Category Archives: reviews

Evolve – An Album Review

imagine-dragons-evolveImagine Dragons delivers their new album to us and I’m disappointed by the results. Titled Evolve, it feels like one step forward, two steps back for the band. While there are songs I enjoy from the album, especially the singles that were released leading up to Evolve, the general vibe is underwhelming.

I’m under no illusions that the previous Imagine Dragons albums were conceptual masterpieces. But they felt stronger as a whole, even if they could be a bit bloated. Here, there’s too few songs that stand out and not enough to hold the rest of the album up.

Maybe it’s the 80s vibe that’s throughout the album (and cover), that never seems to do much but season the songs with synth. Maybe it’s an overuse of effects, warping Dan Reynolds’ vocals for little benefits. The self-doubt of the previous albums that created “Shots” and “Polaroid” is gone, replaced with a much healthier outlook on life and self. And I always find that harder to relate to.

“I Don’t Know Why” starts off the album, without the oomph of “Radioactive” or self-destructiveness of “Shots”. It’s a fine song, one that might have been better suited as a middle track but it fails as the curtain riser. I suppose it does introduce the eighties synths we’ll be hearing throughout, but it doesn’t really have a hook of its own.

“Whatever It Takes” would have worked much better as an opener. Reynolds feels more at home and at speed with this song. Lyrics like “Whip, whip, run me like a racehorse” are catchy and the chorus is the kind you want to sing loud to inspire others around you, even if the protest. The bridge is smooth, slowing Reynolds’ rapping down to more of a conversation. It’s a strong track and a standout.

I’m sure I don’t need to talk about “Believer” that much. The song has been playing for months, the Dolph Lundgren-starring music video racking up the views. This one feels like Imagine Dragons 101. Put this on right after “Radioactive” and they would fit perfectly. Its the most bombastic song on the album, for sure. While it’s not a new favorite for me, it feels right at home with the band.

“Walking the Wire” is a return to the 80s. The chorus is catchy and and reminds me of a song Michael Jackson never wrote. The echo and layers have come straight out of 1987. Unfortunately, the rest of the song is forgettable, leaving little impression. “Rise Up” fairs a little better, even if it feels like the non-identical twin of “Walking the Wire”.

Then there’s the Huey Lewis and the News inspired, “I’ll Make It Up To You”. From the opening notes, to the chord choices and lyrics of the chorus, this reminds me of “If This Is It”.. Reynolds even sounds like he’s doing an impression of Lewis. I’d be surprised if Imagine Dragons didn’t do this on purpose, because the imitation is spot on. Maybe that’s why I like the song, cheese and all.

And maybe that’s why I don’t love “Yesterday”. If the previous song is a spot on impression of the News, than this track is a bad take on Queen, from the layered shouts to the guitar solo, to the hopefully-not-intended Freddie Mercury inflections. And while I tend not to mind Imagine Dragons love for effects stacking on one another, there’s too much going on in this song. Others might disagree, but this is a track that’s most likely to be skipped in the future.

“Mouth OF The River” has a pretty unattractive guitar during the verses, but the chorus is fine. A bit U2, but fine. Actually, there’s U2 sprinkled all around this album, mainly in the chords progressions inside most choruses. Take from that what you will.

If I’ve seemed harsh, let me admit, “Thunder” has been playing non-stop on my work computer. There’s nothing complicated about this song, the lyrics are almost criminally simple. But the story of the song is sly and snarky and when that chorus comes in, it’s got me hooked. The drum’s “boom boom boom” thunder, the repetition of the one word finding a surprising rhythm, that high pitch voice, it all works. It’s short and it hasn’t left the loop inside my brain. And the music video is weird as heck.

“Start Over” is too much cheese, even for me. The chorus, again sounding like a reject from Genesis or Belinda Carlisle, isn’t anything special. But the rest feels like a chore. And, fair warning, “Dancing In The Dark, is not a cover of the Bruce Springsteen song. It’s also a weak ending for the album. Reynolds’ voice is auto tuned the whole track and nothing about feels inspired. It’s too much, especially over a fairly relaxed beat.

Over the past year, I’ve seen a lot of critics complain about Imagine Dragons, complaining about pointless layering and meaningless sounds. I’ve never understood that, as I really enjoy the band and their previous albums. And I still don’t agree with them. Even though I don’t love Evolve, the band has a unique sounds and can be a lot of fun. I find a lot of their songs reflective, exciting and just plain catchy. Evolve has less of that, but it’s not a total loss. As someone still using cds in his car, I doubt I’ll be picking this one over Smoke + Mirrors, but I would want some of Evolve on a playlist. The album seems like it came easy to the band, but it doesn’t make for compelling music.

All the Books Show: Episode 95 – Lookalikes

This episode we talk the Bailey’s Prize, discuss the Mummy and chat more about Woman in Cabin 10. We add another title to our Lonely Hearts Book Club, but I might have been annoying during that segment.

I reviewed The Mummy on the blog, but at least you get a second opinion from Nic. And I have started the Woman in Cabin 10 but my wife reviewed it on her site, so check that out.

