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james debate

Tuesday 27 July 2021

Created by Robert Kirkman
Network Amazon Prime
Starring Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh
Genre Superhero Animation
Running Time 40-50 minutes

invincible season 1 2 steven yeun sandra oh jk simmons seth rogen jon hamm amazon best new show 2021
There is no shortage of superhero media available for streaming. The genre is big business in entertainment and recent years in particular have seen a glut of films and TV series inspired by lesser known properties such as The Umbrella Academy and Jupiter's Legacy, to the point of market-saturation. Even Amazon Prime has its own The Boys. Most of these series fail pretty quickly. It takes a lot to stand out in a crowded field, especially when you don't have the fanbase of a well known DC or Marvel on which to rely. It is somewhat remarkable, then, that Invincible manages to not only carve out its own identity but to stand out from the pack as one of the most exciting new television series in years.

A lot of the show's success is due to the quality of the source material. A satire of the superhero genre, Invincible draws on a number of familiar genre tropes, from the heroes themselves and their backstories to the villains, the plot devices and sense of humour, but then subverts expectations with its darker turns and often shocking violence. For newcomers, the first hour of the series will feel like a very traditional superhero origin story. It is only in the dying moments of the first episode that the true nature of Invincible reveals itself. It's one of the most genuinely shocking turns I have seen on TV for quite some time and sets the standard for a series that constantly surprises and flouts convention.

Granted, the idea of a superhero story with dark elements may no longer be as fresh as it was when the Invincible comic series first launched some twenty years ago (again, see Amazon's own The Boys). What still sets this story apart from others is firstly the reverence that its writers clearly have for the material that influenced the original comic series. This is, first and foremost, a damn good superhero universe that they have crafted, with all the fun and humour that one would expect of the genre, complete with rich world building, rules, and dynamics. It evokes a sense of nostalgia and familiarity that makes the more shocking turns all the more impactful.

The second element that still sets Invincible apart is its cast of characters. For all its thrills and spills, Invincible also serves as arguably the most nuanced take on superhero psychology since the original Watchmen novel. The TV adaptation, wisely, leans heavily into this character-centric storytelling and brings them brilliantly to life with its all-star cast that features the likes of Steven Yeun, J K Simmons, Sandra Oh, Seth Rogen, Jason Mantzoukas, Jon Hamm, Mark Hamill, and many others.

But even the best source material doesn't guarantee a good TV series and an equal amount of credit needs to be given to those behind this adaptation. The writing is sharp, the pacing pitch perfect, and the general direction and presentation is extremely well formed. You can tell these are people who absolutely love the genre and cinema as a whole, and understand what works and what doesn't. If I were to make one criticism of the adaptation it would be on the technical side. For whatever reason, the audio levels are way out of whack on this series, whisper quiet one moment and deafening the next. This can sometimes be an issue when watching certain TV series without a decent sound system, but in this case it really is quite jarring and from the online buzz appears to be a common complaint.

Even at a time of mass over-saturation of the genre, Invincible stands out as one of the best pieces of superhero media in years. Sharp, inventive, and continually surprising. This series is just a lot of fun to watch, easy to recommend both for lovers of superhero stories and good television in general.

Sunday 25 July 2021

Directed by John M. Chu
Written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes
Produced by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Quiara Hudes, Scott Sanders
Starring Anthony Ramos, Corey Hawkins, Leslie Grace, Melissa Barrera
Studio Warner Bros
Running time 143 minutes

in the heights hamilton 2021 musical film broadway lin manuel miranda oscars
We've seen this story before. An artist hits the big time and generates a renewed interest in their older works (see: Dan Brown and the Da Vinci Code). Lin Manuel Miranda is one of the hottest names in show business today following the runaway success of Broadway musical Hamilton, a star that has only continued to rise with his subsequent work, notably his work with Disney that has earned him his first Academy Award nomination. But he can only produce so much new work in a given year, so it is natural that the studios would dive into his older projects in the hopes that they can rise his name to the bank.

In the Heights is one of Lin Manuel's first works, his very first stage musical and a Tony and Grammy award winning production. Its adaptation to cinema may have been accelerated by Lin's recent superstardom, but as a successful and well-regarded piece of theatre in its own right it was always likely to be on the cards at some point. While the script is credited to the stage play's original writers Lin Manuel and Quiara Hudes, directorial duties have been handed to John M Chu, hitherto best known for 2018's surprise hit Crazy Rich Asians.

As with so many first works, In the Heights is a loosely autobiographical work based on Lin's years living in the predominantly Dominican Washington Heights neighbourhood in New York. There's nothing revolutionary in the story here: you've got a love story or two, young people trying to "make it" and break out of poverty, and an ultimately heart warming message about the importance of family and good people.  It's a serviceable but familiar story, with many classic tropes from the overbearing father to the irreverent childhood friend and the local "neighbourhood mom".

