The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Music Monday: "The Beautiful Game" by RAC feat. St. Lucia

A month ago, I published my Summer 2017 Playlist, and I think it turned out pretty well, all things considered. Except for one thing: the perfect song for a Summer 2017 Playlist came out two weeks after I published that. I hate it when stuff like that happens, except we got a great song out of it, so it’s hard to be too mad about it.

RAC is the stage name of André Allen Anjos; it used to be an actual group of musicians under the full name “Remix Artist Collective”, but as far as I can tell, both of those things are in the past. Now it’s just one guy and three letters. I started listening to them/him (I’m always confused on which pronoun to use for “bands” comprised of one person) in 2014, after they/he released the album Strangers. That wound up being one of my favorite albums of the year.*

*Although, surprisingly, nothing from it has found it’s way onto one of my playlists yet. Maybe someday…

I waited for the follow-up anxiously. In 2015, RAC started releasing some new songs once a month, with the intent to have a 12-song album at the end of the year completed, but that trailed off after six songs in seven months. Finally, a full album was announced along with the debut single “This Song” featuring Rostam, which was a promising start. Three more songs would be released in the lead-up to the release of EGO last Friday. After a couple of listens, it’s probably one of my favorite releases of the year so far, but I want to focus on the third song that same out pre-release:

“The Beautiful Game” (featuring St. Lucia)

I was a little underwhelmed by the first collaboration between these two. St. Lucia and RAC are two of my favorite artists/bands*, but “Ready For It” was outshone by so many other songs from Strangers. “The Beautiful Game” works so much better, thankfully. From its opening, bouncing bass notes, it grabs your attention with an instantly distinct sound and builds anticipation for what’s coming. From there, it’s a slow layering of guitar, drums and vocals from Jean-Philip Grobler, and more guitar accents (I especially love these little whammy bar hits, which play into a larger, sort of off-kilterness of the song in contrast with how tightly it’s structured and orchestrated) into a chilled groove that feels perfect for a summer song and made me instantly regret not being able to include it on my list.

It’s no-nonsense though, jumping into the chorus around the forty-second mark. And what a chorus it is. Patti Beranek, the other vocalist of St. Luica (and Jean-Philip’s wife, which is kinda sorta significant here) jumps in, and crescendoing multi-voice choruses are always great in my book. The words are memorable, especially their delivery, with almost a pause between the syllables of the last words in the first two lines. It’s just strange enough to catch your attention and stick in your mind.

To mark the start of the second verse, we get a slightly-detuned piano, another unusual accent that catches your attention. Then we get the vocals, with Jean-Philip and Patti trading off on “It’s too fast/It’s too slow”, which I really like for reasons that I can’t fully articulate other than it’s a really cute symmetry between a married couple (of course, in the opening verse, we get the line “But symmetry looks good on you”, which makes this feel like a tie-in). The interplay of their vocals is great; “Ready For It” in comparison feels really disconnected. “The Beautiful Game” in contrast feels like something sung between the couple of a rom-com, and just makes you feel really happy as a result.

More layering of synths happens throughout the second verse as it builds up to that fantastic chorus again. It leads into a bridge of “oohs”, a shimmery synth riff, and a riff from the super-tight marimba-sounding synth that came in during the back half of in verse two, which again gets at the sort of contrast I mentioned between sounding “wobbly” and incredibly balanced.

And then, we get the spacey, slowed-down bridge that offers a nice break, and just as inevitably leads into the song’s big finish. Everything gets brought in for the finally; a new synth sound, vocal samples, all the previous stuff, en route to a final repeat of the full chorus. And then there’s the final chorus repeat that starts stripping parts out of the dense orchestration until it’s mostly just the two vocalists, drums, bass, and a few accent parts. And then, the song slowly works into a fade-out, shedding parts as it works into an airy sound, then a new guitar riff that transitions into the next song on the album (which I found out on Friday is the also-fantastic “Johnny Cash” featuring Scavenger Hunt, but maybe that’s a story for another day).

