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.
The Wicker Man
This might be the oldest piece of media we’ve covered in the burgeoning history of this column. During one of our many lazy weekend afternoons in this current climate, my fiancée and I saw The Wicker Man (1973) on Netflix and decided to give it a whirl. We quickly discovered why it became a cult classic that’s maintained its popularity nearly 50 years later. While the so-bad-it’s-good Nicolas Cage remake from 2006 probably reignited interest in its source material, the original narrative and film-making itself has done most of the heavy-lifting in that regard. And at just 87 minutes, there’s truly no reason not to set aside time to check out the enduring folk horror classic for yourself.
Sgt. Neil Howie (Edward Woodward) arrives on the remote Summerisle to investigate the disappearance of a young girl, which was brought to this attention by an anonymous letter sent to the English police. Filming took place in several small Scottish towns, which provide a gorgeous backdrop for the off-kilter murder mystery that begins to unravel. Howie is a by-the-book, stern officer and a devout Christian (it appears Catholic, but this is never confirmed). As he interacts with the townsfolk and digs further into his investigation, his worldview clashes with the village’s Celtic Pagan culture, defined by views that starkly contrast with his own. This is particularly true regarding the town’s liberal approach to discussing (and having) sex, compared to Howie who is remaining a virgin until marriage. These clashes grow more intense as Howie meets the island’s aptly named leader Lord Summerisle (played by the excellent Christopher Lee), and as he uncovers more clues about the girl’s disappearance and how it might be tied to the village’s annual harvest ritual.
I won’t dive too much deeper into the plot, except to levy one small criticism. The narrative, cinematography, and acting are all perfect for what the movie is aiming to achieve, and each plot twist and revelation helps enhance a truly unique film. Yet, as is often the case with movies from this era, the storytelling is a bit linear, which only becomes an issue in regards to the way events fall into place almost too perfectly. Obviously there’s some suspension of belief required with any movie. But if there’s one criticism I have about The Wicker Man, it’s that Howie’s decisions and the collective knowledge and actions of the villagers can make it feel like they’re aware of what the script requires of them.
With that said, I loved both the experience of watching the film unfold and the underlying question it asks the audience: Which religion is true? Or more importantly, are any of them true? The clash between Howie’s Christianity and the villager’s Paganism presents some fascinating exchanges that underline the never-ending battle between different cultures’ searches for meaning.
The best examples arise during the finale, but without getting into spoilers, I want to highlight an exchange in the middle of the film when Howie first meets Lord Summerisle. Incredulous and disgusted with the beliefs and traditions he’s witnessed, Howie asks, “Oh, what is all this? I mean, you’ve got fake biology, fake religion… Sir, have these children never heard of Jesus?” Calmly, and with a hint of amusement in his voice, Lord Summerisle responds, “Himself the son of a virgin, impregnated, I believe, by a ghost…”
This exchange embodies the central conflict not only in The Wicker Man, but in our own culture. Howie represents the conservative sects of Christianity, who are confident beyond a shadow of a doubt that they’re right and every other religion is wrong. Prodding further, their belief is that these false convictions inform “incorrect” cultures. These criticisms are sometimes veiled with a false sense of concern for the health of the offending culture, while others will lambast their barbaric traditions. Yet, every religion requires faith in supernatural ideas, and an individual’s definition of heresy shifts depending on what those views are.
The Wicker Man powerfully conveys this point while creating a chilling, raw movie in the process. Howie and the villagers are steadfast in their beliefs, and coming from a Western audience, we’ve been trained to view the non-Christians as the antagonists. And while they ultimately do serve this role in terms of the narrative, the cultural weight behind Howie’s conversations with various townspeople pulls back the curtain on both sides. In turn, it serves as a parable for the kinds of actions we’re comfortable taking for the sake of “correcting” other cultures, and what the consequences might be.
