Christmas advertising 2020

Amongst the ongoing pandemic and tiers/lockdowns/circuit breakers opinion was that by starting a few festive traditions early might help to lift people’s spirits, and of course various retailers and supermarkets were already ahead of the game with their Christmas adverts ready to go. This year Argos were out of the gate first (or at least it seems that way) launching their ad campaign after Halloween, featuring sister Lucy and Daisy, who perform a series of magic tricks for their parents and family with the final reveal of Argos’ Book of Dreams catalogue, the last ever print catalogue that the retailer will produce. 

The festive ad from John Lewis and Waitrose remains highly anticipated each year, with this years offering titled Give a Little Love, with the theme of acts of kindness can brighten someone else’s day and make a positive impact on the world and the people in it. Featuring a mix of live action and several different forms of animation from hand drawn to CGI, the advert also makes the first time the retailer has included a specially commissioned song, A Little Love by British singer Celeste, as part of it’s campaign, with 10p from each download of the song going to the Waitrose & John Lewis charity campaign. 

Sports Direct’s first venture into Christmas advertising centres on a girl being asked by her mum what she wants for Christmas before going through a whole plethora of sports and sporting goods, and a bemused Jordan Henderson, via  series of jump cuts and quick edits. Directed by VMA winner Henry Schofield 

TK Maxx’s answer to cheering up everyone after the year we’ve all had by featuring a goat in their advertising, strutting it’s fashionable wears through a snowy farmyard, after all even pets deserve a Christmas treat

Debenhams “A Gifttastic Christmas” advert features real families to represent the diversity of modern day Britain, something Debenhams stated was important to the brands DNA. Clocking in at 30 seconds it’s one of the shorter adverts on offer this year but still manages to cycle through it’s range of goods and fashion offerings in that time

On the theme of everyone deserving a happy Christmas Tesco’s advert declares that everyone deserves al the treats the want and there’s no naughty list, with a series of confessions of what people did, or didn’t do through the year that would normally push them towards the naughty list but this year will gain them an exemption due to the pandemic. 

Lidl’s advert is “big no a Christmas you can believe in” and is more interested in poking  bit of fun at a few other retailers adverts

Morrisons’ advert keeps the feel good factor going, featuring families in various moments of the festive season, from the gift and food buying, complete with reminder about Morrisons’ commitment to food banks, through to the meal on the big day itself

Asda’s Christmas ad doesn’t shy away from how this Christmas will be different this year and shows how families can still enjoy the time even if in fewer  numbers than before due to distancing, but families can still make the most of it despite the pandemic. 

Aldi’s Christmas campaigns have become synonymous with their Kevin the carrot character and his family (not to mention the associated cuddly toy tie-ins), with this year Kevin plungers into woodland far from his home – can he make it back in time? Will a hedgehog really be able to help out?! A nice nod to ET and a helping hand from Santa makes for a happy ending, and perhaps surprising that the story wasn’t extended over further adverts. 

One of the campaigns by the supermarkets that has generated more publicity than the others has been the Sainsburys trilogy, unfortunately because of the replies on social media to the first of the adverts that featured a non-white British family and garnered some disgraceful and abhorrent replies, including some that struggled to conceal their racist and xenophobic viewpoints and overtones. A post on Instagram by €VoiceofColour collated some of the comments to demonstrate how disgraceful they actually were with a caption: “For those who say racism isn’t a problem in the UK anymore.”. with Saiunsburys issuing a statement that read “At Sainsbury’s, we want to be the most inclusive retailer. That’s why, throughout all our advertising we aim to represent a modern Britain, which has a diverse range of communities.

“We have three stories of three different families in our advertising.” as well as turning off YouTube comments for the advert to prevent any more abuse being posted on there.

The adverts themselves feature a series of British families enjoying the various aspects of a typical British family Christmas, starting off with the gravy song

moving onto the perfect portions for Christmas dinner

before finishing off with the Big Sarnie ad, a retrospective look at the sandwiches made up of Christmas leftovers that were a staple of many a household on Boxing Day. 

Catching up on… The Wire

So admittedly I left it a long time to finally watch it, though a one time work colleague had the DVD set a few years back I never borrowed it, but a while back I did finally start watching what is now heralded as one of the best TV shows ever, The Wire. 

I had known of the basic premise of the series from a while back, and that some of the characters would pop up throughout the 5 season run, but what did come as a curiosity was that each of those 5 seasons had it’s own theme and/or geographical focus around the city of Baltimore. The jump in narrative from the cop show of season one into the port setting of season two comes as a surprise, and even if the third series does veer back towards one of the story threads, that of the police attempts to bring down the Barksdale drug group it still feels like it’s own novel in a quintet series, rounded out the fourth series heavily featuring the Baltimore school system and series five’s window into the media. Even with those changes in focus, there is still an interconnectivity throughout the whole series run, with characters re-appearing in extended cameos or what appear to be minor subplots, overall giving the viewer of the entire series an intricately woven story.