Something about “The Beautiful Game” feels cinematic in it’s grand lusciousness and contrasts. Add in the chemistry between the vocalists and you can easily conjure up an entire visual scene. That and the feelings it brings up, combined with the relaxed groove at the center, makes it feel like a perfect song for a summer day, the perfect compliment of good feelings to go with any variety of summery activities.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Some Thoughts on Protagonists and Antagonists, via Cars 3

This is just going to be a short piece, but it’s something that bugged me while I was watching a movie, so I might as well put into words why I didn’t think it worked. It never hurts to think things through and try and learn from them.

I saw Cars 3 over the weekend, as part of my Pixar completionist streak, and was pleasantly surprised. In all honesty, I enjoyed Cars*, but don’t really remember anything about Cars 2, so my expectations going in were pretty tempered. Add in a pre-release campaign that seemed…unclear at best, and I think it’s fair to say that this was the least excited I had been for a new Pixar movies in a while.

*I don’t know if I’d put it all that high among Pixar’s in-studio rankings, but that’s as much a reflection on their strong track record as the movie itself.

In the end, the movie turned out mostly good. It will definitely stick in my brain longer than Cars 2 did, so at the very worst, so it has that going for it. However, there were just some minor complaints I had, most of which are tied to some of the thematic things going on. This will contain some light plot spoilers as a result.

Basically, it all boils down to this: the villains of the movie just don’t work. This isn’t the end-all, be-all, of course. The personal growth arcs of the main mostly work… except that they insist on using these “villains” as the end demonstration of that growth, which sort of undermines the arcs a little, in my opinion.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Summer Playlist 2017

June 7th marks the third anniversary of Out of Left Field, and I struggled to think of something that would mark the occasion as well as my Hot Corner Harbor seventh anniversary post the other day. In the end, I decided to instead go back to a feature that I’ve critically underutilized so far, playlists. I love sharing music, after all. The amazingly nice weather recently had me thinking about summer songs again, so I decided why not try and build off of last year’s post and do a new Summer Playlist for 2017.

It’s not going to be exactly, the same of course. I made sure to stick to stuff not on either of my earlier playlists* (even though I was really tempted to feature “Weekend” by Neon Trees again, it’s really perfect for this, and Scavenger Hunt got crowded out partly because of two features on last year’s list). And it wound up being a little less thematically laser-focused, meaning a larger list with sometime more abstract connections to the summer theme. Some of them feel more like “good songs to listen to during summer” rather than “summer songs”, but I can’t really explain in words what that difference is exactly, other than it’s an instinctual feeling. Just know that it occurred to me during my brainstorming and bugged me a little.

*Or upcoming playlists, in a few cases; I have several more in the works, maybe I’ll eventually get around to posting them.

 A few blurbs on the songs now:

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Event[0] Video Game Review & Analysis: Combining an Amazing Central Mechanic with a Neat Little Story

A while ago, I finished the video game Event[0], and I found it interesting enough that I want to write about it. I feel like I don’t write enough about video games*, despite playing them at least semi-frequently, and I’m interested enough in the medium that I’d like to change that. Apologies if this article winds up a little rough as a result, but I figure it’s better to try it and learn from the experience than never bother. But more over, I think there should be more in-depth analysis of video games, as there is in other mediums, and I’d like to chip in, so this seems like a good chance to try.

*I really, really wanted to write something last year about Undertale, but I could never get an angle to approach it from other than “this is just so good in every way, play it”. I still don’t have anything else to say other than this, but it’s still worth saying I think.

First, a general introduction to the game. Event[0] is a first-person/environmental narrative* science fiction game created by Parisian developers Ocelot Society**. Set in an alternate 2012 where commercial space travel has been going strong since the 1980s, you play as a space traveler who is forced to evacuate a doomed ship at the start, only to eventually drift to a mostly-abandoned decades-old ship.

*I’ve heard a bunch of names for this genre, and these two seemed the most common, so I split the difference.

**Also of note: the game was financed, in part, by the Indie Fund, a group that specializes in helping fund smaller video game projects. In under a decade, they’ve already built up a pretty good library of titles. And if you’ve seen the very-good Indie Game: The Movie, it’s worth noting that one of the founders is Jonathan Blow, one of that documentary’s focus, as well as notable creator in his own right of titles like Braid and The Witness.

