Reviews for Normal People

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Review: A Strange Rival (Doctor Strange vs. Arrival) [SPOILERS] — November 27, 2016

Review: A Strange Rival (Doctor Strange vs. Arrival) [SPOILERS]

Now, fair warning, I saw Doctor Strange two weeks ago and elected not to review it. I saw Arrival today and decided to make this article. As a result, Arrival is fresher in my mind and I may have more to say about it.

That being said, I think there’s more to talk about with these two movies than we may realize. There may, indeed, be a reason they both became smashing successes at this specific point in time. Also, I like comparing things. For instance, both films feature primary characters who can see into the future. In Arrival, it’s the aliens (affectionately named Abbot and Costello), and in Doctor Strange, it’s the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). However, both films handle this device differently. In Doctor Strange, the Ancient One can see every possible future, and is therefore able to anticipate all possible outcomes and account for each of them. (It’s worth noting that another recent box office success, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, features a creature with this very same ability.) In Arrival, it seems as though Abbot and Costello only see one reality, and while they have some level of agency, it’s left unclear if they can truly influence the future.

As a result, both films bring up questions/observations about the nature of time itself,and therefore free will, though Strange‘s is a bit more nuanced. In Arrival, realities are, as far as we can tell, inescapable. Shang can’t give Louise his phone number unless she already called him, meaning that this interpretation of time is cyclical. After all, Louise’s ability to see the future is built on her understanding of the aliens’ language, which is literally and figuratively circular. As a representation of this, the movie begins at the beginning of one story and the end of another, and ends the other way around. In Doctor Strange’s interpretation, time is a tree, creating many branching paths with each action, though all inevitably lead to a linear end. Louise predicts the death of her daughter and, despite the many seemingly free decisions she makes throughout the movie, she never prevents this, or sees allowing it to happen as the only true means of exercising free will. The Ancient One predicts her own death through the realization that she can never see past a certain point. While the future is by no means concrete, everything has an expiration date.

Each film also has a character who feels that the soothsayer character uses her powers poorly. In Doctor Strange, Kaecilius (Mads “the Bitch” Mikkelsen) feels that the Ancient One is hypocritical for using her fortune-telling ability to extend her own life, and then refuse to let anyone else wield that power, thereby breaking her own firmly-set rules. In Arrival, Ian (Jeremy Renner) believes that Louise/Abbot and Costello did have the power to change the future, and considers their inactivity in trying to prevent the death of his daughter a heartless mistake. In both cases, the two characters break their ties as a result of this, and they each serve to introduce criticism to the aliens and the Ancient One, who otherwise appear to be omnipotent and without flaw.

That is, at least from the perspective of our younger characters who carry the torch of these future-seers and utilize it in their own unique way, foreshadowing a future where said powers will be necessary to prevent an oncoming scourge. These characters are the titular Dr. Strange, and Louise. Both of these characters are introduced right away and meet tragedy in the first several minutes of the film. Strange is appointed by the Ancient One to balance out the future tyranny of Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Louise is chosen by the aliens because she’s… there, and in order to save them from some threat three thousand years in the future. In the former case, we don’t know the magnitude of this threat until the very end of the movie, after the full credits. In the latter, we don’t know at all. Kaecilius fights Strange seeing him as blindly following the Ancient One, and Ian breaks up with Louise seeing her as blindly following the aliens.

I’ll admit I haven’t thought about the political ramifications of these two films quite as much as the philosophical ones but I’ll make some observations. All this discussion of time and will can be applied to any film, but Arrival, at its core, is about language. Its message is that we have to communicate with foreign entities to empathize with them, and we have to empathize to move forward peacefully. When it seems like things are going south in the peace talks between humans and aliens, it’s only due to miscommunication (don’t ask me how twelve different countries wound up with the same miscommunication). China is militaristic in its approach, up until Louise speaks to General Shang in his native language, telling him the words his wife told him before she died. Instead of action scenes, the film has conversation scenes. It’s really a movie that’s 100% about language, and its fundamental flaw is that it ends on a note of something else.

