Saturday, 19 August 2017

A Study in Songwriting: Ed Sheeran VS Snow Patrol

From the Viking skald telling Icelandic folk tales around a fire to Lin Manuel Miranda recounting the life of a founding father through hip-hop and show tunes, people have always used songs to tell stories. It presents perhaps a unique challenge to a creative individual, who must negotiate constraints to time, rhythm, rhyme and even alliteration - depending on the traditions of the time. Not to mention writing a tune to wrap the words around.

It goes without saying, then, that even among the best in the business, different people will be better at different aspects of this process. Take Snow Patrol's frontman and lead lyricist Gary Lightbody: he's written many memorable songs, 'Chasing Cars' and 'Run' being the most popular. But if you listen to songs like 'An Olive Grove Facing the Sea' or 'Headlights on Dark Roads,' it becomes clear that Lightbody is not the best of melody-writers. His tunes are often static, seldom rising to a peak in the chorus. But he is a very accomplished poet, injecting his songs with intelligent observations of love, obsession and fear.

Compare this to Ed Sheeran, another talented songwriter, who has of late gone full Maroon 5, swapping melancholy ballads for catchy pop anthems. ('Supermarket Flowers' is the one beautiful exception on his latest album.) His diversity of style is testament to his tune-writing ability, and he is also an excellent observer of contemporary relationships, but I think he still has some work to do lyrically. Let me give an example...

On their latest albums, Sheeran and Lightbody each present us with a song that tells a story about childhood love. For those listening along, these are 'Perfect' (Sheeran, Divide) and 'The Garden Rules' (Snow Patrol, Fallen Empires).

First let's look at how each song starts: Sheeran, ever the teenage heartthrob, includes the phrases 'I found a love', 'I found a girl' and 'you were the someone waiting for me.' Straight to the point - he's fallen in love, and he's going to tell you about it. Meanwhile, Lightbody uses his first verse to set the scene: 'There's the river, there's your house and there's the church; and there's us years ago.' To put it bluntly, Sheeran is telling us a story, while Snow Patrol are showing us one.

As Sheeran's song continues, he treats us to a sonnet-level blazon about this girl, recounting times they've had together, and the ambiguity is swiftly removed: they seem still to be together, perhaps even thinking about having kids. More stock phrases come in the second chorus: 'against all odds', 'be my girl' and 'I see my future in your eyes.' It really is a lovely, heartfelt, well-composed song. But it's not subtle by any means.

The Snow Patrol song, on the other hand, never really leaves the past. Lightbody doesn't take us forward in time, instead delving deeper into the relationship. Without telling us anything explicitly, he shows us that his infatuation with this girl was stronger than whatever feelings she had for him, and expresses how special he felt to spend time with her. The chorus consists of a simple refrain: 'Oh you'll never know how much I love you so.' This is the only time we truly return to the present, and it maintains the ambiguity. Is he still obsessed with this old flame? Or is he telling her now, in a present where they are together?

I think my point is that we could use more people like Gary Lightbody in popular music right now. Those who can use their lyrical gifts to show us interesting, emotion-fueled stories, rather than simply telling us what happened last night in an anonymous club or bar. Intelligent songwriting can shape a culture, bring perspective to a global disaster, provide emotional education to a wide audience. I've got nothing against party anthems, or indeed Ed Sheeran; but when all is said and done, that's the kind of music I want in my life.

Monday, 24 July 2017

Action Films and the Importance of Pace

I've seen two films in the past couple of days: Edgar Wright's gritty crime thriller Baby Driver, and Spider-Man: Homecoming, the energetic child of Disney money and Sony's intellectual property. I enjoyed both films immensely, for different reasons, but one thing they share is intelligent spending of an action film's most valuable currency - pace.

Pace, or the manipulation of speed and time, defines the action format - I don't think 'action' is a genre in the same way as, say 'Western,' but that's a subject for another time. Compare the exquisitely drawn-out kitchen scene in Jurassic Park with the exhausting chase scene at the start of Casino Royale. Both are thrilling, edge-of-seat moments, but achieved through completely different uses of pace. One is a fast-moving, shakily-filmed parkour fest that never stops for breath. The other is deliberately slow and static, fueled by the seeming impossibility of the children to escape their predicament.

However, what separates a good action film from an okay one is the diversity of pace. An hour after Bond loses track of his prey, we watch as Martin Campbell makes Poker seem like Russian Roulette. By the same token, the climax of Jurassic Park sees our protagonists running and driving from an escaped T-Rex. This is one of the many problems with the Star Wars prequels - there's no control of pace. The action scenes are well-choreographed, but often feel like an onslaught of light and sound; and the slow scenes in between are just... slow. There's little tension or intrigue, just exposition.

Baby Driver and Homecoming are also tonally different. The latter maintains a playful undertone throughout, just as a Spider-Man film should, and I think Disney's writers have finally nailed the wise-cracking Spidey we know from the comics and cartoons. Baby Driver, on the other hand, stands out in Wright's catalogue as an inherently dark film. There are funny moments, sure, but the action is as unforgiving for the audience as Spacey's ruthless mob boss is for his heist teams.

