Film review – X-Men: Dark Phoenix

Dark Phoenix

With Disney having taken over Twentieth Century Fox, giving Marvel Studios the rights to use the X-Men, Dark Phoenix will be the second-to-last film in Fox’s long-running X-Men franchise, assuming that The New Mutants actually ends up being released at some point. While there’s been more good than bad in this franchise, it’s experienced a lack of continuity that makes it hard to get fully invested from film to film: actors changing, the timeline going back and forth, powers and origins being inconsistent, characters not aging as they should, Mystique’s blue-form appearance changing between films because Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t like wearing the makeup, etc. After the disappointing X-Men: Apocalypse, I wasn’t particularly excited to see these particular versions of the X-Men come back one more time for Dark Phoenix. And indeed, the final film is nothing to get excited about.

It’s 1992, and after years of prejudice and distrust from the public and the government, the X-Men are finally receiving their due as heroes – a status that is reinforced at the beginning of the film, when they successfully rescue the crew of a disabled Space Shuttle. During the rescue, however, Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is exposed to a bombardment of strange cosmic energy; soon afterwards, she begins to exhibit uncontrollable surges of power, leaving her confused, angry and dangerous. When Jean flees the school, the other X-Men try to find and help her – but a party of aliens have arrived on Earth, seeking the energy inside Jean for their own purposes.

This is, of course, the second film in the franchise to try and tackle the famous Dark Phoenix storyline, after 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand. I’m not sure if this is a controversial opinion, but I preferred The Last Stand’s version. Granted, that one has plenty of problems too – check out the 90s animated series if you want to see a good version of the Dark Phoenix – but you could appreciate the stakes and how dangerous Jean had become; plus, it was the third film with that particular cast and after how good X-Men and X-2 were, we cared about them more. Dark Phoenix, on the other hand, feels too small and simplistic, not dissimilar to Apocalypse – and that film, by the way, didn’t provide much reason to care about the most recent cast.

The film starts out promisingly with its Shuttle rescue scene, as Jean, Cyclops, Storm, Nightcrawler and Quicksilver all get to make meaningful contributions to the mission. This is followed by some well-paced character development scenes; the treatment of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) has potential, as he gets swept up in the public’s positive perception of mutants and is accused of putting his students at risk for his own glory. Once Jean becomes the Phoenix, however, things go downhill. The second act is little more than Jean hopping from one place to another, pursued by the X-Men and the authorities, while we only get a vague idea of what the Phoenix energy is and what it’s doing to her. In terms of audience investment, it’s also a mistake to have some random aliens we’ve never met before be the main villains; it feels like an oversimplification of a story that has much more potential. Not to mention, Jessica Chastain is completely wasted as the lead alien.

One thing the film does get right is having the right number of mutants to focus on; there aren’t too many of them, and while a couple are put out of action halfway through, the rest continue to get their moments to shine. However, possibly in the knowledge that they’re done after this film, most of the actors – from James McAvoy to Jennifer Lawrence – simply aren’t trying very hard. Michael Fassbender as Magneto is the standout simply by effectively conveying genuine, subtle emotion when called upon to do so; though he also gets a scene where he’s straining to use his powers and has to demonstrate the effort by hamming it up with his mouth wide open, looking more silly than dramatic.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix is not a terrible film – it’s slightly better than Apocalypse, and certainly surpasses X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Nor is it a good film, however; it’s mildly entertaining, but no more than that. Now, let’s wait and see what Marvel Studios do with these characters. Rating: 2.5/5.

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Film review: Aladdin (2019)

Aladdin

I’m under no illusion that this live-action remake of the 1992 animated classic Aladdin is a film that needed to be made, or that the original needed improving upon in some way. It was made because, as demonstrated by Disney’s previous live-action remakes, people would pay a lot of money to see it, particularly people of my generation who were children when the original came out. As the film Network says, the world is a business. Yet I still paid money to see it myself, despite not expecting to love it as much as the original. Partly, I was interested to see just how it would compare, and partly, I went for the same reason I always go to the cinema – I simply hoped it would be a good experience. So, how was it?

When the film begins, it actually feels like it’s relying on the audience having already seen the original. (Have today’s children been properly versed in classic Disney by their parents? We can only hope.) Even though the whole thing is longer than the original by over half an hour, the beginning still feels rushed: Jafar is shown to have already found the Cave of Wonders – which is apparently a secret despite being out in the open, not that far from Agrabah – and when we are first introduced to Princess Jasmine, she is already out incognito in the marketplace, before we learn anything about her wanting to get out of the palace.