The catch is, there’s one member of the crew left: the ship’s artificial intelligence, Kaizen-85. You have figure out how to work with Kaizen to repair the Nautilus to get it running again, all while determining what happened to the rest of the crew.

Having to butter up or coerce an in-game character into helping you isn’t anything radically new in a video game. What is new is the central system Ocelot Society has built the game around: Kaizen (and the rest of the ship as a whole, including things like doors) can only be interacted with through discussion. Specifically, by typing into various consoles scattered around the ship to “talk” with Kaizen. Not picking pre-set choices or anything like that that you might see in another game; you have free reign to converse with Kaizen in just about any way that you’d like. It’s really quite amazing.*

*For anyone curious how this works, the always-amazing Game Maker’s Toolkit has a fascinating video that digs into the nitty-gritty of this a little more.

With all that description out of the way, I want to discuss my thoughts on the game a bit more. There will be some spoilers eventually, so be warned, but if you find this interesting so far and want to discover things for yourself, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. It’s a little on the short side as a warning, so if you aren’t sure, maybe hold off until it’s on sale or something, but one way or another, it’s worth a look. Also, I’ll start on the game’s mechanics and design before moving on to story stuff, so if you’re more concerned about narrative spoilers, you can read a little further.

And with that…

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Colossal, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and Empathy

(spoilers marked as they appear)
I’ve been experiencing a whole lot of great art lately, and I’d love to comment on a lot of it, so I might be doing a few short articles like this just to get my thoughts and recommendations and what I liked about them down. Thankfully, two recent movies that I’ve seen and loved are pretty thematically linked, so it made some sense to do them in tandem.

Part I
Let’s start with the more recent, wider release: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. I’ve seen some mixed reaction to this one, but I liked it a lot. I mean, I did really like the first one, but from what I can tell, that hasn’t been a one-to-one indicator of what people think of the new one. In any case, I’d go as far to say it’s the best movie since the first Guardians, and in the upper tier of Marvel movies.* I mentioned that I saw Doctor Strange, as a bit of a bounce back from a few weaker films, but this one finishes the rebound.

*If I actually had to put the Marvel movies into tiers, I think I’d put the Guardians movies, The Avengers, and Iron Man 3 in the top one.

It’s definitely feels like everything on the first one turned up to 11, including being sillier, more visually stunning, and more touching all in one. I can also see the point of some people about some of the jokes being weirdly placed, cutting into dramatic moments, but I actually appreciated that in some way. Maybe it won’t sit as well on re-watches, but I loved those rapid juxtapositions, and felt like they added to the humor and made some jokes better than they should have been.

And it’s more heartfelt than the original; basically each member of the team (now expanded to eight guardians, with Mantis, Yondu, and Nebula joining the original five) get emotional arcs to them, which makes the long run time worth it. It’s technically just as “grand” in scale as the first one, but the focus on the characters gives it, in spite the universe-level stakes, an intimate feel that I don’t think any of the other Marvel movies have been able to actually pull off (although the Avengers movies have tried, and come close). This work pays off, and the characters give the movie and meaningful emotional connection, both with the audience and with each other, which really helps to serve the movies’ focus on family and familial connections. In fact, I think this was only the second superhero movie I teared up at (after Logan; 2017 has been pretty great for superhero movies so far).

And even the villain gets a decent amount of focus, and as a result we get the second-best villain of the Marvel universe after Loki (I realize this isn’t saying a lot, but it’s still something). Sure, the tonal shifts make for a jerkier feel than the first one, and the soundtrack is weaker, and some of the novelty is loss, but writer/director James Gunn has turned in a funny and moving script with some very pretty and colorful visuals, and overall there’s a lot to dig into thematically as well (in true comic book fashion, in blatant, larger-than-life metaphors, and with some fighting involved, but that’s part of the fun). Overall, I wouldn’t hesitate now to call Vol. 2 the equal to the original Guardians of the Galaxy.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I...Actually Liked the New Power Rangers Movie?

Apparently, I’m just going to be writing defenses of every at least vaguely-genre-ish, fairly-big budget action movie that sees semi-polarizing reviews from now on.* Last weekend, I saw the new Power Rangers movie, and I…actually liked it? That was probably the last thing I expected, and yet, it still somehow happened.

