The best of 2017

2017 was a pretty dizzyingly great year for pop culture, with some genuinely classic albums, movies, TV shows, books and moments. Here’s our take on some of the revelations of the year, as well as our attempt to identify the ULTIMATE THING OF THE YEAR.

REVELATIONS OF THE YEAR

Just how good Jason Bateman is at directing. Like, really, seriously good. OZARK was a revelation in many ways (across-the-board excellent performances being one of them), but in large part because of Bateman’s effortlessly expert and dynamic way with shooting scenes.

Ozark JB

How many of THE FORCE AWAKENS’ plot points Rian Johnson could casually toss over his shoulder in THE LAST JEDI and still craft such a richly extraordinary, franchise-redefining experience.

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How DOCTOR WHO could make us fall in love with a new Doctor with just one word (“brilliant!”).

Dr Who first moment

How much more fun GAME OF THRONES is when characters don’t have to travel in real time anymore.

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On a related note… ICE DRAGON!!!

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Porgs tho.

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How STRANGER THINGS could so successfully shift gears right before the finale in the clearly brilliant episode seven where Eleven goes looking for her sister (much of which was down to the truly astonishing, visceral directing of Becca Lou Thomas – give her all the franchise immediately!).

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GLOW showed us that a TV show about a cheesy 80s ladies wrestling TV show could be revelatory, inspiring and addictive, and could give Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin beautiful and fantastic roles that they so wonderfully OWNED.

GLOW Ep 7 Transformers

That in the midst of the SUICIDE SQUAD and JUSTICE LEAGUE dust-ups, the DCEU managed to bring us one of the year’s defining and most inspiring movies in WONDER WOMAN.

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2017 in photo form

TOM HOLLAND IN SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING.

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In fact, all of SPIDER-MAN: HOMECOMING

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Trying to keep it together in 2017

We all know M. Night Shyamalan is a genius director and James McAvoy is one of our greatest living actors, but that still didn’t prepare us for quite how flawless, atmospheric, terrifying, emotional and powerful SPLIT would be. And it definitely didn’t prepare us for THAT ENDING, nor the fact that GLASS will be released in a year’s time!

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How dropping the X-Men movies’ increasingly complex timelines allowed James Mangold to create the elegiac yet emotionally bone-crunching LOGAN and deliver not only the greatest X-Men movie of all time, but also one of the greatest movies of all time.

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Ryan Graudin showed us how utterly fresh and unexpected and moving and romantic a dazzlingly complex and breathlessly tense time travel story could be with her masterpiece INVICTUS.

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ULTIMATE THING OF THE YEAR

OK. Here goes. It’s tough. Really tough. You had Alison Brie in GLOW, Porgs, an ice dragon, STRANGER THINGS, the Spider-Man we’ve always needed, a hugely inspiring and moving female superhero movie courtesy of Gal Godot and Patty Jenkins, the greatest Wolverine movie ever (and one of the standout movies of the year) in LOGAN, one of the purest and most inspiring performances of one of the greatest superheroes ever from Melissa Benoist in the CW’s SUPERGIRL, Porgs, one of Patrick Ness’s most quietly stunning and ambitious novels yet (RELEASE), one of the most hypnotically beautiful novels ever written (Laini Taylor’s STRANGE THE DREAMER), Laura Dern’s purple-haired and unpredictable brilliance in THE LAST JEDI, which was also a STAR WARS movie that felt like nothing we’ve ever seen before while connecting so deeply to our love for the franchise, a knockout YA Princess Leia novel from the queen of five-star Star Wars novels Claudia Gray (LEIA, PRINCESS OF ALDERAAN not only showed us the future general in the making and the very beginnings of the Rebellion, but also beautifully depicted Leia’s childhood friendship with future Vice-Admiral Holdo), a dark, funny and emotional DOCTOR WHO spin-off show called CLASS that was absolutely—thanks to showrunner Patrick Ness and his wonderful cast—one of the great shows of this year (or any year), Porgs, and a time travel YA sci-fi that was maybe the most fun and brilliantly constructed piece of pop culture this year in Ryan Graudin’s INVICTUS… DAMN. That’s Kendrick’s masterpiece, not an exclamation, although, damn… What a pop culture year to celebrate!

However, if we have to choose one thing, somewhat inevitably, it’s gotta be… THE LAST JEDI.

TLJ Holdo

Vice-Admiral Holdo, one of The Last Jedi’s most original, awesome, inspired and inspiring new characters

Rian Johnson followed our heroes on their darkest journeys yet while inspiring us, making us laugh, tapping deep into the way Star Wars felt when we watched it as kids…

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…yet still managing to reposition the entire franchise to point it to a new future, and somehow landing on the kind of note of poignant hope we really need this year.

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Because 2017 often felt like we were standing in front of these guys

It was a joyous movie, an upsetting movie, a thrilling movie, a spooky movie, a movie that made you cry with deep nostalgia as well as fresh heartbreak, a movie that kept you on your toes, but above all, it was a movie about believing in the possibility of a beautiful future.