From there, however, things aren’t so bad: there are enough new and reworked scenes to make you feel like you’re not just watching a complete rehash, and the characters are revised a little too. While Mena Massoud’s Aladdin starts out as the classic lovable rogue, he’s initially very unsure of himself when he assumes the identity of Prince Ali, which is perhaps a more realistic approach. Naomi Scott’s Jasmine is given extra motivation for not wanting to pick a suitor – she feels she would be a perfectly good ruler in her own right – and she also has a handmaiden/best friend named Dalia (Nasim Pedrad) so she has someone to talk to besides her CGI tiger. Will Smith, to his credit, brings his own approach to the Genie rather than copying the late Robin Williams – though he does employ some of the same wacky, anachronistic humour – and gives a perfectly fun performance; he is also given a little agency of his own rather than purely having to support Aladdin.

One character who definitely doesn’t work here, however, is Marwan Kenzari’s Jafar: there is simply nothing intimidating about him – in fact, he barely even manages to be sinister. An expansion of his backstory and motivations serves only to make him appear petulant as he complains about his station. There’s also not much to establish his relationship with the Sultan (Navid Negahban), who seems a little more competent than his animated counterpart but doesn’t get much screentime to show it.

Unlike with Beauty and the Beast, the film doesn’t feel the need to fix many plot holes from the original or be especially blatant about it. Occasionally, it does make some scenes a little more logical: for example, Agrabah is turned into a coastal city rather than just sitting in the middle of the desert, and an explanation is given for why Jafar doesn’t immediately recognise Prince Ali as Aladdin. Yet at the same time, there are moments that make less sense. In the Cave of Wonders, for instance, Aladdin and Abu are warned not to touch anything besides the lamp, yet Abu does walk over various items of treasure without anything happening. And when the Cave is triggered and begins to fill with lava, it can’t be bothered to fill up all the way to eliminate the people inside, leaving mounds of treasure still intact by the time Aladdin first rubs the lamp and meets the Genie.

The familiar songs from the Aladdin soundtrack are all here, with the exception of Jafar’s ‘Prince Ali’ reprise (Jafar never sings at all in this film). I really enjoyed the music on its own: for every song, it seems to be given an extra bit of ‘oomph’. The actual singing is more of a mixed bag. Will Smith’s voice and style don’t seem an ideal fit for the likes of ‘Arabian Nights’ and ‘Prince Ali’ when he gets started; I did warm to his take eventually, but it takes a little time. Jasmine, meanwhile, is given a new solo number called ‘Speechless’, which sounds more like a generic pop single than something from a musical. (Remember when Jade Thirlwall from Little Mix was being considered to play Jasmine? Maybe that would have worked after all.)

I suppose nostalgia does form part of the appeal of these films, as I certainly found myself smiling fondly throughout the first act of this one, particularly when the songs started up. Unfortunately, this effect seemed to wear off as time went on and the film’s weaknesses became more apparent: I actually felt a little bored about halfway through, and I wasn’t really feeling some of the characters’ relationships, such as with Aladdin and the Genie. Overall, Aladdin was a nice time at the cinema, as I had hoped, but ‘nice’ is about as good as it got. Rating: 3/5.

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Adventures in America: My Highlights

I really love America. I’ve been on four proper holidays there (plus two stopovers), taking in thirteen different states – Florida, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Washington D.C., Delaware, California, Nevada, Arizona and Texas – and they’ve been some of the best holidays I’ve ever had. I loved the people; I loved the food; I loved the views on those long drives; and I loved the sheer variety of ways to enjoy yourself. I’ll be going back again soon, so today I thought I’d talk about some of the things I enjoyed the most from my past visits there.

KSC

Kennedy Space Center

I’ve been to Florida twice, once on a family holiday in 2007 and again on an organised tour in 2013. The two holidays covered the usual attractions, like SeaWorld, the Disney parks, and airboat rides in the wetlands. Then there were smaller moments, like my first meal at an American restaurant (Shoney’s) where I was pleasantly surprised by the waitress refilling my Coke without me asking, and getting the nerve to sing karaoke for the first time ever in a bar in the Florida Keys.

But the best part, of course, was the Kennedy Space Center.

Crawler

Saturn V 2

On the 2007 holiday, the KSP was the first place that my family and I went to after arrival; to determine the order, we all wrote down the place we most wanted to go and put them in a hat, and it was my choice that came out first. I was extremely excited on the drive to Cape Canaveral: just seeing the street names like Shepard Drive and Grissom Parkway got me excited, and that only increased when the massive Vehicle Assembly Building became visible in the distance. At the KSP itself, we took a bus tour which happened to pass by the Crawler, the vehicle used for transporting rockets to and from the launchpad; that was enormous, but there was bigger to come. When the bus arrived at the Apollo / Saturn V Center, we were shown inside the actual launch control firing room from the Apollo era; a simulation of the Apollo 8 launch was played, during which the windows behind us actually shook as if a Saturn V was really taking off at that moment. When that was over, we entered the adjacent hangar, containing mission patches hanging from the ceiling, Apollo spacecraft…and the Saturn V itself. I was truly awestruck by my first sight of that 111-metre rocket.