Doctor Strange, on the other hand, brings the conversations of time and free will to the forefront. At its core, it’s a movie about power. Strange starts the movie deriving power from the material (the physical use of his hands). He’s rich and famous, like Tony Stark, and considers the true power to be how he perceives himself. When he loses the physical use of his hands in a tragic fancy car accident, the Ancient One introduces him to a metaphysical power: in this case, light-based “magic.” The power still lies within him, still relies on perception, and is still harnessed through his hands, but he needs to step out of his own learned perception and perceive the universe for what it truly is. It isn’t until the back end of the movie that we learn that the greatest power of all is time. Strange and Kaecilius both spend the bulk of the movie not harnessing their full power, because they both make the mistake of perceiving time, rules, and life as absolute. Kaecilius follows Dormammu in his belief that people need to be separated from the universe itself in order to escape these trappings. The Ancient One teaches Strange that harnessing the power of green time magic is all you need to escape. Change your perception of time, see it as an infinitely-branching expanse of realities, and you can be even more powerful than a giant ageless face in outer space.

It’s interesting how perceiving time as an absolute is a mortal flaw of characters in Doctor Strange and a core tenet of characters in Arrival. It seems as though Strange is critiquing the very same mindset that the various creative minds behind Arrival go in with. This may seem like a pointed argument, but I can’t really say which film I’ll like more in the long run (for now, Arrival gets an A+, Strange gets an A-). Visually, Arrival is better shot, but Strange is more creative. They both have great characters, they both have great dialogue, they’re both very unique and mind-blowing in their own way. Arrival handles time travel better, Strange handles the implications of it better. I don’t know, man. They’re both really good.

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Review: The Best Disney Princess Movie of the 21st Century — November 25, 2016

Review: The Best Disney Princess Movie of the 21st Century

Is this the best year in Walt Disney Pictures’ 80-year history? It’s definitely up there. With the release of films like Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, The BFG, and Queen of Katwe, in addition to their subsidiaries’ films like Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Southside With You, it seems like the House of Mouse just can’t stop winning this year. It’s a film that directors Ron Clements and John Musker have been working on since the release of their last movie, (the also incredible) Princess and the Frog. It features some of the most buzzworthy people alive today: recently-crowned “Sexiest Man Alive” Dwayne Johnson and Hamilton megastar Lin-Manuel Miranda.

And holy shit, does it deliver. I don’t want to spoil my fast-approaching year-end list, but I’m tempted to say it’s the best animated movie of 2016. Yes, better than Sausage Party, better than Finding Dory, better than Zootopia, better than goddamn Kubo. Although I will say that it shares some conceptual similarities with Kubo, in terms of both of them involving magical island children and intense scenes out on the ocean and parental figures dying suddenly only to come back later in the form of a mystical entity that’s been guiding our hero all along.

But that’s neither here nor there. Let’s talk about all the things that kick ass in this movie. First of all, the aforementioned John D. Rockthewayneson is amazing as always. He plays a demigod named Maui who falls victim to his own vanity, even though he may be worthy of the glory he grants himself. He has magical sentient tattoos that are also hella rad, and he’s also a goddamn demigod, I mean, come on.

This isn’t to detract from the star of the show, Moana, who kicks all sorts of ass. She rehabilitates a lava monster and she’s friends with water. She’s the chief of her tribe, and apparently the first female one, and she finishes the film by placing a shell on a pile of stones that every chief adds one to. Don’t ask me how the next chief is gonna stack a stone on top of a seashell. It’s sort of rude on her part, really.

And the soundtrack by LMM in also spectacular. I could see him becoming the Alan Menken of this era of Disney, providing soundtracks whenever they need it, bringing us a step closer to the first hip-hop Disney movie.

The visuals are also amazing. There’s a part where they go into a place called the “Realm of Monsters” and it’s nothing like you’d think but still incredible. There’s a few unnecessary animal sidekicks (a pig that only appears in about three scenes), but a lot of the bit characters are great.

Overall, I give Moana an A. It really feels like a movie we’ll still be talking about in 30 years, which is something I’m always looking for. I don’t think I’ve felt so strongly about an animated movie since I came out of The Lego Movie in 2014. I highly recommend you see it, and whatever else Disney has on the way, because they’re on a serious roll.

