Monday, 31 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: TIM'S PERSON OF 2012

Between his blog, his mix CDs, and his all-round lovableness, Tim 'Trivia Lad' Maytom is my pick for Person of the Year, every year.
Fortunately for you, he's too modest to write a thousand words on himself, and always seems to have his own opinion on the matter anyway. His Person of the Year has been a fixture on this site for three years now, and in past years has talked up Amy Poehler and Donald Glover... But who will it be this time? 
Let's find out.

2012 Banner

Once again, my choice for Person of the Year revolves around someone from the world of comedy, but as this year’s choice would say, comedy is a ministry, and it can have a tremendous impact on how we view the world. Pete Holmes is an American stand-up comedian, and a very funny one at that.

His album, Impregnated with Wonder, is filled with brilliant observations and manages to combine a whimsical sense of fun with real human honesty. He’s appeared on various talk shows and Comedy Central specials, and this year recorded some pilot episodes of a talk show that would follow Conan O’Brien’s show on TBS (this hasn’t aired yet, and is still waiting for confirmation over whether it’s been picked up, but is still an impressive achievement), but the real reason he’s my Person of the Year is for his podcast on the Nerdist network, You Made It Weird.
“I’m thinking about getting off of Facebook and Twitter, all of that, and just signing up for a service that every 30 minutes texts me the phrase ‘You’re Not Alone’.”

You Made It Weird started out with a very loose interview format that revolved around “weird things” Holmes knew about the guests, who tended to be other comedians from the LA comedy scene, but evolved very quickly into a more wide-ranging discussion that tended to focus on three areas: comedy, sex and God. The guests interviewed Holmes as much as he interviewed them and his honesty about various aspects of his life, from his youth as an evangelical Christian to his experiments with becoming a “[physical intimacy] person”, via his divorce from his wife, is both rare and infectious.

We live in an age when everything we do is shared on the internet, which creates an odd mix of openness and image management in most people. Holmes bypasses this by moving beyond the 140-character limit and getting into deeper conversations that last long enough to find recurring themes and patterns in people’s lives (the average episode length is about 90 minutes and longer episodes get up to two-and-a-half hours). He is remarkably unguarded in how he presents his thoughts, and this in turn encourages his guests to be the same.
“This is a weird little part of your life, isn’t it? Feels like we’re snowed in together. There’s only one bathroom and there’s so many of us! ‘What do we do? Put on a show! Beats getting to know each other, right?’ It sure does.”
Pete holmes 2

Holmes’ approach to religion and spirituality follows the same approach as his discussions of his personal life – honest and infinitely curious. His guests span from the strongly atheist to the deeply spiritual (his talk with Duncan Trussell gets into some truly esoteric areas) and Holmes himself claims that he can believe everything from a godless universe to one where every action has meaning and purpose. There’s a very open-minded, non-judgemental approach to talking about faith, and a profound acceptance that not really knowing the truth is inevitable, but thinking about these ideas is important.

The ultimate strength of the podcast, and by extension Holmes’ comedy, is that you are listening to someone smart who has accepted that he doesn’t have all the answers about faith, relationships and life explore these issues with equally smart people, all of whom happen to be hilarious. I listen to a great number of podcasts at work and You Made It Weird is the one that gets me the most funny looks for suddenly bursting into giggles.

The weightiest subjects are always going to be the most fertile ground for comedy, and Holmes isn’t afraid to dig into the most profound questions there are. He has a child-like glee and enthusiasm for the strangeness that reveals itself when people start opening up about what really drives them and what’s important to them, and it results in some achingly funny but deeply thoughtful conversations.

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE MUSIC OF 2012

[Now with a handy Spotify playlist]
2012 Banner

If you have spent any time drinking with me in the latter half of this year, I've probably bemoaned that 2012 and I haven't clicked musically. And not for lack of trying – apart from clawing at friend's sleeves and demanding recommendations, the workday mix of Spotify, This is My Jam, and finally discovering BBC 6Music should've given me plenty of chances to dig up stuff I'd dig.
There's been plenty I liked, but not much I fell in love with. With some notable exceptions, of course.