On my second visit in 2013, I saw a lot of the same things again, but there was more besides. Our tour group took part in Lunch With An Astronaut, where a real astronaut talks about their experiences and answers questions while you have your meal. Our astronaut was James F. Reilly, who flew on three Shuttle missions. I asked him how much room there is to move on the Shuttle itself, and he replied “Not much,” commenting that he liked to eat meals on the ceiling where he could find relative privacy. (And yes, somebody else asked how you go to the bathroom in space.)

Since my last visit, a new attraction had also been installed: the Shuttle Launch Experience. Having never been a fan of theme park rides, I wasn’t sure what to expect from this. Inside the simulator, we got into our seats, and were rotated so we were lying on our backs. Then liftoff commenced, and we spent a few minutes being thoroughly shaken while G-forces pressed down on our faces; finally, we “arrived” in orbit, and our seats tilted forwards slightly to simulate weightlessness. My kind of ride.

I definitely intend to go back to Kennedy Space Center, not least because Space Shuttle Atlantis has since been put on display there. And I would certainly love to see a real launch, though given that I don’t live in the United States, timing is difficult as these things are so often delayed.

Central Park 2

New York City

In 2009, I returned to America as part of an organised tour of the northeastern states. The tour started and ended in New York City, and I had a free day there at the start. After a hearty breakfast of pancakes which kept me going for practically the whole day, I took the bus from New Jersey to Manhattan.

New York 2

New York 3

I started off by wandering about in Central Park, which was full of dogs and runners, leading me to think that our dog would have enjoyed it there; I also recognised the fountain that appears in Home Alone 2 when Kevin runs away from Harry and Marv. Once I left the park, my original plan fell apart and I was unsure where to go. Part of this was because while Central Park is relatively peaceful, the rest of New York is overwhelming – so many people, so much traffic. Walking around was a slow process as there were so many street crossings I needed to stop at. Eventually, I got down to the subway system, where I travelled to the Museum of Natural History to admire the dinosaur skeletons. After that, I took in the landmarks: the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Times Square and the Empire State Building. I saw the Statue of Liberty from Battery Park, and bought a baseball cap from a street vendor, which continues to be my go-to running headwear to this day.

My big impression of New York City was that while it was nice to visit, I wouldn’t want to live there.

Lincoln

Washington D.C.

The day after my wander around New York, me and about a dozen others set off on the tour, heading first to Boston, then Niagara Falls. Some aspects of the tour were a bit difficult. We generally camped rather than staying in hotels, and it took me a few days to get used to that. While I got on well enough with everybody, I was the only person who wasn’t travelling as part of a pair, and I tended to be on a separate wavelength in terms of what I wanted to do. In Boston, I would have liked to have followed the Freedom Trail, but everybody else wanted to go and see the Cheers bar. However, there was a pleasant moment when we stopped for lunch at a green in a village called Herkimer. After eating, a few of the others started playing catch with a football, and I found myself getting up and joining the game. Throwing that football around, I felt much more involved than I had up to that point, and got more praise for my catching skills than I ever had playing sports at school.

In the late stages of the tour, we made it to Washington D.C. We first experienced the National Mall at night rather than during the day, and I was happy that we did because it made a big impression that way. It was awe-inspiring to see the memorials of Thomas Jefferson, Franklin D Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln when they were lit up in the dark and not too crowded; reading the quotes engraved on the walls, I could understand the pride and patriotism that these places inspire. Meanwhile, the Korean War Memorial, where statues of nineteen soldiers wearing ponchos stand in a rice paddy, looked positively eerie at night.

Korean

Air and Space 3

Air and Space

Returning in the daylight the following day, we had a better view of the familiar buildings surrounding the Mall, like the White House and the Capitol Building. We spent most of the day visiting the Smithsonian Museums, of which my favourite was the National Air and Space Museum. The entrance hall was exciting all on its own. On the floor were three separate spacecraft: Friendship 7, Gemini 4, and the Apollo 11 command module. Hanging from the ceiling were an X-15, the Bell X-1, SpaceShipOne, and the Spirit of St Louis.

Funnily enough, when we got back to New York, I killed some time by going to a nearby cinema and watching Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, which remains the only film I’ve seen in an American movie theatre.

