November was a tough month for many, so I was thankful for all the movies, music, and literature present on this month’s edition of The Good Bits to remind me that it’s not all bad all the time.
Metallica, Hardwired…to Self-Destruct (Blackened)
Released: November 18th 2016
Where do you even start with reviewing something as massive as a new Metallica album, let alone a double album? It’s one of the most highly anticipated albums of the year for music in general, not just metalheads. Fans and ex-fans alike rejoiced when they heard “Hardwired” and were blown away by how great it sounded. People who dismissed them for years were suddenly hopeful for a return to form for the band. The result? Hardwired…to Self-Destruct is a great modern Metallica album. And that makes this fan very happy.
If you read my retrospective of 2008’s Death Magnetic, you’ll remember my assessment that the album’s biggest flaw was how it tried to emulate 80’s Metallica just a little too much, from album format to song structure. This is not at all a problem on Hardwired as the band sound way more natural with songs that progress organically and less constructed to fit a template. “Hardwired” kicks everything off with the perfect one-two punch to get you hyped about the rest of the album. The whole first disc is solid, with “Halo On Fire” and “Now That We’re Dead” standing out as favorite. What’s more, you can tell that everyone in the band showed up to kick this album into high gear. The second disc is good too, though some of the songs seem a cut below those of the preceding disc. But then “Murder One” and “Spit Out The Bone” wrap up the album in furious Metallica fashion.
Was a double album necessary? Maybe not. It could have just been the whole first disc and then the last two tracks to form a solid eight track album. That said, I don’t think the other songs hurt the album overall and maybe they’ll grow on me more after a few listens. Either way, the bulk of Hardwired…to Self-Destruct‘s enjoyment stems from simply being a great, exciting new Metallica release. It feels like their natural destination after such a long and storied career. Plus, with everything else that’s happened this year, we deserve something as special as a new Metallica album.
ONI, Ironshore (Metal Blade)
Released: November 25th, 2016
Technical ability can only take you so far nowadays in metal. What good are crazy time signatures and shit hot guitar solos if your band just comes off as boring? It’s a trap many newer bands fall into that ONI managed to avoid on their debut album. You can tell right away on the opener “Barn Burner” that the band has some serious chops, but when you get to “Eternal Recurrence” the sound opens up, revealing a band that sounds less like Meshuggah or The Faceless and more like Dream Theater with harsh vocals. I was surprised to hear more than a few clean, hooky choruses in between guitar wizardry (and bass wizardry too, Chase Bryant is a goddamn madman).
The album keeps it to nine tight tracks that lasts long enough for you to drink your fill of prog metal bedazzlement. The eleven minute “The Science” was over in a flash for me and proves that ONI know how to write long songs with getting top masturbatory. There are many bands that I’ve been saying telling people to watch for on this blog, and these guys are high up on that list. If you need more convincing, this debut album features Randy Blythe (Lamb of God) as a guest vocalist. That’s how you know you’re doing it right.
Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams)
Director: Scott Derrickson
Released: November 4th, 2016
The term franchise fatigue has been thrown around a lot regarding the seemingly never-ending line of superhero movies heading our way. Sure, we’re done with them for the remainder of 2016, but between DC and Marvel we’ve got six movies heading our way in 2017. In the meantime, we’ll be endlessly assaulted with trailers, breakdowns of trailers, trailer stills, you name it. As a result, while I enjoy this superhero film renaissance, it can get a bit tiring. Luckily, Doctor Strange provides a dash of invigoration for the genre, providing a new character with an origin story that goes by-the-numbers in some aspects, but makes plenty of room for new, mind-bending thrills.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: yes, Benedict Cumberbatch is a bit overexposed at this point and his inclusion in the MCU means we’ll be seeing a lot more of him. That said, even my fiancée, who was skeptical of Doctor Strange before viewing, couldn’t deny the charm and gravitas Cumberbatch brought to the role, moving from cocky jerk to ruined surgeon to hero. The supporting cast is great too: Chiwetel Ejiofor has a great turn as Mordo and hints a his character’s morally gray development in the future; Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius manages to be more than just a one-note villain; Tilda Swinton is excellent as The Ancient One, although I understand the casting controversy might make some viewers less enthralled with her performance. The only one who is so-so is Rachel McAdams, but that’s less because of her acting ability and more because it feels like she’s only there to fill the love interest role.