Review: The Scamander Show — November 20, 2016

Review: The Scamander Show

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is the— who am I kidding, I’m not a popular blog. If you’re reading this, you know what Fantastic Beasts is. But still, I want to talk about Harry Potter for a minute. I think it’s a pretty underrated film franchise, in addition to being a slightly overrated book franchise. If you ask me, it took a slight dive after David Yates took over directing duties and didn’t really pick up until the last movie. And now Yates is back to direct five more Harry Potter movies, which brings us to this.

The thing with this film is that, while I liked it overall, it gave me a lot of insight into what I didn’t like about the last few Harry Potter movies. Have you ever realized that nothing memorable came out of any of them? I mean, besides the last one, which had a few moments like the train station purgatory scene or the one where everyone’s Harry. But Deathly Hallows Part 1Half-Blood PrinceOrder of the Phoenix? Can you honestly tell me that anything from these movies really stuck with most people? And for a franchise whose entire novelty was being, well, novel, it’s disheartening to see them fall into so many conventional trappings. Which is exactly what happens in Fantastic Beasts.

This whole movie is meant to be a “woman and/or child looks up in the sky and goes ‘whoooooooa'” sort of fantasy movie, but so few things in it come close to inspiring that sort of whimsy. Eddie Redmayne is sufficiently foppish, but everything in the movie seems to come from somewhere else. Most of Colin Farrell’s scenes feel straight out of Watchmen. Some of the supposedly “fantastic” beasts are actually just platypuses or giant beetles. Oh, amorphous floating black masses that kill people? Never seen that in a Harry Potter movie.

There’s also an entire subplot that seems to make up about a fifth of the movie and is entirely pointless. It revolves around an orphan who’s trying to keep himself from turning into a rage monster. So, all this damage happens, and Newt comes to New York to figure out what’s going on, and also to set his gryphon free in Arizona. From before the movie even starts, we’re led to believe that it’s the work of the mysterious Grindelwald, who we only hear by name and see the back of his head. Except it turns out it isn’t Grindelwald, it’s the orphan, but Grindelwald’s still up to something so they arrest him anyway. So… what was the orphan for? Why build it up like Grindelwald’s doing it and then just have this Addams Family shit going on in the background for two hours only to lead to the kid fucking dying and nothing getting resolved? But oh, the female lead is actually also an orphan, with the same foster parent! Okay, so? Why is that a twist? I was never led to believe something else.

And at the end of the movie, we get a BIG twist! Colin Farrell’s character, who we’re first introduced to in a dissolve from the aforementioned Grindelwald scene, and who has the exact same bizarre Macklemore haircut as Grindelwald, is actually Grindelwald! I don’t feel that that’s a spoiler because it’s literally the first thing you figure out in the entire movie. Seriously, the twists in this movie are just awful.

But once again, overall, I liked it. While a lot of the magical stuff doesn’t feel original, it is very cool. The characters are by and large delightful, and there’s some pretty interesting set pieces throughout. It made me interested to see what the next one will offer, even if I’m not exactly dying to see it. It’s far from perfect, but very enjoyable. I’d give it a B-.

Top 20 Songs of the Month (October 2016) — November 6, 2016

Top 20 Songs of the Month (October 2016)

Well, this was certainly an interesting month. We saw plenty of comebacks, some by artists we haven’t heard from in years, many as a result of the “30 Days, 30 40 50 Songs” anti-Trump campaign. I was thinking of including some of those on this list, particularly the entries from Death Cab for Cutie, Franz Ferdinand, and clipping., but at the end of the day, I feel like YG’s “Fuck Donald Trump” is the only anti-Trump song we need. As per uzh, the list is meant to include songs that were released as singles, videos, or otherwise separate from an album in the past month, although I’ll admit I cheated a little bit this time around. Let’s get down to business.

20) AFTER THE AFTERPARTY – Charli XCX feat. Lil Yachty

[Warning: This video is pretty gross.] It’s been almost 2 years now since we’ve gotten a full-length project from Charli XCX, but her February EP Vroom Vroom seemed to signal a new, wonderful era of electronic experimentation for the English pop star. But after all that, “After the Afterparty” is a bit more simple than anticipated. While it doesn’t cover much new ground, it is the sort of defiant power-pop that drew people to Charli in the first place. Lil Yachty comes and goes without incident. It’s very catchy and the production is pretty cool, but it’s not as out-there as people were expecting.