Golden Gate

San Francisco

In 2012, I went all the way to the opposite side of America, to see what the West Coast had to offer. This was another tour, but this time everybody was travelling singly and I found it much easier to integrate with the group. Our arrival point was San Francisco: Kim, the tour guide, urged us to try and adjust to the local time right away no matter how tired we might feel, so several of us went for a walk around the pier. Feeling peckish, I headed for a pizza place and selected what looked to be one of the smaller options – but which turned out to be a huge Coke, and a “slice” equivalent to half of a standard pizza.

Despite following Kim’s advice, there was no escaping the jet-lag, and I was awake well before sunrise. At 6:30am, with some time to go before breakfast, I decided that I might as well go for a walk, the hotel being around Fisherman’s Wharf. What surprised me when I got outside was just how quiet it was; just the occasional car and jogger going past, and the barking of the sealions at Pier 39. Granted, it was early in the morning, but the atmosphere was still unexpected in a major American city. I warmed very quickly to San Francisco, even though the weather wasn’t actually warm until later in the day.

Golden Gate 2

Alcatraz

A coach tour took us around the city and across the Golden Gate Bridge, before we took a harbour cruise under the same bridge and around Alcatraz, making for some great photos. The afternoon wasn’t quite as productive, as we ended up taking a cable car and a trolley that both broke down.

Las Vegas (and the Grand Canyon)

The tour then headed down through Monterey, Los Angeles and Long Beach, where we took in Cannery Row, the Chinese Theatre, Universal Studios and the RMS Queen Mary – at which point, we headed east to Las Vegas. It had been a packed holiday, and by the time we crossed the border into Nevada (where some casinos are set up in the middle of the desert for lazy or hurried gamblers), I was low on energy. Vegas, however, quickly perked me up. It was just a really fun place to be. I was cautious with gambling, however: I won $18 on virtual roulette, but probably lost about the same amount.

Bellagio

At night, we saw the beautiful dancing fountains outside the Bellagio, then headed to what Kim called “the freak show”: Fremont Street. There were indeed plenty of freaks: a contortionist in a green body suit, doing mind-boggling things with a hoop and a box; a magician doing similarly mind-boggling things with coins, cards and ribbons; and lots of people walking around in cheap superhero and cartoon character costumes, charging for photos. There was also a free rock concert going on: three long-haired guys on vocals and guitars, a drummer, and two dancing girls, blaring out their tunes on a stage to one side. Even the canopy screen overhead had something to offer besides flashing adverts; at 10pm, we were treated to a short tribute to Queen, with colourful graphics above our heads to go with the music.

Las Vegas

The following afternoon, I visited the Titanic exhibition at the Luxor, which didn’t disappoint, apart from the fact that I couldn’t take pictures. As well as the various artefacts, there were recreations of cabins and the First Class Grand Staircase, plus a rather eerie promenade deck with a black star-speckled sky – and at the end, an actual piece of the Titanic raised from the wreck. That night, I headed up the observation tower of our hotel, the Stratosphere, to admire the view: a carpet of lights, with the Strip and its collection of towering casinos the crowning glory of it all. I said to one of the security guards, “You don’t have a bad job, do you?” He concurred.

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon 2

Early in the morning, we flew in a small plane to Arizona (with a view of Hoover Dam along the way), to see the Grand Canyon. We got some spectacular views from the plane itself, and upon landing, we visited two excellent observation points. Eating a packed breakfast while sitting on a bench overlooking the Canyon vista was a lovely experience. Flying back to Las Vegas in severe turbulence, not so much. If I ever return to the Grand Canyon, I think I’ll drive.

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Film review – Avengers: Endgame

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(No spoilers for this film, though I’m assuming that if you’re planning on watching it, you’ve already seen Infinity War.)

It’s been almost eleven years since Iron Man was released and kicked off the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Now Avengers: Endgame is the twenty-second film in that universe, bringing the Infinity Saga to a close. I was reading this summary article by BBC News when it really hit me just how impressive this is: one franchise, twenty-two films, a total box office in the billions. It’s incredible, an insanely successful long game, and the film industry will probably never see anything like it again. Not that the MCU is signing off altogether with Endgame, of course. But for many of the story arcs and characters we’ve been following all these years, this is the end of the road. And what an ending it is.

Having booked my cinema ticket for Sunday, in anticipation of screenings being sold out, I had a long wait till the end of the week while so many other people on social media gushed about how mind-blowing Endgame was, and how it was quite possibly the greatest superhero film of all time. This afternoon, I left the cinema with a big smile on my face, more than satisfied.

