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The Good Bits: July 2017

This month was stuffed.

Music:

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard, Murder of the Universe (ATO)

king gizzard

I have seen King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard pop up so many times this year that it was inevitable I was going to finally dig into one of their records. Two of a planned five have been released so far this year, and Murder of the Universe is the second of the two. I listened to the first release, Flying Microtonal Banana, and found it good, but didn’t really spend a lot of time with it to merit a write up. Murder of the Universe, on the either hand, splits the album into three different stories that had me enthralled from the opening tracks. The band’s sound is the equivalent to a kaleidoscope, covering your ears like a psychedelic blanket and cradling you through a tunnel of many shapes and colors. The narration from Leah Senior ties the whole album together and helps evoke that storyteller atmosphere.

 

Film:

Dunkirk

Dunkirk_Film_poster

Christopher Nolan boasts one of the best directorial track records in film history, but he’s not without detractors. One critique that pops up often is that he’s too clinical and clean in his approach and it consequentially results in a cold, emotionless film. It stands to reason then that people might scoff at the idea of a PG-13 Nolan-directed World War II film, a genre that’s usually stuffed with intense bloody violence in order depict the horrors war. Now, I’m not trying to knock the violence films like Saving Private Ryan or Hacksaw Ridge (haven’t seen it, heard it’s gory as hell) because, yeah, that shit was probably bloody as hell. But don’t we already know by now war is pretty horrific? Isn’t it possible for a war film to grip you without intestines being spilled everywhere? Yes, yes it is, because Nolan has done just that.

Dunkirk depicts three different stories: the British Army stranded on the beach in Dunkirk, France; the British civilians sailing across the channel, and the pilots in the air. These stories are shown in a non-linear fashion, meaning that the scenes don’t all sync up until near the end of the movie. It’s actually not as confusing as it sounds as long as you pay attention and consider the three stories separate from each other until you start to see the connecting threads. And you will be paying attention because this film is goddamn tense almost the whole time, even when there isn’t any real action happening. The relatively quick and clean runtime of 106 minutes offers up a film without any filler or overly flashy action sequences (though the dogfight scenes are pretty kickass). The boys are trying to get home. That is the single driving force of the film and it stays that way.

Nolan apparently once expressed a desire to make the film without a screenplay, and it shows in the films subtle lack of dialogue. This helps to strip away the Hollywoodness, if you will, of other war films, instead choosing to focus on the situation at hand. It also means the film doesn’t rely on its star power too much; Tom Hardy’s RAF pilot doesn’t feel any more or less important than Fionn Whitehead’s private on the beach. They’re all soldiers made of flesh and blood, and everything they do be it as simple as running or difficult as dogfighting feels like it matters. Every second feels like it matters. Honestly, this is a top contender for my film of the year, and I know that’s going to merit a few eyerolls from people who think I’m a Nolan fanboy or that the film is overrated. You’re fine to dislike it however much you want, but Dunkirk is a real winner for me.

 

Spider-Man: Homecoming 

homecoming

Sam Raimi’s 2002 iteration of Spider-Man is to me what what Tim Burton’s Batman was to many a comic book fan in 1989. The web head’s triumphant big screen debut is one of my very favorite superhero films, and all three of Raimi’s films (yes, three) have stuck with me in every discussion of what makes a good (and in some cases, not so good) superhero movie. Now, here comes the part where you expect me to talk about how much I hated the Garfield films when, as a matter of fact, I haven’t seen either of them; I just never got around to it and over time I wondered what the point would be. Neither of them looked particularly interesting to me, at least not compared to other superhero movies coming out at the time. Then the franchise got rebooted again when Spidey appeared in last year’s Captain America: Civil War, and there was much rejoicing over the character joining the MCU. However, now that his new solo film is out, I’ve also heard many people complain about how, in the span of fifteen years, there have been six Spider-Man films (seven if you want to count Civil War) with three different actors. Why so much Spider-Man dammit? Why can’t they come up with new ideas? Well, welcome to modern Hollywood, first of all. Second, don’t just write this one off: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun movie that dials down the high stakes of previous Marvel films in favor of focusing on New York City and it’s friendly neighborhood…well, you know.