The jump from one area of the city to another was the entirely deliberate intention of creator David Simon, a former Baltimore Sun journalist, and Ed Burns, a former detective, who pulled together a writing team of crime novelists and former colleagues from the Sun newspaper to help craft the series and give it a feeling of authenticity in it’s language of the street Simon had felt missing from other series, as well as an inside-out viewpoint on the storylines. Nowadays not listing who actors played in the introductory credits isn’t much of a noteworthy choice as it was at the time, and the style of the opening credits of The Wire, a series of brief seemingly random shots which actually depict moments of the episodes, still influences today. 

When it comes to rating the greatest series of all time often Breaking Bad is brought up, and highlighted for it’s morality story of how one man can fall from grace into some morally dubious if not outright evil choices, yet this kinda of character development is shown often and more nuanced in The Wire, not just in one character but most of those that throughout. Even if Dominic West’s McNulty at first seems like he will be the star of the show this notion is disbanded as the first series goes on, and it is established early on that he is far from the good cop trope more often seen in police themed films and TV shows –  a man who’s detective brilliance is equalled by his own self destructive tendencies, who’s working attitude goes beyond insubordinate on many occasions, split from his wife and mother of his two kids and more accustomed to spending his time post work drinking either in the local Irish bar or by the traintracks with police partner Bunk, more often than not drunkenly stumbling around to continue his secret affair with Assistant State’s Attorney Rhonda Pearlman. 

Rather than having just the one standout compromised character on the show, it’s more difficult to find one character throughout The Wire who isn’t flawed or ends up trading off some of their better aims or ambitions for a less comfortable or morally grey middle ground. Those who could be designated as the good guys end up having to foresake their own morality or compunction to do what is right, or never get to be all that they can be, because of the systems around them and the choices they are faced with and likewise all those that might be seen as bad guys aren’t as straightforwardly malevolent as they might first appear, trapped in their own systems preventing them following the better parts of their nature. The latter point is emphasised not just in some of the gang members in seasons one and three but more emphatically with the struggles of the schools that is at the core of season four, and the systems within them which lead to abandonment of kids who are already falling prey to the drug lords on the corners.

The Wire also broke boundaries for having a majorly African-American cast, a commitment from creators David Simon and Ed Burns for the show to reflect it’s Baltimore setting, and breaking ground with two gay main characters, Sonja Sohn’s  Det “Kima” Greggs and Michael K Williams Omar Little, the shotgun wielding scourge of the various local drug lords. The list of those who acted on the show included some of the real life cops, politicians and gangsters who had inspired characters in the show, in addition to a group of stage actors and unknowns, and the likes of Idris Elba and Aides Gillan had their breakout moments courtesy of their appearances in The Wire, with a young Michael B Jordan featuring as one of the younger Barksdale corner gang kids.

Indeed it is with some of the younger cast members that the lack of hope for their future and an escape of what seems a pre-destined descent into being drawn into one of the warring drug gangs that give The Wire some of it’s most powerful and effecting scenes throughout, particularly in the school setting of season four, and it’s overview of the pursuit of high grade marks for a school rating coming at the expense and sacrifice of vulnerable teenagers only serves in time to exacerbate the issues facing the cops facing down the local drug lords. It is a show that does also offer some hope for redemption, notably in the struggle of Andre Royo’s informant Bubbles, a heroine addict who’s attempts to get clean and find another life for himself offer some of the most melodramatic and affecting moments throughout the series, as well as some betterment in others lives from what they start out in the series.

Unlike the other police dramas of the time, such as the CSI franchise or long running stalwarts like Law and Order, The Wire wasn’t afraid to leave out some of it’s familiar cast members for most if not nearly all of some of a series run, nor was it a show that rushed to bring things to a head and reach a quick and satisfactory conclusion to a storyline, expanding and contracting character arcs and stories as it went along. It wasn’t a show that a glossed over life on the streets either, either through it’s language or showing the violent consequences to decisions made by characters, even if the levels of bloodshed are the norm for the cops on the show it never reaches a point where it becomes underplayed for the viewer. 

It’s also a series that wasn’t afraid of leaving off some plot developments off screen, leading to jumps in the ongoing story threads, and often during the progression of each series the seasons would change without much if any spoken reference to the passing of time between the previous wintry episode into the next episode bathed in springtime sunshine. These subtle changes to the norm for an episodic series meant it was important that the viewer really was paying attention to the dialogue between characters, which was capable of dropping in not just brief mentions of events that had occurred unseen but also snippets of information or viewpoints that would go onto become part of more prominent scenes and developments later on in the season or the series as a whole. 