In simplest terms, the overall plot is what you would expect: with Thanos having gathered the Infinity Stones and destroyed half of all life in the universe at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, the surviving Avengers are now setting out to defeat him and undo what he has wrought. The obvious first step is to track Thanos down and get the Infinity Gauntlet off him – but of course, it’s not as simple as that, and this three-hour film requires the heroes to go on a much longer and more complicated journey to set things right. The story certainly succeeds in subverting audience expectations at multiple points, though unlike with The Last Jedi, every subversion results in a worthwhile payoff. Within the first fifteen minutes, Endgame left me feeling surprised and unsure how they were going to make a satisfying story from that point – but through the quality of the writing and the ideas employed, it comes off wonderfully.

The film definitely feels like a proper finale, in the same way that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did. The stakes are at their highest, and the heroes are fighting to recover from their ultimate low point. There are also a number of homages to the films that have come before, and unexpected appearances from a few characters we haven’t seen in a while. Naturally, the tone is very sombre and serious at first, with glimpses of how the whole world is dealing with the events of Infinity War; but eventually, more humourous moments do come along, and without feeling out of place. And the whole thing culminates in a truly epic climax.

But the action, while certainly good, isn’t really what’s important. It’s the characters we’ve come to know and love that really drive the film; and it’s because of how well-done they are, and how focussed the story is on their continuing development, that Endgame feels distinct from a traditional superhero film. Some characters, like Bruce Banner, have supporting roles without needing real arcs. And I was a little disappointed not to see more of Captain Marvel, the excuse being that she’s too busy dealing with problems in the rest of the universe. But the key players – Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Thor, Hawkeye and Black Widow – continue to develop through this film, and their personal journeys are enough to give the audience a real emotional hammering. Last year, I thought that Ant-Man and the Wasp felt small and underwhelming, coming immediately after the grandness of Infinity War. Now, after this battering of my senses and emotions, the upcoming Spider-Man: Far from Home is looking like a refreshment break.

As a finale to this chapter of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame delivers on every level, making full use of its run-time and feeling like a true epic. In my opinion, it’s the best film to come out of this fantastic franchise. As for whether it’s the best superhero film ever, I’d have to watch it again to judge properly, but it’s definitely somewhere in my top two. Rating: 5/5!

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Running Update: My Second 10K

Blackpool 10K

I last posted about running in December, and since then, I’ve continued to go out three times a week for most weeks. I’m definitely feeling the effects: I’ve both been losing weight and going significantly faster. In November, I completed my first 5K park run in 28:19; my sixth, on 13th April, was 24:13. I’m also better equipped, having gotten some new running gear for Christmas and a phone armband for my birthday, so I can track my progress on an app.

With this progress, I was eager to run another 10K after completing the Preston event last September, so I signed up for the Blackpool Festival of Running along with Chris, a friend from the local running club. With the UK having enjoyed such lovely weather over the Easter Bank Holiday weekend, I was hoping for conditions to be at least agreeable on the day of the run, but it was not to be. Rain was falling on-and-off, but worse than that was the wind, which was especially bad on the seafront and made us feel very cold. I elected to wear my jacket for the run.

The course was simple: we began by running south a short distance towards the North Pier, then turning north and following the lower promenade for just over 5 kilometres. This was a flat route, but the wind was blowing into our faces, though the rain held off for the most part. I was also trying to pace myself and not go too fast at the start, which had caused me to tire myself out on practice runs.

At Anchorsholme Park, we went uphill and turned back south, following the road back to where we started. Now the wind was partly behind me and partly trying to push me off the track. But now I’d gotten into my stride, and I felt much more energised than I had in the latter stages of the Preston 10K. According to my app, my fastest pace was during the last kilometre; it probably helped that most of it was downhill back to the promenade, but also that I could see the finish line from some distance away. Crossing the finish line, I was handed a bottle of water, a chocolate (which I couldn’t taste) and a particularly lovely medal.

My chip time – from crossing the start line to finishing – was 51:39, much better than the Preston 10K. And my love for running certainly isn’t fading, so I wonder how much faster I can get. Onwards and upwards!

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Hillsborough: 30 Years On

Last Monday, the fifteenth of April, saw the thirtieth anniversary of the Hillsborough disaster, when what should have been an enjoyable day out for thousands of football fans turned into a horrific and avoidable catastrophe that saw ninety-six people dead and 766 injured. After thirty years, the disaster is still prominent in the consciousness of the British public, not just for the devastating emotional impact it had at the time, but for the injustice and cover-ups that followed; the families of the victims have had to fight for a long time for the truth to be officially recognised, and the search for justice is not fully resolved even today.

