Cool People Column – 5/11/20

It’s been said that there’s more to life than music and, while we remain sceptical, we’ve decided to test the premise with our new bi-weekly Cool People Column!

Noyan and Eden already bring you great pop culture recommendations and discussions each week on Heavy Pod is Heavy, but why should they get to have all the fun? (Just because they essentially maintain and run the blog itself? I think not!) Now it’s the rest of the staff’s turn to share all the cool things from beyond the world of music that have been tickling their fancy over the last fortnight; everything from books to films, TV shows, video games and beyond!

We also want to know what all you cool people out there have been getting up to as well, so make sure to let us know in the comments.

Heat Signature

Some games are about difficulty, forcing you to stretch your skills to the limit in order to beat them. Some games are about story, immersing you in a world not our own with their great dialogue and writing. And then some games are about being fucking awesome. Superhot (2016) comes to mind or Devil May Cry (2001). Heat Signature (2017) is like that but also nothing like that; it’s a rogue-lite that sees you playing a host of assassins, thieves, and just guns for hire as they battle to make money, win glory, and free their galaxy from an oppressive corporation. Oh and you also have bullet time because why the hell not, blades that insta-kill guards, teleporters, hacking devices, bombs, and a whole host of insanely cool traps.

The motto of the game is: plan ahead but then go in hard and when things go bad, use your bullet-time and your gadgets to try and fight your way out. Some of the missions can also devilishly difficult, by adding in weird modifiers like the kit the guards come with (for instance, they can have teleporters that send them directly to you when they suspect something is amiss), various special characters called contractors (like jammers who mess with your gadgets, defenders who give others shields, or the predator which…yeah) or convoluted map layouts that challenge you as much as they add new tools for you to exploit.

Bottom line, the game is just a lot of fun. It’s well written, the characters and their advantages and disadvantages are great (and often funny) and the entire thing just reeks cool. You probably won’t find yourself sinking hours into it (although the effect of “one more mission” is very real) but it’s great if you’re looking for some good, clean fun.

Eden Kupermintz

The Midnight Gospel

Before diving in, I want to make something clear: The Midnight Gospel (2020) is worth watching! It’s a fun show with incredible animation and a unique premise!

Comedian Duncan Trussell and Adventure Time (2010–2018) creator Pendleton Ward teamed up to pair clips from Trussell’s Family Hour podcast with TV-MA storylines and animation. The series is loosely episodic, following a “space caster” named Clancy as he uses a Universe Simulator to visit different worlds and interview people and creatures he finds along the way for his spacecast (a kind of multimedia, next-gen podcast). Trussell uses actual conversations from his podcast to provide the dialogue for Clancy and his interviewees as they traverse through various trials and tribulations.

Occasionally, Trussell and his real-life guests record new lines to shepherd the story along, and the scenes book-ending Clancy’s space journeys allow Trussell to establish an overarching narrative. But for the bulk of the series, you’re watching wildly imaginative animation while listening to a podcast episode. I wasn’t aware of Trussell’s podcast until now, but based on these episodes, he brings on guests to discuss an array of topics related to life’s biggest questions and challenges. Trussell and Ward storyboard the animation to compliment the underlying message of the conversation, with Clancy and the characters he meets essentially acting out parables for forgiveness, faith, spirituality, and more. At the end of each episode, Clancy returns home with footwear from his interviewee or another character, a heartwarming symbol that he’s “walked in someone else’s shoes.”

The reason I opened with a caveat is because of the content of these episodes and how they translate into a cartoon format. As I stated above, the series is “loosely episodic,” as the plot that threads each of Clancy’s adventures feels rushed and not nearly as compelling as his one-off intergalactic adventures. The moments we spend with Clancy on his home planet feel disjointed from the dialogue we hear during his interviews, partially because the cartoon Clancy and the podcast Clancy are starkly different characters. As a podcast host (i.e. real-life Trussell), he’s warm, engaged, and inquisitive with his guests. But in every other scene, he’s painted as an insecure, selfish character who ignores or lashes out at his family members and the AI that runs his Universe Simulator. It starts to feel like two adjacent but different shows that aren’t compatible or equally compelling.

Yet, the show’s most significant issue is the varying quality of the interviews Trussell chose for several episodes. As I listened to Clancy/Trussell’s conversations with their guests over the course of the series, it became clear that everyone involved thought the subjects and their opinions were more profound than they felt to me as a viewer. In a critical review for Collider, Dave Trumbore summed up my thoughts perfectly: “It’s like watching a psychotic lava lamp while listening to your college roommate wax on and on after a week of Philosophy 101 and a few rounds of stacking bong hits.” Without providing spoilers, some of the episodes feature comparisons of recreational drug use to spiritual enlightenment with celebrity therapist Dr. Drew (“Taste of the King”), surface-level discussions of religion with a member of the previously convicted West Memphis Three (“Hunters Without a Home”), and an endearing but basic discussion of friendship and forgiveness (“Blinded by My End”). While you don’t have to be an expert to posit answers to life’s biggest questions, most of these guests don’t feel like the most qualified spokespeople for these specific topics, nor do they offer truly insightful commentary.

