Whatcha been readin’?

Since the pandemic started I’ve been leaning harder into setting wind-down time in the evening aside specifically for reading, and as a result have made my way through around twenty-seven books in the last eighteenish months. A couple of these were re-reads, but of the new ones I’ve compiled a couple of highlights below:

THE NAME OF THE WIND / THE WISE MAN’S FEAR — Patrick Rothfuss

Wonderfully written “traditional” fantasy with one of the best modern voices in the style, imbued full of wonder, intelligence and a deep love of the genre by its author. The only problem being that the third book is close to a decade past due with no release date in sight so while I highly recommend the first two books they come with the caveat that you’ll be joining the ranks of disappointed fans stuck waiting for a conclusion.

CIBOLA BURN (THE EXPANSE) — James S.A. Corey

The best modern sci-fi series, hands down. I read this, the fourth book, as a refresher for season five of the show last December. Book five will be the same for season six at the end of this year and then I’ll be able to read the last three without fear of spoilers. It’s less complicated than it sounds. I rave about this series a lot, it’s got everything.

SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE — Kurt Vonnegut

One of my all-time favourite books got a graphic novel adaptation that both serves its source beautifully while also bringing its own flavour and style. Probably better appreciated if you’ve read the original novel, but nonetheless a worthwhile pickup.

THE THREE BODY PROBLEM — Cixin Liu

Heady, cerebral sci-fi that’s both wildly imaginative and coldly mathematical. Considered one of the greatest novels of the modern era and for good reason — a slowly unfolding scope puts its vision on timescales akin to masterwork Foundation while making the human elements much more compelling. Currently reading the sequel, The Dark Forest.

RAYBEARER — Jordan Ifueko

African magical realism via YA, with political intrigue thrown in for good measure. The world is incredibly distinct and well realised, and this is just the first in a series well worth following.

THE DISPOSSESSED — Ursula K LeGuin

An anarchist physicist is brought to a Capitalist society so that he can realise his great unifying theory, but quickly becomes disillusioned with the falsity and exploitive nature of their culture. Hard biting political commentary draped in planetary science-fiction and social satire. It’s dense, but it’s faaaaaaar ahead of its time.

DAWN — Octavia E Butler

After the world ends, aliens abduct a small handful of surviving humans to help them rebreed and repopulate, but this also means intermingling their DNA with their new benefactors. Very strange, and also the first in a trilogy. I plan to come back to see where it goes, this first one was great.

DOCTOR SLEEP — Stephen King

How do you follow up something as iconic as The Shining? With pretty much exactly this book. Explores other creatures from King’s multiverse, while tying it back to the Overlook and the Shine in new and satisfying ways. Adult Danny might not have the same problems as his father but hooboy does he have troubles of his own.

HOUSE OF X / POWERS OF X — Hickman, Larraz, Silva, Gracia

Fantastic recalibration of the X-Men universe by way of a looping time cycle, a living island and multiple possible realities (most of which end in some variation of terrible apocalypse). Makes mutantkind feel fresh and new again, full of big ideas, which is an impressive feat. The main problem is that it immediately sprawls out into half a dozen plotlines so I have no idea how to follow up from this collection, but as a standalone “reboot” of the X-Men this was great.

THE IMMORTAL HULK — Ewing, Bennett, Garbett, Hotz

Similarly, this run takes the concept of the Hulk and turns it into a Cronenbergian body horror nightmare. See, Bruce Banner can die, but the Hulk is immortal and no matter what you do to the man the monster will always come back. It was a brilliant move to take this character and make him terrifying, and the series looks like it’s only getting darker.

JURASSIC PARK / THE LOST WORLD— Michael Crichton

Pulp fiction at its best. I first read these twenty-five years ago and somehow still remembered every detail like I’d read them just last week. Quite a tonal departure from the first film and far more critical of the Capitalist aspects of genetic patenting. The second book and film are almost completely unrelated aside from a few character appearances. Still, easy to understand why they were so popular, I blew through the two of them inside a week.

LOKI (2021)

The best of the Disney+ Marvel shows so far.

