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The Good Bits: March 2018

Didn’t get to see all the movies I wanted to in March, but April and May aren’t exactly going to be slouches either.

Music:

Judas Priest, Firepower (Epic)

judas priest

I’d be lying if I said I loved Judas Priest’s 2014 album Redeemer of Souls. It’s not a bad album, but I think I was expecting it to be incredible. I’m seemingly one of few that liked their 2008 concept album Nostradamus, which was pretty different for them. Redeemer of Souls on the other hand is closer to the stuff that Priest is known for: twin guitars, badass punchy riffs, and shrieking vocals from Rob Halford. Yet, while the songs themselves are solid a few are even great, the album as a whole felt like a by the numbers kind deal. Now Priest is back with Firepower, and while it’s stylistically similar to Redeemer of Souls, I found I enjoyed it more. Perhaps that’s because my expectations have been tempered, but I still give it the thumbs up.

Right out the gate, the title track and “Lightning Strike” bring classic Priest to the table. Everyone sounds good, particularly Halford. It’s amazing that after over four decades this man is able to sing better than performers who have only been around half that time. My personal favorite part of the album is “Guardians” leading into “Rising From Ruins.” The former is a great little build up track like “The Hellion” and latter reminded me of the classic Priest track “A Touch of Evil”. I also enjoyed “Lone Wolf”, a strange track that stands out tonally, but holy crap is it heavy. If it doesn’t sound like Firepower blew me away, that’s because it didn’t. But it doesn’t have to: it’s Judas Priest showing they can still write tight material 18 albums later. I certainly enjoyed it and I’m happy to see Priest still putting out quality material after such a long, historic career.

 

Between The Buried And Me, Automata I (Sumerian)

btbam

2015’s Coma Ecliptic might be my favorite Between The Buried And Me album. I wasn’t sure how Automata I was going to stack up against it, but the band’s latest, and part one of a double album, is another worthy addition to their discography. Whereas Coma Ecliptic was a cohesive, less death metal inclined release, Automata I sounds a bit more like the band’s prior releases. “Condemned To The Gallows” in particular doesn’t waste any time and barges right in with the heavy. “Blot”, the final track, is a real winner, a 10 minute track that stands apart from all the preceding songs like its own entity. I’ve heard some talk about how short the album is: at 35 minutes, it’s the band’s shortest studio album to date. That’s pretty noticeable compared to the rest of their releases ranging from 60 to 70 minutes. I don’t mind it though since it’s part of a double album which means, in my mind, that when Automata II comes out later this year, I’m going to want to listen to both back to back. In that respect, I’m glad Automata I leaves me wanting more. Double albums, especially from prog bands, have a way of feeling overstuffed and overlong, but I don’t think that’s going to be an issue this time around.

 

Film:

Tomb Raider

tomb raider

So, video game movies. They largely suck, and the only ones that don’t suck like Tron and Wreck-It Ralph are either animated or not based on a real game, so they don’t exactly count. Lara Croft of Tomb Raider has already made her way to the big screen twice before with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000’s. Yet, despite casting one of Hollywood’s biggest sex symbols as one of gamings biggest sex symbols, the films didn’t earn much praise outside of Jolie’s performance. The Tomb Raider series of games has since been rebooted, resulting in much praise, so Hollywood decided to give it another go with a film based on the 2013 game starring Alicia Vikander, one of the best actresses in film today. The result is the best video game movie to date. No, I’m not kidding. That’s not to say that the film itself is stellar, but it’s far, far better than the drivel that precedes it.

Like the 2013 game, Tomb Raider tells the story of Lara Croft’s first real adventure wherein she ends up shipwrecked on an island that serves as the resting place for a mythical Japanese queen. The plot similarities mostly end there as the film focuses mostly on Lara trying to find her missing father Richard. From there it’s a lot of plots and story beats that will be very familiar if you’ve watched any adventure movie ever. But, hey, if it ain’t broke, right? Sure, there’s some things from the video game plot that would have been cool to see and the bad guy is way less creepy, but it gets the job done.

The main source of all that is good in the movie is Alicia Vikander as Lara, and let me tell you Vikander shows up to work. Whereas Jolie brought the sex appeal that her version of Lara was known for, Vikander absolutely nails the physicality of an untested Lara Croft, practically mirroring her video game counterpart in every way. She always seems like she’s just getting out by the skin of her teeth, and even in the scenes where she excels (climbing, shooting people with arrows, etc.) she looks like she barely knows what she’s doing but presses forward out of sheer will. On top of that, the film is devoid of gratuitous butt shots or close examinations of Lara’s figure. The other characters mainly just serve their purpose, though Daniel Wu’s character is entertaining (despite disappearing for most of the third act), and Nick Frost’s appearance gave me a chuckle.

Apart from Vikander, the film manages to take little moments from the game, such as some of Lara’s stunts and certain weapons, and make them feel more like a product of film itself and less like “Hey! Look! It’s that thing from the game you all like! Look you stupid nerd!” I know we all want a live action video game movie that is unequivocally great, that gamers can hold up as a beacon and exclaim “At last!” And I’m aware that the bar was already set pretty low and that saying “Well, at least it’s not garbage” isn’t the best of praise. But like it or not, Tomb Raider really is the best we’ve got right now. Considering all the fun I had, I don’t really mind.