Notable exceptions
Looking back at the year, two pop singles stand out – Carly Rae Jepsen's Call Me Maybe, and Taylor Swift's We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together. They're sleek colossi of purest pop. Songs for dancing, for pretending you're in a pop video to. They are, of course, filled with some of the most perfect Moments of 2012.

We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together is absolutely overstuffed with them – extra yeahs, switched intonations, the spoken asides. “Like, ever.” The way Taylor inserts a series of full stops in “Said. You. Needed. Space” and immediately follows it up with a fourth wall-breaking “what?”. The last bit is a raised eyebrow to her audience – can you believe this guy? – and though the song's “you” is the (ex-ex-ex)boyfriend, you get the impression she's talking to her mates here. The eye-rolling sneer of “some indie record that's much cooler than mine”, and the layered-over laugh that follows. 
It's all put together to ensure you never get bored of its simple repeating chorus, that constant machine-gun punchline. The song itself comes off as slightly insecure, trying to convince the listener, which is just perfectly right given what it's about.
There are moments when another Taylor breaks in, impatient to hammer the point home. The song is constantly rushing forward, desperate to get to the second listen, the third, so much so that it forgets that the rest of the time it's trying to convince you this is live, individual and performed just to you, because that'll get you on side, right? True to her country music past (which, just FYI, I am actually very fond of) Taylor's voice breaks and cracks, with occasional moments of show-offery. At the song's end, the music drops out a second early, so Taylor's voice can plant its flag one last time – a live outro if ever I heard one.
By comparison, Call Me Maybe is much more controlled. It's confident it knows how to push the right buttons, and it does.
For its Moments, it mostly goes to stuff built into the structure of the song – the slow build of its opening, into the glitter-confetti explosion of the first chorus. The mid-song verse tumble of words, rushing past with no time for breath or line breaks, especially next to the sharp punctuation of each line of the chorus – that violiny stab, which is a Moment in itself. Turning up the drumbeat for the final couple of choruses. Every single time the volume peaks.
And if we're talking about outros, listen to the way the song's close just melts out of existence, a trick last played on Justin Timberlake's Cry Me a River. It knows it's a pop record, and wants to remind you of that fact, but it's also a big 'Game Over' screen. PLAY AGAIN?
That's pure confidence (of course you will), and just like the slight self-doubt of We Are Never...'s delivery, it fits the subject. Jepsen makes it clear she knows all the other boys want her, so why wouldn't this one? 
It's interesting because the pop archetype it's tapping into – the fancying from afar song, so often the unrequited love song – is often the preserve of the boy looking nervously at his shoes. 
Here, the consummation isn't a foregone conclusion, but the power is undeniably in Jepsen's hands. She's a force of sexy nature.
Honestly, it could be creepy with the gender roles reversed. Instead it's an excellent bit of female gaze (see also: the video's ripped abs moment). While most chart-bothering songs seek for new ways to tell a girl her tits look nice, her ass is perter than average, Jepsen delights in little thrilling details – those ripped jeans, skin was showing – which feel more like the marks of real human sexuality. And healthy sexuality too: there's no shame here, no debasement.
Ultimately, I think it's telling that there's no question mark at the end of the song's title. There's only question to ask, of both the listener and seducee: WHERE D'YOU THINK YOU'RE GOING, BABY?

