What I’ve Been Watching in Quarantine

SyrmorOkay now follow me here for a moment, I swear I’m going somewhere. There’s this interview with Eduardo Coutinho, a Brazilian documentary maker and master of the interview, where he explains why, in his films, he doesn’t take the words of the interviewee and put them over other footage as a voiceover: “For me, ‘off’ [‘voz em off,’ voiceover] doesn’t interest me. If someone speaks ‘off’, they aren’t listened to, it’s worthless. If the guy that speaks and what they say is interesting and strong, what they say about their mother, their family, whatever—that’s enough for me. It’s in the voice, and someone may imagine what it is.”

When I first saw Syrmor’s VRchat interviews, I was reminded of Coutinho’s Edificio Master, a documentary consisting of interviews with residents of an apartment block in Copacabana—both because of the depth of emotion and vulnerability the interviewees displayed, and how they prove Coutinho’s point in that interview. When what the person is saying is interesting, cutaways are totally unnecessary, the raw footage of the interview is enough. The point is made even more dramatic in Syrmor’s interviews, because the raw footage is even more static than a talking head in a documentary, with simple, awkwardly articulated avatars standing in for the interviewees. And for all that, they’re still captivating, I still can’t tear my eyes away.

Screenshot from “guy in vr talks about his last girlfriend.”

Okay now’s about the time I should actually explain what these videos are, huh? Syrmor is a youtuber. His channel is made up almost entirely of videos of VRChatVRChat is a free massively multiplayer online game similar to Second Life. Although it’s programmed to work with VR, you don’t need a VR setup to use it. There are games within it, but you can also just use it to socialize, which is a large part of Syrmor’s videos—just talking to people. Sometimes friends, sometimes complete strangers, sometimes complete strangers who become friends. I don’t think I need to spell out why videos of people making meaningful connections, groups of friends who live miles apart, are incredibly heartening to watch right now.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, June 2018

Splendor and Misery by Clipping — So I’m late to the party on this, but better late than never, right? Splendor and Misery is a sci-fi concept album by experimental hip-hop group Clipping—already, what’s not to love? The album follows the lone survivor of a slave uprising aboard a spaceship, who commandeers the vessel and attempts to escape his pursuers.

What I love about this album is the way it blends ideas and styles. For a start, it’s fascinating to see how Clipping renders common sci-fi motifs musically, making them fresh and fascinating again. It’s not just an album that utilizes sci-fi jargon and aesthetics (though it does that as well), it’s an album that is clearly born from an understanding of the genre and its tradition. A great example of this is the track “All Black Everything,” which communicates the oppressive nothingness of space through it’s skeletal production and Daveed Diggs’s continuous, monotone refrain of “All black everything.” The album also blends different musical genres, mixing in negro-spiritual-inspired songs, blending past and future to create a gritty world that’s nevertheless full of emotion, and deeply human.

Sci-fi aside, the production on the album, by William Hutson and Jonathan Snipes, and Daveed Diggs’s rapping are just fantastic. The beats manage to suggest the environment, with beeps and clicks and staticky whines, while also effectively establishing different moods for each song. Diggs’s lyrics are great, punchy and complex, and his flow is phenomenal. Splendor and Misery really shows the range that this group has, from songs like “Air ‘Em Out,” a braggadocious gangster-rap-in-space type track, to “True Believer,” a song with a driving industrial beat, a spiritual-inspired chorus, and some wildly imagistic verses detailing a creation myth that offers some clues as to how these people have ended up enslaved.

The album is short, and has a lot to offer with each replay.

The Terror — This AMC series just wrapped up a few weeks ago and my god did it stick the landing. I love a good, one-season series, and The Terror does not disappoint (it may come back for a second season, though with a completely different story, American Horror Story-style.) The show, David Kajganich’s debut as a show-runner, is based off the Dan Simmons book of the same name, which tells a fictionalized account of the lost Arctic Expedition of Captain John Franklin. What little is known about the expedition’s fate after becoming trapped in the Arctic ice in 1846 is faithfully reproduced, and indeed everything that happens in the show could’ve plausibly happened in real life—except, that is, the strange, enormous bear (is it a bear?) which seems to dog the sailors wherever they go.

A shot from the second episode, courtesy of AMC.