In case you’re having a hard time figuring out where we’re at this time around, Peter Parker is a sophomore in high school fresh off being recruited by Tony Stark to fight Captain America and several other heroes. After getting that taste of action, Peter finds himself bored taking care of small time crime in NYC and longs to tackle something bigger and badder which comes in the form of Adrian Toomes a.k.a. the Vulture. What follows is a film with a few familiar but effective story beats (Peter has to balance the lives of both identities, great power and great responsibility), some nods to the rest of the MCU, (most notably Robert Downey Jr. reprising his role as Tony Stark/Iron Man), and a small twist that makes for an exciting third act.

Tom Holland is great. His Peter Parker is sufficiently nerdy but endearing while his Spider-Man is cool and funny, but also spends plenty of time learning to grow as a hero. And while the film’s marketing suggests that it’s also Iron Man 3.5, Tony Stark keeps his appearances short but effective. But, for me, it’s Michael Keaton who steals the show as the Vulture. Many MCU villains that aren’t Loki tend to be menacing, but also fairly one-note and disposable. Keaton, on the other hand, isn’t really straight-up evil: he’s mostly just a pissed off regular dude who happens to be really good at building shit, not unlike Tony Stark. He presence even becomes genuinely nerve-wracking during one particular scene. The rest of the cast, particularly Peter’s school friends, is great too and give the film a lot of humor and personality. Sadly, Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May gets the short end of the stick when it comes to screen time. That’s probably my biggest gripe with the film since Aunt May is such a comforting figure in Peter’s life and I really like Tomei in the role, but she never gets a memorable moment like Rosemary Harris in the Raimi films.

Other reviews have taken issue with Homecoming‘s impact on the MCU in that it doesn’t really have an impact. But that’s fine. Not every movie has to be as game-changing as Avengers or Civil War. If every movie tried to create a tectonic shift in the MCU it would get boring and those tectonic shifts wouldn’t be meaningful anymore. Homecoming, meanwhile, is a welcome return to form for Spider-Man and a refreshing entry in the MCU that looks out for the little guys and saves the big ones for later.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes 

War_for_the_Planet_of_the_Apes_poster

I’m sure I’m not the only one who was pleasantly surprised by 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a reboot of an old franchise with a focus on motion capture that had plenty of reasons to go wrong, but ended up being a well-executed sci-fi film. The sequel, 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, had an even bigger focus on motion capture while also bumping up the scale and action. With the release of War for the Planet of the Apes, we find ourselves at the end of a trilogy, though not necessarily the end of Apes films. Still, War for the Planet of the Apes carries on the series’ penchant for defying expectations by delivering a solid conclusion and cementing the reboot films as some of the finest action/sci-fi of the decade.

War continues the series’ trend of making you absolutely  hate humans but love a bunch of mo-cap apes. Andy Serkis had proven himself time and time again, but in his third outing as ape leader Caesar he essentially depicts an tired, aging warrior in ape form, weary of the many years he’s spent fighting to keep his people safe. It’s a bleak but remarkable performance. Woody Harrelson portrays the Colonel, who seems like just another straightup jingo jackass on the surface, but when you get some insight into his motivations it makes the world of black and white go gray. The standout performance, however, is Steve Zahn as the “Bad Ape”, offering up some much needed comic relief in sympathetic form. Amiah Miller is Nova, the girl you’ve seen in the trailers, and she’s understated but adorable.

One of the biggest reasons for the film’s success is that it didn’t fall victim to the “go all out for the third film” trope that sometimes hampers trilogies. War is as big as it needs to be and no more, with a range of action and emotion faithful to the series without trying to blow the lid off. The only sticking point some might have with the film is that the marketing is a tad misleading. Without getting too spoilery, the trailer (and title) give the impression that the apes and human are going head to head in one final war, but that’s not actually the focus, nor is it really what happens. Oh, they do fight of course, but don’t expect a full on war movie. You’ll be very happy with what you do get though. Also, in a world where blockbuster soundtracks have grown less remarkable, Michael Giacchino’s score is a big plus here.

