Hello, friends! Welcome to the first installment of our new and improved Cool People Column! As you may have already ascertained, things are looking a bit different around these parts, and our coverage of all the cool stuff we’ve been consuming each month is no exception. While stalwart Heavy Blogger Josh had been handling the accumulation of content each month up to this point, we’ve opted to take the burden off of one human’s shoulders and create a more holistic and expansive approach to our coverage. We hope that you find plenty of great content to enjoy here!
Each month, our staff will be covering the latest and greatest in what we’re watching, reading, listening to (that isn’t just fantastic albums, naturally) and playing. This month, staff recommendations run that gamut from historical comedies to metal documentary film-making to epic fantasy. As always, we’d love to hear what you are consuming during the time of the ‘rona. Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.
Times are perilous. Art is essential to challenging systems that need breaking. Thanks, as always, for coming along on with us on this journey. We hope that you’re staying safe, healthy, and well.
What We’re Watching (TV, film, etc.)
Historical comedies are a dicey topic. They require just the right balance between irreverence, which charges them with their humor, and historical accuracy, which makes the exercise worthwhile to begin with. Otherwise, what’s their point? If they’re not funny, well then they’re not a comedy are they? And if they’re not at least somewhat accurate, there’s no reason for the historical setting. The mistake lies in going too far in either direction, sacrificing the fruitful middle ground where these two forces meet.
Luckily, The Great is extremely cognizant of this. Tony McNamara, who wrote the play it is based on and the show, also wrote the amazing The Favourite, another masterful piece that strikes this balance brilliantly (though calling it a comedy is a bit of a stretch). On The Great, a 10 episode Hulu show, his writing is brought to life by a host of amazing actors, chief among them Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult. Hoult, I hope, no longer needs an introduction; in his role as Peter (not the Great, the other one) a shred of Tony from Skins shines through in his narcissism and blithe disregard for the existence of humans that aren’t him.
But it is Fanning, as Catherine the Great, which steals the show. From everyone. Seriously, Elle Fanning is so good on this show. Her range of emotions fit the incredibly complex and relatable figure of Catherine the Great, positing her here in her early years as a naive and idealistic youngster on the cusp of awakening into the harsh realities of the world. Add in a guest spot from an excellently decadent Voltaire, plenty of twists and turns, an excellent supporting act and a marvellous host of people working on costumes and setting, and you’ve got yourself a hit. The Great is funny and just historically accurate enough, striking to the gist of the period without being bogged down by something as tedious as details. Watch this for a clever good time.
You Should Have Left
I love horror in all its forms. From the corniest low-budget slasher to a good, long slow-burn psychological thriller, I can’t consume it fast enough. Of course, that doesn’t mean I don’t have my preferences. By far my favorite subgenre is one that is difficult to find and describe, since it’s a relatively new phenomenon in the culture at large – spatial horror. No, I don’t mean outer space, though I enjoy sci-fi terror as much as the next person. I mean horror built around the manipulation of physical space and the pure, cold, disorienting fear it stakes through your heart. The best and brightest examples of this are, of course, House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, along with the fabled creepypasta saga Dionaea House, SCP-087, and the audio drama I Am In Eskew by Jon Ware.
This is precisely why I was beyond ecstatic when current blockbuster horror heavyweights Blumhouse Productions optioned the 2017 novella You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann for film. The novella itself draws (some would argue wholesale plagiarizes) elements popularized by its predecessors to create a tight story about a screenwriter who takes his family on vacation just to discover the house they rented is very much… off. With big names like Kevin Bacon and Amanda Seyfried signed on to star, along with the pedigree of the production company, I was ready for a treat.
And I really, really wish I’d saved myself the digital rental. Perhaps I set my standards too high by how good it should have been on paper, or by the fact that I’d been waiting on a good screen adaptation of anything in this realm for quite some time, but it was a massively disappointing experience. The performances were half-hearted at best, and checking the movie’s budget, I can only assume it’s because its leads took the job for some quick cash and a brief shooting schedule. The adaptation left quite a bit to be desired, focusing too much on the relationships and not enough on the absurd horrors of the house, which the characters seemed to take in stride. Key points of terror from the book were entirely omitted, and the finale felt rushed and begged more questions than it ever cared to answer.
Normally, we try to cover things we like around here, since this blog is a project of passion by its contributors and not just another news and review aggregate. We want you to love the things we do as much as we do. And that’s exactly why, if you’re a horror junkie like me, you’d do well to save your time and money on this one. If you’re interested in good spatial horror, go check out the references above, and get back to me with your thoughts – if you can find me.
