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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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The Good Bits: May 2017

I didn’t get to see all the movies I wanted to in May, but what I did see was pretty great.

 

Music:

Artificial Language, The Observer (Self-Released)

artificial language

Artificial Language’s The Observer is, simply put, one of the best debut albums I’ve had the pleasure of hearing. I’m always on the hunt for newer bands pushing out new material on platforms like Bandcamp and self-releasing their own material, and Artificial Language is another delightful discovery in the field of unsigned prog rock/metal. The band’s sound can be compared to that of Between the Buried and Me or Leprous, but it certainly isn’t playing copycat. The piano/keyboard work of Jonathon Simpson forms the backbone for the band’s sound, either propelling the music forward or lulling around in beautiful interludes on each song. That’s not to say the rest of the band are slouches; the technical ability of the band is evident but not overstated with guitar and drum flourishes that flow together all the way through the album from the more straightforward tracks like “These Aren’t Mirages” to the eight minute finale “Turn Off the Pictures”. Vocalist Shay Lewis’ performance stands out in particular with a powerful and captivating voice that ties the whole package together. Cohesive and clean are the two words I would use to primarily describe this album overall. If you’re at all a prog fan, get on these guys. And even if you’re not, give them a try anyway.

 

Film:

Alien: Covenant

AlienCovenant

I’m a relative latecomer to the Alien franchise. I saw Aliens so long ago that I don’t remember much other than I liked it. But last year I watched the very first entry Alien, which made me slap my hand to my forehead and wonder why the hell I’d put these movies off for so long. I even enjoyed the polarizing Prometheus which, while not a perfect movie by any means, offered an enjoyable sci-fi aesthetic and allusions to mythology. So far, Alien: Covenant appears to be as divisive as its predecessor, and a lot of that has to do with the film’s goal of explaining the origins of the Xenomorph, the titular Alien. Fans and reviewers have deemed this part of the story unnecessary or that it takes away from the Alien being terrifying (though I think Alien Vs. Predator had already done that). While I understand this sentiment and why it would impact someone’s enjoyment of Covenant, I had a great time watching this film.

I’ll say right off the bat that Covenant isn’t really full of surprises. If you’ve seen any other Alien film (or any horror film for that matter) you’ll be waiting for the film to hit certain notes and beats as it moves along. That doesn’t make the film bad, mind you. In fact, I feel like the film’s familiarity plays into its favor as it is essentially marrying the horror and action of the earlier films to the story and themes of Prometheus. You get Michael Fassbender waxing philosophic and being generally creepy like in the previous film, and then you watch Xenomorphs bursting out of people and ripping them apart, just like old times. It all cumulates with a two-part showdown against the Xenomorph, including a thrilling action sequence as the crew attempts to escape the planet.

Speaking of Fassbender, he’s as captivating as ever while playing two different androids: David (from Prometheus) and Walter (a crew member of the Covenant). Scenes with these characters together are certainly the acting highlight of the film. Katherine Waterson does a solid job continuing the series’ tradition of a strong female lead, especially during the action-packed climax. The pleasant surprise here is Danny McBride as the pilot of the Covenant with a comedian-doing-dramatic acting turn that feels so natural that I’ll be hoping to see him in the next installment. And I am looking forward to another installment, which looks to be getting started soon. I got the sci-fi horror/action that I wanted from Alien: Covenant, and I couldn’t be more pleased.

 

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword 

King Arthur

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword has more in common with A Knight’s Tale than it does with the Arthurian legend. Whether or not this is a bad thing is going to depend on how much you care about the source material being messed with. For my part, I enjoyed the film for what it is: a stylish romp spearheaded (swordheaded?) by the ever charismatic Charlie Hunnum that might not get the sequel it was clearly planning for, but at least makes for a fun fantasy action film.

As I said, the film plays it fast and loose with its source material, but at this point there’s been so many different iterations of the legends that I’m not sure how valid of a complaint it is anymore. Sure, some things left me scratching my head a bit (why am I hearing about a character named Mordred already?) but when you realize that director Guy Ritchie is essentially taking his approach to Sherlock Holmes and applying it to King Arthur things fall into place. Nowhere is this more evident than in the character of Arthur himself, a street-smart incredibly ripped man who unwittingly reveals his birthright when he happens upon Excalibur (which doubles as the Sword in the Stone in this version). He feels like a modern man who is flawed, reluctant to take the throne, and full of grit rather than a kingly resplendence. So, a bit like Jax Teller from Sons of Anarchy. There isn’t even a Guinevere for him to mack on (yet) or a Merlin to teach him wisdom, and it makes for an interesting change rather than see the same old progression. Jude Law also has a good turn as Vortigern, a villain who does shitty things to win and get his people to love him, never stopping to think that he should just try to not do shitty things. The rest of the cast features familiar faces and makes for a fun collective. The female lead only known as the Mage (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) adds an intriguing level of magic to the world and it’s fun to watch her interact with Arthur and not take any of his shit.

The action is pretty solid throughout, fast in pace, and full of stylish visuals, especially when Arthur wields Excalibur, which almost turns into a video game Matrix-like sequence. The only real misfire is the final battle, which is lacking in contrast and suffers from some muddy visuals that make it difficult to tell exactly what’s going on. So yeah, you’re not going to get your shiny, dramatically told retelling of Arthur in this film and that’s going to rub some people the wrong way. But if you accept that early on, you can expect a fun time.

 

Books:

Lirael by Garth Nix

Lirael

The second book in The Old Kingdom series was described to me as mainly consisting of exposition and build-up with all the action being saved for the third book, Abhorsen. So basically I was being warned that it might be boring. And yet, I didn’t find that to be the case. While Lirael isn’t a complete tale full of forward action like its predecessor Sabriel, the enjoyment comes from spending time with fleshed out characters walking about in the expanded world of the Old Kingdom.

The story takes place fifteen to twenty years after the first book and focuses on two new protagonists: Lirael, a shy young girl, and Sameth, son of Sabirel, hero of the first book. Nix takes his time in helping the reader get to know these two characters, a different pace from Sabirel. Whereas Sabriel was a fairly competent protagonist with only a little background at the start of her book, Lirael and Sameth take a bit more time to grow and learn. While this means that things are slow to start, it all becomes worth it when you watch plots begin to unfold and find out that you correctly predicted a twist just pages before its reveal. And because most of this book was build-up, that means the next book is going to deliver some satisfying downward action.

 

Currently Reading:

Abhorsen by Garth Nix

Abhorsen

I had originally planned to read something short in between Lirael and Abhorsen, but considering the book takes place like five minutes after its predecessor, it seemed better to keep the train rolling.

 

Currently Watching:

Daredevil Season 2

Well, technically I’ve finished watching this but it was mine and my fiancée’s show of choice on our mornings off. First season had a little more polish to it, but the addition of the Punisher and Elektra were more than enough to deliver a satisfying second season.

 

American Gods

The only bad thing about this show is that all the people I’ve told to go watch it can’t because they don’t have Starz. If you have Starz and you need a new show, watch it.

 

Currently Gaming:

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (Xbox One)

I have too many games to play, so this one is near the top of my list for trying to complete first. Luckily, it’s an amazing game.

 

Mass Effect: Andromeda (Xbox One)

It’s impressive how I can sink three hours into this game just on one planet alone. The only thing that soured my experience was a glitch or two.

 

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

This is one game I am in no rush to beat. Getting lost in this world is such a joy.

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