Dancing like a mutha
I used to dislike dancing, at least in public, and not without reason: my body is clumsy, all elbows, and has little sense of rhythm. But as I get older, and have less and less opportunities to dance, it's just another embarrassment I've learned to slough off.
The most formative musical experiences I've had this year have all involved dancing – Grimes' Oblivion pulling me into a warehouse in Ljubljana and setting off a night of furious dancing and repeatedly losing my friends. Atta Girl in Birmingham back in March, scribbled requests on my hands and being held aloft to Heaven is a Place on Earth. Various points throughout Sam Lewis' wedding. But most of all, despite it being a comics event (and the best one in the UK), Thought Bubble in Leeds.
At the mid-con party, I was the first one on the dancefloor, along with Dance-Comrade Tim Maytom, and we stuck there until it had filled, and they'd played Call Me Maybe twice, and it was triumphant.
But being quiet means DJs can take the opportunity to play songs you'd never heard before, or only in the confines of your bedroom, and getting to test them on a live dancefloor.
Especially, I'm thinking of Lies by Chvrches – which, it turns out, kicks and stomps in all the right places for dancing to. I liked what I'd heard previously, but I woke up the next morning obsessed, and spent a month tracking down every song, live cover and demo I could.
Looking back at his setlist, I find the person responsible for this was Jamie McKelvie – one half of the team behind music-is-magic comics masterpiece Phonogram – and that the song immediately preceding it was Poliça's Dark Star. Both songs are as coldly beautiful as I've come to expect from McKelvie music. 
I quickly started filing both bands alongside Purity Ring, due largely to the fact they all feature women with beautiful voices being fed through distortion. Together, their stuff – Poliça and Purity Ring both have albums, Give Up The Ghost and Shrines respectively, but Chvrches are still just an assortment of mp3s on the internet – have made up a large chunk of my listening habits this year.
A short list of songs from 2012 I'd love the opportunity to dance to
-Tears by HEALTH, from their soundtrack to Max Payne 3
-Gabriel by Joe Goddard is the best thing anyone from Hot Chip has ever released. I've since discovered that it actually came out 18 months ago, but it got played so often on 6Music in the latter half of the year that I'm considering it a 2012 song
-Your Love, Your Drums/You Know You Like It by AlunaGeorge, another pair of 6Music bangers which are so similar they're joined at the gyrating hip
-Anything from the TNGHT EP
-Pretty much all of Japandroids' Celebration Rock, which finally clicked last week while running through the dark streets of my hometown
-I Love It by Icona Pop – the year's greatest slice of shouty Eurotrashy bratpop
-Mama Told Me by Big Boi. Speaking of which...
Meanwhile, over in my limited worldview of hip-hop
There was a point at the start of the year where hip-hop was the only music I was really listening to,  but 2012 hasn't really been the Year of Rap I'd expected.
I never quite managed to get into the El-P and Killer Mike albums, both of which have been cropping up all over the place in Best of 2012 lists. I wouldn't be surprised if they click in the New Year after I've listened to all those end of year playlists, and I come begging for forgiveness.

And while I'm unjustifiably lumping albums together, let's talk about Childish Gambino's R O Y A L T Y, and Kanye West's GOOD Music - Cruel Summer. Both were mixtapes in a more traditional sense, featuring a wide range of guests, with the headliners not necessarily appearing on each track – technically, the latter is only 'presented by' Kanye.
There are plenty of highlights – American Royalty, Silk Pillow and Schoolboy Q's Unnecessary verse on R O Y A L T Y; Cold, New God Flow and Mercy's oppressive beats on Cruel Summer – but because the albums weren't a sealed unit, it made the weaker tracks stand out, meaning I was more likely to stumble across the better ones on shuffle.
The second Big Boi record, Vicious Lies and Dangerous Rumors, also failed to live up to its predecessor – but then again, his solo debut is one of the best rap records of the last decade. Once again, it was the individual tracks which stood out, but for the right reasons. The aforementioned Mama Told Me, the pure simple filth of She Said OK, Phantogram's ethereal appearances on Objectum Sexuality and CPU – they all felt like, in a better world, they could have been hit singles.
Coming out late in the year, the album didn't get the summer of hard rotation it deserved, but I can't see myself tiring of it by the time the sun finally emerges in 2013.
Given that I've struggled to find a particular hip-hop album that hung together and worked for me, it's probably apt that my favourite rap music of 2012 came from Kitty Pryde's various releases, pushed onto the internet in messy mixtape-sized chunks.
(I've written about her already this year, when I named Okay Cupid one of the best songs of the year - a statement I stand firmly by - and compared it to Call Me Maybe.)
Falling in love was a foregone conclusion, really: with a handle stolen from my favourite superheroine, Pryde is a (roughly) teenage girl, rapping her way along the line between innocent youth, old-hand cynicism, and utter filth. Her song are scattered with a modern Waste Land of pop cultural references – Pikachu, Lizzy Maguire, The Sims,, Justin Bieber.
There's something a bit voyeuristic about listening to her music, the thrill of a friend's older sister's diary – or more accurately, a MySpace page or LiveJournal blog. The songs feel kind of like they’re being written as she sits at her computer and pushed out at 2am, before she has any second thoughts. They're confessional and clever, honest but self-conscious. 
I can't quite imagine a full-length album from her, but I can't wait.
Versus mode
I always thought of Sleigh Bells' 2010 debut as a spirital successor to Crystal Castles – aggressively danceable, semi-incoherent glitch-pop.  Treats outshone Crystal Castles' second, released that same year, but here in 2012, it's the other way round.
More than that, the two have proved how wrong I was by going in two very different directions. While Sleigh Bells explore the taboo sounds of '80s arena rock on Reign of Terror, Crystal Castles's (III) dives fully into grim nihilist horror. 
I own both albums on CD, and I think handling the two tells you all you need to know. Reign of Terror's cover shows pair of battered converse, an image heavy on the dusty whites except for one blood-stained toecap. (III)'s cover is pitch-black goth.
Flip over and the track names fill in the rest of the blanks: Sleigh Bells titles embrace familiar rock clichés – End of the Line, Leader of the Pack, Road to Hell. Meanwhile, Crystal Castles manage to live up to titles like Plague, Kerosene and, my personal favourite, Child I Will Hurt You.
It's all a bit more complicated than that, of course, but I think I've done enough expansive analysis for one day.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE COMICS OF 2012