Death by Metal
As an avid theater-goer, the past several months have been absolutely brutal when it comes to finding and enjoying new film content. I haven’t seen a new release since the spring, and good grief does that make me sad. But in my time away from my standard fare I’ve made it a point to watch some films that I’ve been wanting to see but haven’t had the time or capacity to get to over the past few years. Felipe Belalcazar’s Death by Metal, detailing the career of Death, was one of those films. While I cannot say that it’s a perfect documentary, I nevertheless greatly enjoyed it, and found that it contained some interesting and illuminating insights into the evolution of one of the greatest metal bands of all time.
The set up of the documentary is fairly straightforward. Comprised mainly of no-frills, honest interviews with the band’s extremely talented and rotating cast, Belalcazar pieces together the early years of the band’s development from garage project in Florida to internationally recognized death metal titans. Of particular note is its (very understandable and necessary) focus on the one member of the band who at the time was unable to tell his story himself: Chuck Schuldiner. Of all the things the documentary does well, shedding light on the complex emotional character of Schuldiner as a bandmate and friend was by far its greatest strength. Throughout Death by Metal, Schuldiner comes across as a legendary songwriter and musician, a meticulous artist, an unpredictable and often difficult bandmate with strong emotions that drastically impacted his decision-making, and an uncompromising visionary. The documentary does an excellent job dissecting his personality through the prism of his friends and colleagues, and makes him feel both infinitely relatable and enigmatic. It’s a deft feat of filmmaking, painting a picture of Schuldiner that feels distinctly human.
While the overall documentary is very enjoyable, I do wish that more time was spent diversifying the documentary’s format. Bouncing back and forth between band members (whose involvement with particular records isn’t always clearly delineated) and their thoughts begins to drag about halfway through, giving some of the band’s most formidable years the most stale treatment. But nevertheless it’s a film I would highly recommend to fans of death metal at large or Death as a band. It’s most certainly a fascinating journey through music history and the personality of brilliant musicians, and I highly recommend it.
What We’re Reading (books, articles, graphic novels, etc.)
The Malazan Book of the Fallen – Steven Erikson
Readers come to fantasy for a plethora of reasons. For some, it’s a mechanism for pure escapism, a dive away from the ordinary that one can get lost in for days, weeks, and months at a time. For others, fantasy holds a mirror to our world, highlighting through imaginative fiction the triumphs, pains, horrors, and complexities of existence, serving as a catalyst for something deeper and more uncomfortable than unfiltered literary joy riding. While these two realms need not be mutually exclusive, the current state of mankind most certainly facilitates a darker approach to storytelling for authors who tend toward social commentary. George R.R. Martin has popularized this sort of plunge into the socially- and politically-aware macabre allegory through the mechanism of Game of Thrones, but Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen may be the series that most effectively balances pure fantasy world-building with real-world, universal implications regarding who we are as sentient beings, and all the abject darkness and glimmers of bright hope that come with conscious existence. It is, to put it succinctly, an absolute colossus and classic of the genre.
I honestly have no idea how to start talking about this series. If you’re a fantasy junky, you’re most likely already intimately familiar with it. If you are a noob in the fantasy world (welcome!), this series is going to be the kind of beast that will take you many months (or, in my case, well over a year) to complete. Consisting of 10 finished novels set in an intricate and complex fantasy world, the series follows groups of characters through various quests, missions, and wars that have intricate connections to one another and the world at large in both obvious and unseen ways. The magic system is probably the most wild and thoroughly interesting that I’ve seen in a fantasy series, the characters are for the most part very unique and engaging and the world-building is beyond the scope of anything I’ve read. Not just in fantasy, but anywhere. If you like your fantasy reading to be just as adventurous as the story itself, The Malazan Book of the Fallen is most certainly worth your time.