And who doesn’t want to believe in that?

On that note… Wishing you all a Happy Holidays, and a wonderful New Year!

 

 

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first foray into the Star Wars universe is an auspicious one, full of dazzlingly ambitious filmmaking and beautifully bold narrative twists and turns. While not without some minor flaws, this is a triumphant entry in the saga.

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While internet scuttlebutt had us thinking the movie would open precisely where J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens left us (with Rey offering up Luke’s lightsaber), it turns out that every word they said was wrong. Johnson instead plunges us headlong into a brilliantly dizzying escape attempt by the Resistance which spirals into a thrilling battle sequence with the First Order that would be extraordinary if it was the Act III finale… here it’s the intro, which lets you know just how much of a thrill-ride this movie is going to be (a huge thrill ride, to be clear). It also charts a clear trajectory for Johnson’s take on the story and characters: everything is morally complex, situations are messy and complicated, and there few easy answers.

TLJ Luke Rey

Of course, we join Rey and Luke on Ahch-To Island soon enough, and, per Luke’s trailer line, this isn’t going to go the way you think. Johnson handles Rey and Luke’s journey in beautifully unexpected ways, which serves as a blueprint for how he handles everything else: there are at least five moments where you feel like the movie is ramping up to an ending when instead it ducks and dives and gives you a much deeper journey, and takes you to narrative places you never expect, which is such a Star Wars thing to do. Although Johnson has his own storytelling moves, including a dark and fresh sense of humor, some beautiful lighting and camerawork, and a willingness to jump around in time and space, he also has a reassuringly sure grasp of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. The morality and positivity and hope of it all. And all of that is represented most purely in Kelly Marie Tran’s absolutely perfect debut.

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This is Tran’s first major movie role, and what a way to start. Playing Resistance engineer Rose, she owns the screen every second she’s on it, more than holding her own with the irrepressible John Boyega (their emotional journey is one of the best things about this movie), and fully centering the movie as its moral compass, as well as being a deeply endearing and fearlessly inspiring presence in the story. It’s a grounded performance that burns bright, and easily fuels the movie through the only section where it seems to lose altitude somewhat—there’s an extended sequence in a casino (this movie’s cantina) that possibly outstays its welcome, although it is critical to Rose’s arc, and also sets some other things in motion that are critical for the end of the movie (again, no spoilers). However, whenever Tran is on screen, narrative concerns fall by the wayside; she’s the movie’s secret weapon in many ways.

TLJ Rey

But ultimately, this isn’t Rose’s movie, it’s Rey’s, and boy does Daisy Ridley step up and lead this epic journey to a whole new place. There’s an extraordinary purity to the light and fire that Ridley brings to this role, and her quietly emotional and compellingly powerful performance anchors the Star Wars universe in a way we haven’t seen since it began, and Johnson is a smart enough director to allow the camera to just hold on her deeply nuanced emotions. That nuance is complemented by a supremely focused physicality as Rey discovers just what she’s capable of. Johnson serves up some exhilarating and devastating situations and interactions for her, as he does for all his leads, and there’s a huge amount of suspense in her growing connection to Kylo Ren, who is on a complicated journey of his own.

TLJ Ren

And Adam Driver knows how to play complicated. He builds on the emotionally tortured performance from Awakens and takes it so much further in an intensely physical manifestation of Ren’s rage and pain and fear. We truly don’t know where he’s going to end up by the finale, which is a testament to Johnson’s writing, and to Driver’s powerhouse acting chops. In Ridley and Driver, this universe has two white-hot talents at its forefront, which is tremendously exciting as we contemplate what Episode 9 might hold.

TLJ Leia

Terribly sadly, that won’t include the wonderful, devastatingly powerful force of nature that was Carrie Fisher. She’s simply fantastic in this movie, leaving us with a performance of grace and intelligence and charisma and humor and charm. She’s everything you expect and also nothing you expect; her Leia is a powerful leader, a woman who will never give up on herself or her people, an inspiring human being of the highest magnitude, and that’s Fisher’s gift to the character, and to us. The best way to honor her legacy is to live inspired by what Leia represents: hope, never backing down, owning your life to the fullest, having a sense of humor about it all, and being compassionate and kind. The world would be a better place if we could all be a little more like Leia, and like Fisher.

She’s a key part of the movie’s overwhelming belief in hope, in the spark that will light the fire that will keep hope alive and ultimately make everything better. Amongst the cute creatures (SO MANY PORGS! Beautiful twinkling crystal foxes!), and the droids (BB-8 is a BOSS in this movie — he gets some AMAZING action scenes!), the movie feels so relevant to what’s happening in the world right now it’s almost painful, but in an exhilarating kind of way. It ends on a note of hope that burns bright and lights the way, not only for the future of the Star Wars universe, but for the future of ours too.

And that’s what you really want from a Star War movie.