Production design is outstanding, the cast is charismatic and strange. It’s a tight six episodes too, which is a real sweet spot for these series. Feels like the best parts of a Dr Who adventure mashed together with a big budget behind it.

There’s SO MUCH fan service drawing from the deepest, more ridiculous and obscure depths of Marvel Comics’ silliness.

Ultimately the story ends up servicing the next big phase of MCU projects, but it does so with style and the characters are fun. I mean, they weren’t exactly going to let Tom Hiddleston off the hook easily, were they?

Alligator Loki is MVP.

Recommended.

BLACK WIDOW (2021)

A great standalone spy film that’s biggest flaw is that it maybe came a few years later than it deserved.

It’s refreshing to have Natasha reframed and to have her backstory finally filled in, and the supporting cast here is one of the best things about it. It’s a made family of strong and capable women, plus a strongman clown, and the dynamic is great.

The action is among the best in the MCU, though arguable the Taskmaster is a little underutilised — fundamentally a Winter Soldier redux but with a more interesting moveset gimmick. Still, there’s room to push the idea closer to the comics going forward.

Does a lot to set up characters and potential for the next generation of Avengers, but smartly keeps focused on having Black Widow be its own film.

A good time, and great to see as a blockbuster up on the big screen.

Recommended.

SWEET TOOTH s01

A tremendously sweet and strange tale about a human/deer hybrid boy traversing a post-apocalyptic world.

Each episode feels like a chapter from a storybook. The characters are endearing and the cast is great. The connection between the hybrids and The Sick which has ravaged the world is a solid, dark mystery.

Production values are excellent too — it was a good move to handle the hybrid elements with a mix of CGI and prosthetics/animatronics, as it really grounds the fantastical elements.

Deceptively sinister, but infectiously heartwarming.

Highly recommended.

JUSTICE LEAGUE: The Snyder Cut (2021)

Is this an improvement over the theatrical/Whedon cut? Yes.

Is is actually a good movie now? No.

Look, I’m happy for Snyder that he got to complete his film the way that he intended, but I really don’t like his approach to any of the characters, and the storytelling swings wildly from slow and dull to heavy-handed and pretentious. This did not need to be four hours long and it’s a shocking amount of self-indulgence that kept it above the 120min mark for what essentially amounts to a retread of 2012’s The Avengers but with barely half the charm and a tenth of the colour pallet.

Primary villain Steppenwolf gets an excellent design rework and more complex motivations, but he boils down to a grey/silver redux of Loki’s role less the mischief and wit. Hell, he’s even looking for cubes and comes complete with a mindless army and a hooded go-between to the true Big Bad: Thanos…. erm, Darkseid.

Darkseid is in this! Yep. That character nobody outside of pre-existing DC fans knows anything about is introduced in flashbacks and then shows up at the end to bait for a sequel that will never come.

Instead they burn 30-odd minutes on a weird flash-forward post-apocalypse sequence so that Batman can threaten to kill Jared Leto’s Joker (in his most Ledgery portrayal) and then angry Superman can show up again and the whole thing can end on a weird downer that undoes the victory of the final battle.

It all feels so pointless. Every thirty minutes or so is something that makes you go “oh that’s pretty cool” and then we snap right out of it when Snyder does another cringeworthy needle drop. Like, the songs themselves are good songs, but he always deploys them in the most ham-fisted, obvious way and I can’t think of another director that makes me physically recoil so hard from hearing a familiar song in a film. Oh, Aquaman is a king? Here’s a pompous Nick Cave song with lyrics about a kingdom and a king cut exactly to fit a slow-motion walk into the ocean. Like, fuck, that is about as subtle as throwing a bowling ball through a plate glass window. My eyes almost rolled out of my skull and I like both Nick Cave and Momoa’s Arthur Curry (despite the movies he’s in being mediocre at best). And there’s not one but two scenes of him walking into the sea to dramatic music within 20min of one another.

What of the other characters?

Batfleck is fine. He doesn’t show up as Batman until two hours in. Jeremy Irons is a great Alfred.