 

Books:

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Abhorsen

I finally finished the final book in the Abhorsen trilogy earlier in July, thus concluding my journey through three of my fiancée’s favorite fantasy books. Despite most of the book being falling action, it took me a while to get through it. I’m a slow reader by nature, and with increased writing workload I’ve only gotten slower. Eventually, I found the time to just sit and plunge through this last book and my thoughts are similar to those of the first book Sabriel: beautifully written with a satisfying tying up of plot threads, but I wish I could have stayed a bit longer. As soon as the conflict is over, the story doesn’t linger long before it ends. There’s no “20 years later” epilogue that allows you to confirm all the characters are still doing okay, and while such a thing is certainly not necessary, I kind of wanted it. I don’t hold it against the book all, but I suppose it’s just one of those bittersweet things about finishing a very good book: you’re not always ready to leave and you’re always reluctant to turn that last page and reveal the back cover. That being said, Abhorsen delivers a conclusion with all the spectacle and magic that Nix is known for, and I’m glad to have taken the time to experience it.

 

The Boy On The Bridge by M.R. Carey

the boy on the bridge

This time last year I’d just finished reading The Girl With All The Gifts, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel that was well-written and fresh compared to the rest of the overdone zombie genre. Now I’ve just finished reading The Boy On The Bridge, which is something of a psudo-sequel/prequel/parallel set in the same zombie (called “hungries” in the novel”) infested United Kingdom as its predecessor. The book does not focus on characters from The Girl With All The Gifts, but rather a new cast of characters composed of soldiers and scientists working (sort of) together in a mobile lab to find a cure for the hungry epidemic.

At first, getting into the book took a bit of time; the story assumes you’ve read the previous book, which is fair enough, but it’s not as gradual as The Girl With All The Gifts, which started small and then opened up as the story progressed. So while you theoretically could read The Boy On The Bridge first since it’s so far removed from the events of Girl, I’d say read the previous book before picking this up. But man, once the shit hits the fan this book just rockets forward and you will not want to stop. The characters are a mixed bag of personalities and, as such, feel very believable during the teams various trials and tribulations. For me, Carey’s prose is the star of the show here, chock full of descriptions and metaphors that merited an audible reaction.

It’s hard to imagine where Carey could go with this world after The Boy On The Bridge, but if he does, I’ll be very intrigued to see what comes next. And if this is the last we’ll see of this world, then these two books will stand as some of the best zombie-media you could ever hope to experience.

 

Currently Reading:

It by Stephen King

It_cover

I’m continuing my journey through King’ bibliography. I’d love to finish reading this before the film comes out in a month, but with 1,000 plus pages, I’m tempering my expectations.

 

Currently Watching:

Breaking Bad Season 1

Better late than never, right?

 

Currently Playing:

Uh, nothing really. I haven’t really playing much in the past month. We’ll see if I get back into it.

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The Good Bits: June 2017

June was a big month for me. I got engagement photos taken, a new car, and finally finished the (very) rough draft of my sci-fi/fantasy novel. And, of course, there was a ton of new music and movies to experience along the way.

Music:

Mutoid Man, War Moans (Sargent House)

mutoid man

Mutoid Man’s debut album Bleeder was one of my favorite albums of 2015. I even gave it a full write-up on this blog before I started The Good Bits. On their sophomore LP, Mutoid Man stick with what they know: riffs for days and catchy hooks. But War Moans is the farthest thing from a rehash of the band’s first album: it’s familiar, but still exciting and a complete blast to listen to. Imagine if you went to a party where you didn’t really know the hosts, but by the end of the night you end up being best pals. Now imagine getting invited back to another party by those same hosts; you know them well going in this time, and that makes for an even better night.

Like its predecessor, the songs are short and punchy, making the album very easy to listen to in one go. It’s long enough that you get your money’s worth, but short enough that you’ll want to give it another go-around as soon as you’re done with it. “Kiss of Death” is where I’d start if I had to pick one song. It’s groovy and has a great chorus that’s made to be belted at the top or your lungs or mouthed quietly as you make your commute. “Afterlife” is another killer one, but my favorite is the final track “Bandages”. It’s slow and slightly more melodic than the other songs and has a dramatic built-up, making it the perfect concluding song for the album. Even if you’re not really a metal fan, the catchy vocals and overall “crack-a-beer-and-have-fun” tone will make a nice addition to your summer party playlists or car rides.