890509Our Lonely Hearts Book this episode was by Kate Wilhelm, winner of the Hugo Award. Huysman’s Pets, to be specific. It might be a great book. But, when I get an idea as potent as a Chris Farley movie that never was, how am I to be expected to focus on anything else. Farley was hilarious, hampered by not-fantastic films. My movie would have out-shown them all.

If you’re mad about my lack of interest in Wilhelm’s pet mystery, let me know. Keep in mind, I will be reading her work in the future, as I continue my way through Hugo winners. Let’s just hope Tommy Boy isn’t on TV at that time.

You can follow us on Soundcloud, Youtube or iTunes and even Twitter! I’m sure there’s another, cool platform I’m forgetting but you can follow us on that too!

See you next week, podcats!

A Geek’s Guide to the Best Podcasts

On the 91st episode of The All the Books Show, we talked about podcasts. Nic and I each mentioned three podcasts for our listeners. The thing is, I listen to more than three podcasts! And a lot of them are a bit too geeky for me to talk about on the show.

So, I’m going to talk about my favorite podcasts that I listen to and would suggest to people with similar tastes. Or different tastes! Some people like branching out!

Let the free advertising begin.

 

The Weekly Planet

the_weekly_planet_jpegAn Australian podcast hosted by Mr. Sunday Movies and Nick Mason (not that one), The Weekly Planet talks comics books, movies, tv and sometimes, rarely, video games. It’s a geek news cast, keeping listeners up-to-date with the latest rumors, trailers and reviews. Each week, the cover the latest news, review a movie or tackle a topic, talk about what they’re reading/watching and answer letters.

I used to get all my comic book news from sites like Comic Book Resources, but since I started listening to The Weekly Planet, I now get my news from this podcast exclusively. It’s funny, they tend to have great ideas and it doesn’t have the cold, corporate excitement of a press release like most websites. I don’t always agree with them, sometimes I feel like I know more about a subject then them, but it’s always amusing. Nic Mason is a quick wit and can crack me up without a moment’s notice. Mr. Sunday is a good spirit, though he gets much more aggressive than Mason. But he’s a great host with a pretty fun YouTube channel of his own.

It’s a great show for those who’d like to stay up to date with comic book movies, geek TV and pop culture in general.

 

Filthy Casuals

231717_300x300Next is another Australian podcast and this one has risen to the show I look forward to the most. The hosts, Tommy Dassalo, Ben Vernel and Adam Knox, are all funny comedians on their own, but together, the show is a great time.

Filthy Causals is a video game cast that covers the current gaming news and releases. They’ll speculate on rumors, review the games they’re playing and answer listener mail. Sometimes discussions go long and philosophical, such as the future of gaming or whether or not The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is, objectively, the best game ever made.

They’ll also dedicate whole episodes to certain topics, such as the time they covered TIME Magazine’s 50 Best Video Games of All Time list or, just recently, E3. They also will talk about whole series, such as the Grand Theft Auto or Mario games. Their humor is crude more often than not, but it’s hilarious and despite some of the harsher jokes, the show does create a warm environment to talk about video games. Never claiming to be experts or the most skilled and focusing on comedy over dry information sharing, it’s easy to recommend.

 

Do Go On

8949871_origThe last Australian podcast I’m going to list is also harder to describe. Each episode, one of the three hosts reports on a topic and the other two do their best to make the facts fun. Many of the topics are chosen by the listeners, with report topics ranging from Charlie Chaplin, Jack the Ripper, Shackleton’s Endurance or the Wives of King Henry VIII.

It’s a fun show. Dave Warneke, Jess Perkins and Matt Stewart crack each other up constantly and I’ve had to rewind to hear jokes a second time. It’s a show that I can bulldoze through, going through multiple episodes in a row. The topics are rarely boring on their own and the humor adds to it all. It’s a weirdly educational show and I’ve learned quite a bit while listening. Sometimes, the humor gets in the way of the fascinating history but it’s hard to fault it when it’s so entertaining.

 

The Great Albums

qsvreiauThe Great Albums is a show that looks to cover the best albums in music history. The show’s goal is to talk about albums as a whole, as not just a vessel for singles but a work of art from first song to last. The hosts try to have the discussions about the work in the same way fans would, as two friends talking about their favorite music.

Bill Lambusta and Brian Erickson host the show and almost always have guest to talk about that week’s album. Topics range from the obvious Dark Side of the Moon and Who’s Next to the obscure, like New Miserable Experience. These days, the albums discussed depend on the guest’s favorites and Bill and Brian’s own taste tends to run a bit different than mine. While I don’t love all their choices, the conversations are always interesting. They have great thoughts about music and what makes it last.

I appreciate the focus on albums over singles, as I’ve learned to appreciate them myself over the last few years. I ended up buying a car with no aux port so I relearned how to listen to albums from beginning to end. It really is a different experience than listening to just your favorites on shuffle. And The Great Albums is a guide in finding the best music.

 

OverClocked PodCast

downloadI wrote about OverClocked Remix back on Hubpages once or twice. To quickly talk about it, it’s a fantastic site that collects remixes of video game music. With thousands of songs and albums, it’s treasure trove of your favorite game’s soundtracks presented in new and interesting ways.

