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  • Adam Tye

Journey to the Centre of my Watchlist: August 2021

Hm? Oh, hi, come on in! You've caught me rubbing together the defibrillators, preparing to jolt my website out of its six-month coma. After a pretty exciting boot-up period back in March, things suddenly got a bit swamped, what with restrictions gradually opening up, therapy sessions to tackle, and a ton of long-awaited plans finally kicking into gear. The last few months have been some of the busiest I've had in years, as I headed from Derby to York, to the Isle of Wight, to Norfolk, over to London and then back down to Derby again. It's been a whirlwind time (and it's sure taken my lovable germ-phobic OCD for one hell of a ride), but it's also been amazing to experience all this activity again after a year and a half spent indoors burning through Youtube.

Unfortunately, that has also made it hard to really focus on putting anything up on this site. So, after bandying about a couple of article ideas that I couldn't get excited about, I thought this was a good excuse to break out the 'ole list format and use to tackle one of the most pressing modern issues of our times: my mountainous watchlist.

Every month I chip away at my to-watch pile, and I often generate a smattering of thoughts for each one I tick off the list - enough that I want to talk to somebody about the experience, though probably not enough for a full article. The result: here they are, ready to bring my site back from the spirit realm and onto everyone's Facebook feed once more.

Oh, and because I'm a cheater, I'll also throw games and books into the mix as well. I don't have to justify that - this is my site. Now, let's bring it back to life.




Film dir. Milos Forman (1984)

This list is alphabetical, and doesn't go in order of quality, but we're starting with the GOAT nonetheless. Did you know that Amadeus won Best Picture at the Oscars, along with Best Actor for F. Murray Abraham's astonishing turn as the envious Salieri? I'm asking because apparently none of the major retailers do, otherwise it might be possible to get your hands on a copy of this film that isn't secondhand from Cex. I only heard of Amadeus's existence during my MA degree, and I can't help but feel like it has slipped a little through the cracks of our cultural memory - a fact made all the more confusing by how great the film is.

Adapted from a play by Peter Schaffer, Amadeus tells the story of Antonio Salieri - chief composer in the court of Emperor Joseph II, and man who is about to have his entire understanding of the universe upended by the arrival of Tom Hulce's cackling Mozart. Hulce plays Mozart as a sort of childish wrecking ball plagued by demons - his distinctive shrill laugh eventually giving way to some pained moments of depression and spiralling health. It's this sound that Salieri memorably recounts as "...that was not Mozart laughing...that was God laughing at me through that obscene giggle," - a quote which sets the tone of this darkly funny, yet vaguely biblical drama.

My friend Holly has joked to me that the curse of watching Amadeus is that you will then go on to recommend it to all your friends, only for them to shrug you off. Probably because the film sounds very stately, and liable to be a bit of a slog. Screw it, I'm going to try anyway, because if you take away anything from this list, it's that you have to see this film. Sure, it's 2 hours 40 minutes long and comes with an intermission, but they are some of the fastest 2 hours and 40 minutes you'll experience in your entire life. This isn't some dry history lesson - this is a Best Picture that is completely and utterly entertaining. Everyone here is at the top of their game, from the performances, to Milos Forman's seamless direction, to the perfect-timing of each and every Mozart song that litters the soundtrack.

I'm on my hands and knees here, begging: begging you to watch Amadeus...and begging for someone, somewhere, to release it on 4K. Please, studios - I need this to happen.



Film dir. Mary Harron (2000)

American Psycho is far, FAR stranger than I was expecting it to be. The way a lot of people go on about this film, I was expecting a slick thriller/drama ala something like Wolf of Wall Street. Nope! Instead it's closer to something more esoteric and obtuse like Taxi Driver (new review headline: What if Taxi Driver...was entertaining? [I'm so sorry for this blasphemy, let's just move on]). This is a dizzying tour-de-force of weirdness, where reality is secondary to Bateman's POV, and Bateman's POV is nothing more than explosive envy. For the first 20 minutes, I was concerned by the way Bateman's character cartwheels between emotions and desires with little-to-no reason. It was almost like the film wasn't interested in seeing what makes him tick. About halfway through, I realised that might just be the point. He is America's greed laid bare: nothing else to see here - move along.