 

Red Sparrow

red sparrow

No, this film’s got nothing to do with Black Widow.

I try to avoid reviews as much as possible before movies (though it’s impossible to get away from that goddamn Rotten Tomatoes score), but because the Internet exists some stray critiques end up slipping through the cracks. In the case of Jennifer Lawrence’s spy thriller Red Sparrow, I heard the violence (especially the sexual violence) was too much, so I expected to go in for a drag of a movie. But it wasn’t: Red Sparrow is a competent almost Fincher-like thriller that leans heavily on Lawrence’s performance, but she makes it worthwhile.

After her ballerina career is brought to a painful end, Dominika becomes a Sparrow, which is basically a Russian secret agent that specializes in the Honey Pot i.e. seducing people. It’s an interesting if not simplistic concept. Watching Dominika figure out how to manipulate everyone from scumbags to her superiors is engaging, especially when you come to the realization that you, the viewer, don’t have as clear of an understanding of her intentions as you once believed. The only nagging detail is that Dominika never receives any extensive combat training. Sure, her main weapon is deception and we see her beat the ever loving shit out of a few people, but you’d think that she’d at least take some kind of martial arts class in her line of work.

Speaking of beating the shit out of people, let’s talk violence. When it comes to female protagonists, the use of sexual violence as a means of motivation or character development is overdone and often mishandled. With that in mind, I don’t believe Red Sparrow is a big offender here. Now, of course, there are people that may be triggered by scenes depicting rape or attempted rape no matter how it’s depicted, so just because I didn’t find them particularly harrowing doesn’t mean someone else won’t; that’s just my experience. That said, the film doesn’t linger much on the few scenes and they serve a purpose beyond the tired “oh she got raped and that’s her main motivator” story arc.  As for the more graphic violence, I’ve seen way worse elsewhere. None of this is to say that these scenes shouldn’t bother your or won’t make you feel uneasy, but you’ve watched something like Game of Thrones, you can handle this.

A good spy thriller will keep you guessing, and Red Sparrow certainly does that, and what’s more the clues are all there for you to see, so when the reveal finally does happen you won’t be so bewildered after looking back at how everything stacks up. Is it an amazing film? No, but I liked it way more than I thought I would and Lawrence is damn good.

 

Books

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Authority

Not long after I jotted down my initial thoughts on Authority, the third act began and the plot took a sharp turn into the climax and falling action. That’s when things got a lot more interesting, and by that I mean I finally thought “Okay, this is what I came for.” Even the ending, which is a literal cliffhanger, felt like a satisfying conclusion that may or may not be resolved in the final volume of the Southern Reach Trilogy. Still, I can’t say I was as taken with Authority as Annihilation, and I’m sure a lot of that simply comes down to the fact that they’re two very different books, despite being part of a trilogy.

A quick summation of the trilogy: there’s a place called Area X that’s really weird and a shadow organization called the Southern Reach keeps sending people in to investigate it, but they either end up dead or missing. Also, the Southern Reach is pretty shady. This book is from the perspective of the new boss of the Southern Reach, which is kind of neat since stories like these normally keep the reader in the dark concerning the inner workings of the “distrustful organization”. What makes it unsettling is that this guy doesn’t even realize half the shit that’s going on at his own job. The thing is, like I said last month, VanderMeer’s style and his depiction of the main protagonist are so weird that all the creepy reveals don’t feel as weird by comparison. This is kind of resolved by the end of the book, as I stated above, but by then it almost feels like too little too late.

It could be that VanderMeer’s style is just too out there for me, in which case that’s my problem. I certainly give him credit for producing one of the more original sci-fi/horror stories I’ve read and his description and attention to detail is rich, but when I think back to the book a lot of it is so foggy. I’m all for a slow burn, but this was way too slow with too few interesting things going on compared to Annihilation. I’m still planning on reading Acceptance, the final book in the trilogy (can’t leave it hanging, can I?) but I wish my thoughts towards this prospect were of excitement rather than “I hope I like this better than Authority.”

 

Currently Reading

Edge of Eternity by Ken Follett

edge of eternity

It’s high time I finished the Century Trilogy. Good ol’ Ken Follett has never let me down, and even though I’ve started to notice some of his shortcomings (on the nose dialogue, lots of jumping around), I’ve already blown through over half the book. Considering this thing is over 1000 pages, it might be the fastest I end up finishing a Follett book.

 

Currently Watching:

Sons of Anarchy (Season 6)

At the time of writing, I’ve only got one episode left. I’ve already been spoils as to what happens, so I’m more excited just to be done with this season.

Black Mirror

I’ve kind of just been jumping around to whatever episode looks interesting but damn, can’t believe I slept on this show for so long.

 

Currently Playing:

Rise of the Tomb Raider (Xbox One)

Thoroughly enjoyed the first game, happy to be coming back. A new film out and a new game on the way, so I figured this was the perfect time.

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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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