The OverClocked PodCast shines a spotlight on the website and video game music each episode. Brothers Stephen and Bryan Kelly will introduce music to each other, see what’s new over at OCR, interview a host about a particular track or project and than host a listener created playlist. The interviews are great practice in talking about what we love from game music and to see what elements stick with certain people. The playlists feel like a radio station got smart and started playing the best unaired music they could find.

I’ve been going to OverClocked Remix for seventeen years, filling my iTunes with it’s music. While I’ve tried to introduce the site to friends and family, it’s never stuck with them and I’ve been left to appreciate the music alone. But this podcast shares my love for the site and video game music in general. The Kelly Brothers are fun, nerdy hosts and keep the episodes cheery. If you’ve never been to the site or don’t listen to game music yourself, this cast is still a great music show and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for great tunes.

 

Revolutions

600x600bb1Is this somehow the nerdiest podcast I’m talking about? This is a history podcast hosted by Mike Duncan, who is not a comedian, that covers revolutions throughout history. Split into seasons by the revolution being covered, each episode focuses on elements and characters of history that make up the wars.

Duncan is frighteningly knowledgeable about each revolution and wise to keep each episode thirty minutes long. By keeping them short, the show feels digestible and less intimidating. Sure, some of these revolutions are more interesting than others, but I always feel smarter finishing an episode.

While Duncan can be a bit dry, he does have a sense of humor and brings up the insanity and bad choices that led to many of these uprisings. He’ll follow rabbit trails to see how small decisions lead to big consequences, he’ll make fun of historical figures and stop to make sure we’re understanding what’s happening. He’s not the world’s most charismatic entertainer, but he’s a fun professor if you’re an attentive student.

 

The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith

1200x630bbOne of the oldest podcast I still listen to as I used to follow Goldsmith’s other show Creative Screenwriting Magazine. The Q&A follows the same format; Jeff Goldsmith interviews screenwriters, directors and actors about the creative process of film making.

Each interview, Goldsmith has a formula of of questions for the guest. We learn how they got started, how they’re process works, if they outline or not, how they deal with writer’s block, etc. He then focuses on the movie at hand and asks about decisions, challenging scenes to write, elements that came easy and the creator’s next project(s).

This show has made me a more critical movie watcher, as I’ve learned terms and troupes of film making. Depending on the movie being discussed, some of the the interviews can be fascinating and seem too short. The episode with George Miller discussing Mad Max: Fury Road is criminally brief, the interviews with the writers of Marvel films are never long enough and I remember wanting the Nightcrawler show to not end. For writers, this is an invaluable cast. For film buffs, its more insight to share at parties. Even if you’re not a writer, this podcast can be a wonderful look into the creation of your favorite films. Highly recommended to everyone.

 

Shut Up and Sit Down

600x600bb2An extension of the popular board game website of the same name. The episodes are hosted by a steady crew of British gamers, tackling board game news and reviews, while also reading listener mail (sometimes even my own!). In the growing world of table top games, this pod is a quick way to stay up-to-date with new releases and trends in the hobby.

It’s mainly hosted by Quentin Smith and Paul Dean, with a regular rotation of other site contributors. They’re all enthusiastic about the hobby and it’s growth and many of them are very well traveled in the world of table top games. Even if their opinions are different from mine, they always know what they’re talking about and talk about games with a desire for others to play as well.

I owe Shut Up and Sit Down a lot, because they helped and guided me as I got into modern board games over the years. They were the first place I learned about 7 WondersLetters from Whitechapel and Rex. If it wasn’t for this show, I wouldn’t have wanted the classic Survive: Escape from Atlantis or tried the hilarious Spyfall. It’s been a great resource and it’s fun as well.

 

The Adventure Zone

wfpebjnpA very new addition to my listening schedule, The Adventure Zone is one of the funniest podcasts I’ve ever listened to. Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy are three brothers who bring their dad, Clint, along for a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, with few of them ever having played before.

Griffin runs the game, starting from the 5th Edition premade adventure and then creating his own world and story. He’s a funny guy alone, but his brothers carry a lot of the weight. Sure, some of it is from their own jokes, but their role playing can be so bizarre and hilarious that listening to the show while driving can dangerous. I ended up laughing myself into tears, thankfully in standstill traffic, during their early adventures.

It’s the only narrative podcast I listen to and it’s a a niche one as well. Where I might recommend most of the other shows to anyone, your mileage may very. My wife has very little D&D experience, but she still found the show entertaining and ended up laughing right alongside me, so I would suggest giving the first episode a try, despite reservations.

 

The Rest

There’s a few other shows I at least want to mention, if not get into deeply.

Fatman on Batman by Kevin Smith used to be a great exploration into the world of Batman and comic book history. He would have writers and artists of comics and tv come and be interviewed about the Dark Knight and it was an amazing look being the creation of some of the best Batman stories. Unfortunately, the show has lost focus and is now just another new show for movies. If you’re interested, I highly recommend going back through the older episodes, especially the interview with Dennis O’Neil.