On Saturday 15th April 1989, Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield – the home ground of Sheffield Wednesday F.C. – was acting as neutral ground for the FA Cup semi-final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. Due to fears of hooliganism, the opposing fans were to be kept well away from each other; the Liverpool fans, who were coming to Sheffield from the west, were allocated the North and West Stands of the stadium. As over 24,000 Liverpool fans arrived for the match, the stadium entrance at Leppings Lane was the only place where they could enter their allocated stands. 10,000 of them were headed for the standing terraces of the West Stand’s lower tier, and there were only seven turnstiles to handle those spectators. As the 3pm kick-off approached, thousands were still outside the turnstiles, anxious to get in, and the bottleneck of people was becoming overwhelming.

David Duckenfield, the police chief superintendent who was match commander for the day, determined not to delay the kick-off. Instead, he ordered that an exit gate bypassing the turnstiles be opened, in the hopes that this would relieve the pressure outside the ground. The gate was opened, and the crowd of fans flowed into the stadium. Past the turnstiles and gate, a single tunnel led to the West Stand’s central pens, 3 and 4, which were already full; if this tunnel had been closed off, the crowd could have been directed into the emptier side pens from outside. But it wasn’t, and little to no direction was provided; as a result, most of the crowd followed the natural route into Pens 3 and 4. Once inside, fencing prevented people from either moving sideways into adjacent pens or forwards onto the pitch – this was, again, an anti-hooliganism measure. As more and more people piled into the central pens, those at the front were trapped and crushed. Some managed to escape by climbing over the fence; others were pulled up and out by people in the upper tier. But they were the lucky ones.

The match kicked off on schedule at 3pm, but six minutes later, the referee called a halt as the seriousness of the West Stand situation became clear. The emergency response was hindered by the confusion, and lack of detailed communication on what was happening: the ambulances that arrived outside the stadium were held back by the police due to the perceived crowd issues, and only two eventually made it onto the pitch, while uninjured fans and St John Ambulance officers had to provide medical assistance in the meantime. Ultimately, ninety-four Liverpool fans died in the stadium or shortly afterwards; another died in hospital on 19th April, and one more victim was in a vegetative state until March 1993 when his treatment was withdrawn, bringing the final death toll to ninety-six. The youngest victim, Jon-Paul Gilhooley – a cousin of future Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard – was ten years old.

The disaster would have been tragic enough on its own, but what followed made things worse, as the police made efforts to cover up their mistakes by blaming the fans for what had happened. David Duckenfield, who had contributed to the crush by ordering the exit gate opened, reported that the unruly crowd had forced it open themselves. Further claims along these same lines were fed to the media: on 19th April, The Sun newspaper’s front page accused Liverpool fans of pickpocketing the dead while also attacking and urinating on police officers; this inspired a particular anger towards The Sun in Liverpool that continues to this day.

A subsequent inquiry into the disaster found that the police’s failure to control the situation was the main cause, and also gave recommendations to improve stadium safety, such as the removal of fencing and standing terraces at major stadiums. However, that was far from the end of the matter: the initial coroner’s inquest found the deaths to be accidental, while only considering what happened up to 3:15pm on the day, on the grounds that all victims were either dead or beyond any help by then. The victims’ families refused to accept this and spent many years campaigning against it.

After more than two decades, new coroner’s inquests were finally held. In April 2016, they reached their conclusion: the victims had been unlawfully killed, and the fans themselves bore no responsibility for what had happened. (The verdict was front-page news in most British newspapers – but conspiciously, not in The Sun.) Prosecutions of the people held responsible are still ongoing: earlier this month, David Duckenfield’s trial for 95 counts of manslaughter by gross negligence ended with the jury unable to reach a verdict.

If you would like to learn more, I recommend Phil Scraton’s book Hillsborough: The Truth, the most recent edition of which was published in 2016, after the results of the new inquests.

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Film review: Shazam!

Shazam!_theatrical_poster

It’s hard to be certain where Warner Bros’s DC Extended Universe – having produced more films rated rotten than fresh on Rotten Tomatoes thus far – is currently headed. For one thing, Warner Bros is apparently producing DC-based films that won’t be considered part of that universe, like the upcoming Joker solo film. While Shazam is technically part of the DCEU, it fits in with everything else in what I think is a good way: not too close, and not too far. It acknowledges the existence of Batman and Superman on multiple occasions, but doesn’t really tie in to specific events of the previous films. It’s free to be its own entity. And while it’s not perfect, it’s a reasonably entertaining experience.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a troubled teenage boy, recently placed in the latest of a long series of foster homes, and making no effort to fit in with anyone around him. Then one day, he is abruptly transported to another realm where a wizard (Djimon Hounsou) names him his champion; now, by saying the word ‘Shazam’, Billy transforms into an adult (Zachary Levi) with a variety of extraordinary powers, from super-strength to lightning bolts. While the immature Billy is not exactly the ideal choice to be champion, the wizard’s hand has been forced; Dr Sivana (Mark Strong), who was tested and rejected by the wizard as a child, has now acquired the power of seven demons called the Seven Deadly Sins, and threatens to wreak havoc on the world unless Billy can stop him.