Disney+ (2021)

~Vague spoilers for the Loki finale ahead~

This might sound cynical, but I'm semi-convinced that Loki's soundtrack is the main reason why a lot of people really liked this show. It's strange to talk about a Marvel property with regards to its music, especially after years of people pointing out how indistinct it often sounds, but hot damn, Natalie Holt's score is fantastic, lending a sense of otherworldliness and danger to a show that is...really just another Marvel TV show, for all the best and worst properties that implies.

For what it's worth, I do believe that Loki is the best Disney+ original that Marvel has released so far. Wandavision promised Lynchian introspection only to fall apart in its final episodes, whilst Falcon and the Winter Soldier caught my attention for two weeks before I forgot it existed. In contrast, Loki feels like its playing with a much bigger deck than any of its predecessors, throwing out huge time-travel ideas that are so up my alley you'd think this show had been made just for me. I particularly love the idea about hiding out in apocalypses to trick the TVA (basically the Time Police), because if the whole world is about to end in a few minutes, then nothing you can do will matter enough to show up on their radar. That's such a great concept, loaded with enough logical steps and existential emptiness as to make your head spin.

But when I finished the show, the overwhelming feeling was one of coldness. "Error 404: opinion not found" was my Letterboxd review at the time. I gravitated to a lot of the surface level elements to explain my disinterest: specifically the discord I felt at watching a show throw out big ideas, only for me to think of a dozen instances that Doctor Who had done them all but to crazier extremes. Even here, at the end of time, Marvel was using half-measures.

With more reflection, I think my discontent comes from a sense that all of Loki's pieces never really came together to be more than their disparate parts. All of those big concepts, the gesturing at cosmic loneliness, the ending; what's the link between them? And for a Marvel property that sticks a villain in the driver's seat, isn't it strange that Loki himself is pretty placid and cuddly for the duration? His psychology has never been a consistent part of the MCU - adapting with each film as Hiddleston's take on the character inspired the creative teams to keep bouncing in different directions - but now, when it matters most, he lacks a whole lot of bite. It makes Sylvie's final fear of betrayal ring a little hollow, because there's nothing in the show to back it up.

I think I'd call my time with Loki a mixed-bag, albeit one that skews positive. There's a lot to like here, and I like that all of these talented actors are being used in the service of some incredibly weighty ideas. But once the dust settles, I can't help but wonder what it is that I'm left with.



PS4 Remaster (2021 - originally released 2010)

AT LAST! The Mass Effect trilogy is one of my White Whales: a story told on a Galactic scale, featuring extensive world-building, your own spaceship and crew to command, and story choices that topple like dominoes. Unfortunately for me, it's also a Role Playing Game. Now, there are no right answers in the question of "what is the best videgame genre", but there is a wrong answer, and RPGs are it. So many times I've sat down in front of gaming's finest storytelling achievements, only to have my eyes glaze over at the endless stat-crunching and the clunky gameplay that always makes me feel like I only half-understand what it is that I'm supposed to do. You take a turn-based RPG and stick it next to an action game, and I know exactly which one I'm gravitating towards, because there's no substitute for the immediacy and viscerally of a game like God of War or The Last of Us - especially when that substitute is the videogame equivalent of Rock/Paper/Scissors.

Back in 2011, Mass Effect 2 was one of the many casualties of my War on RPGs. It wasn't a turn-based game, instead opting for a mix of third-person shooting and tactical decision making. but it is an experience that required a little more patience than I was willing to give. I played it for about 10 hours, enjoyed the story, put it down one day and then never picked it back up again. Eventually, I became convinced I'd never see it through to the end.

Thank goodness then for the Mass Effect: Legendary Edition - a remastered collection of the original three games, bundled together onto the PS4. My brother loaned me his copy the other month and encouraged me to blitz through Mass Effect 1 - a spectacularly dated game that I nonetheless found myself enjoying. It turned out to be the perfect way to get in the mood for Mass Effect 2. Finally, after several failed attempts, after years of waiting, I can definitively declare on behalf of everybody that this multiple-award-winning, widely beloved a pretty good time.