Writing Excuses was the first podcast I ever heard and I loved it for a long time. The show changed format and focus a bit, and I personally lost interest as the years went on. Aside from that, it’ an amazing tool for inspiring writers with hosts who have been there and found success. Endless tips, suggestions and great ideas for writers (and readers), I don’t think I would have written a novel or taken a writing minor without this podcast.

Cane and Rinse is a new show I’ve found but I’m hooked. Every episode is an in-depth discussion about one particular video game. I’m not far enough a long to say too much more, but I find it fascinating and the hosts really do a good job talking about the game objectively with a dry, English wit. It probably won’t appeal to people who haven’t played the games but I recommend it to all interested parties.

Years ago, I wrote a post about Christian podcasts I suggested. It’s dated now and it’s not for everyone but you can find it here.

Any suggestions of your own? Podcasts you think I should listen to? Hate my choices? Let me know! And of course, be sure to check out my sweet podcast! It’s a weekly treat for readers and non-readers alike!

Stardew Valley is My Therapist

I’ve been playing a lot of Stardew Valley.

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Like most things, I got to Stardew Valley late. The game has been out for more than a year and despite Steam Sales and fantastic word of mouth, I only recently purchased a copy for myself. You see, my wife got a new computer and since she likes Animal Crossing, I decided she might like another farming/village simulator.

She’s played it for a little bit and moved on. I’ve played it for weeks.

When I was younger, the PlayStation 2 got a port of the Sims and I got addicted for a week. That fire eventually died and I moved on to more complicated simulation games like Civilization IV and such. I figured since I missed the Harvest Moon and Animal Crossing craze, I was pretty much safe from the farming/life simulator genre. I was wrong.

The game opens with you receiving your own run -down farm from your grandfather. This gift frees you from the 9 to 5 world of cubicles and city life. Let me tell you, I’m at the point of my life where I don’t know what I want to do and where I want to live. I’ve got my 9 to 5 job and regularly scheduled life and I’ve found the whole experience unsatisfying. Not bad, mind you, and it’s extremely helpful in allowing me to do some things I want and have dogs and a roof over my head and etc. But, I found the opening of the game to be highly effecting.

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In a way, it’s a meta opening. Your character is given a change to get away from the world and fix up his farm and start a new life. The player, in turn, is given a virtual farm that helps them escape from the busy day to day of life. More than most games, I’ve found Stardew Valley to be one of the most relaxing games I’ve played.

Which, is ironic because you stay b-u-s-y in the game. Days move by quickly, with hours gone in minutes due to the in-game clock. There’s never enough time in a game’s day to do all I want. Each time my character wakes up, I have to choose what my day will look like. Will I farm and milk my cows and plant new crops? Will I spend the day fishing and gathering? Or will I spend hours in the mines, fighting off slimes and digging for gold?

16There’s so much that I can imagine some players only doing specific things their whole play through. Me? I like doing a bit of everything and see all there is to see. As my second year in the game rolls around, I’m more excited for my crop choices and barn expansions. And I still want to do more.

The characters are probably the secret weapon in this game. Goals are nice and designing my farm is fun but the people you meet in town give it personality. I’ve played games that are huge in scope but only leave me feeling lonely because the characters I meet are empty vessels of conversation trees and quest markers. But each villager you interact with in Stardew Valley has their own goals, regrets and personal journey. Romancing has a simple charm to it, people falling in love through gift giving, but there’s a story to it all. AS you learn more about each character, you want to know more and soon you’re trying to unlock all possible stories.

When my wife has gone to bed and I’m left with the choices of what to do with the night, it all comes back to Stardew Valley. Nothing feels as relaxing as sitting at the beach while trying to catch squid or exploring the depths of the mines looking for Purple Mushrooms. Nothing feels quite as satisfying as harvesting quality potatoes or producing duck egg mayonnaise. Maybe this is more of a critique of my current life, my current contentment. It’s not like I want to own a farm myself.

But the Super Nintendo graphics are so charming, the music is so relaxing and the characters you meet are unique and funny that it’s almost a convincing pitch of farm life. And it keeps you coming back. I enjoyed Prison Architect but, after finishing the campaign modes, I haven’t returned. Stardew Valley has content to spare.

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Again, this is probably as much about me as it is the game. Medal of Honor: Frontline left a strong impression on me as a teenage because I was unhappy with my life at the time and I wanted to feel like a hero. But, joining the army would have been the wrong choice for me back then.

Stardew Valley is a great game. It’s addicting, it has personality and helps me wind down after the day. But it also taps into a part of me that isn’t satisfied, that isn’t excited to start a new day. It taps into the adult I’ve become and makes me wonder if I’ve taken the right roads.

In the game, I’m goal driven. I have long term and short term plans and I work towards them with determination. In the game, I’m people oriented. I work to find out the character’s likes and dislikes, befriend and romance and attend all the parties. In the game, I’m exhausted at night and jump out of bed in the morning.

In the game, I’m who I’d like to be in real life.

Did Eric Barone mean to make a Rorschach Test when he created this game alone? Did he mean for it to sell one million copies so that some people would rethink their life? I doubt it, but that’s what happened with me. I like my job and love my friends but where am I supposed to put down roots? Because no one is going to give me their old farm and save me from the mundane.