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Recommendation Dump September 2017

Oh, Hello On Broadway — Oh, Hello is a comedy act created by Nick Kroll and John Mulaney—two comedians who are terrific on their own, and dynamite together. Kroll plays the child-like Gil Faizon, and Mulaney plays the near-psychotic George St. Geegland—two seventy-something New Yorkers who are tantalizingly delusional, pretentious, and mean-spirited. The two have a terrific dynamic that doesn’t smack of the usual straight-man funny-man schtick, since they’re both ludicrous caricatures of elderly Upper West Side residents. Mulaney and Kroll have been refining these characters for over a decade, on Kroll Show, on podcasts, at live shows, and countless other places. Don’t take my word for it—you can watch them on youtube here here here and here, and actually a bunch more places if you like, but those are just a primer.

So, the show itself. The show is part stand-up routine, part parody, and part variety show. The conceit is that Gil and George are performing one of the many plays that George has written, though there is constant fourth-wall breaking throughout, including a long opening segment in which the two introduce themselves, and send-up various Broadway tropes. The play within the play is essentially autobiographical for George and Gil, although the characters in it are much more successful versions of themselves. In the middle of the show is a segment where, embedded as a prank show within the play-within-the-play, the two interview some celebrity—during the run of the show, it was a different person each night, but for the Netflix special it’s Steve Martin. It’s a nice little breather in the middle of the non-stop barrage of jokes and gaffes, where Kroll and Mulaney get to exercise their (practiced) improv chops, and the audience gets to see a different person making jokes on stage.Read More »

Game Review: Burrito Bison; Launcha Libre

Originally this was going to be part of a recommendation dump post, but as I wrote about this game, I realized I just have a lot to say about it. Enough to be a post in itself. So, here we go:

Burrito Bison: Launcha Libre is a launcher game from Juicy Beast. You play as a luchador who’s fighting various candy-people (primarily gummy bears) and trying to get a recipe book? I think? It’s been awhile since I’ve watched that opening cutscene, but it hasn’t been any time at all since I last played this game. I’ve been playing it, off and on, for about three months. It’s been my go-to game when I want to listen to music or a podcast or just totally zone-out.

The perfect, addictive core of this game is one that Juicy Beast had been doing a great job with since the first Burrito Bison game (Launcha Libre is the third in a series, and the first two are considerably smaller in scale, but still a lot of fun)—the balance between player input and the flow of the game. If the game relied too much on player input, or relied on more complex player input, it wouldn’t really be a launcher game, and it would be impossible to zone out to it. If the game eschewed player input too much, it would be a lot like most bad launcher games, with too much relying on variance and some lucky bounces to get you far. Some launcher games you can look away from and really not change the experience. Some launcher games it feels like you’re better off not using any of your power-ups or controls, and just hoping to land on a bomb or a bouncy mushroom or whatever it is that will keep you in the air. Burrito Bison is right at the crest of this wave, riding it perfectly, just between falling forward into boredom or falling backward into over-taxation of the brain.

Burrito Bison riding a popped Prickly Pair

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Recommendation Dump, April 2017

It’s been a while since I did one of these, huh? Well, I’ve got some stuff to recommend, so I’m doing another one—here we go!

Democrats — Democrats is a documentary detailing the creation a new Zimbabwean constitution from 2009-2013, and especially the negotiations between the chief negotiators for the incumbent and the opposition party—Paul Mangwana and Douglas Mwonzora respectively. The film is phenomenal.

The documentary is presented with little editorializing, no retrospective interviews, and only occasional clips from news broadcasts to provide summary. The meat of it is incredibly candid interactions between party members and footage of the actual negotiation process. When I say incredibly candid, I mean that at one point Mangwana and another party official are openly talking about the fact that ZANU-PF—their party, the party of President Mugabe—has been bussing in party supporters to local meetings that they shouldn’t be a part of. The two are laughing, the official saying, “We can’t control that,” and Mangwana saying, “No, that’s ZANU-PF at work.”Read More »

Thoughts on A Series of Unfortunate Events, Season One

I’ve watched Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events in its entirety now, and there’s a lot to talk about. This post will be part review, part analysis, and part comparison between the books and the show. The first third of the post contains no spoilers, but the next two thirds do, for the books and the show, and I’ve put a disclaimer in at that point.