As mentioned above, though, these films know how to use pace. Wright's protagonist, young getaway driver Baby, must listen to music to block out his chronic tinnitus. Not only does this make for an incredible cross-genre soundtrack, the whole movie is driven by music. Every car chase is matched exactly to the rhythm of whatever Baby is listening to; when things go well, the timing is seamless, but when things fall apart, so does the link between visual and sound. This is an ingenious way of tying theme to plot, but it also means the film never feels too fast or too slow. Baby is the driver and the DJ. When you go see this, sit back and let him take control.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is refreshing for a mainstream Marvel film. It doesn't stay in one place for too long, and never creates a scene if there doesn't need to be one. BBC's Sherlock injected pace via the use of technology - the on-screen texting is a famous example - and a similar thing happens here as well. Peter Parker spends much of the time wearing a Stark-made suit, through which Iron Man can advance the plot without slowing down the film. Finally, fast-paced films often feel the need to generate most of their comedy from changes of speed; whether it be an awkward exchange between characters in a lift, or failure to notice something in a fight scene until it's too late. Homecoming makes one of these jokes at the start and one at the end, and they're both hilarious.

In a world where nineteen partially-improvised scenes can make up a viable rom-com, I hope to see more films like these in the near future. Films with a good grasp of pace are never boring, and feel somehow more complete - The Lego Movie and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them are each more than ninety minutes long, but their management of time and speed makes them feel half that length. Let's respect our audience's intelligence and their time; give stories the time frame they need, and nothing more.

On which note, thank you for your attention, and I'll see you in the next post.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

The Future of Stories

Contrary to popular belief, physical books are actually doing pretty well right now. The 2015/2016 financial year was the first in a long time that Waterstones made a net profit, largely thanks to the plateau in ebook sales around the same time. It seems that, despite the increase in convenience granted by technologies like the kindle, people still relish the feel of heavy blocks of paper in their hands, the colourful rectangles populating their shelves.

At the very least, people expect a bit more from their tech-influenced storytelling. It's not enough to read words on a screen; we'd much rather have an actor read the words to us, so we can do something else at the same time. It's no coincidence that the fall of ebooks has come alongside the rise of services like Audible and podcasts. In short, technology should be about giving us more options, not replacing a phenomenon as loved as published paper books.

Then there are digital stories. In the final term of my English degree, I spend three hours a week learning about the small but passionate corner of the internet dedicated to creating new ways to tell a story. This corner has been there since the beginning, but has never really broken into the mainstream the way other online communities have. Nevertheless, it is a rich and wonderful place full of interesting people with intriguing stories to tell.

Digital stories are different from ebooks in many ways - for the most part, they are created with no thought of making money, and they are not constrained by the infrastructure of a traditional book. Many contain pictures, animation, video. They give the reader that something more we expect from anything that isn't simply a book.

But where digital stories really take advantage of their form is interactivity. They can engage with the reader on many levels, allowing them to choose how the story progresses, or ask them questions as the story goes on. If you follow the link below, you can play through the story I wrote for my Digital Stories module, and hopefully you'll see what I mean.

Finally, digital stories are incredibly easy to make. Go to, and you'll have access not only to a free story-making program, but also to free community-written guides to get you started. If you fancy having a go at writing, I highly recommend this as a novel way to begin (pardon the pun).

As stories evolve in the digital world, I'd much rather have this interactive, varied, imaginative form, than simply reading a book on a screen that I'd much rather curl up and turn the pages of. I hope to continue writing digital stories, and I'll keep you updated if and when new ones appear. Thanks for your time and attention. (you may need to copy-paste the link)

Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Student + ??? = Adult

In the Western world, we learn so much between the ages of 18 and 21. Whether we go to university, get our first full-time job, or begin chasing our dreams in earnest, these years are usually our first steps into true independence. We go food shopping for ourselves, go all out when it comes to parties, go halfway round the world on journeys of self-discovery. Parents and schoolwork are no longer around to define us, so we have to find out who we are for ourselves.

The flip side of that, of course, is that no one can tell us what to do; and we exploit that to the full. The number of people I know who blew most of their student maintenance loan during freshers' week is pretty staggering - I mean if we're going to be in debt anyway, why not have some fun along the way?

In my experience, this ideology of excess pervades student life on many levels:
I've only got one lecture today, I'll skip it and binge season 7 of RuPaul's Drag Race.
Let's unlock everything in Mario Kart Double Dash, and drink every time we hit a banana!
What? We ate all this week's biscuits while watching fail videos on YouTube?

Those examples are only partly true, but you get the idea.

The milestones of 18 and 21 are supposed to mark the beginning and end of our final transition into adulthood. However, there are some obstacles that even those years cannot teach. Friends of mine in their mid-to-late twenties have overcome them, and I think it is these hurdles that truly separate the adults from the big kids. I don't know if I've identified them all yet, but the one I'm focussing on here is 'moderation'.

The reason this skill is hard to learn stems from the 'no one can tell us what to do' attitude of the average first-year student. Doing things in excess is fun, feels fulfilling (at the time at least), and is made easier by the newfound freedom of our surroundings. Why shouldn't we marathon American Gods when Amazon Prime has a free trial for students? And if uni won't punish us for not turning up to lectures, why should we prioritise them over going out and drinking every night?

I should point out that I have never been that kind of student - I can count the number of contact hours I've missed on one hand. But I still rebel against moderation. The longer a D&D game is, and the more snacks I can eat during the game, the better. And if I'm going to hang out with friends at a house party, then I'm going to do it until we're kicked out!

But adults have responsibilities. They need to be awake enough to do their job, so they can still pay rent. They don't have the safety net of student loans or schedules; don't have the time to play Overwatch for 5 hours at a time. As a graduand, I'm beginning to realise that moderation forces itself on us all eventually, so the adult world can function normally.