Also what we really want from a Star Wars movie? LUKE SKYWALKER F**KING SH*T UP.

TLJ Luke

Zero spoilers here, but this movie more than makes up for Luke’s lack of dialogue last time around. Mark Hamill gets some fantastic work to do, and he gives a wonderfully detailed performance as the haunted, embittered, lonely Jedi. Hamill truly connects us to that wide-eyed farmboy from A New Hope and really makes us feel the devastating journey he’s been on since he blasted off from Mos Eisley. Hamill is an outstanding actor, and has gravitas and charm to spare, qualities he deploys to an almost weaponized degree here. It’s Rey’s movie, but it’s Luke’s too, and Johnson does a fine job of finessing their arcs (and everyone else’s—Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac have many beautifully played moments) into one propulsive, highly entertaining story that barrels along relentlessly to the extraordinary finale (while still finding time for a fan favorite old friend to show up along the way in spine-tingling fashion).

TLJ BB8

BB-8 tho

In short, Rian Johnson wrote and directed an excellent Star Wars movie that is a huge amount of fun, tremendously moving, and that moves the whole franchise forward, setting the stage for J.J. Abrams to deliver something amazing to wrap it all up in Episode 9.

So go see it!

 

 

Yes, there were some good things in 2016!

In somewhat festive partridge in a pear tree fashion, here’s our top books, movies, TV shows, albums, and a special final category.

5 Awesome Books

It was a banner year for books by famous people who don’t normally write books. Sure, ’tis the season for such things—every year we get a glut around this time of celebrity memoirs—but this year, there were three that really stood out as special.

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Anna Kendrick, whose acerbic, snarky, and essential Twitter feed has been showing us for years that she knows her way around a finely honed sentence, gave us Scrappy Little Nobody, a brilliantly titled collection of essays covering her life from childhood to Broadway debut to Twilight to Up In The Air and beyond. What many of these books lack is a point of view; that’s not something Kendrick has an issue with. Bracingly honest, her often savagely funny and poignant stories are fascinating and hilariously told, and what becomes very clear is that her Thanksgiving and Christmas parties would be the absolute best.

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Not to be outdone in the Dorothy Parker-esque observational acting category, Lauren Graham, already a novelist as well as an actress, dropped Talking As Fast As I Can, which focused mainly on filming the Gilmore Girls, both the original run, and the revival. It’s a breezy, chatty, very, very funny read, and if you’re still basking in the warm glow of the revival, this will absolutely keep it going just a little longer. Graham has a smart, hyper-self-aware, quick-thinking, and warm view of the world, and she can tell a story with the best of them (one of the reasons why she’s such a perfect fit for Amy Sherman-Palladino’s quick-fire, storytelling dialogue… but—spoiler—more on that shortly!).

springsteen

As brilliant as those two books were, there was one more autobiography that truly shone, to the extent that it’s a contender for book of the year (or maybe of the decade). The mighty Bruce Springsteen brought forth one of the greatest autobiography/memoirs ever written with Born To Run. It was full of thunder and subtle profundity. Every sentence was poetic, hard-won, hewn from life’s granite face of truth and wisdom. The hyperbole is deserved. Nobel Prize, anyone? It should be no surprise; Springsteen has spent the last 30 or 40 years writing tough, beautiful and grittily evocative stories of American life, and he knows how to make every turn of phrase feel true, hit hard, and make you dream.

dark-matter

In the world of novels, Dark Matter by Blake Crouch was a welcome slice of atmospheric quantum techno-thrills, which took the concept of multiple universes and turned it into an unstoppable page-turner which was equal parts mind-bending, haunting, and terrifying. Deftly written but morally hefty, it made you think and feel and gasp, and the consequences of it all reverberate for long after you stop reading.

GEMINA

But, when all’s said and done, at the end of the day, there was a novel that might just have to be the book of the year. Even more universe-shatteringly awesome than Dark Matter was GEMINA, Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff‘s epic, EPIC, follow-up to last year’s book of the year, ILLUMINAE. Now, that book was huge. Momumental. It changed your perspective of what fiction, sci-fi and books could be. But GEMINA is bigger, and better (HOW?! What sorcery is this, Kaufman and Kristoff???). It takes place during and after the timeline of ILLUMINAE, which followed the Alexander as it tried to escape the pesky Beitech attack, and shows us what went down on Jump Station Heimdall. With a mix of all-new characters (and some old faves), it spins a thrilling, massive tale. It’s even more unputdownable that ILLUMINAE. It has all the action you could want, snark and sarcasm to spare, so many laugh-out-loud moments, and FEELS, man. SO. MANY. FEELS. Kaufman and Kristoff are sick, twisted puppetmasters… and we love them for it. GEMINA, folks. Book of the year. So, no pressure for the next one, you guys 😉

4 Kick-Ass Movies

2016 was an interesting year for movies. Not many achieved greatness, it has to be said. There were many pretty good movies, and a decent amount of pretty disappointing ones, but for us, four stood out above the rest.