For reference, and so I don’t have to explain it later, this is the basic plot: Three children, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are orphaned when their parents die in a fire which destroys their home. The parents leave behind an enormous fortune, which cannot be accessed until the eldest Baudelaire comes of age. The children are moved from guardian to guardian, always pursued by the villainous Count Olaf, who schemes to steal their inheritance, and is ruthless in his pursuit of this goal. Violet Klaus and Sunny survive by their inventive thinking, extensive knowledge, and ability bite things (respectively.)

So, here we go:

If You Haven’t Read the Books …

If you’ve never read the books, I highly recommend the show. I don’t know if it’s better or worse to have read the books, but I’m confident that it stands by itself as a terrific work of art. There is nothing like it on TV, and for good reason.

Photo courtesy of Joe Lederer/Netflix

Imagine if a showrunner spent seven years writing hundreds of pages of stories and characters and settings, and wrote all of them in the voice of the show’s narrator. Imagine they worked with a designer who drew hundreds of pieces of concept art detailing the looks of characters, props, and sets. Imagine if the showrunner also composed and performed thirteen songs to go along with different parts of the show (though not to be actually used in the show.) And imagine they had a decade after that time in which they continued thinking about the show, and expanded on the background of the narrator by writing a few hundred more pages about his childhood in this same world.

That, of course, would be absurd, but because of the way this all developed, it’s essentially what happened. And while this could be said of many shows and movies adapted from books, the difference here is that the original creator usually isn’t the one writing the screenplays. Daniel Handler, author of the book series, is also the screenwriter for every episode of the Netflix series (and although he’s not the showrunner, he is an EP.) The result is an uncompromising vision of a world and the characters who inhabit it. The music, set design, and writing are all of a cohesive style—one which is confidently gothic, bizarre, and witty. The show is highly engaging, full of wonderful(ly wry) commentary from the narrator, beautiful(ly ugly) sets, and charming(ly villainous) performances. At times I had doubts about the direction the show was going, the portrayal of a character, or the handling of a particular scene, but never, throughout watching the entire show, did I feel I could look away. I expect that kids will devour it.

If you have read the books, you will also probably love it, unless you love the books for some particular reason which the show has altered. In that case, I’d advise you to pretend that the series has nothing to do with the books, and enjoy it for what it is.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, September 2016

Jurymore –  Another podcast from the great Justin Robert Young, though unlike my previous recommendation of Politics Politics Politics (which I’m recommending again right now because it is continually terrific and it’s now going up three times a week) this one is not a one man podcast. It’s also not ongoing—it ended awhile ago, at about 30 episodes long. It ended because Justin got married—that’s the premise of the podcast. Justin Robert Young and his then fiancée Ashley Paramore recorded a regular podcast for the better part of a year leading up to their wedding, and document the process of planning the ceremony.

Terrific. The two have great rapport, and most episodes focus on an interesting topic—often something to do with the wedding planning, sometimes just something to do with relationships. Their honesty and ability to speak (and sometimes argue) freely while streaming the podcast live is refreshing, and some of the greatest moments of the podcast are when they get into fights. Because the two really are a terrific couple, and their fights aren’t abusive nonsense, they’re genuine arguments. And the whole show has an energetic, comedic tone, because it’s JuRY after all.

Also, they had the wedding ceremony at DragonCon, so once you’ve finished the podcast you can watch it, like a finale.Read More »

Recommendation Dump, May 2016

Here are things I like.

Skeleton Gardens – Just a simple Ludum Dare game, but one with a really unique look and feel. You play as some sort of reaper, planting trees which grow skeletons warriors, as well as seeds to plant more trees. To ensure that the trees grow to maturity, you have to protect them from waves of knights attacking you. All of the trees appear to be randomly generated, as do the walls you can build and the special, massively destructive attack, all of them forming gnarly fractal patterns. Another fun thing about the game is that it always ends overwhelmingly—either you become overwhelmingly powerful, with hundreds of trees begetting hundreds more (and you get bored and close the game or let yourself die), or you’re crushed under an enormous onslaught of knights. I guess there’s something cathartic in that. There’s no cheap or meaningless death. The music is real fun too.