Maybe I can take the positive lessons from Stardew Valley and become more goal-oriented in life. Maybe I can take this discontentment and work for something that will bring me more peace. If I prefer the person I am in the game, maybe it’s time to be that person in the real world.

 

The Mummy – A Review

the_mummy_poster_2What do we want with a Mummy movie? Do we want an action-adventure like 1999 Brendan Fraser movie? Do we want a horror film? Period piece or modern day? European, American or Egyptian location?

I ask these questions because I feel like The Mummy isn’t very itself. While the previous trilogy of films had a clear vision, that doesn’t mean it has to be the blueprint for a new movie. Unfortunately, this movie doesn’t seem to have a blueprint of it’s own.

The film starts off well, once it gets past the cold open with Russell Crowe. We have Tom Cruise in trouble, stuck in a lost cause of a shootout. He discovers a tomb, is joined by a boring blonde, they grab a mummy and then the mummy’s curse starts messing with people.

Breaking the film down in thirds, the first is by far the strongest. It seems to have a vision, a hectic pace with both action and horror and it’s here Tom Cruise seems to be the most game. My appreciation of Cruise as an actor has grown over the years, in going back to his earlier work and enjoying some of his new output. These days, it seems like the he and the audience have the most fun when he’s getting beat up. Whether he’s being thrown around, punched, dragged, stabbed or chased, Cruise has a way of making his pain amusing and thrilling at the same time. I can’t think of another actor who’s as fun to watch get knocked around.

There’s some genuine horror that’s stylish and small scale. Even though the plane scene has been shown nonstop in all the trailers, it’s still a cool sequence and it’s actually creepier in the film itself. Cruise’s interaction with the movie’s mummy, played by a fantastic Sofia Boutella, is fun and flirty. He’s definitely over his head with this monster. There’s some early scenes at a church and later in a forest that fit a smaller scale horror movie that has some action to keep the excitement going. Unfortunately, the movie is soon derailed by it’s second act.

I mentioned needing a blueprint earlier and the one this movie decided to borrow was Marvel’s. Except, when Marvel made Iron Man back in 2008, they made a movie first and world-built second. If you re-watch Iron Man now, after all the Marvel films that have come after, it’s surprising to see how standalone that film really is. If there was no Marvel Cinematic Universe, that movie would still be self-contained, even with S.H.I.E.L.D. showing up to help the plot move along.

dr-jekyll-mummyThe end credits scene in Iron Man, with Nick Fury mentioning the Avengers Initiative, worked because it was short and not part of the movie proper. We get the tease and then can only speculate what’s going to happen in the future. Now imagine if, in the middle of Iron Man Nick Fury showed up and spent a whole act explaining S.H.I.E.L.D. and super heroes and how the world worked and… well, I guess we’d have Iron Man 2.

The Mummy has that middle chapter as Russell Crowe spits out exposition while trying to chew as much scenery as possible. As Dr. Jekyll, he’s fine, I suppose. He’s not as compelling as he was when playing Jor-El, but he gets the job done. As Mr. Hyde? Yeesh. Supported by neither compelling effects or accent changes, he’s a dead stop and the movie never recovers. Prodigium, this universe’s S.H.I.E.L.D. is dull, ineffective and wastes the time given to it. I have to believe there was a better movie here at one point, one with a more suspenseful and exciting middle chapter, but it’s not the one we’re being shown.

Maybe a different color pallet would have helped liven things up. As it stands, the movie is gray. Every location, even those that take place in the desert, are filmed in a gray hue. And I don’t mean to hue-shame, if that’s what’s in the director’s heart. But. when most movies, even Captain America: Civil War, have that unoffensive, neutral color scheme of parking lots, a little bit of red and yellow stand out. The Mummy goes for gray in all things; sets, skies, even Sofia Boutella is made-up in gray costumes and makeup. It makes for a dull picture, to be sure.

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The third act of the film tries to right the ship, but it’s already taken on too much water. If the movie had kept the tone set by the earlier reel, the smaller scale climax wouldn’t feel like such a letdown. After all that Prodigium exposition, we need more than the one-on-one conversation between hero and villain. There’s a brief moment when the movie seems like it’s going bigger, but it just equates to flying glass and a bus stunt (flying debris hasn’t been exciting since the car chase in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). If the movie had stayed the course, all of that would have been a cool raising of the stakes. And then, when it went back to the the more personal ending, it would have fit with what came before. Instead, we have a movie that crawls to the finish.

The Mummy is disappointing. Disappointing in terms of what the franchise has been before, in what it could have been and, since we already know Universal wants a spanning franchise of monster films, disappointing in what’s to come. I would love a bunch of new Universal monster movies but this does not leave me with hope. Maybe, if the next film downplays or completely ignores Prodigium, we can have a more standalone movie. Maybe Bride of Frankenstein will have it’s own tone and style. Maybe general audiences won’t connect this movie with The Creature of the Black Lagoon. Maybe Universal will change that stupid Dark Universe logo.

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All the Books Show: Episode 92 – Dragon Teeth

This episode we talk about Michael Crichton’s newest posthumous release, Dragon Teeth. We also talk about your other favorite Crichton posthumous releases, Micro and Pirate Latitudes. And then things get away from us as we imagine the Lizard sharing clothes with the Hulk.