Our round-up of 2012's best pop culture continues to run off the rails of the originally planned schedule. But fear not, the final piece, on the year's best music, will be with you in time to change your NYE playlist accordingly.

2012 Banner

In 2012, I read more comics than in any other year of my life, thanks to Comixology's endless stream of sales and the truly excellent Canada Water library. I developed such an addiction to comics podcasts (between the industry analysis of House to Astonish, the close reading of Kieron Gillen's DecompressediFanboy's chatty quickfire reviews, and Mindless One's SILENCE!, in many ways its scrappy British cousin) that I've recently had to cut back. Moving to London meant I saw what my girlfriend describes as my 'comics friends' far more, hitting up the ever-wonderful Thought Bubble and owning its dancefloor with them.
I'm more immersed in comics culture than I've ever been.

...And yet, coming to write this, I find myself with a rather thin list of actual comics which came out in 2012.
Buying cut-price digital issues on Comixology – plus monthly splurges on Amazon – has forced me into reading older material and collections.

It means I've finally got past the first trades of The Invisibles, Sandman, and a wealth of other stuff I'm embarrassed to admit I hadn't read before, but I've also dropped off buying monthly issues almost entirely. If I wasn't a tradewaiter (non-comics people translation: someone who doesn't read their comics monthly, in issue format, but waits for the bi-annual-ish 'trade paperback' collections) before, I certainly am now.

However, it also means I haven't read any further into Journey into Mystery, my favourite comic of last year, than I had at the time. It's very nearly all available in trade, though, so I've got a wonderfully condensed period of high adventure, deep thinking and, if the internet is anything to go by, big emotions ahead of me.
And it's not all bad: regular trips to the library have furnished me with handsome editions of the first five Locke & Key volumes. It's a story about the Locke family and their ancestral home, Keyhouse, beginning with a father's murder and blossoming out from there. The titular keys (and nominal locks) each come with their own magical power, and a matching metaphor.
In truth, despite being written by Stephen King's son, Locke & Key's nearest relative is probably Buffy. It transitions deftly between tense thriller/well-drawn ensemble drama/experimental formalism/pure horror throughout, but the draw is always the characters. The series' scope has widened, drawing in more of the family's history and pushing towards the fantastical, as it reaches its climax but it stays anchored to the human stories of Tyler, Kinsey and Bode Locke. It all concludes next year (five more issues, or one more collection) – catching up is highly recommended.