19) TALK TO ME – Run the Jewels

You could’ve seen this one coming. Truth be told, any old Run the Jewels song is probably good enough to make a top 20 list. And this is definitely “any old Run the Jewels song.” Does it cover any new ground or make me more excited for RTJ3 than I was before? No, not really. But it is really fun, fast-paced, well-written, and immaculately produced. Isn’t that enough?

18) CAMPAIGN SPEECH – Eminem

The last two songs on this list were pretty run-of-the-mill (or run-of-the-jewels) for the artists that made them. This one, not so much. With its droning, industrial, ambient beat, it has the feel of a clipping. track more so than an Eminem one. But content-wise, it’s not too far-flung from the freestyles Em’s been putting out the past couple years. There’s definitely some interesting stuff going on here. I like when he starts sounding like a robot. The beat, while hardly visible, is definitely interesting. There’s some quality lines and clever rhymes in here. He also goes after some interesting targets at times. While there’s still some phoned-in misogyny, he lobs some attacks at Trump supporters, George Zimmerman, and Casey Anthony that make it seem like he may be inching towards another politically-charged Eminem Show-type record. It also has its fair share of problems, with a lot of poor lines thrown in the mix (e.g. rhyming “misogynistic” with “massagin’ this dick” with “Robin Thicke with a throbbin’ dick on some suave and slick shit,” as though anyone is thinking about Robin Thicke in 2016 haha wouldn’t that be crazy). All in all, it’s sort of tiresome because it lacks focus and devolves into Em rapping himself in circles, but it seems to portend an interesting future for his music.

17) I AM HER – Shea Diamond

Moving on from the artist who calls himself “ballsy” because he says “faggot” even though people tell him not to, let’s talk about someone truly bold: Shea Diamond, a trans woman from my home state of Michigan who wrote “I Am Her,” as a statement of rebellion towards a world that wouldn’t accept her, while filling out a ten-year prison sentence. It’s triumphant and mournful and relatable and sympathetic, beautifully written and extremely memorable. At the same time, we’re living in an age where there are a lot of songs like this. Sure, Shea isn’t in a position to just release a song whenever the markets are right, but it feels just the slightest bit unremarkable. It’s great, mind you. I just don’t think it’ll stand the test of time.

16) CHURCH / LIQUOR STORE – Saba feat. Noname

“Brilliant new rapper out of Chicago” is almost a stereotype at this point, to the extent that there are three or four archetypes for how these artists’ songs sound. Saba’s “Church / Liquor Store” fulfills the “introspective with ethereal synthetic piano and choir” trope nicely, but it definitely deserves to be considered for its own merits. Saba’s chill-yet-aggressive style feels like a cool middle ground between fellow B.N.R.O.O.C.’s Towkio and Mick Jenkins. Noname might just be one of the best rappers in the game right now. The hook paints a stark portrait of the forgotten slums left over by gentrification, using the juxtaposition of churches and liquor stores to portray the vicious cycle created by life in these streets. Still, Noname conveys these themes quite a bit better in a much shorter amount of time than Saba does.

15) WEAK – AJR

“Weak” is the latest single from eclectic indie pop band AJR. They are not to be confused with AJJ, another popular indie band who changed their name from “Andrew Jackson Jihad” after realizing that both of those things are bad. AJR, on the other hand, is named after the first initials of its three members: Adam, Jack, and Ryan Met. The trio adopts the philosophy of Phil Spector’s “Wall of Sound” (and hopefully not his philosophy of second-degree murder) to create power pop jams that are equal parts vulnerable and headstrong. Nowhere is that exemplified further than in this song, where the hook says “I’m weak, and what’s wrong with that? Boy oh boy, I love it when I fall for that.” They bring in some trumpets at the end, but this is overall one of their more generic tracks. Still great, though.

