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01 Fast and Furious

Ten things I learned from watching Fast & Furious 6 (some minor spoilers follow):

1. There is no problem that cannot be solved by driving fast and punching hard.

2. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson abides by a philosophy succinctly summarized as “ABF,” or “Always Be Flexing.”

3. The “Fast & Furious” franchise is the United States’ answer to England’s James Bond: a seemingly immortal, ridiculous action franchise that crystallizes the stereotypical values of its country of origin.

4. Cool female characters more interesting than the rest of the cast are rendered completely inconsequential when dead.

5. According to the unique Physical Laws of Diesel, the older Vin gets, the more mass his neck accumulates.

6. The aforementioned Rock is a walking Predator drone, authorized by his fists to operate anywhere in the world with impunity.

7. No matter the circumstances, Paul Walker’s expression is forever frozen in time.

8. If you think the film is at any moment as absurd as it can be, just wait a second.

9. Everyone with a British accent is evil.

10. Nothing says “America” more than a film that in its closing moments gathers a multi-ethnic collection of freedom loving, golden-hearted outlaws around a dinner table to join hands and say “Grace.”

Saga

Brian K. Vaughan, Fiona Staples, Saga (purchase from Amazon)

Cyriaque Lamar, io9, “Brian K. Vaughan Talks Saga, One of the Year’s Best Science Fiction Comics

In the world of comics and graphic novels, it’s rare for a property to focus almost entirely on romance, but Brian K. Vaughan’s newest ongoing series, Saga, does exactly that. With help from talented up-and-coming artist Fiona Staples, Vaughan’s Image-published adventure chronicles the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of literally star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko and their newborn daughter Hazel.

In the science fiction/fantasy world of Saga, two alien races have been at war for as long as anyone can remember, with each faction bent on total dominance of the other. From out of the death and destruction, Alana and Marko’s outlawed romance blossoms and as a result, they hit the road in hopes of finding security and peace for their new family.

Along the way they encounter a collection of interesting and bizarre characters and places, the variety and complexity of which all help to elevate the book from cliched sci-fi space opera to an especially impressive creative work. Saga reads like an intergalactic road trip chronicle. And like Vaughan’s previous efforts (Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), his wry sense of humor and appreciation for each character’s personal quirks undercuts all of the intense action and strangeness to drive home the humanity of Alana, Marko and Hazel’s journey.

In complementing his script, Vaughan couldn’t ask for a more effective partner than Fiona Staples, who handles all of the art for the book. Her spare-yet-lively minimalist style manages to flesh out the sci-fi world without bombarding the reader with superfluous detail. Her sense of space makes every page feel open and light, while her character work gives real life to a unique and compelling cast. Staples’ cover work alone is worth purchasing the individual issues; you can view all of them here.

If you’re looking for an excellent graphic novel experience and are a fan of science fiction, I can’t recommend Saga enough. Check it out.

The Private Eye

Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, The Private Eye

Steven Morris, The Beat, “Review: The Private Eye #1”

I also just wanted to mention briefly another comic project on which Vaughan has recently embarked: The Private Eye. Ironically published online, The Private Eye tells the story of a private detective who must navigate the pitfalls of a future Earth in which the structure of the internet has collapsed and all personal data uploaded to cloud storage was made irrevocably public. The revelation of every person’s secret online history has completely transformed society, forcing a mass reversion to physical media (bound books, vinyl records, and print newspapers all make cameo appearances), and more importantly forcing almost everyone to hide behind a disguise to protect his or her identity. The deceptive illusion of anonymity and trust provided by using the internet is shattered.

Since there’s only been one issue released, it’s too early to say how this project will turn out, but the premise is intriguing and unlike the escapist fantasy of Saga, is more in line with Vaughan’s past socially-relevant and critical works. Marcos Martin’s art, appropriate to the comic’s neo-noir stylings, is cool and elegant, and one of the pleasures of the book is taking in all of the resonant elements he incorporates from panel to panel. The fact that everyone is wearing a disguise all the time makes for a very playful visual and narrative theme that has a lot of potential.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of a unique and compelling story that has something to say about the world in which we currently live, I’d recommend giving The Private Eye a shot. You can pay whatever you want to access the first issue online (available in a variety of digital formats) right now.