Meanwhile, the Comixology model has produced Double Barrel. Playing with the format rather than the form, the Brothers Cannon have developed a monthly digital comics magazine, centred around an ongoing story from each, but also drawing in essays, mini-comics, and how-to's. Both stories are solid, with Kevin Cannon bringing smoother art to the Arctic pirate space adventure story Crater XV and Zander Cannon delivering my favourite story in Heck, a modern slice-of-life riff on Dante's Inferno.
Without the constraints of print, each chapter can be as long or short as it needs to be, but for just $2 (and dropping below $1 after a month) Double Barrel is the most interesting bargain in the modern comics landscape.
I think overall, I've settled into the reading rhythm that's best for me, grabbing #1s digitally (year's best? Hawkeye, which promised a modern blueprint for superhero comics) and then using them to decide what I'll pick up six months later.
It gives series more room to breathe. For example, the first couple of issues of Saga – the much-anticipated return of Brian K Vaughan, a writer who must shoulder a large part of the blame for my comics habit – were good, but failed to blow me away. But returning to it in trade form, I found it rich, complex and … worth writing about in depth, basically.
Living up to what people had been saying about it in the first half of the year, the first volume of Prophet made for an intoxicating read. The art shifts as constantly as the world, with little touchstones serving to link up the style of each artist: The dense alien landscapes intended to be pored over. The inventory panels stolen straight out of a videogame. The tactile gnarliness of it all.
Meanwhile the story, which jumps between a number of John Prophet clones I never quite learned to tell apart, is either some higher-level narrative magic, or nonsensical. But really it's all just an excuse to join Prophet (the one with the tail, or the one with the mohawk, or the one that's dead inside his robot bodyguard) as he journeys through a mad, inventive, beautifully rendered world.
Some of the experiences you, the cosmic tourist, can expect to enjoy – falling from the sky in the pink womb of a protective star skin; sharing a post-coital cigarette with your vagina-faced alien lover; watching the stars from the shoulder of a curled-up fetus planet.

Morrison's Batman run has been a regular feature on these end of year round-ups since I started doing them, and Batman Incorporated is shaping up to be a fitting end to his extraordinary run. The story has embraced Batman's entire history, even the bits fans normally wince at, but it's now been running for long enough that it can mine its own past. All the pieces are being brought together. Dozens of Batmen of all nations, and as many interweaving subplots, all battling the forces of evil in the form of Leviathan.
The shadowy organisation's even shadowier leader was revealed to be Talia Al Ghul, Batman's onetime lover and father of his son, presently Robin and potential Devilbatman of the future. With that, the whole epic saga has turned out to be a small family story, really – two parents fighting over custody (and the soul) of a child neither of them wanted in the first place – played out on a huge canvas.
Morrison's never been great at endings, but you get the impression this might just be the one he pulls off.
The most grown-up thing I've read this year is doubtless Alison Bechdel's Are You My Mother?, the follow-up and companion piece to Fun Home, a memoir about her father. This raises an interesting problem. Whereas the first part told the story of her father, a closeted homosexual raising a family in a funeral home who committed suicide, Bechdel's relationship with her mother isn't so obviously story-shaped.
In response, she dives into her own internal processes, and makes the story about them. Are You My Mother? covers the period of writing and publishing Fun Home, and some of the lead-in to this book. It's incredibly reflexive – pages layer the actual events as they happen with the transcribing of those events, to appear in the book – but completely disinterested in being post-modern.
It's merely a symptom of being a book about analysis, which by its nature, is deeply analytical. Everything is pored over. Individual elements, events and objects recur, are placed alongside other elements, and are re-examined. You get memories and dreams, therapy sessions which pick over those dreams and memories, pages from psychology books, carefully copied letters, all overlapping with one another.
Reading that again, it sounds exhausting. I'm making Are You My Mother? sound like something overly worthy and heavy, the comics equivalent of Oscar-bait. Honestly, it is very literary, and at times even scholarly – a necessity, I think, of trying to represent on the page the process of over-thinking and constant self-analysis.
But it's also never anything less than an enthralling read. Your thumb sits constantly on the bottom corner of the page, waiting to turn it like the best class of trashy bestseller. It's just that Are You My Mother? will have you flicking backwards just as often as forwards, to compare and examine and analyse.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE GAMES OF 2012

Sorry, the running order has already slipped, due to yesterday being a lovely day of family, friends, and boardgames, but here's today's scheduled Games article. Comics should be with you tomorrow.