I'm not looking forward to leaving the excess of freedom behind, but I know there are things I won't miss about it: hangovers, for a start. The feeling of uselessness when you realise that looking for easter eggs in Cars 2 isn't as productive as it sounded three hours ago. I look forward to moderation, to actively making time for the things that really give me joy, that really matter.

After all, being an adult can't be that bad...

Can it?

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Podcasts Are Awesome - And More Important than Ever.

Is it just me, or do you really hate the internet sometimes?

Don't get me wrong, I don't know what I'd do without it. I organise my life on Facebook, I stream 90% of my music through Spotify, and of course no internet means no Overwatch!

But I'm sure you've had some not-so-great experiences: You finish reading an interesting article, whether it be Buzzfeed, the Onion or something a little more high-brow, and you decide to have a look at the comments section. Surely your peers will have some enlightening comments on what you've just read?

No? Just people yelling at each other? Penning essays of drivel with no evidence to back up your point, just to one-up this stranger who's rubbed you up the wrong way? Ah well...

Okay, this doesn't happen all the time, but it seems that intelligent discourse on the web is getting harder and harder to find. This is why I love podcasts. I'm sure most of you reading this already know and love the world of podcasts, and don't need any encouragement to enter this wonderful world. But for the rest of you, here's my case:

First of all, podcasts are free to anyone with an internet connection, something that few legitimate entertainment providers can claim these days. Download a good podcast app and you immediately have every single podcast out there at your fingertips.

Variety is another positive: hobbies, interests, genres - any corner of culture you can think of, there's probably a podcast for it. Want to explore Gilmore Girls in thematic detail? Then Gilmore Guys is the one for you. Are you a glutton for trivia? Well how about Tell Me Something I don't Know? Or maybe you're more of a storyteller, in which case I can heartily recommend horror-narrative podcast The Magnus Archives. You get the idea; the sky really is the limit.

Practically, they are a godsend - I don't like leaving my data on when I'm not using it, so I make sure there are a few podcasts downloaded on my phone before I leave the house. But my favourite thing about podcasts is the intelligence they bring to the internet. People who make podcasts, for the most part, are not those launching drivel after diatribe at others in the comments section. These are people who see the world for the complicated, fascinating place it is and, in their own small ways, attempt to show those complexities to the world at large. It's admirable, it's entertaining, and it's more important than ever in a world of fake news and sensationalist media.

Please give podcasts a go. You won't regret it.

As a starting point, here's a list of my current podcast subscriptions:

This American Life (Very well-researched magazine show)
The West Wing Weekly (An episode-by-episode look back on The West Wing)
Freakonomics Radio (Much more interesting than it sounds at first)
Welcome to Night Vale (A fictional radio show set in a mysterious desert town)
Answer Me This (A British classic, hilarious and informative)
Rusty Quill Gaming (D&D for your ears!)
My Dad Wrote a Porno (Exactly what it says on the tin - you will cringe and cry with laughter)
Song Exploder (Detailed analysis of modern music, really well made)
S-Town (An intriguing investigation into a mysterious death in small-town Alabama)

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

Goblet of Fire: Worst Movie, Best Music

Having debated with fellow Potter-heads about our favourite books in the series, Goblet of Fire is often at the bottom of the list. I think this is largely because, apart from the final few chapters, the book does nothing to advance the overarching 'Voldemort' story. But for me, the fourth installment is where J K Rowling really comes into her own. She fleshes out her world with explorations of government and international relations, and the Triwizard Tournament serves as a thrilling metaphor for Harry's overwhelming struggle with the forces of evil.

It's just a shame about the movie, really.

After two very bright, family-friendly films directed by Chris Columbus, Alfonso Cuarón's interpretation of The Prisoner of Azkaban helped move the franchise in the darker, emotionally mature direction for which the later films are renowned. But in between lies the Goblet of Fire, and within it I see none of the things I love about the fourth book.

We marvel at the build-up to the Quidditch World Cup, with its incredible set design and art direction, only to have the match take place completely off-screen. Indeed, the film spends very little time exploring the 'grown-up' wizarding world, preoccupied instead with the angst-fueled relationships of its teenage protagonists. It's not a dreadful film, but it's indecisive - its tone is all over the place, and excellent performances from the likes of Brendan Gleeson and Miranda Richardson are stilted by the slow, often awkward pace of the non-action scenes. Oh, and then there's its glaring lack of fidelity to the book.

The film's saving grace, however, is its incredible score. Just as Mike Newell was a one-time director in the Harry Potter world, Goblet of Fire sees Patrick Doyle's only contribution to the series. And boy does he make a mark. Taking over from John Williams of all people must have been a daunting task, but Doyle rose to it with gusto, creating an original, but still totally magical, soundtrack.

In the film's opening, he heralds a change in musical style by deliberately twisting the famous 'Hedwig's Theme' into his own, darker arrangement. With the exception of the Quidditch World Cup, the first forty minutes of the film is underscored with wonderfully threatening motifs, as tensions rise between Harry and Ron, and the enormity of this year's challenge is brought to light.

The score really hits its stride once the two boys are back on terms, with sweeping romantic melodies that Potter fans will forever be humming while they wash up. 'Neville's Waltz' is subdued like its namesake, but without it, the famous 'Potter Waltz' would not have the triumphant payoff it deserves during the Yule Ball. Speaking of which, let us not forget that this is the film that combined Pulp and Radiohead to form a semi-fictional magic rock band.