Better than pretty good, actually. For the unaware: the Mass Effect series have a heavy reliance on character decision making, from choosing how to respond in a conversation, to deciding which crew members to leave behind in a life-or-death situation. I don't think these choices are as huge a part of the experience as a lot of people make it out to be, but it does allow you to make a noticeable mark on the universe, whether it's the state of galactic politics, or your love life. Case in point: I knew Mass Effect 2 was going to grab me when it began swapping out characters in scenes depending on who I'd decided to romance in the first game. Seeing Liara be the first to talk to my character instead of a generic grunt character is a small but powerful way to turn Mass Effect into a strangely personal experience. This is not an experience known for its gameplay: the shooting is fun, but only until (as my brother pointed out) you have to start aiming at things that can actually move. However, that feeling that the game is watching you - that everyone in the world is responding to your decisions and character profile - that's enough to give all these scenarios so much additional importance. It's a reminder that the good context and storytelling can transform even the most routine of tasks into something special, and I can't wait to see it all pay off in Mass Effect 3.

(In case anyone reading this has played Mass Effect and actually gives a shit: I'm a Paragon FemShep who occasionally gets a little trigger happy whenever the Renegade button shows up during cutscenes. Don't give me that look - I think it gives my character some texture.)


ONE PUNCH MAN Volumes 19-22

Manga - Story by ONE, Art by Yusuke Murata

Cards on the table: this has been an especially Weeb-y year for me, and apparently I'm not alone. With the pandemic forcing people to relive the same Western media over and over, it's not surprising that many have found themselves drifting to Anime and Manga in order to experience something new. By all accounts, the results are significant, with Viz reporting one of its healthiest sales years in history, along with suffering an enormous paper-shortage (good luck trying to get any Volume 1 copies in paperback these next few months).

Why have I fallen in with all this? Because it's fun, dammit! There's a grace period involved where you push past a lot of the tropes and shit that often give the medium a bad name, but once you do you're liable to find a treasure trove of riches. There's such an immediacy to the storytelling: a maelstrom of style and character that aims to nail your attention to the page as fast as humanly possible, with the kind of batshit-crazy premises that would scare the living daylights out of most Western broadcasters. Don't get me wrong: there's a lot of garbage to wade through. But at it's best, these books and shows whip up some of the most all-consuming entertainment imaginable.

One-Punch Man is...maybe not Manga at its best, but it has carved out a special place in my heart nonetheless. The premise is fairly simple: Saitama wants to be a hero, so he undergoes a personal training regime so intense that he not only goes bald, but is able to defeat every enemy in a single punch. And I mean every enemy - lead writer 'ONE' makes this clear right from the get-go by throwing a final boss at Saitama in the first chapter, only for our protagonist to splatter him into chunks without breaking a sweat. The downside? With nothing to challenge him, Saitama has become emotionally destitute. He feels nothing, and is left scrambling for direction in life.

At least, that's where the series started. About nine volumes in, ONE decided to shift focus away from Saitama and into the outer edges of his universe. The result is that the Caped Baldy has now become a side-character in a cast of hundreds, as this once simple gag-manga turns into a full-on spectacle series.

The results are wild. Yusuke Murata's art has been widely praised by the community and for good reason: his work is outstanding, rendering this absurdist cartoon into one of the most stunning comics currently available on the market. If spectacle is what One-Punch Man is going for, then at least it has an artist up to the task - a fact only compounded by comparing his updated work to the original webcomic.

On the left: ONE's original Webcomic. One the right: Yusuke Murata's art for the Manga release.
Before (Webcomic) | After (Manga)

The jump to sprawling adventure serial does have its share of frustrations, however, with the once laser-focused comedy and character-work getting lost in a sea of action-heavy "KATHOOM"s. As Saitama gets pushed further into the background, there's a tendency for a lot of these Volumes to wheel-spin, sticking to the same battle Chapter after Chapter after Chapter.