2012 Banner

It's been a big year for games, in about every conceivable way. Between the rise of Kickstarter, and the continuing flood of Humble Bundles and its ilk, it's not hard to look at 2012 as a year that a
wealth of alternative approaches opened up to game developers.
But looking at the industry – which also spent a lot of the year showing its ugly side – isn't really my forté, or that interesting. It's not about the machine, it's about what it produces. On to the games!

Probably the most 'important' game of the year is Thirty Flights of Loving, which introduced a bit of fresh vocabulary to the medium in its hard cuts and hypercompression. Over the 20 minutes it lasts, the game jumps around non-linearly, squeezing in enough story, world and character for your average blockbuster. It's not a game I fell in love with, but it is a useful game, the kind you can expect to see name-dropped endlessly in articles about game narrative from now on.
Dishonored's narrative is much more traditional, telling Dunwall's story with a mix of cutscenes, overheard conversations and level design (graffiti, audiologs, books, bodies, etc). The real story, of course, is in how you played it – leaping rooftop to rooftop, freezing time and possessing rats; switching cups of poison and hiding under tables to watch the outcome; silently dispatching roomfuls of men and leaving their unconscious bodies on top of chandeliers.
It's not quite the machine for memorable anecdotes I'd hoped for, but partly that's down to how I played, strictly sticking to a set of rules I'd assigned myself – never get spotted, never kill (with the exception of those who framed me for the murder of the Empress). It meant I found myself restarting at the slightest provocation, getting into sticky situations becoming a nuisance rather than a chance to improvise with the excellent toolbox the game grants you.
It made me realise how much I love games which force me to live with my actions and mistakes – more on that later.
Halo 4. Now there's a game I didn't expect to see on this list.
I've played every game in the Halo series, now six installments deep (not including last year's remake). Together, I've probably devoted more time to it than any other series in videogaming (and therefore probably more than any other hobby full stop).
The game picks up, two games later, where Halo 3 left off back in 2007, with Bungie handing over the reigns to first-time developer 343. It wasn't too promising, especially once I heard about the CODification of the multiplayer, introducing levels and points and perks, abandoning Halo's trademark simplicity.
And then the chatter came through the wire. Twitter suddenly blossomed with praise, throwing around phrases like “ballet” and “finely tuned” and expressing their surprise at just how good it was.
On paper, Halo 4 shouldn't be as good as it is. There's nothing particularly original on offer – the opening of the singleplayer campaign, at least, is so structurally similar to the 2001 original it could be a remake. It even trims off some of my favourite features – multiplayer minus my beloved Invasion mode, and the rather-good Firefight has been replaced. But most damningly, there's not even a good control setting, or even a customisable one.
And yet everything somehow feels fresh and elegant. Both the visuals and handling are satisfyingly chunky, delivering on the promise of Halo at its best. Maybe it's just down to streamlining the experience and turning all the dials to 11 – in multiplayer especially, where respawn time is erased completely, and weapons and vehicles are thrown into each level with careless abandon.
I don't know, it's just an utter joy, and I need to play more. Now.
One of the great pleasures of having spent so much time with a game's predecessors is being able to really appreciate the various tiny changes – in the case of Halo 4, take the way the singleplayer campaigns provides with much more limited ammo. You can see why it was changed – it forces you to constantly switch around your arsenal – and it's a satisfying process of discovery, even if you disagree with some of the changes.
It's a similar story with Spelunky, an Xbox Arcade remake of possibly my favourite PC game ever (and the other contender for the game I've spent most time spent playing). I love that there's no 'restart' button, encouraging you to live with the consequences of getting stung by a scorpion in the first 10 seconds of a game, which really focuses the point of the game. The in-game encyclopaedia, as much it offends my inner Spelunky purist, is rather smart, and I love the way the Tunnel Man asks for items rather than/as well as cash to dig his shortcuts, which adds a sprinkle variety and narrative to your encounters with him.
Mostly, though, I can feel how the distribution of monsters, damsels-in-despair, and traps has changed. They're laid out more densely, which upsets my play style a little – and means letting a boulder loose can get you in a lot of unintended trouble as it steamrollers shops, shrines, and damsels – but ensures levels never get boring, especially with the addition of all the new monsters and secrets.
The removal of end-of-level scoreboard is the change that hurts most. It always helped lend a sense of progression to a session of bashing your head against Spelunky's unforgiving world, and was tied neatly into the game's physical levels.
But, really, Spelunky is such a complete, rounded concept to start with that it doesn't really matter, and the port is responsive and pretty. Plus, one of the changes is the ability to switch out all the Damsels for pugs, which eliminates pretty much any criticisms I could raise.
FTL picked up many of the same pleasures Spelunky provided and ran with them - basically, by being completely unforgiving in its mechanics and making every mistake count. I've written about how it simulates being captain of a spaceship with controls jammed to the heart of the sun, but ultimately my favourite thing was the permanence, and how it made every little decision (much-needed repair or new laser weapon?) feel important, especially when it turned out to be the wrong one.