Fox and Cat

2012 has been a busy year. Apart from the inception of this blog, there have been many significant events – in the world and abroad – both excellent and awful. Fortunately, the former far outnumbered the latter in mine and my loved ones’ personal experiences and for that I am extremely grateful.

I generally try to avoid discussing my personal life, but there’s one special new development I’m excited to share here: After seven years together with my significant other, Cassie, I took the opportunity this past Saturday to ask for her hand in marriage. Surrounded by impeccably-dressed friends, beautiful Christmas decorations, and delicious food at our annual holiday dinner, my sentimental, meandering toast quickly – and nervously – transformed into a proposal.

For anyone who is interested (and I record it here for posterity’s sake), I thought I would provide the speech I had prepared and practiced. Guests who witnessed it live will notice I skipped some doom and gloom. Frazzled nerves allow little time for thoughtful reflection and do awful things to your mouth’s coordination. More importantly though, I just couldn’t wait to ask Cassie the big question. She was radiant and surprising her (and everyone else) was just too much fun. So, here it is:

“I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you all here.

It’s been an eventful year, full of new relationships, new friends, new homes, new jobs, new babies, new stages of life, and always new adventures. Unfortunately there have been and always will be difficulties and horrors lurking in the darkness. This year we have seen our fair share of them. But gathering here with you, I am filled with renewed hope and optimism. I hope you are, too.

In preparing this, I was thinking about all of those new events and developments and realized that nothing of great significance had happened in our lives this year, Cassie. Can you think of anything? Nothing? Well, like I said, I am especially happy you’re all here so you can help me change that.

Cassie, over the last seven years, you have been my best friend, my confidant; everything I could ask for in a companion in life. I love you. And today, I was wondering if you would like to be my wife. Will you marry me?”

She said “Yes” immediately! I dropped to one knee and presented a silver ring fashioned in the shape of a fox. I love them – especially arctic foxes, who mate for life – and I wanted Cassie to always have a special token that reminded her of me. She threw her arms around me and needless to say, there was much rejoicing.

When everything was said and done, our guests’ food lay abandoned and cold on the table in service of enthusiastic applause, handshakes, and embraces. “Grief is the price you pay for love,” as they say and we later mourned the frigid feast. But this was a fantastic experience and it went better than I could have hoped. Cassie and I are extremely excited.

Thank you to everyone who was there in person and in spirit, who had a hand in stoking the forge of our relationship, and who helped us celebrate this occasion with love and well wishes. I hope your kindness and friendship is repaid many times over to you in the future. 2013 is shaping up to be another excellent year. We can’t wait to see you there.

Nick Waterhouse & The Tarots – Is That Clear (Live)

Nick Waterhouse – Is That Clear/Time’s All Gone (Takeaway Show)

Nick Waterhouse – Some Place (Takeaway Show)

Like Zach Condon of Beirut before him (whose music I also deeply admire), Nick Waterhouse has managed to make something old new again: his sound epitomizes a modern evolution of early rhythm & blues and rock & roll sensibilities that is unmatched in the contemporary market.

Simple, genuine, and performed by his band with true instrumental musicianship, Waterhouse sets your toes to tappin’ and your soul to bruisin’ with his short-but-dance-inducing sonic concoctions. It’d be easy to dismiss his throw-back style as a gimmick, but in today’s world of saturated synthesizers and sameness, Waterhouse is a blast of fresh air.

The reversal is welcome and well-timed. When you listen to his debut album straight through, you can feel the music as a bluesy representation of the young man’s old soul. Some would argue that reviving 50’s rock & roll is not an endeavor to which today’s tender-hearted technocrat musicians are up, but thankfully Nick Waterhouse not only steps to the plate, but knocks it out of the park.

Rollicking guitar licks, punchy horn sections, emphatic female back-up vocals, and Waterhouse’s simple song-writing and -singing style all combine to create an energetic and excellent aural experience. Music critique cliches aside, I encourage you to step back in the past and revive your synth-soaked eardrums with Nick Waterhouse.