The main problem I had with this film at the start is that in the first half, it feels like two different films squashed together. When Shazam kicks off, it’s pretty depressing: we have a prologue detailing Dr Sivana’s childhood and motivations, which features his father angrily calling him a “miserable, whining little s**t”; Billy being presented as an unhappy, self-centered child, lost by a mother who never came looking for him; and a foster family who aren’t very engaging at first. Then he is transformed into Shazam, and the previously humourless film suddenly becomes a goofy comedy in which he uses his new adult body to buy beer, and tests his powers in a montage set to Queen’s ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’. It’s uncomfortably jarring, especially when all the wackiness is interrupted by a scene from the previous film we were watching, where Sivana walks into a boardroom and violently slaughters everyone inside. (One unfortunate man gets his head non-graphically bitten off in a moment reminscent of Venom.)

By the time we get to the second half, however, more time has been spent on the lighter side of things, which helps to make up for what came before. The comedy is truly funny, helped a lot by Zachary Levi clearly enjoying himself as he plays a teenage boy in a grown man’s body, and a grown man with superpowers at that. I also became a lot more invested in Billy’s character growth, and his relationships with his foster siblings, as time went on. When Billy starts out as Shazam, he shows off and exploits his powers for his own gain, as you would expect from an egocentric teenager; it takes not only the appearance of a supervillain to make him learn the error of his ways, but some life lessons courtesy of his new family, who also become more likeable as the film goes on and they are developed more. While Mark Strong’s Dr Sivana starts out with an interesting motivation, I ultimately cared less about him and his generic demon allies than the character development between the good guys.

Overall, while Shazam suffers from not establishing its primary tone at the start, it features a lot more good than bad, and is a great deal of fun at its high points. Rating: 3.5/5.

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Blue Planet II Live in Concert

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Blue Planet II, the David Attenborough-narrated nature documentary on life in the oceans, was the most watched TV programme of 2017, with a peak audience of over 14 million viewers. As well as presenting fantastic footage of marine life, and raising awareness of conservation issues – most notably plastic pollution – the series was accompanied by an especially good musical score, created by one of my favourite film composers, Hans Zimmer. Yesterday, my dad and I headed to the M&S Bank Arena in Liverpool to experience that music in the form of a live concert, which is currently on tour across the UK.

The blue globe that appeared on the main screen before the show started was beautiful on its own, and gave us a good idea of what we were in for. Then the City of Prague Orchestra took their places onstage, and quickly launched into the programme’s opening theme, accompanied by vivid and dramatic clips. It felt truly epic, especially once the choir kicked in.

The show was fairly simple overall. Some of the best scenes from the series were shown on the screen with accompanying music from the orchestra: these included orca hunting herring in Norway, giant trevally leaping after young sooty terns, and a walrus mother and calf struggling to find an ice floe to rest on (a reminder of the effects of climate change). In-between clips, the host, Anita Rani, would come on stage and give some brief narration leading into each new clip.

The live performance, and the absence of Attenborough’s narration, certainly allowed us to appreciate the music even more than when it was on TV, as well as the spectacular wildlife footage it was complementing. Musical highlights for me included the surfing dolphins, the hopping Sally Lightfoot crabs, and the Portuguese man o’ war, whose theme was highly reminscent of the Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack (which Zimmer was a composer for). Overall, it was a really wonderful experience!

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Film review: Captain Marvel

Captain Marvel

There’s certainly been a lot of fuss on the Internet about Captain Marvel in the weeks and months leading up to the film’s release. Rotten Tomatoes was hit with so many negative ratings for the film – well before it had even been released – that the ability to leave pre-release comments on the website was disabled as a result. I’ve found it hard to understand all of the reasons for this negativity: whether it’s because there really are people who don’t like that it’s the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first female-led film, or because Brie Larson’s comments about wanting a more diverse press pool were misinterpreted as meaning she didn’t care about the opinions of white men, or because the character of Captain Marvel was being pushed too hard as the MCU’s next big thing. The main thing that mattered to me was whether the film was good or not. Happily, it is. In fact, I found it to be one of the strongest films in the MCU to date.