14) DAN BILZERIAN – T-Pain feat. Lil Yachty

Yes, on some level, this song is definitely a shallow cash-in on the success of D.R.A.M.’s “Broccoli.” But while it may be riding that wave, it’s become evident to me in recent years that T-Pain is doing whatever the fuck he wants, and he is having so much fun. You listen to songs like “Dan Bilzerian” and “Officially Yours” and “Laugh n Dab” and realize that he’s way better now than he was when he was a superstar, purely because of how little he takes himself seriously. “Dan Bilzerian” also has the advantage of being insanely catchy and featuring one of Lil Yachty’s better verses so far.

13) DEEP – Robin Thicke and Nas

Shit! I’m the one thinking about Robin Thicke in 2016! Well, to be fair, this song succeeds more so because of Nas, who delivers a stellar a cappella verse at the beginning of the song and another one towards the end. But as much as I’d like to, I can’t credit all this song’s wonders to Nas. No matter how hard I try to find someone to blame for giving Robin Thicke such a good song, all the signs point to the unfortunate conclusion that this whole thing was his idea. Sure, producer Rich Skillz contributes something to the song, but it was Robin who wanted the song to be about more than a relationship, it was Robin who wanted to talk about global sociopolitical crises in his goofy R&B song, and it was Robin who enlisted Nas. Damn you, Thicke, always on the verge of being likable.

12) TOO YOUNG – Zeds Dead feat. Rivers Cuomo and Pusha T

This song just kinda has everything going for it. Push has phoned in his fair share of pop guest verses, but he came through on this one. The beat is really well-made, and it’s irresistibly catchy. It’s also not nearly as creepy as a Rivers Cuomo song called “Too Young” could reasonably be anticipated to be. I really don’t have much to say about it, but it’s excellent.

11) ROCKABYE – Clean Bandit feat. Anne-Marie and Sean Paul

This new track by Clean Bandit finds them disappointingly entrenched in generic gentrified EDM dancehall, but sets itself apart in other ways. First of all, it’s good, which is more than I can say about a lot of other songs in that subgenre. Also, the hook is a nursery rhyme, which can go in a number of ways, but works in a way that’s equal parts goofy and powerful here. See, this isn’t a normal radio EDM song. It’s a radio EDM song about single mothers. And, in general, a really tasteful and empowering one. If I was a single mother, which is an admittedly unlikely scenario, I’d probably get a real kick out of this song. It’s also really funny to hear Sean Paul’s fun party jam ad-libs replaced with shouts like “Daily struggle!” and “Special bond of creation!” like some sort of hype man motivational speaker.

10) SWEET RELIEF – Kimbra

I never really got into Kimbra, even though she was my favorite part of “Somebody That I Used to Know.” I liked what I heard from her, but I didn’t hear all that much, and never made the time to actively seek it out. Which is a shame because damn, she’s phenomenal, right? This is some of the best production I’ve heard this year, period. Sure, it’s not all that catchy, which you could say is an integral part of pop music, but it’s still so pristine that I can’t fault her for it.

9) BLOWN – DNCE feat. Kent Jones

I’ve already sung the praises of JoBro funk powerhouse DNCE, so let me start by saying that Kent Jones is incredible. The DJ Khaled protege first became known for “Don’t Mind,” an earnest– if annoying– single about women across the world. Not the best first impression, but he really turned heads in the hip-hop world when he appeared on a Khaled track with Jadakiss, Fabolous, Fat Joe, and Busta Rhymes… and outperformed all of them. Anyway, “Blown” is really good.

8) HOME MOVIES – KAMI

KAMI, a.k.a. Kami de Chukwu, is a member of Chance the Rapper’s SAVEMONEY collective, but while he may be another B.N.R.O.O.C., this is by no means a hip-hop track. Rather, it’s a synth-infused ’80s throwback power pop track about amateur porn. The off-beat “say my name” gives it the feel that it was made in a garage, and with tinny drums and affected vocals, it demands to be played from a boombox. ’80s throwbacks aren’t uncommon in this day and age, but rarely are they done with this much sheer elegance.