*Behind-the-scenes factoid: I came this close to writing one for X-Men: Apocalypse last year.

I mean, I watched the series back when I was little (a decade and a half or more ago at this point), but it’s not something I followed very closely as I got older (I could tell you it was still running, but that was about it), and I am under no illusions today about its quality. If not for rainy weather, a cheap ticket, and some sense of morbid curiosity, I might not have seen it at all. But I did, and it’s become probably my most surprising film of the young year.

My apprehension sprung mostly from early trailers selling the movie as some sort of dark, grim, serious take on the material, which seems like the worst idea possible. After all, at its core, Power Rangers is about a bunch of twenty-somethings pretending to be teenagers fighting ridiculous monsters in colorful costumes, then fighting the same monsters only larger, this time in colorful giant robots. That is the last thing that sounds like it needs a “serious, gritty” adaptation. But those trailers did the actual movie a disservice, as they did not fully capture the movie’s actual tone, which is the key to why it works.

See, the movie itself is “serious” in a way, just not in the way that I’ve been using; rather, it takes its characters seriously. Instead of giving everything a somber tone, it instead takes the characters totally earnestly, which is why they not only work, but are also one of the strong-points of the film.

I’ve seen some people say that the movie feels “embarrassed” to be a Power Rangers movie, and I totally disagree. This is, after all, a movie that not only fully indulges in multi-color battle suit martial arts battles and giant robot/monster clashes*, but even recreates shots from the original theme song and intro, complete with an arrangement of the awesome-but-totally-over-the-top theme song playing.

*Not only does it have giant robots fighting a giant monster, it also has it in clear daylight; as much as I loved Pacific Rim, the constant rain/nighttime aesthetic made it a bit of a headache to follow the action at times. None of the fight scenes here quite top those, but there’s something to be said for not straining your eyes too.

No, this isn’t “embarrassed” to be anything. Instead, it knows that the things that make Power Rangers, Power Rangers probably won’t translate to a two-hour movie, and something must be added. Dean Israelite and company decide the way to build up the story is to dig into the characters a bit.

If we’re being honest, the sort of characters used in the show are usually not interesting enough to support a two-hour movie. That’s not to say the movie’s Power Rangers are the most well-developed, compelling, three-dimensional characters, but they are definitely better than the original show, given that I had my mind blown while looking back and realizing that Rangers were sometimes swapped out for new casts mid-season. I have no memories of this; the characters just weren't distinct enough for me to feel especially strongly about the changes.

Instead, the young actors here turn in memorable and instantly-likable performances, to the point where I would be okay with more time being spent on just them hanging out together. They have a real chemistry. And the character arcs given to the Rangers are a little angsty and melodramatic…but they’re also playing teenagers, so it feels more understandable, and the actors do a pretty good job at getting you invested. And moreover, their reactions don’t feel too disproportionate, given the struggles they each face. I’d say that overall, the five Rangers feel like a good representation of today’s youth, in representation (even building off the tradition of the original), problems, attitude, and so on. The overall effect is that the movie feels something like “The CW’s Kung Fu X-Men, with a $100-million+ budget and a Giant Robot Fight Finale”, and I mean that in the nicest way possible.

That’s not to say the movie is perfect. If you aren’t a fan of the over-the-top ridiculous that the series entails, this will do nothing to sell you on that. If you can’t stand teenage melodrama stories, same thing applies. On the less-dependent-on-personal-taste end, the third quarter of the movie moves away from the melodramatic and into the straight serious, which…doesn’t work as well, and it comes close to falling apart before recovering, and then we follow it up with the big action sequence, so it mostly washes the bad taste out of your mouth. Still, I sort of wish that third quarter had been cut down to give the first half more room to breathe. It feels rushed at times.

In the “not actually a problem, but I’ve seen people complain about it anyway” department, the heroes technically don’t go full “Power Rangers” until the last half-hour, but I’m okay with that, as it gives the conclusion an epic feel. My general stance is that if your superhero story isn’t interesting when the hero(es) isn’t in costume and fighting villains, it’s not a good story. And the melodramatic real lives here feel very at home in the world of comics and superheroes as a whole.