ThatGameCompany, Journey

Austin Wintory, “Apotheosis”

Journey Stories

I’m sure everyone imagines from time to time what it would be like to embark on a journey into the unknown; to explore an untamed landscape, and uncover hidden truths about one’s self that would otherwise remain undiscovered. For a precious few that is a reality and I envy those lucky individuals, but for most that idea remains an elusive fantasy, one which is at the heart of ThatGameCompany’s recent videogame Journey.

Available exclusively for the PlayStation 3, Journey puts the player in the desert-wandering shoes of a red-cloaked, lone adventurer on a quest to reach a mountaintop many leagues in the distance. Beyond the game’s title and a brief tutorial, the player is supplied with no information they do not discover for themselves. With its breathtaking aesthetics, meaningful story, stirring score, and captivating gameplay, it is clear before long that Journey promises and delivers a uniquely profound experience. For an idea of the artistry of that experience, I strongly recommend the first two links above to watch the game’s trailer and listen to one of the pieces of the soundtrack.

Beyond the literal journey undertaken by the protagonist, the entire presentation acts as a moving storybook allegory for spiritual and emotional transformation. The mountain toward which you are constantly advancing is a practical goal for the game, but as you traverse elaborate ruins and uncover the land’s history, your imagination runs free and the mountain takes on a multitude of significant meanings both inside and outside the game world. The stylish microcosm in Journey celebrates the highs and lows of life and what it means to persist in the face of adversity.

There is beauty and magic to be found in even the destitute ruins of a once great civilization and motivating much of the action of Journey is the conceit that you cannot take wing and fly toward a better understanding of what lies ahead without understanding what has come before. This concept is woven – literally – into the fabric of the game. As you explore, you learn to harness the power of flight, granted to you by mysterious scraps of enchanted scarves, remnants of a history consumed by the desert. This is a great place to mention that despite the harsh environments, every creature, location, and character is imbued with fantastic liveliness, embodying the enigmatic energies they represent. 

One of the greatest philosophical and emotional achievements of the game (and the one that prompted me to write about it now) is its unique implementation of multiplayer elements. Unless you are playing offline, the quest is not one you need undertake alone. At some point along the way, you will undoubtedly encounter another traveler also intent on pilgrimage to the mountain. With regards to your interaction, the game remains minimal. Each of you are given nothing more than a unique symbol and scarf-recharging “shout” to communicate. Adding another layer of symbolism, when two players move close to one another, they restore each other’s energy.

Actions speak louder than words in Journey, and to great effect. Contrary to what you would expect, the limitations foster a more profound connection to the companions you meet. It doesn’t matter who they are or where they’re from. All that matters is that you are on the journey together and that through partnership you can make magic and fly.

As in life, you may lose track of one another, or a different traveler will join you along the way, but there are moments of true beauty to be found in almost every interaction. The last link above, to a blog entitled “Journey Stories,” speaks volumes about the significance of some of these online interactions. As the name implies, it features stories about players’ experiences in the game. Here I will tell you mine. I’ve done my best to avoid any spoilers; there’s nothing below besides the banal revelation that the game has an ending.

My Journey Story:

Though I had already played it once from start-to-finish, I sat down recently to enjoy the game for a second time. After having worked with and parted ways with a few different travelers, about halfway through this play-through, I met one that would stick with me until the end. His scarf – the length of which depends on the discovery of in-game secrets, and determines the amount of time you can fly before needing a recharge – was short, indicating that he was a new player, unfamiliar with the mechanics or progression of the game. For what it’s worth, my scarf was quite long.

We met at one of the most trying sections of the game, one that is made all the more bearable by having a reliable companion. I was resolved to help this traveler evade every obstacle along his way, waiting and leading him across the difficult landscape. Through trials and tribulations, and one of the most emotionally-rewarding scenes I’ve ever watched in a videogame (or otherwise), we made it together to the very end. At this point, the main action of the game has subsided and there is little more to do than complete the journey. It may sound silly to some, but this is where I get choked up.