A decade on the series is now deconstructed in university courses and held up as one of benchmarks of modern day TV series, and what it is possible to cover within their story lines, and one where there isn’t a series of victories or grand win for the good guys of the story. As one of the closing sequences in the final episode indicates the series is as much of looking at beneath the lid of a modern day big city and how things have gone wrong, and the cost across not just one part of society but many different locations and parts of that city and the systems in each are open to corruption and holding back real change as much as they could help provide it. It may not be the most uplifting viewing but it is a rich, multi layered viewing experience that is well worth the time spent on it and the questions it poses through the five seasons, and for the quality of the performances of the cast throughout. 

Farewell to the Dave Lane video blog…

So the time of working on the Dave Lane video diaries has come to an end with the decision to bring them to an end confirmed recently – and it’s going to be something that I will miss doing every month, or thereabouts as it has been for 7 years now. It’s one of those situations that doesn’t feel like as long a length of time as it has been, but nor does it feel like it’s radically shorter either, since the idea was first mooted in the fishing department at work, with Laney himself apparently a bit reluctant to start doing some vlogging of his carp catching adventures, but in the summer of 2013 armed with Dave’s DSLR and my basic but growing knowledge of Final Cut Pro X the very first Dave Lane video diaries video blog uploaded it’s way onto YouTube for the fishing public to take a look at a typical venture on the bank for Dave.

Of course it’s one of those situations where you look back and see how basic it was done back then as everyone tried to find their way as to what we were doing with the video blogs and develop them to get better. After 6 months or so of quick tinkering and experimenting between other design work a newer opening title sequence, with a new bridging card between scenes, made it’s debut on Laney’s videos:

These became the standard titles for Dave’s videos for nearly 3 years, save for the four part Secret Diaries series which ran throughout July 2016

The onset of Creative Cloud and it’s subscription system did at least allow for access to use and learn After Effects, which in turn helped develop brand new opening titles and bridging cards, with the addition of sourced intro music, to help push Dave’s videos more towards the pro standard we had hoped that they could be viewed as. 

One thing that was almost always against the editing of the videos was time – with my workplace consisting of several brands covering different areas of consumer interest, and the video blog not an actual money spinner, it wasn’t looked on by some as something that deserved or needed a lot of time allocated to it, hence why the developing of the title sequences was spread out over a series of weeks, if not months, from concept to completion.

There was also the fact that Dave was essentially a one man videoing machine out on the bank by himself – there was no production team, no second cameraman or sound recordist out there with him so what we got sent off Dave was literally as much as he could do with the equipment he had to hand. Sound editing was something that was always an issue on these blogs, I’m not sure there was one in the entire series that didn’t involve me removing some noises, doing some extra mixing in of background lake noises, boosting Dave’s voice as much as possible. 
One of the more constant audio issues that we had, much to the chagrin of everyone involved and Dave’s viewers on the YouTube channel, was needing to dull down the sound of planes flying overhead which were a constant issue on one of the lakes he fished on, given the frequency they flew over there was only a short filming window during each day at that lake and limitations as to what technology can achieve!

We did buy Dave a microphone at what would’ve been the midpoint of the vlog series but often he wouldn’t have it on, either due to forgetting or it running out of charge or issues with pairing it with his camera, a little something that improved the audio quality by some way when it was used, and to allow some better nighttime recording Dave did get hold of some lights to set up to do pieces to camera when he did land a carp in the midst of night. 

There were always ideas as we went along on how to progress and add to the content of the videos – a couple of times I had asked if it was possible when Dave was doing some other promotional filming with a company that had a drone if they could get a couple of sweeping/overhead shots of Dave casting out over the lake to use in the opening titles, and earlier this year I had spoken to Dave and he’d planned to do more cutaways to explain the various bait, tackle and equipment he was using on that particular swim, more special casting shots, as well as continuing to add extra little illustrations or video clips to the opening sequence which had been subtly added to since it’s most current design was first used.

Unfortunately none of this was to come to pass, which although there is a body of video work there that I think we can all look back and be happy with, is still a little frustrating that some of the things we hoped to do or had asked to for to improve the video blogs ultimately never came to pass. 

The video blog was always something I had looked forward to putting together, even as someone who’s never been fishing, and never wanted to or been interested in fishing I have to say it was an enjoyable time editing the videos together and seeing Dave’s various adventures through the years. It’s quite fun too recollect some of what has gone on in those videos over the years, Dave landing some big catches, some small ones, falling in the lake at least once (which seemed popular with some viewers!), seen the passing of his long time canine companion Padwar and the introduction of his new one Maddy, a few fishing socials that needed more than one or two uses of the bleep button and blurring of naked body parts, journeys to France and fishing shows, a lot of cooking tips and all manner of British weather that help or hindered Laney along the way, Storm Ciara being one such example earlier this year. 