Taking place all the way back in 1995, the film begins with Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) – or Vers, as she is known – living among an alien race called the Kree. (This race of mostly blue warriors will already be familiar to those who watch Agents of SHIELD.) Armed with super strength and energy-blasting powers, but with only fragmented memories of her past life, she is a member of Starforce, a commando squad who play an important role in the Kree’s war against their mortal enemies, the shape-changing Skrulls. When a mission goes wrong, Vers is captured by the Skrulls, and her subsequent escape sees her crash-landing on Planet C-53, otherwise known as Earth. After meeting future SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers sets out to uncover the truth about her past on Earth – while also battling the Skrulls as they try to obtain a secret locked inside her head.

This film certainly follows the “Marvel formula” in that it contains pretty much everything we’ve come to expect from MCU films: action, humour, emotional moments, and a soul-seeking journey for the hero. But that’s not to say that Captain Marvel is stale – far from it. The film finds a good balance between its different elements: the action is very watchable and not overdone, and the humour is as effective as ever. Many of the best jokes come courtesy of a cat named Goose, and pointed reminders of how primitive 1990s technology was compared with today. And for all the familiar bits and pieces, the whole thing feels perfectly fresh, mostly thanks to the particular conflicts and character traits of Carol/Vers that propel the story. Although much of the audience will probably know more about Carol’s true identity than she does at the beginning of the film – and the central twist about halfway through isn’t that hard to see coming – that doesn’t take anything away from the experience of watching her fill in the blanks herself. I found Carol very easy to get behind, and by the end, I was really rooting for her to give her enemies a pounding.

Brie Larson has to take a lot of credit for making Carol/Vers such a great protagonist. She is able to show off a good range in the role: starting off as a self-assured soldier, she gradually becomes more emotionally vulnerable as her journey progresses, before finally coming out the other end as a hero that it’s a pleasure to watch. I enjoyed a lot of the small expressive moments in her performance, like how she smiles brightly and claps her hands after getting them out of restraints. Samuel L. Jackson gives what is probably his best performance in the MCU so far, as a more casual, less battle-hardened Nick Fury; he and Larson spend most of the film together and play off each other very well. Jude Law as Vers’s mentor Yon-Rogg, and Ben Mendelsohn as the Skrull general Talos, also give enjoyable performances. Clark Gregg finally gets to re-appear in the films as Agent Phil Coulson, though he doesn’t get very much screentime.

In conclusion, Captain Marvel is fun and engaging from beginning to end, with just about everything that a fan of superhero films could want, and I look forward to seeing where the franchise is going to take Carol Danvers from here. Rating: 4.5/5.

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Crew Dragon: The First Test Flight

Since the Space Shuttle program ended in July 2011, the United States has had no way to get its astronauts into Earth orbit besides paying for seats on the Russian Soyuz. In fact, when Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital spaceplane VSS Unity reached an altitude of 51.4 miles in December 2018, it was technically the first U.S. spaceflight since the last Space Shuttle mission – and that’s only if you accept the U.S. Air Force’s official definition of space as beginning at an altitude of 50 miles (other countries define it as 100 kilometres, or 62 miles). But this year, one or two new means for astronauts to reach the International Space Station will hopefully be opened up – and early this Saturday, SpaceX is planning to take a big step towards that goal by launching an unmanned Crew Dragon on its first test flight into space.

With NASA still busy developing its own Orion spacecraft, the agency has been providing funding for external companies to develop their own spacecraft and service the ISS. Currently in the lead is SpaceX, which has been launching Dragon cargo spacecraft to the ISS since 2012; it is the upgraded model, the Crew Dragon, which is intended to carry astronauts. Meanwhile, Boeing are currently developing the CST-100 Starliner, whose first unmanned test is scheduled for April of this year.

The Crew Dragon will be launched by the Falcon 9, SpaceX’s reusable rocket which has already proven itself time and time again. Assuming that the spacecraft makes it to orbit safely, it will dock directly with the ISS (as opposed to previous Dragons, which were captured manually by the station’s robotic arm) and deliver cargo, before returning to Earth just short of a week later. If this flight is a success, the next step will be for SpaceX to test the abort system in flight, to ensure that astronauts can escape if anything goes wrong during launch (as occurred with the Soyuz back in October). After that, the Crew Dragon will finally carry astronauts – Space Shuttle veterans Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – in a flight currently pencilled in for July.

The Demonstration Mission 1 launch from Cape Canaveral is presently scheduled for Saturday 2nd March at 2:48am Eastern Time – pretty amenable for European viewers if you don’t mind getting up early on a Saturday, which I always do anyway. Here’s hoping for a good flight!

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