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The year kicked off with the brilliant surprise release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, a not-quite-a-follow-up to 2008’s Cloverfield. It introduced the concept of the “Clover-verse”, a series of movies set in this slightly off-kilter world set up by Matt Reeves’ handheld monster movie. So, definitely not a sequel. What it was, was an awesomely nail-bitingly, twisty-turny, what-the-hell-is-happening thriller, full of paranoia, horror, loss… and maybe the best third act of any movie this year. No spoilers here. You just have to see it. John Goodman gives a hulking, towering performance as the guy who has Mary Elizabeth Winstead and John Gallagher Jr trapped in his nuclear bunker. Is he telling the truth? Are they safe, prisoners, or something else? The excellent script (rewritten by Whiplash and La La Land’s Damien Chazelle from an original by Josh Campbell and Matthew Stuecken, with extra polish from Gennifer Hudson, and writer-on-set Daniel Casey), TAUT direction by Dan Trachtenberg, and surely Oscar-worthy sound design by Robbie Stambler, Will Files and Lindsey Alvarez (and team), made this an epic experience.

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Also sneaking under the mainstream radar was Hunt For The Wilderpeople, although writer-director Taika Waititi’s forthcoming assignment as director of THOR RAGNOROK (and his previous form with What We Do In The Shadows), meant this had anticipation and buzz amongst those in the know. And how deserved that was. Wilderpeople is one of the hidden, must-see gems of 2016, a beautiful, achingly funny, heartbreaking, and ultimately joyous experience. Julian Dennison, in absolutely the breakout role of the year, plays Ricky Baker, an unloved kid bouncing from foster home to foster home in New Zealand. He ends up with Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hec (played by a brilliantly none-more-grumpy Sam Neill) in what seems to the aspiring Tupac-wannabe to be the middle of goddamn nowhere. Things do not go well to start with, with Ricky hating every second of it, but when Hec and Ricky have to go on the run through the wilderness, things begin to change. It’s a beautiful meditation on life, loss, love, finding your family, and finding yourself. It’s also desperately hilarious. And a thriller. Wonderful through and through.

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Also somewhat out of nowhere (definite theme here!), despite its heavyweight creative team, Arrival was one of the most beautiful, haunting, and mind-blowing movies, maybe ever. From a wonderful script by Eric Heisserer (adapted from a Ted Chiang short story), eerily and evocatively directed by Denis Villeneuve (currently working on Blade Runner 2049), with a profound and chill-inducing (but sadly not Oscar-eligible) soundtrack by Jóhan Jóhannsson, and starring Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner and Forest Whitaker, Arrival told the story of first contact. 12 alien craft appear above a series of seemingly random locations… and wait. The movie tracks what happens as Adams’ language specialist and Renner’s scientist are forced to work together to understand who the aliens are, and what they want. To say any more would take away from the experience, but this is a gorgeous, melancholy, and thrilling movie, and it truly is full of surprises and revelations.

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Adams gives a nuanced, career-best performance, as does Renner, and the whole thing is just mesmerizing. An extraordinary experience.

Not so much with the under the radar, Captain America: Civil War was Marvel’s biggest behemoth yet. And lo, it was AWESOME. Jam-packed with Avengers, Civil War did a radical thing for a Marvel movie these days — it put the epic battle halfway through (and what an epic battle it was), and made the third act deeply personal. And it was a much more effective movie for it.

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We can credit the overlord Kevin Feige, directors the Russo brothers, and writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely for that. The Russos—and Markus and McFeely—gave Captain America a welcome edge in Winter Soldier, and they hone that edge here. Cap has become a gritty, hard-headed warrior in a boldly smart franchise, and with Civil War, it’s a genuine contender for one of the best trilogies of all time. The script expertly wields a huge cast, giving them all compelling moments, scenes and sequences, all while keeping the story rolling with ever increasing emotional momentum. The Russo brothers direct it all beautifully and deftly, and thrillingly. Plus, Spider-Man!

3 TV Must-Sees

A strong year for TV—again!—had three standouts: One out of nowhere, one that had potential, and one that people had been clamoring for, for almost a decade. Let’s start there, with the Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life revival.

Gilmore Girls

One of the most feel-good TV stories of the year, for sure. Ever since the non-Palladino season 7 ended without those final four words, fans have been wondering when and if the show could ever return. Cue Netflix. With a building tide of momentum (the ATX festival reunion, the original seasons streaming on Netflix), the explosion of joy and goodwill when the revival was announced was almost tangible. And when it aired? You know we watched all four in one day. It was wonderful. Not consistently, mind you, and there were issues (no real-time musicals next time, please), and some concern about Rory (that whole being a terrible journalist/sociopathic monster thing)… but those weren’t the things to focus on. It was a hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream kind of experience. Wintry, cozy, warm, and fun. Hearing Lauren Graham and Alexis Bledel saying Amy Sherman-Palladino’s dialogue again… Just wonderful.