7) VOWELS – Capital Cities

This song is absolutely ridiculous. Basically, the narrator wants to say something (ostensibly a confession of love), but can’t properly put it into words, so he vows to “speak in vowels from now on.” The chorus? “A-A / O-O / E-E / Oo-oo oo-oo oo-oo-oo.” Pure pop excellence, with the phenomenal production we’ve come to expect from Capital Cities (“Safe and Sound”).

6) RENEGADES – D∆WN (Dawn Richard)

This is another song without all that much to it. It’s just a really well-made dance pop track, with vaguely rebellious underpinnings. The chorus is “run a-run away with you, rene-renegade” and it doesn’t need to be more elaborate than that. It is, I should point out, a very well-written song, but that’s not why it’s great. It’s just that mix of a bunch of perfect elements, from Dawn’s voice to the parts of the beat and how they mesh together to the lyrics. I can’t describe it, but I can feel it.

5) HOME – Common feat. Bilal

If you want an impression of what you’ll get from Common’s new album Black America Again, this is about it. A beautiful jazz beat by Karriem Riggins, powerful lyrics in Common’s trademark spoken-word style, a whole lot of Biblical social commentary, and, as an overarching theme, good shit. Common’s still one of the best poets alive and Bilal’s voice never ceases to amaze. I probably could have put any of BAA‘s singles in this slot, which is actually one of my main complaints about the album. But if the songs are this good, uniformity isn’t the worst that can happen.

4) MAKE HAY – Joanna Newsom

Speaking of the best poets alive, who gave Joanna Newsom the right to be such a good writer? This is a throwaway track from her last album Divers, but it could just as easily have been its lead single, because it’s great. Even the YouTube description of the song is frustratingly good: “The standard gift for the occasion is a timepiece, but watch out – here’s a piece of time out of time that you’ll never not have back again!” What the fuck? What the fuck, Joanna Newsom?

3) GET BIGGER – NxWorries (Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge)

NxWorries’ new album Yes Lawd! proves that Anderson .Paak and Knxwledge are a match made in hip-hop/soul fusion heaven. “Get Bigger” is one of the more introspective and purely hip-hop tracks on the record, but it’s still as soulful as they come. Anderson has this crazy ability to appear both effortless and painstaking, radiating natural coolness in two perfectly-constructed and thickly-woven verses. .Paak was already an unstoppable force in hip-hop this year, and now he’s notched a second album-of-the-year contender into his belt.

2) MAN ON THE MOON – Zella Day

Is Zella Day one of modern music’s biggest visionaries? I don’t know, I haven’t given her a good listen. But if this song is any indication, she definitely is. It’s really an otherworldly experience, immediately putting her in a whole different class from her folksy electropop contemporaries (Halsey, et al.) with an incredible blend of heavenly vocals, synthetic harmonicas and banjos, and Francis and the Lights-esque vocal effects. I don’t know what I expected Zella Day to sound like, but this goes above and beyond anything I could have hoped for.

1) MISUNDERSTOOD – D.R.A.M. feat. Young Thug

This is where I cheated a little. See, this song isn’t a single. It’s just a song off of D.R.A.M.’s album which, in fairness, came out this month. Still, putting it on this list, let alone at #1, is sort of breaking my only rule for these. But I’m sorry, it needed to be pointed out. This is the best song of the month. Easily. It starts with D.R.A.M. singing about how people don’t understand his music and call him childish while they don’t even understand what he’s trying to do. And he’s like, crooning over this Bon Jovi-ass beat. He’s not even rapping. There’s no hook, either; there’s just a sorta-refrain where the electric guitar kicks in and he says something like “But what’s there to figure, when you speak to that n***a that you don’t understand?” Then, after a minute of that, Young Thug comes in, and holy shit dude. He’s sing-rapping under really heavy AutoTune, to the extent that it feels like he’s just fading into the song through it over the first few lines of his verse. It’s also a really solid verse, but it shows us a side of Thug that we haven’t seen in a minute. After that, D.R.A.M. starts full-on rapping and it’s more of that cuddly sing-song “Broccoli” shit that I love him for, except this time it’s coated in the thick goo of disdain, just as the whole song is, for haters, confused critics, crooked cops, and saboteurs. It’s just… so good.