There were a few occasions when due to the lack of fish the vlog almost turned from a fishing video to a cookery show, even if some of the food prep probably left a bit to be desired in terms of health and safety, and there was also the memorable occasion when Dave cast a GoPro into the lake to see what was under the surface, something that helped inspire two new fishing products for the company.

Even as a non fisherman it was hard to feel anything but made up for Dave when he finally caught the Burghfield 55lb carp affectionally named Colin, as documented in the aforementioned Secret Diaries series above, (eagle eyed long time vlog watchers will have spotted that Dave is holding that carp in the final section of the opening sequence) with the elation in his voice apparently for everyone to hear as he excitedly called his wife to say he’d finally accomplished one of his carp fishing big catches, indicated by his bellowing of “COLINNNNNNN” across the lake, matched by the sense of achievement that spilled over in his emails when he sent over the footage of that session to be edited together for the final episode of the Secret Diaries mini series! 

Inevitably things come to an end, and it is one of those regular jobs that I will genuinely miss. It’s one of those points where you look back at something that was enjoyable to do, not only from the standpoint that it allowed me to learn and develop video editing and animation skills in a couple of programmes, but also looking forward to getting the next session videos through and whether they would entail a lot of catching, cooking or general Laney musing on the state of that lake and what he’s had to do to try and get that next catch in.

Undoubtedly Dave’s fishing adventures will continue, with any opportunity taken to get out there Maddy at the side of a swim awaiting the bite alarm to go off signalling another potential catch, and it’s been a pleasure to have been a part of those carp journeys for the last several years even if just at the other end of the production line.

Tightlines Dave. 

Film thoughts – Knives Out

Given that fan and critical reaction to The Last Jedi was mixed, if not polarising on either side of the debate, calling your next film Knives Out might be perceived as a tongue in cheek wink at those critics and fans who couldn’t take to the inversion of expected story points that Ryan Johnson did on the follow up to The Force Awakens, if it wasn’t for the fact that the story has in fact been brewing for several years now.

Rather than adapt one of Agatha Christie’s stories, or attempt another take on Poirot or even a newer version of Columbo or any other established detective, Johnson has instead opted to weave his own murder mystery plot and create a crime busting sleuth of his own to solve the crime. Although there is no updating of an older or familiar story,Knives Out is set in the present day, and does feature some familiar tropes of the genre – the large country house, a wealthy family matriarch, a family brought together with their individual divisions and angsts held back for the sake of a birthday celebration and a detective brought into their midst to solve the murder around which the plot revolves.

Something that becomes apparent soon on in the film is that it has been put together by someone with a love of the murder mystery stories and films tat have kept people guessing, before being shocked or bewildered at the finale or intrigued by the methodical unravelling of the case by the ace sleuth that cracks the case again, and for the first half of it’s run time Johnson enjoys ratcheting up the pressure around the possible suspects in the Thrombey family. Minor personality irritants and shaky recollections appear virtually from the start of the investigation,

It feels a slight pity then that the second half of the story contracts more to focus on various family members attempts to influence events that suddenly start to swirl out of their control – that isn’t to say that there aren’t any more nicely observed moments of humour or surprise yet to come. As the story starts to twist once more it becomes vital that you do care about some of the characters or at least have a vested interest and enjoyment when they are on screen and Rian Johnson manages this with the cast, managing to balance up enough scenes and moments for the cast to each make their own mark on the film without any getting lost along the way. It is to his well put together ensemble that the film hangs upon and fortunately it finds all of them delivering performances which carry the film through it’s moments of misdirection and humour.

Whilst Knives Out has brought together a stellar ensemble cast, it’s another thing to use that well and bring out the performances like Johnson has done here – from Michael Shannon’s trademark brooding intensity alongside more reflective moments, to Jamie Lee Curtis’ no bull Thrombey daughter coupled with Don Johnson, Toni Colette’s free spirited financially carefree lifestyle guru and later on Chris Evan’s spoilt playboy grandson to pick out the main players in the story. Moreover it looks like the entire cast is enjoying throwing off the impressions left by their most recent roles, most notably Daniel Craig who looks to be hugely enjoying himself crafting a brand new character, one that’s a world away from the Bond series, with his blue eyed stare used several times effectively for close up interrogation shots paired with a Kentucky accented drawl that is almost questioning the audience as much as his suspect. He can’t fully escape the world of Bond however, with the film’s main protagonist played by soon to be Bond co-star Ana de Armas, here featuring as Harlan’s nurse and confidant with the somewhat unique trait of being unable to tell a lie without vomiting, a neat if queasy upgrade on the proverbial human lie detector personality facet.

There’s more than able support from the rest of the cast as the mystery is developed at a fair pace, the layout of the house with it’s genre friendly creaking staircase, the sequence of events in the party the night before viewed through several contradictory viewpoints of those who might have more to hide or lose than others, all with the watchful elder eye of the grandmother by the window who will near inevitably know something that can help unlock the truth of events.