 

Anathema, The Optimist (Kscope)

anathema

I have tried to get into Anathema two or three times, but for some reason I never got sucked in the way I expected to be given the heaping amount of praise the band has received from prog rock/metal fans. Maybe I didn’t start with the right album or maybe I needed to let it grow on me. Either way, I love The Optimist, the band’s latest album. I can’t speak for how it compares to the rest of their discography, but I do know that I’ve had “Springfield” stuck in my head for at least a week.

I should clarify that this album isn’t particularly metal. The Optimist has its heavier parts sure, but the album has much more in common with alternative and post-rock than it does metal. The songs aren’t particularly long and there’s lots of piano and synth driven passages that are quiet and slow, creating a somber but beautiful atmosphere that hangs over the album. Some of the album’s high points feature Lee Daniels on vocals, most prominently on the gorgeous “Endless Ways” and the aforementioned “Springfield”. The album’s concept is interesting too and adds another layer to the atmosphere. It’s based on the album art from their sixth album and follows the narrative of what might have happened to the person on the cover. It’s not something you have to pay attention to enjoy the album, but it’s a neat backdrop all the same.

In the end, The Optimist‘s melancholic but gorgeous atmosphere is what wins the day for me. An album that can graze several of my emotions at once and make me unsure if I want to be happy or if I want to bawl my eyes out deserves recognition. If you’re a fan of prog, Porcupine Tree/Steven Wilson, or other “metal-bands-gone-soft”, I highly recommend checking out The Optimist. If you’re a fan of alternative music or you want something calming but atmospheric, I highly recommend the The Optimist. If you’re not into either of those things, well, I still highly recommend The Optimist.

 

 

Elder, Reflections of a Floating World (Stickman)

elder

Elder is another band that I’ve tried to get into before without much success. I gave 2015’s well-praised Lore one listen, but it didn’t really stick with me. So I gave the band’s latest a shot instead: Reflection of a Floating World. I’ll tell you right off the bad that I love the album art. I know I don’t talk about that much but a lot of doom/stoner bands tend to have awesome album art, and Reflections is one of them. And then there’s the album of course: six riff packed tracks that are sprawling in length but focused in purpose.

Doom and stoner metal albums sometimes have a tendency to get boring, especially when they contain songs that average ten minutes in length. But Elder manage to sidestep the boredom factor and actually end up being kind of relaxing. Seriously, I really enjoyed listening to this album while writing, though I’m sure part of that has to do with the minimal vocals on the album. That’s not to say the band are lacking in punch; many of the songs feature crunchy riffs and solid drum beats that will make you want to hit that imaginary snare drum real hard. But the band also display progressive and psychedelic tendencies in their songs. It’s evocative of Black Sabbath and Pink Floyd, focusing equally on hard-driving riffs and mystical, effects driven passages. I’m glad I was able to finally get into these guys, and I’ll be giving the rest of their discography another look.

 

Film:

Wonder Woman 

Wonder_Woman_(2017_film)

If you know me or have kept up with my blog you know I’m a staunch defender of the DC Film Universe. Batman v Superman was one of my favorite movies of 2016 and, yeah, I liked the much maligned Suicide Squad as well. But the fact remains that there was a lot riding on Wonder Woman, from the hope of a true blue hit for DC to giving the most famous female superhero ever a worthy big screen debut. Luckily for everyone, Wonder Woman succeeds on every level, delivering an origin story that doesn’t feel like it’s just going through the motions, but instead bursts into the room ready to make a statement and that statement is “Gal Gadot can and will kick your ass.”