As the film goes on, the film folds back into its dark underscoring, with Doyle once again subverting John Williams' notorious glissando in 'The Maze.' The final scene is one part of the film I think Newell got absolutely right. The emotions are complex - Harry is alive and well, but the knowledge that Voldemort has returned looms large in the mind; Doyle complements this with 'Another Year Ends,' a simple and reflective piece that is by no means triumphant.

All four composers employed in the Harry Potter series do brilliant jobs - Nicholas Hooper's score shows variety and expertise at every turn, Alexandre Desplat's haunting arrangements are consistently spine-tingling, and of course John Williams' theme is one of his many timeless trademarks. But Doyle's score is special. He captures the essence of The Goblet of Fire more than anyone else who worked on it, whether celebrating Harry's retrieval of the golden egg, or beating out a Bulgarian fight song. I listen to this soundtrack all the time, and every time I awe at its scope: mystery, jeopardy, thrill, wonder.

And its not just me who loves this soundtrack. I won't tell you what's in the final room of the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden, just in case you haven't been. But I will tell you that it's made me cry both times I've seen it. And the two pieces they play on repeat just before you leave: 'Harry in Winter' and 'Hogwarts Hymn,' both from this soundtrack. They truly do encapsulate, perhaps more than anything else, the magic of Harry Potter.

Monday, 29 May 2017

Trump's America: The Government of Gut Reaction

If you've ever seen one of Donald Trump's tweets - and let's face it, you have seen at least one of Donald Trump's tweets - you'll have noticed he's a prolific user of gut reactions. One of the huge advantages of social media, especially Twitter, is the efficiency with which one can openly react to or comment upon something: The transition from written thought to public statement is literally the speed of light. Use of a tool that fast and powerful requires care, thought and deliberation, especially for someone with 29 million followers.

Now, I'm not trying to condemn the gut reaction. I know all too well that I let my emotions respond to things before I've truly processed them. I'm glad to be in touch with my emotions, but I feel I have the presence of mind to vet my raw thoughts before shouting them into the void.

But the more I think about it, the more it seems that President Trump's success has depended on the power of the gut reaction.

In a recent episode of popular podcast This American Life, I learned about a small congressional race in Virginia that took place in 2014. I highly recommend the podcast, and I'll link to the episode at the end, but the TLDR version of it is this: an unknown candidate ran against the House Majority Leader, and won against all odds. Why? Well, it's complicated.

Steve Bannon, then executive chair of alt-right media network Breitbart News, got involved in the race, and began polling Republican voters on their issues, asking if they would vote for their rookie candidate Dave Brat. With defence and health insurance they got nowhere, but asking about immigration got a positive reaction. So they altered their strategy accordingly.

A post-victory poll revealed that immigration was not really a priority for voters in that election at all. But the gut reaction was enough. And two years later, Steve Bannon helped Donald Trump pull off the same trick. Crowds of people chanted "Build a wall!", committed acts of violence towards those of ethnic minority. And surely most of them wouldn't be seen dead doing that outside of a Trump rally?

Trump played on the instant, emotional reactions of even the most reasonable - suspicion (where are those emails, Hillary?), injustice (Where's my factory job gone?), pride (The American Dream is gone!). And he has not stopped. Ordering a military strike over dinner with the President of China; trying to ban as many immigrants as possible as soon as taking office; lashing out at any media network attempting to fact-check the White House.

Gut reactions can be useful. They are a window into our instinct, they tell us how we really feel, help us to make decisions. But every day Trump is making choices on behalf of millions of people, that could affect millions more. Getting elected on gut reaction is one thing, but leadership is different. No one can fly a plane on intuition alone, and the US is one big plane. If he wants to avoid impeachment, I suggest Mr Trump takes some lessons.

Inspiration for this post:

Sunday, 30 April 2017

My Overwatch Obsession (Sorry)

Though a proud member of the nerd community, I've never considered myself a gamer.

Like, I love video games. I always have. But not real video games. Growing up the only consoles I had were Nintendo, while around me my friends would discuss the merits of Call of Duty VS Halo. Next to those 'proper games', Mario Kart and Zelda don't count, do they?

I mean they probably do, but they're definitely different. When I was first exposed to First Person Shooter games, they disgusted me - especially COD. I couldn't understand how you could have fun pretending to shoot other human beings. I only got into Halo because you're killing aliens instead of people.

But then Blizzard made one. And it is everything I thought an FPS could never be.

It has a fertile backstory, but Halo has that.

It's co-operative, but then so is Left 4 Dead.

There are two things that make Overwatch stand out: its characters and its outlook.

Of course, there are other character-based FPS games. Team Fortress 2 has 9 different classes, many of which have Blizzard Counterparts - Demo-man VS Junkrat for example. But all playable characters in TF2 are male, while Overwatch offers 24 (and counting) heroes, almost half of whom are female. This scope and diversity in gender and race means there's something for everyone, even before play styles come into the equation. It also keeps the game interesting, as strategy can alter with a single change in one team's composition.

Outlook is harder to explain, but it boils down to this: most FPS games have quite a negative atmosphere - they're set in a time of war, terrorism or even apocalypse. In aesthetic and atmosphere, Overwatch has a much more positive vibe. It frames its characters as heroes who save the world from rebellious AI, or rebel against authoritarian governments (looking at you, Lúcio). In short, we don't just want to play as these heroes, we want to be them. If you're interested, this video explains the the game's vision of the future in more detail.

I haven't been this into a video game since Pokemon Sapphire. I watch YouTube videos about it, I track my stats online, and I do my best to keep up with the lore. And I think that's the main thing that attracts me to Overwatch above all other First Person Shooters - the characters are great to play, but they also drive a rich story line and populate a vast, ever-growing world. I love me some world building, and when it comes to video games, Blizzard (creators of World of Warcraft) are the masters.