This Is Us was in the “had potential” category — an intense character-based drama from Dan Fogelman, with Milo Ventimiglia (in his second appearance in this list, making him the TV MVP?), Mandy Moore and Sterling K. Brown… seemed intriguing. The reality was so much more. This Is Us is a show with extraordinary writing. The scripts slam you with emotional body blows when you least expect them, make you cry at least five times per episode, take unexpected turns and twists that leave you breathless, and basically give the actors some of the greatest lines and scenes of their careers, on the regular. And those actors… wow. Incredible performances all round.

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Special shout-out to Ron Cephas Jones: after his scene-stealing in Luke Cage (necessary, since he barely had any lines there and had to hit hard with the ones he did get given), he takes center stage here with a magnificent and magnificently understated performance. He commands the screen and the show. Which is saying something, because Brown, Ventimiglia and the rest all bring it, hard. Brown in particular has been DESTROYING this year, with this, and The People v.OJ Simpson; he’s one of those actors… if you can get him in your show, get him in your show.

One of the greatest TV experiences this year came out of left field (or out of the upside down).

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Created by the Duffer brothers, Netflix’s Stranger Things was the incredible, 80s set, 80s geeky nostalgia-fest that we never knew we needed. From those utterly perfect opening credits, with their gorgeous synth score by SURVIVE’s Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein, and those crackly, wobbly Terminator-esque titles, to the Spielberg-esque cast, to the Stephen King-esque thrills and scares, everything about this show just worked. We’ve written about it at length elsewhere, but suffice it to say, this might just have been the TV event of the year. Glorious storytelling at its finest.

(Quick moment of silence for Galavant!! This was a truly remarkable show, created by Dan Fogelman and with songs by Alan Menken, was one of the funniest, cleverest, most joyful, straight up FUN shows on TV. Season 2 was amazing, and ended with King Richard getting a DRAGON. It’s now streaming on Netflix… wonderful, beautiful Netflix…. so please, Netflix, give us more Galavant! Did we mention the dragon?)

2 Epic Albums

Two albums really tore through the endless stress of 2016 in joyous fashion. Starboy by The Weeknd was full of sci-fi soul-pop, taking the spacier, more Blade Runner-like elements of Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange and leaping off into a set of tightly constructed, gleaming, epically catchy monster tracks. The lyrics revolve around cars, drinking and women, but the overall effect is a futuristic haze full of epic hooks and android funk. Assists from Lana Del Rey on a couple of tracks add to the woozy, dreamy factor, giving the whole thing a “robot from Westworld having a long fever dream” type atmosphere. Hard to stop listening to.

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Or it was, until Lin-Manuel Miranda went and dropped that little Hamilton Mixtape he’s been talking about. Yowzers. Expectations were SKY HIGH. And it more than delivered. After the, uh, events of November 8th, Miranda realized we needed these tracks, so he started releasing them a couple at a time, until the Mixtape dropped in early December. one of those early tracks, Immigrants, turned out to be one of the absolute highlights. Featuring blistering verses by K’naan, Snow Tha Product and Residente, the track TORE IT UP. But it wasn’t done, because Riz MC (AKA Riz Ahmed, rapper in the Swet Shop Boys, and actor in the likes of The Night Of and Rogue One) also dropped a verse that was pure fire. The track crackled with rage and determination, and fully repped the rest of the mixtape, which took key moments from Hamilton and built off them to create something entirely new and thrilling. Ja Rule and Ashanti brought it on Helpless, the track that Miranda wrote that was inspired by them, while elsewhere Busta Rhymes roared through My Shot, Kelly Clarkson somehow added more emotional layers to It’s Quiet Uptown, and Jill Scott gave a sultry and memorable update to Say Yes To This. There were too many highlights to name. With overall production from Questlove and Black Thought, it was, simply, as epic and essential as you’d think.

And A Baby Groot In A Pear Tree*

*Not actually in a pear tree

As the year drew to a close, there was one more awesome surprise in the form of James Gunn dropping the Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2 trailer. It was glorious. Not just to see the band back together. But because of Baby Groot. If you haven’t beheld its awesomeness yet, here it is in all its glory, with all its promise of a beautiful 2017.

 

Things We Like: The Smashing Pumpkins, MACHINA/the machines of God

16 years ago, on February 29, 2000, The Smashing Pumpkins released a thundering powerhouse of an album, the gargantuan and gonzo MACHINA/the machines of God.

Smashing Pumpkins Machina

It was the Mad Max: Fury Road of albums, a monumental epic that roared wildly along alt-rock’s highway, knocking everything out of its path. And when you listen to it, you half-suspect that guitarist James Iha’s guitar is genuinely shooting flames.

Doof Warrior

But we digress.