By now, you’ve likely seen and/or heard about this film’s up-and-front use of special affects, and I can assure you they’re nothing short of spectacular. I saw the film in 3D, and while I think the film is great no matter what format it’s viewed in, you get just a little bit more out of the effects when they’re popping out at you. What’s more, the film’s thorough usage of trippy CGI sequences was never too overwhelming, always toying with the viewer just the right amount before backing off. The film also contains one of the best action set pieces of the entire MCU in its finale, ranking up there with the Daredevil hallway scene under the category of “How the hell did they do that?!”
While Doctor Strange does present us with yet another origin story and its familiar beats, the film gets them out of the way quickly and efficiently enough that we get an effective introduction to the Sorcerer Supreme while taking in a new layer added to the MCU that mixes the status quo up a bit, leaving the franchise with fascinating potential. If nothing else, see it for the Cloak of Levitation. Best cloak ever.
Central Intelligence (Kevin Hart, Dwayne Johnson)
Director: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Released: June 17th 2016
File this one under “Potentially Dumb Comedy Better Than Expected.” Action-comedy buddy movies are a tried and true formula, but sometimes you can’t help getting that “seen one, seen ’em all” feeling when you spot a new trailer. Then again, not every one of those movies features Dwayne Johnson, whose mere presence in a film boosts its chances of being good by at least 25%, sometimes more depending on how much screen time he has. Combine him with Kevin Hart as the straight man and you get a film that’s somewhat predictable, but the star power yields enough laughs to entertain you on a night in where you have absolutely have no idea what to watch.
The film also touches on the subject of bullying, depicting a teenage version of Johnson’s character Bob Stone as a fat kid who is mercilessly picked on at school but is shown sympathy by star student Calvin (Hart). While comedies aren’t meant to be downers, I wouldn’t have minded if the film tried to touch on bullying just a bit more. But, as it stands, you have a solid pair of actors with good chemistry and a fast paced plot. You know what you’re gonna get before you got in, but you’ll have a good time anyway.
Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
About this same time a year ago, I’d just finished reading the The Way of Kings, the first in Brandon Sanderson’s series of cinderblock-sized epic fantasy novels dubbed The Stormlight Archive. And I loved it. I wasn’t sure how Sanderson could get better than his Mistborn trilogy, but that first book drew me into a unique world full of endearing characters, fascinating magic, and an endless but intriguing amount of lore. The promise was great, so I opened up the second and latest volume Words of Radiance hoping for some payoff. And boy, did it deliver. Note: I won’t be revealing any big spoilery plot points, but if you’re entertaining the idea of reading this book at some point and want to go in knowing absolutely nothing, read at your own risk.
The biggest payoff of the book is finally seeing the paths of our view point characters converge. It’s entertaining to finally see these characters finally meeting each other and reacting to each other’s quirks. Shallan is kind of the star of the show here; just as Kaladin received backstory chapters in tWoK, Shallan gets her mysterious past explained in WoR. She’s much more engaging in this book than the first, so I didn’t feel like I had to suffer through her chapters if they cut in on someone else’s action. Everyone else gets their time to shine (sometimes literally) as well. Like the first book, there’s a lot of build up and about halfway through you start to see lots of promises fulfilled that make the book feel like a satisfying, savory feast. The most notable event is probably our heroes’ encounter with Szeth, the assassin in white (that’s not a spoiler, it’s on the cover of the book).
The length of the volume can feel like an undertaking, but if you read the first volume and spent a lot of time thinking “Oh god, this is dragging” you might be more pleased with this one’s pace. It’s apparent now that tWoK was meant to get us comfortable with the world of Roshar, to get us invested in the characters, and to promise an extraordinary tale before delivering the goods. As a result, World of Radiance ends up being a triumph, wrapping up one giant arc of the story while setting up the events of the next installment. This is probably my favorite book that I’ve read from Sanderson so far and I’m storming well in it for the long haul.
Talion: Revenant by Michael A. Stackpole
Normally I try to space out what I read according to genre, but after coming across this book I decided to continue my fantasy streak. Talion: Revenant is a stand-alone fantasy novel, which isn’t something you see a lot of, so I’m intrigued to see what satisfaction I can get out of it versus starting a new series. I’m about a hundred pages in, and so far so good. This won’t take nearly as long to read as the behemoth mentioned above.