It's a similar story with the music. Lin Manuel is currently one of the world's most sough after songwriters, but in this early work you can tell that he is not yet the finished article. The songs here draw on culturally appropriate influences, predominately rap and salsa, but lack the musical diversity and creative genre subversions of Lin's later work. The lyrics display hints of Lin's typical wit and charm and occasionally strike gold, but rarely shock or surprise in the same way as his later writing. That is not to say that it's bad. This is a good musical with some very solid songs, albeit ones that are quite simplistic by their songwriter's standards. Even after a few re-listens of the soundtrack I struggle to recall many of the songs until a few bars in. Compare that to the opening of Hamilton, where right from the first notes you know exactly what you're listening to. Ultimately, these are fine, catchy songs, but lack the distinctiveness that makes Lin's more famous songs so memorable.

Where In the Heights does succeed is in the filmmaking department, and John M Chu will have done his own rising stardom no harm here. There is great vibrancy in every scene with a vivid colour palette, playful special effects and striking imagery throughout. Some of the dance in particular setpieces are very memorable.

In the Heights is a good adaptation of a pretty good musical. While it may not be revolutionary in any respect, it contains all the joy and energy one could want from a summer musical blockbuster. If you want a bit of musical fun in the sun this summer, then this will scratch that itch and could well be a factor in this year's awards season. In the longterm, however, this is unlikely to leave much of a legacy and will serve mainly as fascinating snapshot of a budding songwriter who would go on to be one of the greats.

Monday 12 July 2021

Genre Mashup
Label N/A; Independent
Producers White Panda

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White Panda is a name that will be very familiar to partygoers of a certain age group. The Los Angeles-based duo were part of the pop-mash up trend of the late 2000s that saw the rise of artists such as Girl Talk, Danger Mouse and Norwegian Recycling. That trend has died down somewhat in recent years (at least with respect to mainstream releases), with Girl Talk not having released an album since 2010, and White Panda since 2015. So Nightcub marks something of a comeback as well as a throwback to a style of music that was at one point all the rage.

There was always something a bit more underground about White Panda compared to some of their peers, with albums tending to be shared over social media and via bootlegs rather than through more traditional channels. Indeed, Spotify won't even carry the new album due to copyright issues with the samples. So it seems fitting that for their return to the scene, the group have turned to crowdfunding and word of mouth to get their work out there, going so far as to encourage backers to share the tracks over YouTube, social media and any other means available.

Those backers won't be disappointed either. Nightcub is everything a fan of the genre could ask for, an extremely solid party album that will have you grinning from ear to ear throughout. However, for newcomers and those unimpressed by the nostalgia factor, this might come across as a bit too "safe" of a record.

The production is slick and high quality throughout, but never feels like it is trying to push the boundaries of the genre. As much fun as it is, a good chunk of the album's hour-long run time amounts to little more than 1) find two songs that sound kind of cool together, 2) match tempo, 3) let her rip. And that's fine, it works, it sounds good. It sounds like a night out at the club with a good DJ. But compare that with some of the high points in the genre (albums like Girl Talk's Feed the Animals) which exhibit more intricate and creative methods of production: playing with pitch and tempo, breaking tracks down to their constituent parts and piecing them together in such a way that it almost sounds like a completely new piece of music. By contrast, Nightcub is more simplistic and only occasionally demonstrates that level of ambition or craft.

But while Nightcub may not quite reach the heights of the genre, there are moments where it comes close. Some of the combinations, like Britney Spears and Ozzy Osborne, are absolutely inspired. Nine Inch Nails with Ava Max? Who would ever have thought that one up? Some of the editing work, most notably for me on Third Eye Blind's Semi-Charmed Life is extremely well done and materially changes the mood of the original track. It's also great fun just to hear some more recent tracks given the mash up treatment. I never thought I'd be humming along to Kim Petras, but her mash up with Van Halen is fantastic. 

It's a similar story when it comes to the variety of source material. Nightcub often plays it a little too safe, mixing songs that are overused or that we've heard prominently mashed up before (can we stop using that one Eminem track over and over?). But when it treads off the beaten track, Nightcub does deliver some quite shrewd and unexpected song choices (Tegan and Sara, a Smash Mouth song that thankfully isn't All Star).

Nightcub is an album that retreads old ground a little too often, is mostly brilliant when it doesn't, and ultimately is just great fun. This has been one of the musical standouts of my summer and I'm sure it will be for a lot of people.

Must Listen :
N/A; the entire album is one big mix

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