kind of tool into another. But it didn't. The closest thing it has to a purpose is still to keep people in touch, but now it's really bad at it.
If you squint a little, it almost looks like Facebook has become a photo gallery instead. It's certainly more set up for that kind of use - but that's not actually how people use it. I counted for a couple of days and, while images make up roughly two thirds of my feed, less than half of those are actually photos, and many of those photos are "selfies" or pictures of pets, which barely count. The rest are... well, they're infuriating nonsense, aren't they. We all know it. And they were driving me away.

Two years ago I joined Twitter. I only did it as a means for job-hunting and news, and I never thought I'd tweet very much. I use social media to talk to people I know, not to shout hopelessly in an endless void of strangers. But lately I've found myself choosing Twitter over Facebook. As I've slowly drifted away from one I've moved towards the other. Twitter still values the text-based status updates I want from social media, and I like being a part of that.
I barely post to Facebook any more, except to share this blog and, ironically, to complain about Facebook itself. I just don't want to be involved in the ugly chaos I always find there. Turns out I'd rather shout into a void than a deafening storm.

Last weekend, I finally snapped.

It started with Bitstrips. I logged into Facebook and the page was flooded with these terrible, unfunny cartoons. Where the hell did they suddenly come from? Doesn't matter; they invaded over night, they were everywhere, and they made me want to burn things.
I have no idea if people are still posting them or if they were just an overnight fad, because I blocked them almost immediately. But it was too late; the damage was done. I have never hated a website as much as I did that morning.

So, in some kind of blood-rage, I retreated to Twitter for a few days to recover. That's when things got worse.
Two days later, Twitter suddenly made all its images visible all the time. Where, before, you would have to click a tweet to see an attached image, now there is always a preview. If you don't use Twitter, you're probably imagining a little thumbnail of some kind - but no, these are massive pixel-hogging monsters. Four of these previews takes up the entire screen.
In one quick moment, my Twitter stream became my Facebook feed. Half the space, if not half the posts, were taken up with images - and I knew it was only going to get worse. I was still so angry at Facebook, and now its replacement was heading the same way. This was the beginning of the end.

Slowly, though, I convinced myself that it wasn't as bad as I thought; that I could live with a few George Takei pictures on my screen. I slept on it, sure that it wouldn't annoy me so much in the morning. I was wrong.
The next day there were Bitstrips on Twitter.

I wanted to throw my laptop across the room! It was already everything I feared and hated - the e-cards of ladies in big hats couldn't be far off. I couldn't take it. I'd had enough. I wanted out - out of these social networks and everything that tied me to them.
In a moment of rage and madness, I uninstalled every single app on my phone. Why I punished my phone over my laptop, or why I went so far, I don't know - I wasn't really thinking straight. I wanted some of them gone so I got rid of everything... I'm sure it made sense at the time.

Since then, I have reinstalled a 3G usage monitor, a file-manager, a word-processor (to write these blogs), one game, and a web-browser. That's all. And, incredibly, this has totally changed how I use social media.
Because of course I couldn't stay away. As angry as I was, and as awful as Facebook has become at keeping people in touch, it is still my only link to many of my friends. But, without any apps, I've been viewing them through Opera Mini - a browser designed to be as simple as possible. It's so simple, in fact, that it can't display the more recent versions of many websites - instead running clumsy ancient sites from before the rise of iPhone and Android.

The old Facebook site doesn't support plugins (so messages from Farmville or Bitstrips don't appear), it doesn't add graphics to links, and images only appear as tiny thumbnails. It's designed with an emphasis on text and statuses - easy to locate updates without having to wade through a sea of memes. It is exactly what I want from Facebook.
The old Twitter site is a lot less old and still runs a lot like the app, but it doesn't show pictures and that's great. As the site becomes an unfocused mess - as it will now that it's publicly owned - I'll still only be able to see text. That's enough for me.
Already, I find myself using Facebook far more. I know what's going on in people's lives again, and I want to be involved. I've commented and posted more times this past week than I have in months. It feels useful again!

The silly part is that, even though I'm using these sites more, I'm actually checking them much less. It's another unexpected benefit of these older websites. I'm a completist - slightly OCD - and until now I've had to read every single status update since the last time I checked. I just had to - the page kept scrolling and so did I. On Facebook this meant I couldn't help going through all the crap on my feed, much as it was slowly driving me crazy, and on Twitter it meant I could only follow about twenty-five people, otherwise I'd be reading new updates forever.
These older mobile sites, though, don't keep scrolling. Twitter only displays twenty tweets, and Facebook only shows seven - and, somehow, that cancels out my OCD. I reach the bottom of the page and I can stop. It means I'm no longer obsessively checking my phone all the time, and when I do I don't do it for long. I have so much more time now, especially in the morning, that it's actually depressing. It also means I can follow more people on Twitter - I can actually start using it like a normal person.