Eager to complete the game, I rushed forward, arrogantly intent on leading my ward to the ending. To my surprise, however, surrounded by the beautiful environment in this closing segment, my companion suddenly sat down. Steps from the end, he crossed his legs and took a seat, waiting for nothing. Puzzled, I turned around and approached him, wondering what could be wrong. We’d come so far together and I wanted nothing more than to complete the journey side-by-side. My friend continued to sit, seemingly meditating on what we’d done and where we were going.

Still confused, but appreciative of the quiet moment, I sat down beside this stranger. Nothing happened, but somehow… it was one of the most sublime, transcendental experiences, thinking on the time we’d spent. After a few minutes of watching our red-cloaked wanderers – and by extension, ourselves – peacefully reflect, he got up and started walking. I watched him move away for a few seconds, wondering what he would do. He stopped and turned around, waiting for me. I couldn’t help but smile. My character rose and strode toward my companion. Together, we did indeed finish the game, walking side-by-side.

Like I said, it probably sounds pathetic to some, but my heart swells at remembering those moments. I’m incredibly thankful to that companion – who I thought knew less than me – for reminding me to take time to reflect, because great things wait behind as well as ahead. To me, it’s this kind of story that makes games like Journey important. The story, art, music, and presentation are impressive, but it’s the simple celebration of human interaction that truly inspires.

Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, “The Legend of Korra”

Following in the footsteps of its predecessor – Avatar: The Last AirbenderThe Legend of Korra, despite its billing as a kids’ show, is unequivocally one of the most intelligent, pertinent, and beautiful shows on television. And if you are in any way a fan of quality animation or unique stories, it’s one you should be watching. What follows is essentially a love letter to the new series and the old, because you can’t have a future without a past.

For the uninitiated: the world of Avatar/Korra is divided into four nations in which a segment of the population is born with the ability to “bend” – physically manipulate through force of will – one of four specific elements: water, earth, air, and fire. Beyond being just awesome to see and imagine, this ability gives trained benders incredible power to shape the physical world around them, but only with intense martial arts focus are they able to master the element and themselves. There is a deep spiritual side to bending, which is epitomized by the existence of one lone, reincarnated bender, “the Avatar.” The Avatar is born with the ability to master all four elements and bring balance to the varied peoples as a paragon of elemental harmony.

Avatar: The Last Airbender focuses on Avatar Aang, the last surviving member of the air nomad nation, as he travels across the world, gathering friends and allies, and mastering the elements in order to defeat the war-mongering tyrant leader of the fire nation. It sounds simple, but the story of Aang’s journey is told with such genuine emotion, insight, humor, fun, and more – not to mention the animation is incredibly entertaining and exciting – that to me (and many others), it truly transcends the “Saturday Morning Cartoon” and becomes something meaningful, artistic, and inspiring.

Some of the heart-wrenching situations and very adult questions that arise in the series’ last season (for example: Can one truly forsake attachment to the physical world in service of the spiritual? Is it morally correct to kill even the most ruthless killer? How far should one go to adhere to his or her’s culture’s philosophical legacy?) are complex and relevant to even the most skeptical adult viewer. And if this description has at all perked your ears, the entire series is available on Netflix On Demand for your viewing pleasure. There is so much to learn and enjoy, that it’s the kind of series I intend to make a required viewing experience for my (or anyone else I know’s) children one day.

After the bittersweet conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, fans (myself included) were clamoring for more. Luckily, the creators obliged with the development of The Legend of Korra, a new story which picks up 70 years after the ending of Avatar. This story focuses on the trials and tribulations of the Avatar reincarnated after the death of Aang: Korra. Korra is a strong young woman who, despite having already mastered earth, fire, and water, struggles with air bending and the responsibilities placed on her as a result of her weighty mantle.