It’s a classic, although it wasn’t considered as such at the time, receiving mixed reviews and being one of their lowest selling albums at that point. Which is just wrong, because this is the ultimate Pumpkins album. It’s a massive, 15 song, 73 minute set… but oddly enough, this was the short, compromised version — band leader Billy Corgan initially intended it to be a double album, but was refused by the record company. Even in its “reduced” state, MACHINA is an extraordinary, genre-busting achievement, bursting at the seams with alternative concept rock cybermetal pop balladry. It’s a thrilling mix of delicacy and heavy distortion, driven by angst and emotion, and a whole lotta love.

Above all else, it has really great songs (all written by Corgan). MACHINA is overflowing with powerfully catchy hooks, skyscraping choruses, and deep, driving, relentless grooves that keep it all flowing. Opening track The Everlasting Gaze sets the tone, kicking things off with some gloriously fuzzed out guitars and bass and crushing drums, as Corgan tells us “you know I’m not dead”… and that’s the quiet part of the song. It soon lifts off, racing through stratospheric atmospherics as Jimmy Chamberlain’s drumming transforms into a godlike thundering, while Iha’s guitar becomes a roaring furnace in front of a 100 foot Marshall stack and the whole thing achieves lightspeed transcendence.

It’s not folk music.

Somehow, the album gets better from there, jammed with huge choruses, gleaming atmospheres, and a whole bunch of kick-ass rock songs. It’s the sound of a band giving it everything they’ve got, wringing every last drop of intensity from every note, every word, every moment. Which is what was happening: it was designed to be the Pumpkins’ last album, a goodbye, and thanks for all the fish. Corgan’s plan had been to reconvene the original line-up of the band one last time, and go out on a high with an album that was about a fictionalized version of the band. He re-recruited Jimmy Chamberlain, who had left the band a a few years before. Their previous album, Adore, did not feature Chamberlain: it’s a quiet, hushed affair that never unleashes itself. It’s a beautiful, slinky album, but when Chamberlain came back for MACHINA, his muscular drumming changed everything. If Adore was Black Widow, MACHINA is the Hulkbuster. The band wanted to throw everything they had at these songs. Iha would add effects pedal after effects pedal to his guitar set-up to create the monstrous roar that powers much of this album, while Chamberlain would wreak furious havoc on the drums. However, partway through recording, bassist D’Arcy Wretsky chose to leave, wrecking the band, and Corgan’s plans. The album had to be refocused and started over; former Hole bassist Melissa Auf der Maur was drafted in for the live shows.

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The official lineup for the album release and tour: Melissa Auf der Maur, James Iha, Billy Corgan and Jimmy Chamberlain

It’s a concept album — come back! — but one you can air guitar and air drum the shit out of. And, yes, it can be exhausting if listened to from start to finish — but exhausting in a good way, because the music really does consume you. Once you get past the event horizon of the pyrotechnics of the first few songs, you get pulled deeper into the intense gravitational pull and pressures of each successive track… by the end, as you fall through the glimmering soundscapes of With Every Light, the mesmerizing interstellar beauty of Blue Skies Bring Tears and the gleaming alternative pop of Age Of Innocence, you will almost certainly feel like you’re Matthew McConaughey in fifth-dimensional space. But that’s a good thing! Never has something so radio-friendly been so uncompromising in its vision. The CD booklet contains eerie, haunting artwork like the below, full of the dreams and nightmares of Corgan’s original vision of this as a “musical theater” piece based around a rock star called Zero (which had transformed by the time the album was done to Glass, and his band The Machines Of God).

MACHINA CD booklet

It’s certainly not lacking in ambition, and it refuses to yield in its vision. MACHINA is full of emotional storytelling through almost mythically outsized songs. It marked the end of the 90s; luckily, it did not mark the end of Corgan’s ever-revolving collective. It was a forward-looking record, gazing unflinchingly at a glaringly bright future horizon that it raced towards. 16 years on, it stands as a testament to believing in your creativity, and even more importantly, seeing your creativity through, no matter what.

If you have an idea, make it your own… and make sure you actually make it.

 

Things We Like: Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens

Was there ever any doubt?

Really?

Well, sure, OK, a little. We didn’t know for certain that JJ Abrams was going to deliver an extraordinary and beautiful cinematic experience. We thought he would. We hoped.

And…

[insert Poe Dameron whoop of SHEER UNSTOPPABLE JOY]

… JJ gave us the Star Wars movie we wanted and needed. The Star Wars movie we dreamed of. The Star Wars movie that we deserved.

Yeah, JJ nailed it.

From the glistening Lucasfilm logo, to that gorgeous blue “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” to the BLAST of John Williams’ iconic theme as the crawl begins… JJ nailed it and then some.

Lucasfilm

Along with writers Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan (the grand master behind The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi), Abrams has crafted something wonderful and exhilarating, moving and hilarious, devastating and thrilling, all in equal measure.

This will be spoiler free, but it’s not spoiling anything to let you know that BB-8 is a more-than-worthy addition to the droid-you’re-looking-for crew. Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren is an extraordinary bad guy, full of resonance, hurt and rage. John Boyega’s Finn is a joy to watch and the source of much of the movie’s off-kilter but brilliant humor. And, in Daisy Ridley’s Rey, we have one of the greatest characters in the Star Wars universe.