Sorry to nerd out on you like this, I just needed to get this one out of my system. Normal (and hopefully regular) service will resume in May. Thanks for your time.

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Obligatory Quidditch Post

This weekend, I won my first ever sporting medal. It was gold. And it was for playing quidditch.

Before I get started:
  • No, of course we cannot fly.
  • But yes, we do have brooms between our legs.
  • And yes, we reduced the value of the snitch: it's only worth 30 points (3 goals).
Anyway, this post isn't a guide to quidditch, there are plenty of those on the internet already. This is an appeal - if you can, I encourage you to give this game a try.

But I'm not a sporty person!
Fair enough. I have never considered myself a sporty person, and I still don't. Before quidditch, my primary form of exercise was walking with occasional cycling. I've always found team sports stressful, since I am not a competitive person, and people always seem to take sport (and the winning thereof) much to seriously. Quidditch players take the game seriously too, but no matter how competitive things get, we all have to remember that we're all running around with pipes between our legs. It sets enjoyment as a prerogative over winning, and for me that's perfect.

But Harry Potter sucks!
First of all, you are wrong. Like, objectively wrong. Second, it doesn't matter if you don't like Harry Potter. It's not just the points system or lack of flight that separates Quidditch from the world of the books and films. Many teams do have Potter-themed names, like the Norwich Nifflers and the Liverpuddly Cannons, but that is by no means the precedent - my own team is the Nottingham Nightmares, and our closest neighbours simply go by Derby Union Quidditch Club. So you don't have to be a nerd to play quidditch. But we might turn you into one.

But I don't go to university!
That's fine too. Though most quidditch teams (in Britain at least) are based in universities, and associated with Harry Potter Societies, this is not always the case. The Werewolves of London and Velociraptors are two examples of community/graduate teams, and most university teams would be more than happy to get in contact with anyone interested.

Quidditch may not yet be an established sport yet, but its increasing popularity puts it in a unique position - anyone who wants to, and is willing to put in the effort, can play quidditch at a competitive level. It's enormous fun, great exercise, and friendship-building. My quidditch team is practically a family, and most of us have only been there for a year.

So I heartily recommend this as an alternative (or supplement) to however you currently exercise. Come run around, make friends and learn the most enjoyable sport I have ever played.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

What's Wrong with Working Alone? - Thoughts on "La La Land" and "The Lego Batman Movie"

La La Land has split opinions across the board. Its red-carpet recognition reflects the general consensus that it is well made: a 'passionate but also exquisitely controlled' piece of cinema, as Variety put it. On the other hand, it has taken a lot of flack for a variety of reasons - some would have liked to see people of colour in the leading roles, especially since jazz and its roots have such a crucial role in the film's emotional impetus. But there is one complaint I have seen pop up quite often: that the protagonists of Damien Chazelle's latest effort are wholly selfish, chasing their own dreams with no concern for their audience or even each other.

This is true, at least to some extent. Seb (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist who, despite frequent collaborations, is at his most creative and inspired when playing alone. Mia (Emma Stone) attends many failed film auditions, eventually deciding to put on a one-woman play, not caring how many people turn up or whether they like it. As the film progresses, the couple realise that they cannot continue their careers and their relationship; something has to give, and so they go their separate ways.

Put this way, it doesn't sound hugely inspiring. But I enjoyed La La Land immensely, and on some level I think these critics might be missing the point. Enter The Lego Batman Movie.

Marketed principally for children, this film has a much more obvious thematic arc - Batman is used to working alone, achieving safety for Gotham and notoriety for his sole protection of the city. As the story unfolds, he is challenged to accept others into his professional life (new police commissioner Barbara Gordon) and his personal life (the orphan Dick Grayson, also known as Robin).

For an hour and a half we laugh as Bruce Wayne struggles with these new additions to his world, ultimately overcoming his unshakable independence and learning that working alone is not always the solution.

While La La Land and The Lego Batman Movie are very different films, they do have their similarities. for a start, each can be viewed as nothing more than an advert for a multi-million dollar industry, whether it be North American films or Scandinavian building bricks. One gets comic payoff from genre-crossing and pop culture references, and the other is made entirely out of Lego.

But they are linked thematically as well: they both focus on the people and experiences that shape and change us. No, Mia and Sebastian don't have their happily ever after, but their time together has an impact. At his lowest point, Sebastian joins a band making commercial music that he disagrees with, and only Mia has the sense to remind him of what he truly wants - his own jazz club. Their argument at the centre of the film is unfair from both sides, but at its heart is a desire for each to make sure the other is truly happy.

By the same token: While Mia's friends claim she can only find success by happening upon a Hollywood bigwig at a Los Angeles party, it is Sebastian who gives her the confidence to use her own life as inspiration, and build a career for herself. The climactic song "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" encapsulates these things, drawing on Mia's aunt's spontaneity for a toast to those unafraid to hold onto their dreams. Mia takes on the spirit of jazz - the confidence to improvise, live in the moment and do what comes naturally.

The idea of working alone is prominent in both of these films, but in my opinion it plays second fiddle to their most important message: be on the lookout for people and things that will challenge us, make us think differently, do things differently. As Aaron Sorkin wrote: "keep accepting more than one idea." In today's political and social environment, nothing is more important.