There are some bright spots, though. Caitlin Doughty, a mortician and “death acceptance” advocate, voices Death in a relatively deep episode (“Turtles of the Eclipse”) discussing the subject. The terse ~20 minute run time forces them to rush through perhaps the deepest topic there is to discuss, but the perspective Doughty provides is fascinating. However, a couple episodes earlier, Trussell and Ward absolutely nail it on “Annihilation of Joy,” a funny and effective overview of reincarnation and virtue ethics that combines Buddhism, Groundhog Day (1993), and a little bit of The Stranger (1942). And while the animation and dialogue might be a bit too graphic for some, the season finale “Mouse of Silver” is a touching, emotional tribute and a highly personal episode for Trussell.

Perhaps the criticism levied above won’t bother all viewers, and regardless of the dialogue and its substance, the animation itself is an absolute blast to watch. But it’s difficult to ignore the deficiencies in storytelling and philosophical depth, and the fact they’re packaged and delivered in a way that suggests the series believes it has more to say than it actually does. Part of me would like to see a second season where Trussell dives deeper and interview better subject matter experts. But honestly, a larger part of me wishes he and Ward would drop the podcasts and just make an adult version of Adventure Time with the same dazzling animation. That might make for a less unique show given the rise in popularity of adult cartoons. But as it stands, what makes The Midnight Gospel unique is often more of a novelty than a truly worthwhile storytelling device.

Scott Murphy

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Season 7

As is customary with most fans of Star Wars, I have fairly strong opinions about the prequel trilogy of films. As a child I adored and revered them, because they were my Star Wars stories. As I grew through my late teens and into early adulthood I (along with the rabble) began to despise them for their hokey screenwriting, wooden acting, and lifeless effects work. Time has softened my negative feelings toward the trilogy, as a renewed sense of nostalgia has consumed many of the films’ obvious and glaring flaws. But more importantly than fond reflection in my gradual return to enjoyment of the prequels is Dave Filoni’s masterful animated series The Clone Wars (2008–2014,020), which wrapped up its seventh and final season this week on Disney+. Working through the series at lightspeed over the past year has completely revitalized my appreciation of the overall narrative of the prequel trilogy, and has left me broken by a story arc that built some of the Star Wars universe’s most memorable characters into deeply relatable and flawed beings whose various falls and failures reach Shakespearean levels of tragedy. It’s a fantastic series, turned legendary by the final sequence of its last season.

On the whole, the final season of The Clone Wars was fun and enjoyable. Interesting new characters are introduced, adventures are had, and days are saved. The first eight episodes of the season (which are presented in two four-episode arcs), to be frank, offer very little in the way of storytelling ingenuity when compared to previous seasons, and while the animation is stunning and the voice work on the whole is quite good, I was left mostly disappointed by them. I held out hope that the season’s final four-episode arc would give what fans of the series a fitting end to a remarkable story, and I was more than amply rewarded. The final two hours are not only the best in the entire series, they reach the rarified air of rivaling the original trilogy in scope, quality storytelling, emotional resonance, and technical marvel. My wife and I, who both share a deep love for this series, were stunned by episodes “The Phantom Apprentice” and “Victory and Death” in particular, which contain one of the best lightsaber fight sequences in the history of Star Wars and some of the most emotionally powerful and genuinely tragic sequences in series canon. Each conflict carried the weight of seven seasons worth of relationship and authentic interaction, making the choices that these characters have to make all the more impossible. It’s a feat of storytelling that few other than Dave Filoni have been able to master, and the series will go down in history as top three Star Wars content because of it.

The last half-decade of Star Wars content has been a wild ride of surprise, disappointment, and glimmers of hope for one of the planet’s most recognizable brands. For every new aspect of the Star Wars universe that I genuinely enjoyed (Rogue One, The Mandalorian, parts of The Last Jedi), there’s at least one sharp counterpoint (All the other parts of The Last Jedi, The Rise of Skywalker, The Rise of Skywalker, THE RISE OF SKYWALKER). But there’s no greater or more profound achievement in this space than The Clone Wars, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. It single handedly makes one of the brand’s most reviled sectors not only palatable, but infinitely more interesting and engaging, while standing alone as a crowning achievement in space opera storytelling. Despite a slow start, the series’ final season is on the whole a true masterpiece that I will enjoy for years to come.

-Jonathan Adams

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