Whether Knives Out is ever considered in the lofty echelons of the murder mystery genre or not, it has been undeniably put together both in terms of script, setting and the actual film by someone with a genuine care and love for those films. It’s one thing getting well known actors into the roles, it’s another to make the most of them in those roles without feeling that any one or two are overshadowing the others and it’s a balance that’s achieved well by Rian Johnson’s script and direction, which also makes sure that there is a genuine sense of pathos for those who end up in the worst situations despite the likelihood of their innocence. Serving a timely reminder that there is life beyond their signature roles to date for Chris Evans and Daniel Craig, Knives Out also offers a redemption of sorts for Rain Johnson for those who viewed The Last Jedi as something of a nadir in the Star Wars series, and for those who enjoyed that a sense of justification for him getting chosen to helm a blockbuster story of that size and importance. In a year that has seen more complaints about remakes and more sequels Knives Out would stand out as it is for being an original piece, but deserves mention, and much praise, for being a highly enjoyable and entertaining watch throughout and worthy or the pre-release hype.

Film thoughts – Terminator: Dark Fate

The logic used to go with Terminator films that you would be and to make one with Arnie in it, so strong was his association with the character that had helped propel him towards being one of the most bankable action stars available from the mid 80s onwards, however as the prologue of Terminator: Dark Fate suggests it may well be the case that it’s Linda Hamilton as Sarah Connor that the series has missed most.

It’s that opening scene that reminds of Sarah’s helplessness and horror of knowing about a nuclear fate for mankind that seems impossible to prevent lifted from one of Sarah’s interviews in the psychiatric ward from Terminator 2: Judgement Day that firmly establishes this as a sequel to that film, with an opening scene that blends from the Skynet dominated future glimpsed in the first two films fades out into sunny serene beach scene. Enough time has passed to suggest that the human v machine war has been completely avoided only for two arrivals from the future to herald an entirely new battle to begin in a first act that sets off at a cracking pace, introducing both Mackenzie Davis’s future soldier Grace, an enhanced human, and Gabriel Luna’s Rev 9, which although it is essentially a T-800 Terminator combined with a T-1000 crucially isn’t either, instead given the designation of a Rev 9 created by the Legion software which has essentially replaced Skynet’s position in the future war to come. Both are wise choices of casting, with Davis’ lithe but powerful future warrior more than capable of holding her own in the physical battles in the story but also able to convincingly carry the human emotional sides of the character and her mission and Luna finally portraying an antagonist that carries a very real and deadly threat, moreso than the other adversaries that have featured since Robert Patrick’s T1000.

Noticeably one aspect of the script is how it handles its few comedic moments. Commenting on a deleted scene from Terminator 2 that showed Arnold’s T-800 trying to smile James Cameron observed that once you make the Terminator a figure of fun it ceases to be a threatening presence, something that was realised all too readily in some moments in Terminator 3 Rise of the Machines and moreso in Genisys and thankfully with Dark Fate where there are a few moments of light relief they are handled with much more subtlety and as a result much more effectively. It’s also an instalment that prefers to have occasional nods to the earlier films in the series rather than slavishly recreate some of the more memorable moments and shots that will be familiar to long term fans. It does share the same broad basic storyline as the first Terminator film, unsurprisingly given this is another attempt to kick start a Terminator trilogy after Salvation and Genisys failed to do so, with Natalia Reyes’s Daniella “Dani” Ramos the target for termination, and like David and Luna is another good casting choice, even if she is essentially following the template for Sarah Connor established in the very first film, albeit this time as an automobile factory worker rather than a waitress.

It’s this mission of protect/terminate that leads to the encounter with Sarah Connor, at this point having disposed of several Terminators off screen in the intervening years, has seemingly gotten better at it, more battle hardened but yet crucially hasn’t lost a sense of empathy or emotion as she so nearly did in the encounter with Miles Dyson in T2. Her and Davis repeatedly clash over the best way to protect Dani, both of them with knowledge and experience they think can gain the upper advantage over the other which is tempted at the same time by a sense of distrust over the motivations and history each of them has.

Though the mid section of the film is essentially an echo of the escape/get away from the cyborg pursuer/end up having to face said pursuer down format that was prevalent in both the first two films, more prevalently in the first, it’s at the point that Schwarzenegger is reintroduced to the fray that things start to feel like they’re going slightly awry. The time travel machinations and their repercussions are dealt with with a verbal wave of the hand, those who found Genisys’ use of time travel and it’s cause/effect and nexus points too much will be glad to know, but it’s a point in the story where the logic of the plot does feel stretched and ends up with the audience asking more points and questions than it really should do as a result of some of the later developments.