Friday, 10 March 2017

Recommendations: My 5 Perfect Albums

Though I pride myself on appreciating a wide range of music, it is rock that has influenced me the most. Indeed, it is in rock that the album comes to the fore, enjoying a rare superiority over the single, even more precious in the age of downloads. Below is a list of five albums which I view as perfect, or nearly perfect: albums with not a single bad track. Though I tend to use absolutes in my prose, remember that this is just my own opinion, but I highly recommend you try out all of these albums. They are, in my opinion, not only good but important to the world of music. With that in mind, here's the list.

  • Vices and Virtues by Panic! At the Disco (2011)
An album so perfect, even its four bonus tracks can do no wrong. Reduced to only two members, Panic! could easily have thrown the towel in, or hired an orchestra to record with (I'll get to that later). But no, Brendon Urie would not be deterred. He released a rip-roaring anthem called 'The Ballad of Mona Lisa,' opening an album full of intelligent melodies, thoughtful lyrics and a ruthless energy that keeps me coming back for more. With very few session musicians credited, it is incredible that a record of such impetus could be produced by two people, but perhaps this streamlined the writing and recording process. From the pop-punk hit 'Ready to Go' to the electronic-inspired demo 'Oh Glory,' this masterpiece of 21st Century rock does not disappoint.

Hard-won favourites: 'Memories', 'Sarah Smiles', 'I Wanna Be Free' (Bonus Track)

  • A Night at the Opera by Queen (1975)
Okay, so for classic rock fans this is an obvious pick, but that doesn't stop this album being an absolute powerhouse of musical genius. Its opener, 'Death on Two Legs", is, if anything, underrated - if I were to make a James Bond parody film, this would be my theme. Check it out, you'll see what I mean. From there we travel through classics like 'Bohemian Rhapsody' and 'You're My Best Friend,' as well as more experimental tracks like 'The Prophet's Song.' Every member of the band contributes to the writing of the record, creating a whirlpool of humour, melancholy and about 25 different instruments. This album is famous for its innovation in the use of vocal layers, but it is the natural music that shines through for me, right up to Brian May's guitar-heavy arrangement of 'God Save the Queen' at the end. A timeless triumph of British music, and wholly worth owning a physical copy.

Hard-won favourites: 'Good Company', 'Seaside Rendezvous', 'Love of my Life'

  • Magnification by Yes (2001)
Speaking of classic rock, another of my all-time favourite albums is Yes' final record before their hiatus at the start of this Century. Reduced to a mere four members (their number was usually closer to seven), they decided to hire the San Diego Symphony Orchestra to bulk out their sound. The result is an album filled with modern symphonies. Though not a popular choice even among Yes fans, this record impresses from start to finish; with its mystical lyrics about magic, ancestors and the afterlife, as well as expert musicianship from all involved. The orchestral arrangements are simple but original, and lend a grand quality that Yes usually achieve through the virtuoso keyboard work of Rick Wakeman, who was missing from this record. This is perhaps the hardest album of the five to describe, so I recommend you go and listen!

Hard-won favourites: 'We Agree', 'Can You Imagine', 'Dreamtime'

  • Night Visions by Imagine Dragons (2012)
Few bands have been as ambitious with a first album as Imagine Dragons, and it truly paid off. As soon as 'Radioactive' hit the airwaves, the world was hooked, and the album shows how much they deserve their hype. Every time I listen to this album, I choose a new favourite, as it really does keep on giving. 'Hear Me' offers driving, radio-friendly rock, while 'Tiptoe' and 'Underdog' offer an indie flair that is now beginning to permeate the music scene. My only criticism is that 'On Top of the World' jars against the melancholy atmosphere of the album, but it is nevertheless a good song, leaving this album without a single bad track. A very strong debut from a brilliant band, and though I am not as enamoured with their sophomore effort Smoke and Mirrors (2015), I hope they continue their ambitious output.

Hard-won favourites: 'Demons', 'Bleeding Out', 'Every Night'

  • Abbey Road  by The Beatles (1969)
If you don't count 1970's Let It Be (and few true Beatles fans do), this is the Fab Four's final studio album - and they know it. The final track is called 'The End', and they do their best to go out with a bang. This album features some of George Harrison's best writing and guitar work, and big hitters like 'Because' and 'I Want You' from John Lennon. McCartney remains playful with tracks like 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer', and this album features the only Ringo-penned track, 'Octopus' Garden.' The whole of side 2 comprises one long medley of short, collaboratively-written tracks, showcasing the many styles of the Beatles' career; highlights include 'Golden Slumbers' and 'Mean Mr Mustard'. And finally, the last lyrics: "In the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make." A fitting finale for one of the most influential musical groups in history.

Hard-won favourites: 'Something', 'Here Comes the Sun', 'Carry that Weight'

And that's the list. So many albums nearly made it: Keane's Strangeland is incredible, but misses out due to an incongruous track (I may talk about 'Black Rain' in a later post). Other contenders were Priorities by Don Broco, Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here and The 2nd Law by Muse. Do you have any perfect albums? Why do you like them? Feel free to start a discussion below. Chances are I'll reply! See you next time.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Why you MUST watch Community

Since I discovered Friends at the age of 11, I have maintained that it is the best sitcom ever made. A wonderful blend of fun and emotion, combining slapstick with sarcasm and intelligent word-based humour. Comedy catnip for someone like me. I've watched the show from start to finish twice, and it's never lost its appeal.

Friends' place at the top of my sitcom podium has been threatened a few times: Blackadder and Not Going Out are favourites from the UK, while New Girl and the short-lived 8 Simple Rules fought for attention across the pond. The best contender for my top spot was Chuck Lorre's grossly underrated series Dharma and Greg.