And one final (spoiler-free) note on the finale, while we’re on the subject: I can’t express how relieved I am that this movie tells a complete story. Sure, from what I’ve read, Saban is planning on making at least five more movies, which…may be a little much, but okay, sure, whatever, that’s just the day and age that we’re living in now, but the important thing is it doesn't bleed into this movie. There are small sequel hooks, but they’re the good kind, the sort that feels natural, and more like a shout-out or reference to the backstory that could easily be ignored if the creators decide to go a different direction rather than crucial scaffolding being set up to support an entirely different movie. Even Marvel, whose movies I generally enjoy, suffer from this at times. Instead, Power Rangers knows to tell a single complete story rather than leave all of its plot threads dangling for “To Be Continued”s.

So, overall, I’m definitely pleasantly surprised here. It’s by no means perfect, but if every major studio blockbuster were of this quality, we’d be much better off overall. The characters are interesting enough that I would be super interested in spending more time with them, which is always a good sign, and it delivers on all the awesome silliness you would want from a Power Rangers movie. If/When Power Rangers 2 comes out, I’m totally on board. The series seems to be in good hands.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August Review

I finally finished The First Fifteenth Lives of Harry August by Claire North (the pen name of Catherine Webb) and figured I would take a few moments to jot down my thoughts on it. Let’s break this down into three sections.

The shortest review:
Yep, I liked it. Check it out if you get a chance!

The not-quite-as-short review: For those of you who need things like plot details or specific reasons a reviewer liked things, fine, I guess I’ll elaborate. As you might have been able to guess from the title, the titular Harry August is a special individual born in 1919, one who, upon dying, finds himself back at the moment of his birth with all of his memories from the life that he just died in. He meanders through life (er, lives) trying to figure out what this means and what to do about it before finally meeting a mysterious club of similar individuals. And after discovering this secret society, he learns something even more shocking: the end of the world is accelerating. Something has affected the future, and is drawing the apocalypse closer and closer to the modern day. And with this, we have our hook for the plot.

In actuality, the book drops this last bit of info immediately with no context before backtracking to explain, so the proper investigation into what’s destroying the Earth faster and faster comes sufficiently later in the story. A lot of time is spent explaining the nature of Harry’s ability and what he does with his many lives, followed by setting up the world and history of the Chronus Club.

A quick search online tells me that not everyone is fond of this fact, but I actually liked it quite a bit. It sets a nice, leisurely pace that gives you all the details necessary to feel immersed in this intriguing society. No part of it feels extraneous, and despite covering a lot of ground, it actually moves rather quickly, like a brisk but winding trek through beautiful and unexplored territory.

And the layout, which bounces between lives in a more thematic rather than chronological way, keeps you on your toes. Despite all the overlapping lives to keep track of, it’s actually pretty straightforward once you get a feel for things, and North does a good job of knowing right when the reader will have everything under their thumb and can take new, large developments on for consideration.

It helps that Harry makes for an interesting narrator, something of a curious philosopher who is forced into frequent deep introspection due to his condition; he’s too different to fit in with the “linears” (those who experience time once, then die), especially those of his era, but more inquisitive and restless than his peers. He takes on a wider range of experiences in his many lives than most of them, which gives each life a distinct feel. This has the interesting effect of giving a story with a very minimal main cast the feel of a more sprawling story with a wider, more spread-out cast. And each one being many of the same characters in different situations makes it feel like a series of “What If” stories. I’m a big fan of both things.

About halfway through the book, once the conflict proper has been brought to the forefront, the story shifts into something more chronological and driving, something of a multi-generational, science-fiction “Count of Monte Cristo”-esque revenge tale where we get to see a methodical and cunning protagonist slowly lay down the pieces to a large plan, which I am once again all for in a narrative.

If this still all sounds good to you, then you should definitely give it a shot. If you want to read any more, though, stick around for part three…

The even-longer-still-but-still-short review, this part of which contains plot spoilers, so maybe hold off if you want to keep it all a surprise: Some other stuff that I want to discuss about the novel: