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The Good Bits: March 2017

Big month for pretty much everything from film to video game to music.

Music:

Mastodon, Emperor of Sand (Reprise)

Emperor_of_sand_cover

At this time of writing, I have only listened to Mastodon’s newest LP one time through. I thought I would need multiple listens in order to really settle on an opinion before writing, as was the case with 2014’s Once More Round the Sun. But about four tracks in I was pretty much sold: Mastodon have done it yet again. It’s been fifteen years since the band’s first album, and with the addition of their seventh they’re still sporting one of the most solid discographies in the metal scene.

Originally, there were reports that Emperor of Sand might be similar to Crack the Skye, my favorite Mastodon album But as it turns out, it’s only like Crack the Skye in concept, regarding themes of death and loss. And that’s fine, because Emperor of Sand delivers on its own merits with a sound structurally similar to its predecessor and The Hunter. “Show Yourself” is probably the poppiest the band has ever sounded, but that’s not a bad thing. The band have a great penchant for catchy lyrics and vibrant guitar riffs that keep the album moving at a steady pace while still feeling very much like Mastodon. Other tracks like the opener “Sultan’s Curse” will sound familiar, but it’s the closer “Jaguar God” that really nails it in my opinion, seemingly drawing from all corners of Mastodon’s discography. Overall, the album feels fresh and welcoming to newcomers. For long time fans like myself, it fits like a glove.

 

Me and That Man, Songs of Love and Death (Cooking Vinyl)

Me and That Man

I can’t say that I’ve listened to all that much of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or Johnny Cash. I’ve enjoyed their music before and I recognize their impact, but I haven’t really explored much of that side of music yet. That said, I am totally into Me And That Man, a new project from Behemoth frontman Adam “Nergal” Darski and John Porter steeped in country, folk, and blues comparative to the artists mentioned above. While sonically a far cry from the blackened death metal of Behemoth, the lyrical content on Songs of Love and Death still bears similarities to Nergal’s main band especially on tracks like the opener “My Church is Black”, so if you’re not normally a fan of this type of genre but you love Behemoth or similar bands, this will still feel familiar to you. If, on the other hand, you’re not a big metal fan but you do enjoy the likes of the aforementioned artists, Me and That Man may still find an audience with you as their songs are dark, troubled, but not necessarily hard on the ears.

 

Pillorian, Obsidian Arc (Eisenwald)

pillorian

2016 saw the end of one of my favorite bands: Agalloch. Their brand of atmospheric black/folk metal was unlike anything else I’d ever heard and despite my attempts to find similar bands, none of them sounded quite like these guys. So you can imagine how excited I was to hear that the ex-members would continue to make music in different projects. The first project to emerge from the ashes is Pillorian, formed by Agalloch’s former frontman John Haughm. While Obsidian Arc leans a bit more towards straightforward black metal, there are still folk elements weaved into the music that are reminiscent of Agalloch without sounding derivative. The album is kept to a tight seven tracks with all but one ranging five to nine minutes in length. The final track, “Dark is the River of Man”, is my favorite, a dark melancholic track running at nine and a half minutes that perfectly ties the whole album together. If you’re still pining for Agalloch, you best give this a listen.

 

Film:

Logan

Logan_2017_poster

Seventeen years. How privileged are we that the actor who brought one of the most iconic comic book characters to life has been able to inhabit the role for nearly two decades while similar franchises sifted through sequels and reboots (three different actors have played Spider-Man!). And now it would appear that an era has come to a close, and it has done so in spectacular fashion. Logan is my favorite film so far this year, presenting Jackman’s swansong as a brutal emotional western that transcends the genre in such a way comparable to The Dark Knight.

While Logan is the third Wolverine solo movie and the tenth X-Men film overall, you can jump into the film with minimal prior viewing. So long as you know a bit about Wolverine and Professor X and have basic understanding of mutants, the film won’t lose you with the exception of a few smaller references. While I do enjoy the MCU films, I applaud this move as it allows more people to experience the film without having to lean on five or six films worth of world-building. Also, we finally get the R-rated Wolverine film we deserve, with all the blood, gore, and f-bombs you could want this side of Deadpool. But this movie doesn’t rely on its bloody action alone; Logan goes much deeper to the point where we genuinely worry about our heroes during the action scenes rather than just absorbing the spectacle.

Going in, you already know that Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are going to deliver great performances, so I won’t say much on that point other than Jackman’s performance moved me to tears. Boyd Holbrook has a charismatic turn as the main villain and I’m sure he’ll be snatching up even bigger roles soon. But the big scene-stealer is Dafne Keen as Laura/X-23, who doesn’t even really speak until more than two-thirds of the way into the film. A mostly silent role can be difficult for the most experienced actor, but Keen absolutely delivers on that front and every other. I sincerely hope we see more of her soon and far into the future.

If you’re reading this, I’m sure you’ve seen Logan by now, but if by chance you haven’t, get out and go while it’s still in theaters.

 

Kong: Skull Island 

kong

After a twelve year absence from the big screen, King Kong has returned, mixing the likes of Jurassic Park with Pacific Rim to make a borderline B-movie with a bumpy tone that will get slightly poignant right before something ridiculous happens. In other words, Kong: Skull Island is big dumb fun. It has all the makings of a summer blockbuster apart from the fact that it was released in March, probably to avoid releasing close to War for the Planet of the Apes. I’ve spoken to a few people who rolled their eyes at the idea of a new King Kong movie, claiming that it’s yet another example of Hollywood digging into the ol’ barrel rather than pursuing something new. While that’s a sentiment I sympathize with, Kong doesn’t feel like a careless rehash; it feels fun and delivers an action-adventure monster film with classic tropes.

Kong doesn’t just mark the return of the titular ape. It’s also the second entry in Legendary Picture’s MonsterVerse, which began with 2014’s Godzilla that I reviewed a few months back. This film differs from Godzilla in many ways from pacing to tone, but the most noted difference is how Kong seemingly addresses its predecessor’s two biggest critiques: 1) that the human characters were boring, and 2) that Godzilla has a pretty small amount of screen time in his own movie. Now, I was a fan of Godzilla, but Kong does get bigger ups in terms of its cast. There’s a lot of great people in here: John Goodman, who drags everyone to this expedition; Samuel L. Jackson, a general stung by the United States’ loss in the Vietnam war; Brie Larson, a Vietnam war photographer who spends most of the film running around with a camera and yet still comes across as a competent character. Leading man Tom Hiddleston, a tracker and former Captain, is dashing and likable, but feels a bit downplayed in this role, lacking in background and personality compared to the other characters. John C. Reilly, on the other hand, is probably the most enjoyable character in the film as a pilot who was stranded on Skull Island during World War II.

And then there’s the big guy himself. Kong spends most of his time beating the living shit out of other monsters (and sometimes humans), though he does get the requisite humanizing scenes with Brie Larson’s character. It’s not played up quite as much as we normally see in other iterations, which is actually refreshing. We know Kong has a weak spot for the ladies and we don’t need it beaten over our heads again. Instead, the film allows a moment or two for a knowing nod to the history of Kong’s character, then lets him get back to crushing things. It’s awesome. The film takes full advantage of the time period too, soaking it in the Vietnam aesthetic with great visuals and a soundtrack full of classic 60’s/early 70’s tunes.

So, no, this isn’t just another rehash and you certainly don’t need to see Godzilla or even care about the MonsterVerse in order to enjoy Kong: Skull Island.

 

John Wick 

john-wick-poster1

Here’s another for one the “movies-I-slept-on-that-are-great” list. I didn’t think much about John Wick when I first heard about it, but then, of course, everyone whirled around to tell me “WTF GO WATCH IT.” And, lo and behold, John Wick is a genuinely great action flick. Apart from the film’s impressive stunts, style, and direction, one of the best parts of the film for me personally was the implication of a larger underground world of assassin’s that Keanu Reeve’s titular character belongs to. It’s never really explained and by the end of the film there are more questions than answers, but it’s so fascinating that I’m actually glad there isn’t really any exposition. The workings of the world are merely implied by the character’s actions and left to open interpretation. I’m sure I’ll get more insight when I finally get to sit down and watch John Wick 2.

 

Books:

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

dune-messiah

Dune Messiah almost feels like DLC for its predecessor, Dune. It’s not even half the length of the first book and the plot, set twelve years later, is focused on wrapping up storylines for certain characters and addressing the galaxy changing jihad that were so often alluded to. Mind you, this doesn’t make the book bad assuming you were interested enough in the world of Dune that you wanted to continue reading about it, which I obviously did. It just feels kind of like an afterward for the events of the first book, a relatively straightforward plot that ties up a few loose ends and prepares for a new generation of protagonists. It’s a quick return to Frank Herbert’s fascinating world and I’m sure I’ll continue onto the next book in future.

 

Currently Reading:

Sabriel by Garth Nix

Sabriel_Book_Cover

I’ve made my fiancée read many of my favorite books, so now I’m reading a few of hears. Sabriel is the first book in Garth Nix’s The Old Kingdom series. It’s a fantasy obviously, and while the book isn’t what I initially expected, I find its world and magic mechanics engrossing. I’m about halfway through, but I still feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Nix’s world. Good thing I have two more books.

 

Currently Gaming:

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Wii U)

It’s amazing, go play it.

Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One)

If you loved the original games, go get this one.

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The Good Bits: May 2016

I’m not sure how May is already over. It’s crazy to think that summer is here already, but the movie studios have been ready for a long, long time. Two of the biggest movies of the year came out this past month, both following in the wake of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Since there wasn’t as much music for me to write about compared to April, I took the time to get a little lengthy with the film section for May. It may lean a bit towards the ranty side, but, hey, they’re superhero movies. Gotta put in my two cents just like everyone else in the world.

Music:

Fleshgod Apocalypse, King (Nuclear Blast)

fleshgod

The lone music entry for the month of may was actually released in February, but I missed out on it partly because of simply being interested in other bands and also because Fleshgod Apocalypse can sometimes be…a lot. Don’t get me wrong, they’re a really good band with enough technicality and ferocity to blow other bands out of the water. But the relentlessness of most of their material has the tendance to leave me feeling a bit drained, so I figured I’d get more of the same from King. I was only partly right. While the core of the album is still high energy death metal with a classical influence, the band switches things up a bit more this time around. The composition has improved and the classical side of the music gets to hold the reins more often, providing a nice break from onslaught of tracks like “Healing Through War”. It’s great that the band can keep their signature sound while also tinkering with it.

 

Film:

Captain America: Civil War (Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr.)
(Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo)

civil war

Sometimes I still can’t believe the state of superhero movies. If you’d told me in 2008 we’d see Batman and Superman onscreen the same year as a film based on Civil War, my disbelief would be overshadowed by my fanboy induced heart attack just from the idea. And yet here we are with Captain America: Civil War kicking off Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and man are things getting shaken up. First off, it’s clear that Phase Three is going to different compared to its predecessors simply by the fact that it packs a bunch of superheroes in one movie. The first two phases focused on solo movies that culminated with the Avengers assembling, but in Civil War we start with the new Avengers lineup in action before it completely falls apart. Combine that with the inclusion of characters like Ant-Man, Black Panther, and Spider-man and the worry of “too many heroes” rears its ugly head. But the combined magic of Disney, Marvel, and the Russo brothers prevents that fear from coming to fruition.

Civil War‘s greatest strength is how it manages to devote time to each character and allows them time to shine or to develop. Scarlet Witch struggles with her powers and bonds with Vision, Falcon and War Machine see more action than ever before, Bucky struggles with his brainwashing, Black Widow debates where her loyalties lie, and, of course, ideals and fists clash between Cap and Iron Man. And lets not forget the fact that the movie also has to introduce us to Black Panther and reboot Spider-man (again). But none of this ever gets out of hand. Everything flows smoothly from one struggle to the next all under the overarching plot between the two sides. The MVP here is Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther, delivering a performance that gets you hyped for his solo movie if you weren’t already. And Tom Holland makes an excellent Peter Parker/Spider-man, pulling off the bookish timidness of the former and the chattiness of the latter. Daniel Brühl also deserves recognition for his subtle but compelling role as Zemo, pulling strings and moving pieces to appropriately build tension throughout the film.

What I did not expect from this movie was that I found the overall plot and reasoning behind the struggle to be more compelling than that of the comics. It’s not as clear-cut as whether or not heroes should have to have to be registered and have their identities public. This is about how best to protect the world, about consequences, about who is fighting for the greater good, how certain ideals can be a person’s strength but also their weakness. All of these aspects build to the emotionally charged finale, giving it more gravity than if it was just a straight up adaptation of the comic. Said finale, like Batman v Superman, gave us an iconic shot that made me spaz uncontrollably in my seat. In case you couldn’t tell, Civil War is one of the best MCU films so far, and even one of the best superhero films ever in general.

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence)
(Director Bryan Singer)

apocalypse

A long time ago, I figured out that reading reviews before going to see a film can really warp your viewing experience. Critics can exacerbate minor flaws or make sweeping generalizations about the film, writing it off well before people are able to go to the theater. And I know everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but in this day and age of the internet, many feel the need to conform to said opinion simply because it comes from some imagined hierarchy or loud majority. It’s what happened with Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a film I can understand people disliking despite the people going out to hate watch it because Rotten Tomatoes told them it was shit. But with X-Men: Apocalypse, I legitimately don’t understand where it negativity is coming from. This may run contrary to what you’ve heard, but I enjoyed Apocalypse even more than Days of Future Past.

This is the first film to really capture one of the core aspects of the X-Men: teamwork. Everyone gets their moment to shine, everyone contributes, everyone works together in the film’s exciting finale. While I’ve enjoyed most of the X-Men films, their depictions of the mutants working as a team are either overshadowed by someone else’s plot (X2: X-Men United) or sabotaged by a mostly mediocre film (X-Men: The Last Stand). Here, all the mutants get a kickass moment and even character development not unlike Civil War. Evan Peters’s Quicksilver once against steals the show with his hysterical rescue scene that outdoes his spot in the previous film. Sophie Turner proves she’s an excellent fit for Jean Grey in the final fight. Michael Fassbender still excels in Magneto’s more emotional scenes…I could go on but that’s about ten more mutants. You get the point.

I guess the only criticism I might allow is that Apocalypse, while well-performed by Oscar Issac, isn’t as formidable compared to his comic book counterpart. He’s great, but he’s not this hulking fearsome figure that most fans associate him with. Also, while Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine cameo made me all giddy, it also made me glad that his last film is finally going to be rated R. Seriously, I need to see Jackman turn someone into spaghetti before he retires. But these are minor complains, and the film is just so damn fun you won’t even pay them mind. And you shouldn’t pay any mind to any other criticism you might hear either. If you’re going to hate it, hate it because you saw it and hated it. Not because the internet told you so.

 

Currently Reading:

‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King

salem's lot

My journey though King’s bibliography continues. It’s a good slow burn. More to come next month.

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