Cyborg has a significantly enhanced role this time around. Ray Fisher does a good job. Sucks to hear the shoot was a nightmare for him. But… why not make his cyberspace sequences more visually distinct from the rest of the film though? It’s the same brown/orange as all the fight sequences, the same as the flashbacks, the same as the apocalypse sequences. There’s no distinction between any of the visual design, which doesn’t make it consistent or cohesive, it makes it bland.

Wonder Woman suffers hard from the fact that her next movie to release after this was set decades before this and contained several plot points that contradict dialogue in JL, as well as making her character intensely, retroactively unlikeable.

The Flash has the best visual sequences in the film but Ezra Miller’s twitchy portrayal of Barry Allen wears thin quickly. There’s something to be said for the fact that we barely see him actually moving fast too. All his speed-force shots are in slo-mo, which gives a good sense of his perpective but we don’t get enough contrast for what it’s like for those around him or what a layperson would see. Slowing things down constantly absolutely shatters the pacing, especially when slo-mo is used at other times when Flash isn’t even present because it’s Snyder’s visual crutch.

Superman is the same as he was. The weird digital lip scene is cut, he gets a colour swap on his suit, and he basically shows up as a deus ex machina in the final fight to do some good punching and that’s all.

Overall, it’s bloated, self-important, self-indulgent and self-serious. This didn’t need to be three hours long, let alone four. The “chapters” only serve to break up the runtime but don’t have much of a narrative arc distinct to them aside from loosely clustering scenes that happen around the same time in the plot without distinct through-lines.

Now that this whole hashtag has run its course I hope everyone can just bloody move on and start making new things instead of shovelling 20 indie movie budgets at a monstrosity like this. For all those celebrating this an unquestioned masterpiece, I ask:

This?

This is what you have been insufferable about for the last four years? This is what was worth harassment campaigns and nearly ruining peoples’ lives? It’s not worth any of that. It’s not visionary or groundbreaking in any way that could justify its $400m+ budget. It’s not even very entertaining.

If you haven’t seen it, don’t burn four hours of your life on it. If you love it, I don’t understand you. Just let the Snyderverse die off now.

Shazam is still the best DC film. At least that one was fun to watch.

PS. The 4:3 aspect ratio is stupid. You’re not “getting more information” if you’re cutting a third out of every single screen this will be watched on. Want more height in the frame? Pull back further in the shot. Widescreen is standard now for a reason, dammit! It was shot for IMAX? It’s not being watched on IMAX!

PPS. What was the point of the “Unite the Seven” marketing? There are five characters in most of this film, six when Superman gets revived. The other DC characters that make appearances aren’t part of the Justic League for the entire film.

WANDAVISION (2021)

A solid start to the MCU’s new Disney+ arm.

A little slow to start for the first two or so episodes, but quickly gets comfortable playing with its concept and pushes what’s expected of a superhero show out into some interesting directions.

I’ll save the big plot twists and geekery for a spoiler section after the click-through, but safe to say there’s some solid easter eggs and fan service woven into it all.

If you’re not familiar with much of the Marvel universe there’s still a decent amount to enjoy in the satirisation of various television sitcoms over the years, and at its heart it’s fundamentally about Wanda and her sadness. If anything it could have stood to lean a little harder on the sitcom tropes, since there was a lot of good material in the supporting cast that felt a little shoved aside when the main arc needed to wrap up.

Great supporting cast, Paul Bettany imbues The Vision with a wonderful humanity, and extra accolades must go out to Elizabeth Olsen for such a multi-faceted performance anchoring it all together.

Hard to say what got shuffled out in terms of the larger MCU tie-ins since the release schedule was scrambled last year, but it’s a worthy addition to the canon and bodes well for the D+ series going forward.

Criticisms and larger discussions are pretty spoilery so consider yourself warned:

SPOILERS AHEAD

Continue reading “WANDAVISION (2021)”

New art!

I’ve been learning 3D software in my spare time the past few months and it’s been awesome to be able to start producing concept pieces so fast and have them look so awesome!