One aspect of the first two films, and the third as well in fairness, was that the action was kept within the bounds of grounded realism and never felt like it went bigger, louder and more spectacular for the sake of it – Salvation broke that to an extent with it’s giant Terminator units (and the less said about the moto-terminators probably the better), whereas Genisys went several steps further especially with a bus smash that seemed barely survivable even for Arnie’s lightly battered T800. Dark Fate looks to one up that with a plane sequence that damn near rips an escape plan right out of the A-Team remake, going again for spectacle over something smaller scale that might have made more sense and more likely to be achievable in the real world. Tim Miller certainly isn’t a newcomer to action and handled that aspect of Deadpool well (as well as others) and does again here, the Davies/Rev 9 face offs in particular being well handled, like wise an early vehicle chase sequence, although the use of CGI turns out to be surprisingly shoddy in some places, with some renderings outshone by the mix of practical and CGI effects that were used in T2 nearly 30 years ago, which for a film with a budget heading up towards the 200 million dollar range is at best shoddy, at worst unforgivable for what is aiming to be a tentpole summer sci fi action blockbuster.

For the most part Terminator: Dark Fate does, if not living up to the first two films in the series, at least serve as a worthy follow up to them and at the very least easily betters Genisys and avoids some of the pitfalls experienced by other sequels post T2. It is a shame though that by taking the path it does and with the story it creates that the future world which was only tantalisingly glimpsed in the first two Terminator outings has been cast off into the cinematic ether, particularly as there was much left to tell, such as the rest of John Connor’s story and how despite Reese insisting the war was won before he travelled back in time something must have happened past that moment of departure for more Terminators to be sent back.

Whether this latest attempt to kick start the franchise does enough to generate interest in more sequels is up in the air somewhat, especially with Genisys still relatively recent in cinemagoers memories – though Dark Fate is undoubtedly a step up from that effort – and it’s failure to deliver the sequel fans will have wanted. Rating more at the same level as Rise of the Machines, Dark Fate does at least for the first half deliver some well worked action scenes and shows what the series has missed since T2 with the returning Linda Hamilton rightly back as one of the central figures and still more than capable of delivering in the action and emotional scenes throughout.

Film thoughts – Joker

When DC and Warners decided that their cinematic universe would be better off going down the solo movie route, abandoning for now any plans for big crossovers in the style of Marvel’s massive interconnected MCU, it’s unlikely they envisioned that they would end up in with the style of one off film that they have gotten with Joker. Particularly after Zack Snyder’s dark and brooding visual style that began that universe with Man of Steel then permeated deeper into Batman v Superman and his original vision for Justice League

Throughout his history the Joker has never really had a definitive backstory and creating one for him was always going to prove a difficult proposition especially to long standing fans, given his take on his own past has always been shrouded by his own lies about his circumstances and become one of the main facets of his character, with the 1989 Batman film’s use of a backstory for the villain not an overly popular decision. One immediately notable step that has been taken to place this iteration of the Joker out on his own from the recent DC crop of films is to set the film in 1981 (never explicitly specified on screen but referenced in the pre-release material) and in a Gotham city that’s sense of desperation, dirt and grime almost feels like it is ready to seep out of the screen. If Nolan’s Batman trilogy was a realistic bordering on hyper-real take at times at least there was a sense of some prosperity and hope in his Gotham city, but here moreso than any other version of the city that has been put onto the screen, this is a Gotham that feels completely real and in dire in need of hope for it’s inhabitants and the start of a restoration of the city itself, inundated with rubbish due to a binman strike. 

This real to life grounding of Gotham that helps shape the character of the man that would be the Joker, the clown for hire comedy hopefully that is Arthur Fleck. From the start Fleck is marked out as something of a loner and outcast, whether it’s amongst his fellow clown entertainment for hire group, or in his life outside of work, living in a small flat with his unwell mother with a fixation on his neighbour (Zazie Beetz’s Sophie Dumond) and thanks to Joaquin Phoenix’s physical transformation that rivals that of Christian Bale’s in The Machinist, is almost a human representation of the ever decaying nature of the city that surrounds him. Suffering from Pseudobulbar Affect which causes episodes of uncontrollable laughter, his one escape from his world and caring for his mother is that of comedy, trying to construct enough of a routine in a notebook to perform at comedy club open nights, and his hero worship of talkshow host Murray Franklin, the first echo of influences by past Robert De Niro/Martin Scorcese collaborations, with Franklin portrayed by De Niro, who Fleck dreams about one day appearing with and visualising him almost as a, empathetic, encouraging father figure he never had. 

What follows on from that opening is clearly influenced by another of De Niro/Scorcese’s classic team ups Taxi Driver, as the story becomes a slow, harrowing, dark and in several brief moments brutal story of a loner on the fringes of society’s descent into a dark personal world as the world around him slowly beings to take away more and more of the few hopes and stability he has left around, pushing him further towards a point of self destruction. All of which hinges on a performance by Phoenix that ranks as one of his career best, creating a character that at first is very much an empathetic protagonist, before events and circumstance turn him into something much more dangerous and driven by rage and anger.