Korra’s personality and desire to live her own life are often at odds with the expectations of the greater world, elucidating a thematic conflict that makes her tremendously appealing and identifiable as a character. We’ve been with her for only a short time, but it is clear Korra embodies an impressive creative feat: she is a multi-faceted, genuine, fascinating character that has a lot to learn, but appeals and inspires as a hero regardless of the viewer’s gender or background. Korra – skilled, but not invincible – stands her own ground as Korra, and it is this self-possessed quality that is just great to watch week after week, even in her moments of fear and doubt. I have a feeling she will quickly become a standout idol among young girls and boys alike.

With The Legend of Korra, the series creators have lessened the stakes in some respects (the world is no longer at war and most of the action is localized to a single location, Republic City), but raised them sky-high in others. Family and history have always played a large part in the Avatar universe, but in the wake of Aang’s world-changing stint as the Avatar, Korra is confronted with nearly overwhelming doubts about her ability to live up to the legacy of Avatars past. Although Aang often struggled with this same issue, Korra’s very relevance to the world is thrown into question as a result of the advent of new technologies, social realities, and worst of all: an anti-bender movement aimed at eliminating the powerful bender “race,” and using terrorism to inspire fear.

The ability to bend is inherited, not cultivated, and this conflict raises a number of intriguing questions regarding many issues, but one in particular is front and center: the nature of power, from where power is derived, and who has the right to wield it. When Korra is confronted by the leader of the anti-bender movement (establishing the major struggle of the series), and her mask of confidence is cracked, it becomes clear just how much she has to learn. The complexity of this situation leaves our protagonist in a bind; all actions seem to betray someone or something, and watching her fight to rise above these obstacles will no doubt become the reward of the series.

And though we’re only six episodes in, that’s why I already love this series so much. What makes The Legend of Korra excellent is the confidence of its story-telling and refinement of its production. This journey is going places and saying things and it’s looking incredible while doing it.

Whereas the previous series largely felt like it existed on its own terms, the story of The Legend of Korra can easily be read as allegory, directly interacting with and addressing many of the most contentious and difficult issues facing our own world today. The conundrum of generational responsibility – how does a new generation move the world forward when its previous caretakers have passed on? – resonates given recent social and cultural movements here in the U.S. (Occupy Wall Street, gay rights, income inequality, etc.) and abroad (Middle Eastern revolutions, terrorism, human rights violations, etc.). The tumultuous world of The Legend of Korra smartly reflects our own and seems aimed at the politically- and culturally-aware adults in its audience. If this weren’t on Nickelodeon, I wouldn’t even consider it for a second to be a children’s show, its scope is that large.

This isn’t all to say that there’s nothing but brooding political grand-standing. No! Quite the opposite, in fact. The truly impressive accomplishment of this series and the one before, and what makes them both so endearing, is that they deal with all of these ideas and issues while still being SO MUCH FUN. The art, animation, music, and voice acting teams on Korra have truly outdone themselves, delivering a unique, charming, beautiful, and complete world and even more amazing characters. There is just so much conviction put into even the most straightforward fight scene that every frame of this series is a joy. The creative teams, much like the pro-bending Fire Ferrets, “leave it all in the arena,” and it shows.

In case you couldn’t tell, I simply cannot recommend The Legend of Korra (and its predecessor) enough. If you have a chance to, please check them out. This is exactly the kind of entertainment we, as a culture, should reward and encourage: creative journeys that you come away from more enlightened, with plenty to think about and celebrate.

The Shoes, “Time To Dance”

On a completely different note, I picked this one up from my brother, Brendan, and have been meaning to post it for some time.

There isn’t much to say about this excellent music video that wouldn’t ruin the dark, disturbing, strangely enjoyable experience. It is one of my all-time personal favorites, the song is awesome, and I think it is some of Jake Gyllenhaal’s best work. It’s nothing too brutal, but there’s a little bit of Patrick Bateman in his performance, so be prepared for that. This thing’s more of an extremely danceable short film than a music video, so get comfortable; it doesn’t actually get to “Time to Dance” until about 1.5 minutes in. Once things get moving though, it’s off like a rocket with some killer (ha!) sights and sounds, as well as a bizarrely inspiring message. Behold, the healing power of music and dance!

Just be sure to keep dancing, or Jake Gyllenhaal will murder you.