Needless to say, I find more reasons to talk about Jurassic Park. And if anyone thinks that the Timeline movie is better than The Lost World: Jurassic Park, let me know because I will physically fight you outside the location of your choice.

dragonteeth-cover-liveI reviewed Dragon Teeth here on the blog, so if you want something a little more detailed, check it out. A quick summary is that I enjoyed having a new Crichton book, but it’s not a fantastic story. If I had to rate the books released after Crichton’s death, I would pick Micro, Dragon Teeth and then Pirate Latitudes. And Micro seems a little unfair because it was actually intended to be released. I’ll read anything they find on Crichton’s computer, but I don’t think we need to any more.

You can follow us on Soundcloud, Youtube or iTunes and even Twitter! I’m sure there’s another, cool platform I’m forgetting but you can follow us on that too!

See you next week, podcats!

Humanz – An Album Review

humanzgorillazI know the album came out at the end of March and maybe I should have reviewed it then, but that method seems so strange to me. I like having read reviews for new albums when they’re released, but I can’t do it myself. For me, your perception of an album, you’re true feelings for it, develop over time. I didn’t actually like the Postal Service’s Give Up until owning it for two years and then one day it just clicked and now it’s one of my five favorites of all time. But if I had reviewed it the day I got it, I’d look like a darn fool!

That’s the way it has worked all my life. The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ By the Way, the Gorillaz’ Demon Days, even David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars all took sometime to become favorites and for me to really understand what the album was saying. It’s why I’ll probably be reviewing the Chili Peppers’ The Getaway soon, even though it’s a year old. Music, maybe more than books and movies, needs time to grow.

But let’s talk about Humanz, the fifth Gorillaz album and first since 2010’s The Fall. The first thing I want to say is that it definitely feels like a Gorillaz album. In the seven years it’s taken for this album to happen, the sound, while still varied, is in the vein of the band. Yes, they’re eclectic, but the hip-hop electronic vibes still rule over traditional rock. This album is more “Dare” than “Clint Eastwood”.

Humanz is a political album that saw the worst coming and decided to throw a party. The first song proper, after one-of-many interludes, “Ascension” is a very raw and in-your-face introduction. Featured artist Vince Staples is a doorman with a doomsday sign and some angry words to share. I’ll admit, I didn’t like this song at first, but it slowly grew on me and now it feels like the only song that could start the album.

Next is “Strobelite”, a refugee from the 70s, featuring a very soulful Peven Everett. After that, we have “Saturnz Barz”. This is the first song on the album that sounds like classic Gorillaz and that’s mostly attributed to Damon Albarn finally showing up with his signature nasally whine. The song features Popcaan and has the right spooky galactic soundscape to make you feel lonely while you nod your head.

“Momentz” with De La Soul is a song that, again, didn’t click with me when I first heard it. There’s something so weird about the song, the music is heavy and and the bridge seems not to fit. But De La Soul brings so much charisma and confidence to his rap that when the bridge ends and the song kicks it up a notch, you’re jamming harder than you have throughout the album.

“Submission”, featuring Danny Brown and Kelela is a fun, relaxed tune that works because Kelela has a great voice and adds real emotion to the track. “Charger”, with  Grace Jones, is the most rock song on Humanz. With that repeated, distorted alarm, it stands out as an aggressive tune that grabs you by the ears.

I’ve mentioned before that I think the Gorillaz have a classic sound, one that if I hear it, I think of their work on Demon Days. “Andromeda” has that, though it’s not necessarily a track that would have fit on that album. It’s probably the most relaxing track, while still creating that cosmic soundscape “Saturnz Barz” started.

“Busted and Blue” is solo Albarn and it’s my least favorite track,, due to it’s also the dullest. It’s a slow, mournful song, but it’s a bit too plodding to get the job done. Luckily, “Carnival” brings in the weird, with a heartbeat drum and Anthony Hamilton’s creepy lyrics that create the image of a dilapidated waterfront park brought back to life, Frankenstein style.

One of the most charged, claustrophobic tracks is “Let Me Out”. From the opening keys, there’s something stressful here. To describe it, I’m going to just post my favorite lyrics from the song,”

Look into my eyes, mama, tell me what you see
Tell me there’s a chance for me to make it off the streets
Tell me that I won’t die at the hands of the police
Promise me I won’t outlive my nephew and my niece
Promise me my pastor isn’t lyin’ as he preach
Tell me that they’ll listen if it’s lessons that I teach
Tell me there’s a heaven in the sky where there is peace
But until then, I keep my piece in arm’s reach”

The hopelessness is potent, the wide-eyed hope for anything better is heartbreaking. Pusha T, the featured artist on the track, just wants to hear you promise him these things he know won’t be real. Even if you look him in the eye and say, “I promise”, he knows the hand has already been dealt. The music in the song is killer and it’s the lyrics should hit you like a bullet. It’s a standout track.