Though presented as a stand alone effort there are ties to the wider Batman world that could yet be followed upon, with Brett Cullen’s Thomas Wayne interestingly being presented in a much less sympathetic way than in any previous outings, as well as cameos for a young Bruce Wayne and Alfred, with Arkham Asylum also featuring throughout. Although a part of the comic book film genre this is certainly not a film for younger viewers – although the violence that plays out as the story progresses might be sporadic it is presented in a brutal manner, particularly in the beatings that Arthur takes in the early scenes and soon afterwards on a subway train, acts that are presented as part of the reasons for Fleck’s transformation into the full Joker personality. 

There is a clear intent by Todd Philips and Scott Silver’s script to bring the issue of mental health and the effects of a society that is increasingly geared towards enabling the rich and the wealthy over those who need help the most, echoing current day issues of cutbacks to mental health services and support and the impact that has, and the repercussions misdiagnosing and mistreating mental illness can have, as it does with Arthur. There are further revelations that come together to further take Flecks’ world apart and unbalance him mentally, but despite the best of intentions there is perhaps a valid criticism to be made about how the film does handle Fleck’s mental health and the ends he is driven to. 

There are echoes back to The Dark Knight through some moments of Hildur Guðnadóttir’s score, particularly in it’s quieter more classical moments that mirror the unsettling tones used for Heath Ledger’s definitive Joker, and one particular shot that almost matches one used by Nolan. Mention should also be made for the visual look given to the film by Lawrence Sher’s cinematography although questions should be asked about whoever made the decision to include a song by Gary Glitter on the film’s soundtrack. 

More character study than a comic book adaption or adaptation, It is hard to escape the feeling that Joker is perhaps too derivative of Taxi Driver and not at the masterpiece level that film found, despite it’s similarly violent and disturbing plot points. Despite that though, Joker is a powerful watch that does stay with you after watching it, especially for some of it’s more impactful scenes and parallels to modern day social and mental issues and encouraging debate about them afterwards, raised to a higher level than it perhaps might have been due to the engrossing performance of it’s lead. 

Film thoughts – Angel Has Fallen

It almost seems disingenuous to talk about the next Die Hard when the original series is still going on, six instalments and counting, but the Fallen series starring Gerard Butler’s secret service Mike Banning has been one of those mentioned as a potential successor, more because of the same guy having a really bad day situation than the actual quality of the films themselves. Angel Has Fallen does continue that tradition with Banning thrown right into the midst of a conspiracy to kill the president, this time played by Morgan Freeman, finding himself framed for the assassination attempt which leaves president Trumbull in a coma unable to exonerate him and Banning, suffering migraines and back pain as a result of the previous two films escapades, under arrest and subsequently on the run from the FBI.

Subtly isn’t one of Angel Has Fallen’s bywords, both in terms in aural terms with director Ric Roman Waugh turning any explosion in this film up to 11, and the film practically signposting its antagonists practically from the get go. That Danny Huston’s Wade Jennings, a former colleague now the leader of technological company Salient Global, is one of the architect’s of Banning’s troubles, helping to frame him for the attempt on the president’s life is practically signposted early on and revealed in fairly quick time, with one of the other main players in the plot pretty easy to deduce as well. Having set up the key players where they need to be and what they’re aiming to do the midst of the film is much more of a cat and mouse game as both Jennings’ men and FBI Agent’s Helen Thompson and Jospeh Ramirez (a largely underutilised Jada Pinkett Smith and Joseph Millson) pursue Banning and start to untangle the conspiracy around the attempt on the president’s life, as Jenning’s co-conspirator begins a bid for presidential power in the White House itself. 

Things are given something of a off-kilter turn with the introduction of Nick Nolte as Banning’s father – a former tunnel rat in Vietnam, Nolte hasn’t so much given the character a quirky edge so much as am eccentric bordering on conspiracy theorist, living alone as he is in a lodge in the forest with enough buried explosives to give the sound mixer a fun time in the editing suite. The involvement of his father is an a attempt to make this third outing feel more personal, with his own family at risk and the main threat against him coming from a former friend practically family member in Wade Jennings, and gives Butler something different to work with, filling in a little more of his own family background and helping round out his character some more rather than him just being a dependable action star. Opposite him it’s the sort of role we know Danny Huston can easily do, stepping in in this case for Holt McCallany, and evokes comparison with the role of William Stryker he portrayed in Wolverine: Origins, spending most of his time as a schemer to the travails that Banning goes through rather than being involved in several physical confrontations with him. 