Rey

Ridley, who only had a handful of TV screen credits prior to this, plays Rey with heart and nuance, giving us loss, hope, bad-assery, ass-kicking, wise-cracking… and many more things we can’t share with you (spoilers!). Ridley’s story mirrors Rey’s in a lot of ways, and Ridley uses her natural energy to really bring Rey to crackling life.

Adam Driver, so volatile and uncontrollable on HBO’s Girls, dials that up even more here. He’s the only person who could have played Ren, and he brings a tremendous energy to it all. Boyega, who was SO GOOD in Attack The Block, kills it as Finn — he’s hilarious and heartbreaking —  while Oscar Isaac is in the ZONE as the chilled-out greatest pilot in the galaxy. Bodega and Isaac make you root for them immediately, as does Ridley.

And that’s what’s at the heart of this extraordinary journey — you are invested emotionally from the very beginning, and even more intensely as the movie goes on. The story is powerful, and the movie is shot beautifully, unafraid to linger on stunning vistas and bustling scenes of alien life. But it never feels slow. This thing reaches hyperspace right out of the gate, and drops out of it only at the dizzying, thrilling end.

Throughout, this is great storytelling, with wonderful, fully-realized characters, shot in a gritty, intense way, that gives you the feels. All of them. All the feels. #feels

Finn and Rey

It’s exhilarating, mind-blowing, full of danger and threat, and, gloriously, joyously, wonderfully… it just feels like Star Wars.

Because, also: John Williams.

We have new John Williams Star Wars music on a Star Wars movie. And it gives you chills to hear it. As the story flows, so does his music.

The story ends where it needs to, and opens up the door to the next two movies. The blend of the old and the new is seamless, naturalistic, and provides the perfect hand-off to what is to come. We get all our Original Trilogy feels, and plenty of new trilogy feels alongside.

In short, The Force Awakens is nothing less than the reawakening of something powerful, a new force in the universe. It’s everything you want it to be. 

FIVE OUT OF FIVE JEDI MIND TRICKS

Random awakenings:

  • HOW CUTE IS BB-8 THOUGH???!!!
  • The sound of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber is basically the most bad-ass thing in cinema history
  • Han and Leia’s theme will MAKE YOU CRY SON
  • Captain Phasma is cool
  • “Chewie, we’re home…” 
  • When the credits roll, this is how you’re going to feel:

Ridley Abrams Boyega

 

Things We Like: Illuminae (The Illuminae Files 01) by Amie Kaufman & Jay Kristoff

Every so often, a book comes along that makes you want to retroactively drop the ratings of pretty much all your books on Goodreads by a star, because now you know what five stars really looks like (pretty much all; not actually all… *cough* JK Rowling and Patrick Ness and Laini Taylor are exempt *cough*).

ILLUMINAE is that book.

Illuminae Ray V6FrontOnlyA2A_V3.indd

It’s a five star book. Really, it’s six stars. All the stars, in fact, and appropriately enough, because this is, simply put, a rollicking, gripping, adrenalin-rushing, heartrending and emotionally bad-ass space novel. It’s YA sci-fi, in space, and then some. No spoilers here, but the novel opens with an attack on a remote mining outpost, deep in space. The occupants scramble to escape as space fights erupt in the skies above.

Space fights, people. Space fights.

The survivors make their escape on three different spacecraft, but the attackers won’t give up so easy. The rest of the novel unfolds from there in a relentless and thrilling story that Never. Lets. Up. It keeps evolving, spinning, reversing, tricking you, lulling you, surprising you, breaking your heart, and you JUST CANNOT PUT IT DOWN.

Seriously, when a book contains awesome space stuff and what scientists are describing as ALL THE FEELS, how can you be expected to live your life and go about your normal business?! You can’t — you can only keep reading as the authors build and build their tension to unbearable levels… and then keep building it some more.

And then some more.

Essentially, this book checks every box you could think of, and plenty that you would never imagine. It goes way beyond what you’d expect: it has pictures, diagrams, beautifully creative layout and typography. Its form often reflects its content in a poetic, mesmerizing way; it’s endlessly creative in the way it presents its story. And it’s not a gimmick that it does this, or that it’s composed of emails, surveillance reports, IM chat transcriptions, etc — it’s entirely necessary, and with a story as unstoppable as this one,  you barely notice that this isn’t a traditional narrative.

ILLUMINAE is something we’ve never seen before, and Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff need all the praise for that. They are amazing writers who know how to tell stunning, emotional and epic stories. They’ve made something extraordinary here.