Politics Politics Politics – Of all the podcasts I listen to, this is the only one that’s pretty much a one-man show. Justin Robert Young, the host of Politicsx3, occasionally has on guests, but for the most part it’s just him—and he does a fantastic job. The content of the show is evident in the title. Politics, man. Specifically the 2016 US presidential elections. But it’s not a podcast about ideology, or policy, or anything like that. In Justin’s own words, from Episode 0 of the podcast,

“I was the only motherfucker in South Plantation High School who rolled in with the Kenneth Star report … this story perfectly encapsulates why I’m doing this show, why I love politics … I was not reading it because I thought Bill Clinton should be exonerated. I was not reading it because I thought Bill Clinton should be thrown out of the White House. I was reading it because they printed a bunch of shit about a dude getting his dick sucked, in the newspaper! … It is only politics … that has that carte blanche.”

And that’s what makes the show fantastic. Justin is incredibly energetic, and his love of the political game is always on full display. He’s also quite knowledgable about politics, and does a great job of analyzing the strategies of each candidate. The most recent episode came out yesterday, covering the recent dropouts from the election, and the campaign to come. With the primaries (pretty much) over, now’s a great time to start listening. The show is fantastic, and I’m sure it’s only going to get better as we move into the general election.

“How a fluke video game called the Eternal War became a cultural phenomenon—and changed its creator” – I’d heard about The Eternal War awhile ago in a Kotaku article, and I went and looked it up again recently. That’s how I came across this article, which does a really good job describing the whole story of the game. If you’re a normal person and you don’t know what I mean when I say The Eternal War, it’s a Civilization II game that someone played on and off for ten years—well past the time when the game is supposed to end.

Normally, the Civilization games simulate the rise of civilizations, from 4000 BC to the current time—and one of the civilizations will reach a victory condition, and win by the year 2020. But the player can continue playing after this, and one player, James Moore, did—for ten years. In his game, the world became locked in an endless, bloody stalemate between three superpowers, thus giving it it’s name, The Eternal War. That should be enough to intrigue you to read the article, which has plenty more interesting details, about the life of James Moore, and about the community that grew around the game when he posted about it on Reddit. It’s a really cool story about the convergence of history, culture, and technology. Check it out.

Lonely and Horny – If you’ve never watched Jake and Amir, or listened to If I Were You, you should probably go do those things. If you have, it should come as no surprise that Lonely and Horny, the first creative work (that’s been released) from Jake Hurwitz and Amir Blumenfeld since their webseries, Jake and Amir, ended a year or so ago, is hilarious.

The show, consisting of ten eight-to-ten-minute episodes, follows Ruby Jade, played by Amir Blumenfeld, who is enrolled in a hooking up class taught by Josh Rice, played by Jake Hurwitz. The episodes focus on this class and Ruby’s various attempts (and failures) to “close” with a girl. The show doesn’t have much of a story arc, though each episode does add more to the whole. The series feels like a thesis on being lonely and horny and pathetically desperate, and each episode fleshes out more of that, and more of Ruby Jade’s life and personality.

Amir’s performance is captivating. He walks a line between a crazy, exaggerated caricature and a real person with recognizable ticks and behaviors. That’s what makes the character, and the show, so funny. Underneath the over-the-top pick-up lines and sexism is a current of real insecurity—which makes the absurdity of the scenes even funnier. And of course, the scenes between Jake and Amir are dynamite.

The show is now available in its entirety on Vimeo, for $15—and you can watch the first episode free here.

Those were things I like, and hopefully you’ll like them too.

Recommendation Dump, February 2016

Another offloading of recommendations is upon us, or upon the reader, really. A broad selection this time, from articles to TV to a flash game.

Tig Notaro: Live – I found out about this through the Netflix documentary Tig, which I would also recommend. Tig Notaro went through several tragedies at once (multiple illnesses, the death of her mother, and finally a cancer diagnosis) and, being a stand-up comedian, started writing jokes about it all. She did a set at the comedy club Largo, and delivered all that material for the first time, with no idea what to expect from the audience. They loved it. Louie CK, who was backstage during this, convinced her to put the recording of that show out for the world to listen to. You can read his post about it here, it’s pretty interesting.