Whilst it does make for a more fun viewing experience from the halfway point, particularly with the appearance of Nolte and seeing him let loose on any henchman that crosses his path, it’s a pity that for the most part Angel Has Fallen won’t live long in the memory afterwards, either as a whole or for its action sequences. There is at least a real kicker of a mid credits scene that’s worth sticking around for, but despite the action hero reliability of its star Angel Has Fallen wastes several actors that it could have made better use of. A competent rather than spectacular entry to the action film genre, whether it bests the two previous instalments is arguable, and whether Gerard Butler can go on to best the number of bad days Bruce Willis has had to date.

Finally conquering an Insanity workout!

Finally! After several years it’s a very happy and proud moment to have finally pushed through one of Shaun T’s Insanity workouts without an unscheduled break! Almost didn’t do it but as the saying goes dug deep and got through the Cardio Power & Resistance workout!

Wasn’t sure if it was possible but having Shaun T’s Instagram post where he did it after years of trying I did know it was possible, whether I’d actually do it, well there was always hope and determination but to finally do it, it is one of those proud of yourself moments.

Tabata strength – session done, break free!

That moment when you’re not sure if it’s the first time you’ve managed to get through an Insanity Max 30 routine without needing a break (turns out not!) but near certain that it’s the first time without stopping through the Tabata Strength workout with Shaun T and the gang!

Film thoughts – Hobbs & Shaw

It has gotten to the point now that surely anyone who walks into a Fast and the Furious film knows what they’re expecting and what they’re paying the price of their ticket for, and the spin off, potentially the first in a series to run alongside the main Fast and the Furious films, is no different. Clearly there are moments that are set up in a way to deliver audience pleasing comedic and action highlights for fans of either Johnson or Statham, the logic seems to be if you don’t like The Rock then don’t worry here’s a big moment for the Stath, if you don’t like Statham then he’s about to get outdone by the Rock in the next exchange in an ongoing exchange of verbal and physical one upmanship. 

The plot that sees these two brought together revolves around a programmable supervirus codenamed Snowflake, and it’s retrieval from the Eteon terrorist group, which counts Iris Elba’s cybernetically enhanced superhuman operative Brixton Lore amongst its numbers. There’s little time wasted in showcasing those physical abilities in the opening skirmishes against an MI6 team led by Vanessa Kirby’s Hattie Shaw, sister of Statham’s Deckard Shaw, trying and failing to retrieve the virus, culminating in Hattie injecting herself with the virus and being framed By Brixton for the other MI6 agent’s death, resulting in her going on the run. Tasked with finding and stopping the virus from falling into enemy hands Hobbs and Shaw are brought reluctantly to work together, and though Hobbs is successful in locating Hattie a subsequent attack on a CIA black spot sees Hobbs, Deckard and Hattie framed as traitors thanks to Brixton manipulating the global media thanks to the level of control Eteon possesses – leaving all three on the run not just Hattie.

Subtlety hasn’t exactly been a watchword of the Fast and Furious series so it shouldn’t be a surprise that Hobbs & Shaw is much more of the same and by this point there shouldn’t be any surprise as to what it promises and what it delivers. Though there is a lack of organised street racing and heavy dance tracks with dancing girls in front of souped up supercars in this this spin off, director David Leitch, having co-directed the first John Wick outing and subsequently Atomic Blonde and Deadpool 2, certainly doesn’t hold back or fall short in terms of the action sequences that keep the story moving from location to location throughout, with several highly kinetic well shot and sequenced vehicle chases and physical brawls between the fleeing trio and Elba’s superpowered pursuer. The story also keeps up with the Fast and Furious globetrotting tradition as the pursuit moves from London to Ukraine to Samoa, with the family motif from the last two Fast & Furious films in particular present here again for both Hobbs & Shaw, especially in terms of reconciliation and estrangement. 

Something that Hobbs & Shaw shares with Leitch’s previous directorial assignment Deadpool 2 is a long running time that overly stretches the story for what it is to the point where more prudent editing could’ve cut the film down to a shorter and better suited version (there are also three, count ‘em, mid-post credit scenes for those that still haven’t had their fill after over two hours). Well directed as the action scenes are there are some jarring uses of CGI that pull the viewer out of some moments, but credit should be given for balancing out the scenes with Hobbs & Shaw and for Vanessa Kirby’s performance as Hattie, and positioning her as more of a mental and physical match against both Johnson and Statham whilst Idris Elba looks like he’s enjoying himself, given time and range to bring a presence that poses more than a capable physical and mental challenge to the headline duo. Though it doesn’t match the better of the franchise’s films and might not do enough to win any new fans to the series, Hobbs & Shaw unapologetically is what it is and does deliver on the expected level of action and comedic asides that is expected from it, whether it does spawn future sequels might be another matter, but fit should provide more than enough satisfaction for fans of the series and casual action film fans looking for a pure action popcorn Saturday night movie.