The terrible genre of “what if tech but too much?” is already overflowing with nonsense, mostly from the incredibly overrated Black Mirror (2011–). You know how it goes: in the first ten minutes of the episode, we are introduced to a new tech but then, surprise!, by the second act that tech is now Bad. Of course, near the end, we might get some nuance, with a character suddenly asking “But what if the tech was also Kinda Good?” and that’s about it. That’s why Upload (2020) is so refreshing; it skipps all that stuff and, instead, gives us a good, earnest, nuanced discussion of technology.
At the basis of the show is the far fetched idea that, a few decades in the future, we’ll be able to upload the consciousness of those who are dying (not dead, crucially) and preserve in some sort of digital heaven. It’s literally called heaven. In that digital heaven, corporations will reign supreme, as they already do, and your quality of life will be directly determining by your (or, in most cases, your loved one’s) income. Enter Nathan Brown, a good looking, albeit extremely douchy, developer who dies under…mysterious circumstances and is now beholden to his girlfriend (whom he kinda hates) and her (parents’) bank account.
As his story unfolds, we are treated to a much rounder protagonist than per usual. So too his supporting cast, filled with nuanced, problematic, multi-faceted characters. Sure, the story sometimes takes the comedy part too far and some of the jokes fall flat, but the main storyline is genuinely interesting (should we help everyone upload? Even if it’s too terrible conditions in the afterlife?) and a lot of the humor does stick the landing. But those round characters are really what stood out to me; refreshingly, Upload actually spends time writing humans into its sci-fi tech critical story and it shines for it.
Final Fantasy VII: Remake
My time with the Final Fantasy VII: Remake has been a bit of a roller coaster. I bought into the hype, hard, when it was first announced in 2015, only to completely forget about it (as I imagine a lot of people did) as it seemed less and less likely to ever actually come to fruition. By the time its official 2020 release date was set, the glut of underwhelming remakes that had flooded the market in the interim had made me actively disinterested in the project – only to have that cynicism blown away by its outstanding pre-release demo. Almost two months and forty uneven hours later, I’m left with some seriously mixed feelings about it.
Anyone expecting a continuation of the action-packed demo is in for a shock. For the bulk of its (noticeably padded) playtime, Final Fantasy VII: Remake is “enforced slow-walk section” the game, with characters actively forcing you back onto it’s very Final Fantasy X-feeling linear paths, should you try to venture of the beaten track. When the game opens up, it’s a true joy. However, such moments are few and far between, with nary a meaningful-side quest to be found – even though the refocusing on Cloud’s career as a mercenary (or “merc” as the game seemingly insists on calling him every three seconds), would seem to lend itself to them.
Some of the expanded story stuff is great, particularly the expansion of Jessie (Biggs and Wedge, less so) and the fabulous HoneyBee Inn sequence. A lot of the game’s original story, however, falls flat, whether due to the overuse of Sephiroth, the compression of all its big reveals into a context that doesn’t really support them or because about halfway through I realized it’s all just lifted from Neon Genesis: Evangelion (1995–96) anyway. I also just do not care about Aerith, and spending (far too much) more time with her just isn’t going to change that, especially when Barret and, especially, Tifa are hanging around being far more interesting and developed characters all the time.
On the plus side, the combat system is great, blending the flashy action of the Devil May Cry series (2001–) with the deliberacy and tactical considerations of Dark Souls (2011) and traditional turn-based elements, to come up – rather ironically – with something that perhaps feels most like an updated take on Parasite Eve‘s (1998) combat system. The problem is, that everything happens too fast to fully engage with the system itself. The battles are also far too lenient, with it often being far more efficient to just tank through things than engage with the system/enemies at a deeper level, so that you end up just mashing the attack button most of the time anyway. Apparently the combat is more precise and demanding on harder difficulties, but there’s no way I’m playing through another 20 hours just to find out. There also aren’t many opportunities to actually partake in combat itself, outside of set story encounters, meaning there isn’t really a means to play around with it or upgrade your stats/materia, so that I really didn’t feel like I got a chance to fully explore and engage with all the systems the game ostensibly offers.