So six or seven months after I saw the documentary I finally bought the thing. The show is very funny, which is all you can ask for from most comedy. But it’s also terrific to hear someone be so forthright about their experience with death. On another level, it’s fascinating to see both Tig and the audience coping with this tragedy through comedy. And the ending is just perfect. I highly recommend this to anyone who is a human. It’s only five bucks on iTunes, six if you want to get the deluxe edition (comes with a story Tig told at the Moth.)Read More »

Recommendation Dump, December 2015

A much broader range of recommendations this time around, with no recurring theme. That’s why it’s called a dump though, not a cogently curated collection.

The Color Before the Sun Coheed and Cambria is easily my favorite band. They straddle a lot of genres in the rock/punk/metal area, and until this album all of their work has been concept albums, following the story of the lead singer’s comic book series The Amory Wars. The combination of strange song concepts and fantastic music is why I love the band so much. I’ve burned out on a few artists whose music I enjoy, but who keep writing the same songs (conceptually) over and over again. Coheed and Cambria always mixes it up, and in this album they mixed things up by not doing a concept album. At least, the concept isn’t sci-fi, though a lot of the songs focus on the lead singer’s identity crisis. The songs are more rock than metal, with the exception of “The Audience,” but Coheed and Cambria has always danced in and out of genres. Of course, music is incredibly subjective, and this may not be your thing, but for me, this album is my soundtrack right now.

High and Mighty – I started listening to this podcast when it launched along with all the other Headgum podcasts, and it’s slowly become my favorite of the bunch. Each episode, comedian/actor Jon Gabrus has on a guest or two, and they go hard on whatever topic the guest is best suited to. I absolutely love this kind of stuff—not just the basic, wikipedia-level information, but the deep shit. The inside jokes. The behind the behind the scenes. The concepts that don’t come out in theory, but everyone does in practice.

As they discuss in the first episode, Gabrus has his feet in many camps—nerd, meathead, Taco-Bell-fanatic—and these interests all come out in the podcast. That’s another thing I like about it. Neither Gabrus nor the podcast fit into a strict agenda of just geeky or just comedy or just anything, which most podcasts and internet personalities do, and which can be boring (this is part of the reason I do random posts like this and not just writing stuff.)

To get a sense of what I’m talking about, I’d recommend listening to the Long Island episode. It’s the best representation of what I love so much about the podcast.

In the Loop – I first watched this movie when it came out, which was six years ago, when I was twelve or something. Needless to say, I was lukewarm on it then, and chalked my disinterest up to the movie’s parchingly dry Britishness. Six years later, I was actually able to follow the story this time, and understand the distinctions between characters (you know, the basic elements of a movie.) The movie certainly has its dry Britishness, but it has equal parts bombastic Scottishness. The story is a tangling political yarn driven by bureaucrats who are misinformed, incompetent, militaristic, or just constantly dropping F-bombs. It’s an excellent satire, with a great balance of intellect and humor. Fuckity-bye. ‘Nuff said.

Swords and Souls – I normally don’t like Final-Fantasy-style games where you attack by selecting an option. They just feel too grindy, like they’re just about getting stats up and there’s not enough skill or player control involved (Note: I’ve never played Final Fantasy, just some flash games that use that form.) But I loved this game. It was made by SoulGame, who made the Rogue Soul games, and just like those games, it is slick. Instead of being turn-based, attacks are automatic, and special attacks are controlled with hotkeys. The game is constantly moving, and the feeling of control is nice. Each stage is a few enemies and a boss, and after the first time beating a stage there’s a big money and XP reward. And of course, each stage gets a little harder.

This would get boring pretty quickly, but there’s lots of progression milestones to keep reaching for, and to keep the player interested. To level up skills, instead of just grinding through previously beaten stages (although you can also do that), there are mini-games that increase skill in specific traits. They’re mostly based on quick reaction time and precision. Getting good at the mini-games, and being able to fly through them as they speed up (as more apples are flung that must be blocked, or more targets appear that you have to shoot) is really fun. There’s also the little bit of satisfaction from buying new, cool-looking armor, from adding trophies to the museum, or from adding onto your house. The house increases the amount of money you earn, though I didn’t realize this until late on, and had just been buying additions as a show of my awesome status. Swords and Souls is an addictive experience that plays fast, and is incredibly fun.

So, those are four things I really enjoy. Hopefully you do too.