Which is what makes Volumes 19-22 such a pleasant surprise. There's not a massive change in direction here: in fact, the current Monster Association storyline is little more than an enormous war protracted over about 50 chapters. But some of that focus of the earlier Volumes is starting to rear its head again. Villain-turned-antihero Garo makes for a nifty protagonist when Saitama isn't around; deuteragonist Genos continues his ominous slide from lovable disciple to blindly obedient; and whenever the series does indulge in its long battle scenes, there's a sense that ONE is having a lot of fun coming up with interesting scenarios (personal favourite probably being Zombieman - a character who cannot die - taking on an enemy so powerful that it takes 30 minutes of repeated dismemberment before he figures out a way to win the fight).

The absolute highlight, though, is Volume 22: specifically, Child Emperor's fight against Resurrected Phoenix Man (I appreciate this all sounds completely nonsense - would it make you feel better if I told you that halfway through the fight, the two characters abscond to a spiritual realm where Phoenix Man turns into a penguin?). This is likely the pinnacle of One-Punch Man's evolved form thus far, as ONE finds a way to not only bring Saitama into the fray without him finishing the fight in three seconds, but also turns the screws on the characters so much that Child Emperor - who I previously was pretty neutral on - receives some of the most emotionally heartfelt material in the entire series. From here on out, it's a bevvy of great moments, and I don't think I'm ever going to get over how Saitama was able to nonchalantly punch his way into Pheonix Man's spiritual plane. It's fun shit - sometimes even good shit. That sounds harsh, but I really do love this silly series - even when it frustrates the heck out of me - and I'm hoping that it can keep the momentum going when Volume 23 comes out in October.



Manga - Tatsuya Endo

Oop - still on the Manga train. With good reason: now that I've finally caught up to the latest Volume on One-Punch Man, the hunt is on for a series to fill the gap. For a medium that is rammed with options, this is trickier than it sounds. 1) because of the aforementioned paper shortage making buying these issues in print out of the question for the time being. And 2) because there is a lot of naff stuff to wade through. I tried my hand at a couple to no avail - the most disappointing probably being The Way of the Househusband, which has been blowing up pretty hard these last few months. It has a fun premise - a former Yakuza boss becomes a Househusband, and brings all of his temperament to these low-key scenarios - but there's little depth beyond that. It feels more like a Newspaper comic strip than a real story.

Enter Spy x Family, which has a similar blend of high-concept/slice-of-life ideas that made Househusband so attractive, but also has the ambition to back it up and make it a rewarding read.

Threading the line beautifully between gag-manga and a genuinely involving story, Spy x Family follows master spy 'Twilight' in his latest mission, wherein he is forced to cobble together a family in order to go undercover and get close to his target. Unbeknownst to him, the family is hiding their own secrets. Yor - the wife - is a socially fumbling woman desperate to fit in with society so she can continue her secret job as an elite assassin -an idea which gives the series a neat little 'Mr. & Mrs. Smith' energy. But the real ace in the hole (and one that screams 'manga'), is the adopted daughter Anya, whose latent telepathic abilities allow her to read the minds of everyone around them. She remains the only member of the family with any semblance of an idea of what is really going on between the two parents, even if her nature as a six-year old girl holds her back from fully capitalising on that information.

There's a fine balancing act here between the gritty and the absurd; the comedy and the drama, and Spy x Family so far is making that act look easy. This is, first and foremost, a funny story, but there's a very real bite hidden beneath the surface. We see it with Yor, whose social bumbling is abruptly juxtaposed with her night job, in which a room full of people are left with knives sticking out of their heads. These are heightened characters, sure, but you always get the sense that author Tatsuya Endo is treating their interiority seriously. Twilight may be stuck in a screwball comedy, but he isn't going to roll over and change his entire persona because of it. It's this mix of elements which means that when the heartwarming moments arrive - and they often do - they feel genuine and credible.

I'm looking forward to seeing how Spy x Family evolves. Right now, as with a lot of series, it's more of an episodic affair than anything with serious heft. That's a smart move, and Endo is a sharp enough storyteller to make every Chapter count. But interviews with him and his editor suggest that more long-form stories lay ahead, and I'm very excited to see if he can use that decision to unleash the potential of these extremely likeable characters.

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