Having just finished the seventh book in the series, Reaper’s Gale, I can vouch for its continued excellence. Wielding a hefty 1,200+ pages of dense fantasy material, it’s a book that took me a decent amount of time to finish. But as with every oversized Malazan novel I have finished, the investment of time was more than worth it. Drawing concluding statements to some of the series’ most interesting characters, while deeply developing those of others, it’s a book that I can happily state only enhances the series’ overall strength. Moving into the eight book without a dud reading experience yet is most certainly a rare thing for a series this expansive, but Erikson has managed to pull off so far with Malazan the near-impossible balance of long-form narrative cohesion, effective character building, and consistently intriguing plot developments and conversions. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
If you’ve been sitting on starting this series, there’s no better time than a stay-out-home pandemic to dive in. With the terrors of 2020 presenting a very real and pervasive backdrop, I don’t think there’s been a better time to absorb Erikson’s visions of nihilism, perseverance, and (perhaps most profoundly) hope. One of the best series of books I have read thus far, and I’m not even to the end.
Side note: Brilliant black metal band Caladan Brood is named after a character from the series. So that’s neat.
What We’re Listening To (podcasts, anything audio-based that is not music)
Rabbit Hole – The New York Times
If you are reading this, you are very likely someone like myself. Someone who came of age just as seemingly the entire world moved online and into these new networks of social media, where content seemed infinite and those who could produce the best algorithms and ways to predict our “wants” and “needs” would rise to the top. You have very likely been someone whose inner psychology has been analyzed and served by lines of code. And though you may yourself might be someone who has spent countless hours clicking through recommended videos for related content on Youtube, you almost certainly know someone who has. Much of the time that catered recommendation engine can be a net positive. It can lead you to new music, new art, new creators you never knew existed but cover your own interests.
But there’s also the dark side to this technological wonder. The internet, and Youtube in particular, has been notorious for leading people looking for answers and guidance down paths towards extremism, hate, bigotry, and, at worst, violence. This season of Rabbit Hole aired a few months ago, but it’s just as vital then as it is now. It follows the story of one man, a disaffected young adult, who went to Youtube looking for self-help videos, only to wind up obsessively consuming hours upon hours of alt-light and then alt-right content. It explores how Youtube’s business decisions over the years shaped the platform to do exactly this, and what they’re saying they’re trying to do now to clamp down on the worst of it. It also, inevitably, leads down the delirious K-hole that is QAnon.
As entertaining as it is chilling, Rabbit Hole is essential listening to understanding our extremely polarized and conspiracy-obsessed culture.
What We’re Playing (video games, board games, mobile games, etc.)
Super Hot (Mind Control Delete)
OK, there’s really no need for a long entry here. Super Hot is the action packed game from a few years back where time moves only when you move. That gives you the ability to mess up a horde of faceless “red guys”, as they’re known, with ultra cool moves and then get a playback in full speed where you’re basically Neo from The Matrix.
With this expansion, the feverish minds at Super Hot HQ have added new weapons and, most importantly, “hacks”. These configure your abilities with new hot stuff, like the ability to kill with a single punch, through bottles across the room and…kill with them, return katanas to your hand, start with a random gun and more.
It’s a lot of fun. It’s fast-paced, difficult at times, stylish as all hell and you get to shoot people in slow motion. Do it.
Mortal Shell is essentially Dark Souls (2011) but instead of being a zombie, you’re a skeleton. Actually, you’re more like a ghost who has possessed a bunch of skeletons, or “shells,” and can also turn to stone, but it’s really much of a muchness. The game is easily the most Souls-like “Souls-like” going around and it’s a glorious imitation. If this were an early version of Dark Souls IV I’d be stoked. The “hardening” mechanic is just different enough from the usual shield mechanic(s) to shake things up. In fact, Mortal Shell is maybe, more like Demon’s Souls (2010) with its masked maiden and tri-tier dungeon structure, but with Dark Souls III-level graphics and mechanics (which bodes very well for the upcoming Demon’s Souls remaster). Although encounters tended to become formulaic, they always felt great and, while the difficulty was enough to keep things engaging, the only frustratingly brutal part of the game were the loading times. The only thing I can really hold against Mortal Shell is its slightness, which is more than made up for in its affordability.
The mechanics could be better integrated, with weapon and shell-swaps serving as base mechanics rather than being reliant on rare, expendable items. Although there are advantages to each different shell the level design doesn’t really call for them. (Once you’ve got Solomon and the Smouldering mace, there’s no real reason to switch from either, and anytime I accidently did was a hindrance rather than an advantage). Still, there’s a great aesthetic and mechanical base for Cold Symmetry to build off of if they want to add DLC, which I really hope they do. The week I spent with Mortal Shell is one of the best times I’ve had with a Souls-like in ages and I can’t recommend it to fans of the Dark Souls series enough. It also has a Rotting Christ song in the trailer, so you know it’s metal as hell.