Here are some awards that this book wins:

  1. Best space scenes in YA sci-fi (intergalactic travel, awesome spaceships, insane battles, the majesty of the universe, etc)
  2. Best use of nonstop, brutal sarcasm in stressful situations
  3. Most thrilling novel of 2015
  4. Coolest novel of 2015
  5. Most “when you’ve finished, turn back to page 1 and read it again” novel of 2015
  6. Best Artificial Intelligence in popular culture since HAL in 2001 (that NEEDS to be voiced by David Tennant in the Brad Pitt-poduced movie adaption)(seriously, Brad Pitt is producing the movie adaptation)
  7. Best Brad Pitt movie adaption of all time (to be awarded at some point in the future)

Rating: 

Six out of five space battles

Things We Like: Supernatural

Get this:

According to the lore, it’s really tough for a TV show to last more than a few seasons. It’s even tougher for it to stay good. And it’s basically impossible for it to stay at the very top of its game (and the top of everyone else’s game too).

But Supernatural doesn’t follow those rules. It’s like nothing we’ve seen before, Bobby.

Much like great rock’n’roll is based around “three chords and the truth,”, Supernatural has a similar stripped-back but insanely high-yielding premise and story engine: two brothers, a ’67 Impala, and an unending supply of monsters.

Unending supply of monsters not pictured

From that simplest of foundations, the various show runners, from Eric Kripke through Sera Gamble to Carver/Edlund, have forged eleven unstoppable, powerhouse seasons. We have to say it again: It’s seriously rare for a TV drama to be punching with the same weight after eleven seasons.

Yet Supernatural is hitting harder than ever.

How do they do that? How do they deal with the apocalypse in season 5, and still keep raising the stakes in season 11? They find a way. They work it out. They always do. Here’s how —

They take the key ingredients for good drama: dynamic character dynamics (yeah, we went there), reversals, setups, payoffs and callbacks, developing motifs, and a constant evolving of the stakes, and the format. And they use a few key, powerful questions to power it: What does family mean? Where is home? What does that even mean when you’re constantly on the run, on the move, on the hunt?

Dean and Scarecrow

Dean. And a scarecrow (spoiler: not one of the good guys).

And then they execute that with extremely smart, clever, self-aware writing, inventive but grounded directing, and some truly great acting.

Bloody Sam

Sam, covered in blood. Pretty regular occurrence.

In this show, drama, plot, character, emotion and humor are all intertwined. They’re all one thing. There are heavy moments, terrifying moments, light moments, all bound by a roughhouse humor, the kind of humor that helps you cope with the uncopable, that helps you deal with stuff that’s way above your pay grade. It’s humor like a bar brawl; the Winchesters trade quips like punches, sometimes alongside actual punches (they are brothers, after all).

A show can’t last for 11 seasons without rock-solid emotional and psychological underpinnings, and an engine that can yield constant and evolving conflict. Supernatural is a masterclass in show construction, character development, and the art of the 22-episode arc (and the art of the 229 episode arc as of the time of writing!).

Supernatural always evolves in ways you never expect

Supernatural always evolves in ways you never expect

Watch the pilot again, and see how show creator Eric Kripke did it. It’s deceptively simple. We see the two boys at a very young age as the defining incident of their lives takes place, then we cut to 22 years later when Sam is at college, and the same incident repeats, just as Dean comes back into Sam’s life. The gears of life grind on, and Sam has no choice but to follow Dean into the wilderness.

We've got work to do

And THAT’s how you set up a series in your pilot.

Sam was supposed to be the lead character, the Luke Skywalker, while Dean was positioned as the Han Solo type, essential, but secondary to the lead. That soon changed as both brothers took and held center stage. The writers gave Dean more to do alongside Sam, and that’s one of the key strengths of the show: if you want your show to last, give your actors something to do. Both Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles get intense emotional scenes, awkward and hilarious physical comedy, subtle snark, action, confusion, heartbreak, fear, hope, cynicism, soul-less fury, and much more besides. The showrunners keep throwing stuff at them, and they keep hitting acting home runs.

Supernatural keeps things fresh and relevant in other ways too. It’s important to nourish your fanbase, to be self-aware, to be able to poke fun at your own show, and not be scared to evolve your format and characters. The show gradually introduced two essential characters, the angel Castiel, and the demon Crowley, firstly as small roles for a few episodes, but, as the brilliant Misha Collins (proving that “acting on camera” really is one of his “special skills”) and genius Mark Sheppard worked hard, crushing it on a regular basis, they proved how capable they were with the show’s tone (and how popular they were with the fans), and they became series regulars alongside the brothers. With four leads, the emotional and plot possibilities increased exponentially, allowing for season-long arcs based on Castiel/Heaven, and Crowley/Hell.

Castiel, Crowley, Dean and Sam

Castiel, Crowley, Dean and Sam.

Nourishing the fanbase and having the skill to be meta without sacrificing the integrity of the show (going beyond postmodern to a post-postmodern state, a kind of genuine and sincere postmodernism) has also helped the show stay as damn good as it’s ever been. The 200th episode was a beautiful example of how a show can deconstruct itself and still move you to tears. Once a show proves it can do that… it can do any damn thing it wants.

So, 11 seasons in, Supernatural shows no signs of slowing down, and there’s no reason it should. It’s the show that has everything.