There's no downside to this! I went crazy for a few moments and, somehow, it saved me from all the problems I have with social media. Stripping back the extra features of these sites - making them simple and text-based again - gives them back their purpose, and a reason to use them. They are for something.
I've actually stopped using Twitter on computers now, because the pictures are so horrible and because the compulsion to keep scrolling and read every tweet is still there. Facebook's less of a problem because it's such a different experience that it's actually kind of funny. I can laugh at how much rubbish is on my PC screen, knowing that I no longer have to put up with it.
Online-Matthew is a much happier guy.

He'd be even happier if you all used Google+, though.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 Review

First off, can we all agree that the original title, Cloudy 2: Revenge of the Leftovers, is brilliant and they should have stuck with it? Ok, good - on with the review.

I never saw the original Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in the cinema, because I thought it looked really really stupid. When I did finally see it, at two in the morning in a deserted zoo (don't ask), I discovered that it is, in fact, really really stupid - and that's exactly what makes it so great!
If you haven't seen it, just know that it is gloriously insane. Everything from the animation to the plot is manic and hyperactive and completely nuts. I'd call it "random", but that quite often means annoying or aimless or tedious, and it's none of those things. It's a focused, polished and sometimes even moving story that just happens to also be demented.
It's about wannabe inventor Flint Lockwood (which must always be said in the voice of Mr T) and his machine that makes food rain from the sky. The device goes crazy - well, crazier - and Flint, with help from various other assorted nutters, must stop it before their island town of Swallow Falls is completely destroyed by food-storms.

The story this time revolves around Flint's relationship with his childhood hero, my dad. Calling himself "Chester V" for some reason, my dad and his suspiciously Apple-like tech empire are tasked with cleaning up Swallow Falls after the disaster. It doesn't go well, and it quickly becomes apparent that Flint's machine is still active, spewing out monstrous cheeseburger-spiders and other dangerous living food. Chester recruits Flint, the only one who understands the machine, to go back to the now food-swamped island and shut it down for good.
Cue an endless string of food-related animal puns which, to their credit, continue to be funny even if some of them are a bit of a stretch (if a hippotatomas is an animal made of food, surely a shrimpanzee is an animal made of other animals).

The main difference between Cloudys 1 and 2 is that, while the first film had a fair-sized bunch of different characters, they were each involved in a different part of the plot and only came together right at the end - and then only some of them. This time every major character from the original follows Flint around right from the start.
While they are all fun and interesting, the truth is that these characters don't have much to do. Cameraman Manny and hyperkinetic cop Earl (sadly no longer voiced by Mr T) are both super-capable characters and that’s the joke, but meteorologist Sam Sparks is reduced purely to the role of love-interest, Flint’s father goes through the exact same arc as last time, and eternal hanger-on Chicken-Brent has literally no reason to be there. As minor characters become main characters, and new minor characters are introduced, you can definitely feel the kind of character-creep that suffocated both the Shrek and Ice Age series.
Happily, though, while having too many characters doesn’t help the story, it doesn’t hurt the story either. The main conflict here is that Flint is torn between his childhood idol and his friends, and in that respect having a large group of friends actually works pretty well. I just wish they were more involved in the actual events.

You'll notice that, though the food-island setting is suitably whacky, this seems far more of a standard movie plot than last time. Likewise, much of the humour comes from standard jokes and repetition, rather than the sheer creative randomness of the original. There's nothing wrong with that, it's just different - it still had me laughing like an idiot and twice I couldn't even breathe.
As with the first film, most of the best jokes are sight-gags, and these are uniformly excellent. Visually the film is just so inventive and crazy that you can’t help but love it - I could have happily watched the watermelephants and shallotosaurs for hours, just living on this island. The fact that we get Steve the monkey going constantly and hilariously nuts is just the sentient cherry on top.
The animation, too, is completely sublime, with Flint mashing at keyboards with his palms and Earl bouncing and rolling when he could just walk. Chester V, in particular, seems to have no bones - flowing across the screen like an eel and occasionally having far too many hands (again, don't ask). Chester, with apologies to my dad, is no Bruce Campbell, but his bizarre movements more than make up for that.

So, Cloudy 2 is still very funny, if not quite as dizzily inventive as its predecessor. It’s a visual treat, with a vibrant and creative world that somehow manages to instil wonder as well as non-stop humour. While these aspects are still built from top-notch insanity, the plot is a definite step down and the cracks of franchise-fatigue are beginning to show. It’s still highly recommended to anyone who enjoyed the first one, though, and to pretty much anyone else. This film will make you smile and laugh - a lot - and that’s more than enough reason to celebrate. Right, Steve?