What hurts Final Fantasy VII: Remake the most perhaps is its horrendous pacing. The original was also limited, and overly dialogue heavy, but it’s long story sections were offset by the sense of exploration and character growth it offered. Even in its most kinetic sections, a lot of Remake feels like a slog. There’s literally a section where you climb up 59 sets of stairs, while your characters grow tired and complain the whole time, which would be a lot funnier if it hadn’t just come after two sections where you fight your way up an equally endless entire tower, Metal Gear Solid-style, or chased an annoying monster through the bland sewers for far too long. The “infiltration” of Shinra tower in Chapter 16 (i which the aforementioned staircase scene takes place) is particularly aggregious – as you navigate Tifa through an unnecessary and unchallenging monkey-bar section and before slow-walking through a literal museum exhibit. Chapter 17, however, contains some of the best hours I’ve ever spent with any video game, containing some outstanding combat and story sequences, before it goes and blows it all again by going full Advent Children for the finale.
Looking back on it, I think Remake is an impressive technical feat and a great re-imagining, but I really don’t know how much of it I actually enjoyed. It was great being back in that world, and it’s left seriously considering re-playing through the rest of the series (particularly VIII) and I definitely want to play the next installment when it comes out, just not straight away.
RuPaul’s Drag Race
Season 12 wrap-up
I meant to check in earlier as Season 12 of RuPaul’s Drag Race developed. However, what started off as a really promising season wound up being fairly flat overall. Maybe it’s due to the editing restrictions forced upon it, or maybe its just harder to buy into now that RuPaul has been outed as a Fracking magnate – adding to the increasing evidence that he’s actually literally just Mom from Futurama (1999–2013). On the whole though, the season was satisfying, but rarely outstanding. With the forthcoming finale, feeling somewhat inconsequential, given the fairly even-footing and general likability of the the three remaining eligible queens. So rather then a detailed recap, I thought I’d take a moment to celebrate Crystal Methyd‘ who is easily my favourite queen from the season and an unlikely favourite going into the finale.
Crystal seemed like a bit of an early-out, based on the pre-season material and early episodes. She quickly dropped the campy clown aesthetic, revealing a far more variation and depth to her drag than the promo material suggested. She constantly delivered standout looks on the runway that played with gender and expectations (highlights below) – including an Arnold Schwarzenegger-inspired Mr. Freeze Frozen runway, A Dragula-worthy corpse bride look, purple, bovine “sound suit” and, of course, the fashion-forward Freddy Kruegar realness from episode one, which still might be my favorite look of the season – not to mention her fantastic all-animal-print confessional get-up (Alaska would be proud) (although I thought her beloved Bert and Ernie makeover came off more Goku than Sesame Street). She’s also super adorable and constantly hilarious, as seen in her “One Woman Show,” where she played a ridiculous male-stripper/dance instructor, and spectacularly nuanced mullet infomercial. The former garned her her only win of the season, although she definitely should have taken the latter as well.
Although she goes into the final with only one win under her belt, compared with Jaida Essence Hall‘s and Gigi Goode‘s three or four, last season’s winner, Yvie Oddly managed to pull it off with only a single shared win, and the incomparable Sasha Velour with only two shared before that, so anything could happen, even if Yvie probably hurt her chances more by using up her story line already. I can also see the remote format benefiting Crystal’s creativity more than the other two, (although, to be honest, I think Gigi has it in the bag, given the meticulous control over the situation the new format has also granted her). Although both Jaida and GiGi are probably more “deserving” winners, given their performance on the season, and I’d be happy to see either of them win. I’ll also give a special shutout to Jaida’s confessionals, which were always brilliant (and just the way Jaida conducts herself in general), and the guest judges for this season, which have been almost uniformly phenomenal, when it comes from what I’ll takeaway most from this season, I’m solidly team Crystal.