Changing the tone, you have “Sex Murder Party”. It’s wacky and sorrowful, with Albarn’s haunting chorus. It has a haunted house vibe with spirits stuck in an unending party. It’s hedonism at its worst, sucking you in because the world outside just got worse on November 2016. What else can we do but celebrate the end of the world?

We can dance, that’s what we can do. Especially to “She’s My Collar”, in which Albarn coyly raps about the girl who’s driving him crazy. It’s 80s cheese for sure, but it’s groovy and  Kali Uchis’ vocals are so off-center you can’t help but smirk. It’s all neon lights down this street.

“Hallelujah Money” was the first track released January 19, 2017, the day before the inauguration and, boy howdy, does it feel like many of us did on that day. Featuring Benjamin Clementine’s smooth and deep vocals, which croon poetry against a choir reciting the title of the track, the song is haunting. It’s a eulogy asking, “How will we know, when the morning comes, we are still human?” How will we know?

It’s not all the doom and gloom. I mean, there’s a lot of that, yes. But there’s hope at the end of the tunnel. “We Got the Power”, featuring Jehnny Beth and choir that includes Noel Gallagher, is an anthem of choice. No matter how bad things get, no matter what the Powers That Be choose, “We got the power to be loving each other, no matter what happens.” It’s a much needed adrenaline shot after “Hallelujah Money” and ends the album on a surprisingly optimistic note. Maybe, after the passive-aggressive party, we can get over the hangover and do something to delay the apocalypse.

Take out the interludes and you have a fourteen track album that moves at a brisk pace. It doesn’t reach the heights of Demon Days, but that’s because it lacks the focus. While all the songs belong on the same album, they don’t connect and compliment each other the way the Gorillaz’ sophomore record did. I’ve seen Humanz compared to a mix-tape and that’s not far off, but it’s an extremely focused mix, impressing everyone who finds it in their car.

b7b8c7e9I don’t like saying albums are better or worse than previous works of artists I love. It seems pointless. Albums are good or bad in different ways, but they don’t need to compete. Led Zeppelin’s fourth album is better or worse because of the quality of Houses of the Holy. And I can’t say Humanz is better than what’s come before but it does feel like a real comeback. My taste tends to run closer to Demon Days, which should be evident by now considering how much I’ve mentioned that album as opposed to the others. It’s that taste that digs Humanz and your mileage might vary. There’s a lot of great thoughts and messages in these songs, but if you don’t care for hip-hop, electronica, sampling and after parties, you might not get far enough in to taste the meat. For the rest, it’s a timely, strobe light filled house party.

Let’s just agree to not have to wait another seven years.

Wonder Woman – A Review

wwposter5It’s insane to me that Warner Bros. and DC Comics took seventy-five years to make a Wonder Woman movie. In that time, they’ve made movies for Steel, Jonah Hex, Catwoman, Supergirl, Constantine, the Suicide Squad and yes, I chose the bad ones to point out. I mean, they had a Lobo film in the works before they had a final script for their premier heroine.

But, the movie is here, so we can (but probably not for long) move on from that fact. Let’s focus on the film instead.

I had hesitancy about the movie leading up to seeing it. After all, Man of Steel made me rage until I had destroyed all the love in my life. (old blog, please come back to this one). Batman V. Superman was so dumb I just felt bad for it. And though Wonder Woman was a highlight in that movie, anything remotely NOT dumb would have been a relief during that two and a half hours.

But I was pleasantly surprised. For first two thirds of the movie, Wonder Woman is the film I wanted for years. The first third, which takes place in Themyscira, is great and the island itself feels exactly right. The Amazons have a Spartan vibe, without the machismo, and feel like a real society, even if our time with them isn’t that long. The action scenes that take place there have a 300 vibe, but those scenes are done with confidence and not in way that wears our patience.

Steve Trevor, as played by Chris Pine, is likable and charming, but he’s got an edge to him and also comes across as more progressive than his World War I society. The chemistry between him and Gal Gadot is on point and there’s some great interplay between the two early on.

The action is great. I think, like Captain America, we sometimes forget how strong Wonder Woman really is. But, unlike the First Avenger, Wonder Woman’s powers are big league. She can topple buildings, toss trucks and wreck through soldiers as she goes for jog. When her full powers are on display, such as the terrific charge through the front lines that ends the first half of the movie, she really is a full blown super hero.

ww-11802rv21But Wonder Woman is more than just a set of powers and lassos and bracelets. Gal Gadot is, and I don’t want to understate this, fantastic. For years, I thought Wonder Woman would be one of the hardest characters to cast, but I can’t imagine anyone doing the job better than her. There are times when I could of sworn the character walked right out the comics. She’s inspiring, she’s dangerous, she’s funny, smart, naive, she’s stubborn but for the right reasons. When she speaks, you believe her. When she charges into battle, you want to follow her. Gadot embodies the character in such a defining way that it feels iconic before the movie is even over.

wonder-womanAnd now, with all that praise, here comes my critique and my struggle to not spoil anything. And that’s hard, because my problem with the film, is in the third act and might qualify as a twist. For a long time, the movie seems like it’s going one way and it works. Characters are learning lessons, humanity is getting called out for being the worst species to ever walk the earth and it feels right. But, they need a big action scene to end with and after we’ve seen what a tank Wonder Woman is, the stakes have to be raised. The final confrontation is so fantastical and out there, it almost feels like it’s betraying the rest of the excellent movie that came before it. Actually, the excellent animated movie with Keri Russel might have hurt the live action’s take on the confrontation. It’s not a deal breaker, it doesn’t make the movie a bad film, but I feel like a stronger third act could have put this movie up there with Spider-Man 2, X2: X-Men United and Batman Begins.