But this was all before I found Community.

Considering its low ratings and continual struggle for syndication, it's no surprise that while I was enjoying the glory days of early Big Bang Theory and The I.T. Crowd, I had never heard of the college-based antics happening under the imaginative eye of creator Dan Harmon. It is only thanks to the wonders of Netflix and friends' recommendations that I found the show at all; and boy am I glad that I did.

Community is a fresh 21st Century take on the sitcom. It refuses to get bogged down in the static, multi-camera format so common in American TV (perpetuated, I will concede, by Friends). It never stands still for longer than it needs to, and there is no formula; every episode is different in form, genre and even occasionally medium (spoilers). It expects a lot from its audience: there is no laughter track telling you what to find funny, and its pace and wit often merit dragging back the play bar a minute or two to take everything in. But this lack of condescension to the viewer makes each episode a rich concoction of laughter, intrigue and wacky fun.

The show exudes confidence from every pore. It does not hesitate to reference films, pastiche popular culture, even parody itself. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the overarching theme of the show is learning to laugh at yourself. If you're a fan of Rick and Morty, you know that Dan Harmon never takes himself too seriously, and this carries over in Community as well. Despite being set in the live-action 'real world,' this is a show in which anything can - and does - happen. Giant pillow forts, secret trampolines and a Christmas wizard do not even scratch the surface of what this show has in store.

If you have not seen this show, I strongly urge you to watch it. Persevere through the first few episodes, it takes a while to find its feet but I promise you it's worth it. As in many sitcoms, you'll fall in love with the characters, and maybe find one or two of them insufferable. But unlike any other sitcom, you'll never know what's going to happen next.

So far, no show as ever come as close as Community to knocking Friends off the top spot of my all-time favourite sitcoms, and I'm only on Season 3. I'll let you know if it succeeds.

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Routine: A Stream of Consciousness

It ties my world together
Sometimes tighter than I would like
I know it is important
But like many crucial things
It has a tendency to constrict to the point of discomfort

I know I will fall out of it
I have to accept that or I'll just upset myself.
Frustrate myself,
Berate myself.
Placate my self-inflicted sense of uselessness
With online lists and quizzes.

Creativity fizzes when I shake the can of my routine
Pull back the tab and start anew
A fresh stream of seconds, minutes, hours that I have to get used to.
Notes go in folders
But then it all falters
And time falls from the hourglass
Days pass without but a little output.
One post a week becomes a month void of proof
Of what's been going on under the radar
Under the roof.

Sometimes I just need to create.
Not think about consequences, not hesitate
Just make something
Don't worry about quality
Forget about reaction
No retraction
Just share it. Let it become whatever it can be
When someone else reads it
With their expectations, worries and cares
And makes it theirs.

Maybe others are stronger
Maybe it takes me longer to adjust than others
Or maybe we all have times like this one
Human Condition.

I must find ways of tying my world back together
Find new knots to hold the chaos in
Occasionally letting it bleed out
Keep me a little bit insane, as all the best are.
And if I need my routine back, it never goes far.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Ungracious in Victory: 20th Jan 2017

In his review of Laini Taylor's Daughter of Smoke and Bone, fellow fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss wrote: 'I wish I had written this.' I get this feeling with certain things too, often songs. For example, I wish I had written the Billy Joel classic 'She's Always a Woman,' with its soaring melody and bittersweet lyrics. Similarly, I'd love to have come up with the driving modulations of Alice Cooper's 'Poison', and what an unusual album that would have been.

One thing that I don't wish I had written, however, is Donald Trump's inauguration speech. When he was sworn into office on Friday, he gave the minority of active voters who chose him exactly what they wanted: an anti-establishment rally to start as he means to go on. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing; a friend of mine made the point that Bernie Sanders' inauguration speech would have had just the same sentiment. Despite their political polarization, both Trump and Sanders garnered political pedigree from voters who have grown dissatisfied, even distrustful, of the establishment.

However, I can't help feeling that Bernie Sanders, or Gary Johnson, or Jill Stein, would have shown more grace in their inauguration speeches, had they been the successful outsider instead of Trump. We can only imagine how the billionaire would have reacted had he lost the election - my money was on hiring Ashton Kutcher to tell America that Trump had been a joke candidate the whole time, rather than admit true defeat. But the only thing worse than a sore loser is a sore winner, and this feeling permeated the first address of President Trump.

At the start of the speech, he thanked every living former president, and the surname 'Clinton' hung rather poignantly in the air. Then, in what seemed like the next breath, he told his public that he would be taking power away from Washington DC and giving it to them. An inspiring message, no doubt, to those who support Trump and his ideals, but it's hard not to see the insult implied in this statement, just minutes after thanking Barack Obama.

But the one thing that stands out most to me from his speech is arrogance. His refusal to acknowledge anything that has come before him, to see himself as genius, innovator and independent. Not only is this conceited, it is also untrue. In his life, Donald Trump has belonged to the Democratic, Reform and Republican parties, each time using their political clout to gain a platform. In his speech, Trump called his victory 'a historic movement, the likes of which the world has never seen before.'
Is he perhaps forgetting the 1960s, and the civil rights movement?
Or perhaps Abraham Lincoln's stand for social equality in the 1860s?

Barack Obama has many admirable qualities, but among the most significant is humility - something every good leader should possess. The modesty to accept help, and appreciate those who have helped you. The grace to acknowledge that an achievement as big as this is not simply a one-man show. If his successor wants to be a populist leader, he has a lot to learn: he must appreciate not only the needs of those around him, but also their crucial role in obtaining and maintaining the power he now holds.