The film keeps it light on references to the other DCEU films, apart from a few scenes that bookend the movie, and focuses instead on the backstory of the stoic Diana who joined the fray at the end of Batman v Superman. It’s a slightly lighter affair than the preceding DC Films, but not by as wide of a margin as some would think. Certainly the film is brighter, more colorful, and more humorous than its predecessors, but tonally it’s basically a war film with mythological workings in the background. And yeah, you’ll find more laughs in here than Man of Steel or BvS, and those are all welcome, but I believe Wonder Woman was always meant to contrast with the other films, presenting a Diana as a beacon of hope in one of humanity’s darkest times (World War I for the record), a hero out of greek mythology, a whole world away from the modern day where heroes like Superman and Batman are respectively shunned or consider mankind doomed.

Wonder Woman is indeed Gadot’s moment in the sun as she bashes and slashes her way through some stylish action scenes reminiscent of Captain America: The First Avenger, and her arc is satisfying if not slightly predictable. I was afraid the film would make Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor look weak in order to make Diana comparatively stronger, but he’s shown to be a capable and funny character who not only cares for his newfound companion, but never loses sight of his goal to help end the war. The best scene in the film is when Diana steps out into No Man’s Land by herself, deflecting bullets and charging into battle. It’s a great action scene to be sure, but it was also very emotional to finally see Wonder Woman on the big screen in all her glory. It’s a scene destined to become iconic in a film that many will be talking about even after Justice League comes out.

 

 

Baby Driver

baby driver

Nowadays, the importance of a movie’s rating on Rotten Tomatoes is given too much credit. Obviously, it’s an aggregate website, so if many critics are saying the film is that good, then the film is certainly worth checking out. But all too often I find people simply point at the RT score in answer to the question “Is this movie good, how and why?” That’s partly why I don’t give review scores on here. I want to actually talk about why the film is good, not just tack on a number. But to the point: Baby Driver, a heist/action/comedy film from Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead), is one of the best reviewed movies this year, and that big fat “Certified Fresh” symbol is popping up so often next to its name that it might as well be part of the film title. However, I am happy to report that Baby Driver actually is really damn good, so if RT is your God Emperor when it comes to movies, know that it will serve you well this time around.

Your first reaction to hearing that Ansel Elgort stars in the title role will either be “Who?” or “Ugh, the guy in the Divergent/A Fault in Our Stars movies?” Fear not, for Elgort shows some exemplary acting chops that make him a unique, sympathetic, but fully capable action star. Without giving too much away, the titular character Baby is a getaway driver for a heist mastermind played by Kevin Spacey. Other cast members include Jamie Foxx, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, and Lily James. By now, that collection of names is probably more than enough to get your attention, but as soon as the opening heist scene is finished, you’re going to be completely hooked.

Two of the film’s biggest hooks are its car stunts and soundtrack. All the car stunts are done without CGI or green screen, so if you’re a practical effects or car aficionado, you’re going to have a lot to sink you teeth into. The soundtrack is killer, but its implementation and effect on the film’s action is at the core of the experience. Remember the Queen scene from Shaun of the Dead where all the music is synchronized with the editing and action? That’s what it’s like for practically every action scene in Baby Driver, and it really does keep you that much more invested in the film as cars drift around corners and characters shoot at each other. This is one of the best action movies of the year thus far, so if you find multiple friends posting on Facebook screaming about how good Baby Driver is, know that it’s worth it.

 

Currently Reading:

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Abhorsen

I intended to be done with this by now but, honestly, I’ve so busy writing that I haven’t had as much time to read. Mind you, that’s a good problem to have, but I’ve got about a hundred pages left, and I’m ready to finish this trilogy.

 

Currently Watching:

Sons of Anarchy Season 4

It took forever to watch SOA season 3, but we (Lizzy and I) have been moving through this season at a steady pace. Things are starting to pick up with the overarching storyline and, so far, I’m enjoying this season more than its predecessor. Yeah, yeah, I know I’m far behind and that the show is over. Sue me.

 

Rick and Morty Season 2

I’m not sure what more needs to be said here other than FUCK YEAH TINY RICK!

 

Currently Gaming:

Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One)

Gaming has taken a back seat as well thanks to my writing progress, but I think I’m maybe halfway through the main story now?

 

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One)

I have at least five games that I’m “actively playing” and I need to beat something before I even think about new games. This one is probably the most manageable (and probably the most fun).

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