But, please, don’t take my issues with the finale to indicate I don’t like the movie. It was great, should be seen and I look forward to watching it again. To meet expectations seventy-five years in the making is a daunting task, but Patty Jenkins was up to the challenge and delivered. This was the first live action DC movie I loved since the Dark Knight way back in 2008.

 

Book Review – Exit West

51ma6eymr0l-_sx330_bo1204203200_Exit West by Mohsin Hamid is a strange read and one that I’m not sure worked, at least for me. Scanning through Goodreads, there’s a lot people in love with this book and I think I might be in the minority. To be fair, I always have a hard time with poetry.

Yes, I know this book isn’t told in poetry. But, with it’s long form, run-on sentences it has a lilting way about it. After a while, I got used to the rhythm, but it also means I drifted in and out of the actual story.

The story is about two people, stuck in their city of war, looking for a way out. At first, it seems like finding each other might be enough, but the escalating violence of their home forces their hands. The first half of the book, with our two protagonists meeting and getting to know each other, is the strongest. Not just in characterization, but also in the way the violence and horrors of the city are explained, almost nonchalantly. Characters who are introduced or are a very small part are killed off, sometimes weeks after we meet them and it’s always because the city they live in is out of their hands. This is where the book, as message about accepting refugees feels most effective. Stepping into the shoes, if even for a moment, of someone living in fear and danger, who has to just “accept” the war raging around them, is jarring. When a certain character, who is very important to our protagonists, is killed, it’s not while doing something important or meaningful. They’re killed by stray bullets, doing something mundane as searching a glove compartment for a lost earring.

The second half, however, lost my interest. The story seems to lose focus, mainly in terms of plotting. The characters lose a lot of initiative once they escape their city only to find themselves stuck in a new, temporary home. I will admit, it does show the impact of what refugee life can do to a relationship, even one with people who need each other to survive. Maybe that was the point, testing the reader’s patience along with the characters’. Both of us keep waiting for the situation to change, either for better or worse, and when nothing happens, we start acting nasty to each other.

The book ends on a bittersweet note that falls in line with the rest of the book. Well told, interesting, but fluid and not as focused as I like. The characters, like the book, drift away and, for me at least, I was ready for the book to simply call it a day.

As I tried to point out, this book didn’t work a hundred percent of the time for me. Moments reminded me of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, but where that book had its hooks in me and never let go, Exit West had me and then threw me back into the water. The run-on sentence-paragraphs, while a style that can work in parts, gets tired as the book goes one, with paragraphs feeling exhausting by the end.

I would suggest this book though, as its a great example of book forcing us to step into shoes we wouldn’t want to wear. As a glimpse into a life most of us can’t and, hopefully, will never have to relate to, it’s effective. As a narrative, not so much.

Book Review – Dragon Teeth

dragonteeth-cover-liveI read Dragon Teeth months ago because I got a Advance Readers Copy because I’m a librarian, but I’m talking about it now because I’m a bad blogger.

So this is a western, using dinosaur bones as a means of getting me to read a genre I tend to avoid. In fact, this might only be third western I’ve ever read (the other two being Doc by Mary Doria Russell  and Appaloosa by Robert B. Parker, both recommended). I can’t say I’m not disappointed by Dragon Teeth, because what I wanted was dinosaur-facts and paleontology. And, to be fair, the cover wants so badly to remind us of Jurassic Park that we can’t be faulted for expecting something else.

But what about this book as it is? It reads like Crichton’s early work, having more in common with The Great Train Robbery than Jurassic Park. This is history brought to life through action and characters that are almost on tour through the world’s events. Our main protagonist, William Johnson, is that classic Crichton non-character, a cipher for the world and ideas the author wants to explore. Johnson is our lead because he has to get to the dinosaur bones, because he has to get to Deadwood, because he has to meet Wyatt Earp. He’s not going down as a great character, but then, which Crichton characters do we remember apart from their movie counterparts? Even Ian Malcolm is more of machine to ramble chaos theory than a living, breathing character.

The action is fine in Dragon Teeth, this isn’t a book of ideas but history and the history never stands out. You miss the depth of research presented in Crichton’s other work, those wonderful paragraphs of information that trick you in to learning.

But we have to be patient with this book. It’s not like Crichton wanted this read. He didn’t submit this to be published. It strikes me that he finished it, decided the Terminal Man and Congo were better and simply moved on from this draft. Reviewing this book feels unfair because what we’re reading is a draft, written by a younger man who learned better from it.

While it’s incredibly sad for me that this will be (most likely) the last book we see published under Crichton’s name, it’s not the best one to go out on. But being a book that was written so early in his career, there’s a nostalgia to it as well. It almost brings all his work full circle, asking us to start all over again.