I build the models in Blender, then export to Substance Painter for texturing, then back into Blender with the Botaniq add-on to populate trees/grass and to compose, light and render, then final touches are done with Procreate.

More to come, I’m just excited to have work to share that came purely from my imagination!

You can follow me on Instagram @_nervesquidpilot for updates.

WONDER WOMAN 1984 (2020)

Eh.

Feels like an 80s movie through and through, from direction to VFX composition, it’s as much the aesthetic of the Donner-era Superman as anything else.

Thing is, there’s some super-sketchy political messaging in there regarding the Middle East, and the final hopeful climax of the film that sees all the people of the world renouncing their wishes to heal the chaos… well, it’s kinda far-fetched for 2020, even in a pulpy superhero film.

The pacing is slow and it treads on its own feet trying to tell you its themes rather than embodying them and there’s really no iconic moments that match the No Man’s Land sequence in the first.

As a blockbuster it’s fine. Serviceable, a bit naïvely optimistic and uncritical of the world it uses as its backdrop and regularly too-convenient in its plot devices. All tell, no show. Even the chemistry between Gadot and Pine is stunted compared to the last round. Pascal looks like he’s having fun, at least.

Dodgy CGI all over the place, but it’s a pandemic film so it’s hard to judge too harshly even though we have television shows with better output this year. Unfortunately it does the same videogame boss battle climax the last one did.

Overall, never really rises above “okay”. Hard to even find a lot to highlight — I watched this just hours ago and it’s already smudged together. Can’t even work up enough passion to rage post about it.

Probably skip it.

THE NEW MUTANTS (2020)

It’s hard to tell at what point of this film’s absurdly protracted release things started coming apart — clearly there was a distinct vision at one point and all the mess of its production just muddied that so much that what we got was just sort of a flat, disjointed and indecisive jumble of ideas that don’t cohere together at all.

Nothing in its premise stands up to the slightest bit of scrutiny, and the fact that it’s trying to squeeze five superhero origins and a romance and a horror film and a teen drama all into a tight 94min does nothing any favours at all.

100% would have been better served as a limited TV series where any one of those concepts could have had a moment to breath outside of rushed expository dialogue. As it is, each of the characters gets an introduction, a scene where they Don’t Want To Talk About Their Trauma, a manifestation of said trauma and then a moment of overcoming it in the climactic battle. On paper it sounds like everyone gets an arc but really it’s just a fill-in-the-blanks, paint-by-numbers rollout with zero nuance and a staggering lack of clarity or explanation.

I’m familiar with the comic run it’s based on and even still I struggled to keep focus. Some of the visual effects and design are cool but they’re not in service of anything.

Not even bad enough for a fun drunk watch, just skip it like you would all the late-game X-Men movies that aren’t Logan.

LEGION (s01-03)

It’s hard to pin Legion down, since it’s very proudly one of the least superhero-y comicbook-based TV series of the past decade despite being populated by very comicbooky characters and ideas.

It’s more of a psychedelic mind trip through gorgeous production design, S-tier cinematography and a plot and cast of characters that absolutely delight in and embrace all the weirdest things that the genre has to offer.

The cast is clearly having a ball, and it goes to show yet again how underutilised Dan Stevens is in the broader scheme of things.

Sure, there are action sequences and the like, but more often the central conflicts are resolved by compassion and strange conversations and a few times by psychic dance-battles. Oh, and a hippy cult smokes happiness from the udders of a gigantic pig at one point.

Yeah. It’s weird.

And that’s all to the benefit, because it’s not trying to be a regular sort of X-Men show, it’s a character study of a persona fragmented by trauma, wrapped in a dream-like 1960s aesthetic and often a very Lynchian desire to be willfully obtuse.

It’s unsettling and dark at times, gorgeous and strange and wonderful at others. The pacing overall is fairly off-kilter, but if you’re willing to forgive its self-indulgence you’ll find a tonne of reasons to fall in love with it.

It runs just long enough to tie itself up nicely without overstaying, but I wish more shows were this willing to embrace the absurdity of their own premises.

Highly recommended.