"When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom."
--Proverbs 11:2 - Link to a transcript of the full speech, courtesy of the Washington Post

Sunday, 15 January 2017

In Response to Turning 21


Three years ago today, by law,
My government decided I'm no longer to be called
A child.

Three orbits of a rocky orb's rotations round a star.
One thousand and ninety-six rotations on an axis.
Twenty-six thousand, three hundred and four rotations of a minute hand.
One change of batteries.

A change of job.
A change of heart.
A change of living situation.
A change of facial hair formation.

Variations on themes.
Mistakes, then repetitions: memes.

Gifts given, gifts received.
Ideas thrown away, ideas conceived.

Lessons learned, and facts forgotten.
Love denied and grudge begotten.

A spring of new light, new love, new life.
A stream of new light, new love, new life.
A river of new light, new love, new life.
An Ocean.

Devotion. Devolution. Revolution. Reparation.
The new defining of a nation.
From first to last rotation.

Today, by law,
Another government decided I'm no longer to be called
A child.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

On Films, Trailers and Passengers

WARNING: Contains spoilers for the film Passengers

My English degree has afforded me many luxuries: a creative dissertation, plenty of time to be part of societies, and a like-minded group of friends with whom to compare notes and discuss texts. But perhaps most surprising has been the result of my Screen Shakespeare module: an enhanced appreciation for the art of film. Don't get me wrong, I have often applauded at a well-constructed shot, or shaken my head at an excess of exposition in a script; but I think now I appreciate the endeavour - the act of conveying themes, messages, symbols and stories to a mass audience through a combination of many different art forms - a lot more than I used to. It's also made me more cynical, better at picking up where a filmmaker could have put across their message more effectively. This is where trailers come in.

A film trailer should be like a book cover. Using elements of image and story, it shows the viewer enough to get them hooked, convinces them to spend their money. Unfortunately, in recent years, certain genres of film (looking at you, Marvel & DC) have developed a habit of showing a little too much in their trailers. Even teasers have abandoned their original definition; no longer do they showcase the tone and characters of the film without giving anything away. Sometimes it feels like editors have a bet to see who can put the most explosions in their teaser. So, when I went to see Passengers, I was fully expecting the star-crossed conspiracy implied in the trailers and other promotional material. 'There's a reason they woke up' boasts the bus advert, promising a heart-stopping thriller on board the Space Titanic. The film did not deliver, but I'm sort of glad it didn't.

There is a reason Jim (Chris Pratt) woke up. There is a reason Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence) woke up. But these reasons are different. Jim is woken up due to a fault in the ship's mechanics. He spends a year alone, and when he comes across Aurora in her sleep pod, he obsesses over her. Reading her books, watching her video log, slowly he falls in love with her. And then comes the second reason. After a month of wrestling with his morals, and even coming close to suicide, Jim deliberately wakes Aurora up. To clarify, there are 90 years to go until the ship reaches its destination, and waking her up means she must spend the rest of her life on the ship.

The film has received mixed reviews, and there seems to be a theme among the negative ones - not many critics can get past the cruelty of Jim's decision. I do not understand this: of course it is cruel, and I understand the problems it raises concerning consent. But this decision changes the trailer-watcher's perception of the film entirely. No longer is it a tale of suspense and conspiracy, but a human story about emotions, about a complex relationship with a dark secret at its heart. It still thrilled me, but I also found it thought-provoking, disturbing and heartwarming at the same time. A brilliant film.

I hope Passengers helps to change the game; to take trailers out the other side of showing too much, and start making the viewer question what they are seeing. Will this be just another explosion-fest with CGI sprinkles on top? Or is there something they're not telling me?

Sunday, 1 January 2017


My principal resolution for 2016 was to cut down on meat. Three months later, I was vegetarian, and as we swim desperately from the whirlpool of last year and collapse on the shore of 2017, I remain so. I'm stronger and healthier than I've ever been, and - give or take the smell of frying bacon - I really don't miss meat all that much. So I win at new year's resolutions. The meat in my life has been successfully and permanently cut down. But what about this year? How do I improve at something I've already won?

Like with any half-decent gravy, the key is consistency. Despite my devotion to the High Temple of Soy Mince, I have trouble sticking to certain other things, especially creative projects. My Google Drive is peppered with novel plans, ideas for plays, and a detailed strategy for if I ever reboot my YouTube channel. Most of these are either waiting in the wings to be started, or floating in limbo under the heading 'work in progress.'

I've always had an interest in novel-writing, since books have been my primary source of creative inspiration; but in the past few years, I've found it ever harder to commit to projects of that scale. Even if I don't get bored of them, the chances are that by the time I've made much progress, there will be another endeavour requiring and capturing my attention. And that's before we factor in work and university. In recent months, I have turned to poetry and short stories as an antidote to this creative quicksand: their short form requires less commitment. So far I've been pleased with the results, and I'd like to keep developing these skills. The scale and satisfaction of big undertakings, however, still calls to me.

So, my 2017 resolution is this: to stick at things, from brushing my teeth every day to writing a good dissertation. I have a few projects on the go already, and this blog is the newest - a way to keep tabs on my own consistency, while building up a public portfolio of writing, whatever form it may take. My aim is to write one post every week, and to combine creative content with thoughts and wonderings from everyday life.

A happy new year to you, and many thanks for your attention. I hope you enjoy what is to come!