It'd be easy to characterise Hotline Miami as I game I like as a concept more than in actuality, but in fairness I've barely dipped into its sun- and violence-drenched levels. I find its smooth subtle blend of Drive, the old GTA, and '80s cocaine nightmare highly appealing, but I've spent more time reading about it (and nodding along) than playing it. It's a similar story with Dark Souls, which technically came out in the form I played it late last year, but I'm including it here, because [various justifications] but mostly because I want to namedrop it.

If we were applying the 'WWE All Stars' rule (which I never got around to writing about as my Game of 2011, sorry, due to losing the disc – but essentially the one I had most fun playing with friends, biggest laughs, the thing I'd want to play most with drink in hand) my personal game of the year would be Worms 2: Armageddon on Xbox 360. That's in spite of it being a game which came out on the platform in 2009, and actually really launched in the late '90s. Nevertheless, it's still got it, and the living room TV turns out to be Worms' natural home. That simple move proves to be far more of a revolution than any of the abortive attempts to introduce 3D, complex physics, or any of that modern malarkey.

And there's still so much stuff I haven't even touched, for reasons of time or money, that I can't wait to get my hands on. Far Cry 3, Walking Dead, XCOM, Mark of the Ninja... I'm sure I'll get round to talking about some of those in 2013, with my usual trademark timeliness.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE FILMS OF 2012

2012 Banner
I suspect that 2012 was a really exceptional year for film, if only because the list of films I regret missing in cinemas – The Raid, Skyfall, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Dredd, Sightseers, Silver Linings Playbook, Moonrise Kingdom, Life of Pi, Beasts of the Southern Wild – is far longer than the list below, and I was more than happy with the year of films as it was.
For me, though, 2012 was all about Joss Whedon. Three out of the dozen times I made it to the cinema this year were down to Whedon, who released two films (of the three it looked like we might be getting at the start of the year, boo hiss Much Ado). One of them was the year's biggest grossing; the other was my personal favourite experience in a cinema all year.
We'll get to the latter in another post, but (Marvel's) Avengers (Assemble) was exciting because of the amount of influence and money it seems to be putting into the hands of one of my favourite directors – but also because it's a truly great blockbuster, one which inspired me to write 3,000 words back in August.
Six months on, what I remember about it most is:
-Containing a whole bunch of moments which caused my jaw to drop – the helicarrier, Black Widow kicking guys in their heads, the vast majority of the final action scene.
-Being a great and colourful introduction to a sprawling family I want to spend more time with – probably the way in which Avengers is truest to the (very best of) its source material.
-Geoff being absolutely wrong about Hulk, something we fight over in pubs to this day. He argues Hulk is treated too lightly, with too much comic relief given over to this monstrous being. But of course, Mark Ruffalo is the best Hulk ever, including the pencil-and-ink one, and it's a totally Whedon thing to get that the Id isn't a completely bad thing. Denying a whole part of you – the funny bit, the sexy bit, the bit that likes to dance – is where the sickness really starts (for all people who haven't taught The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde to an A-Level English class, now would be the time to go and reread it). There are maybe some continuity issues with the previous film, but for me these films are so much about stripping these characters back to their core metaphors and letting that interpretation run rampant for two hours that it doesn't matter too much.

Oh, and it of course absolutely stomped all over the highly misleadingly titled Amazing Spider-Man, which had thirty seconds of great fight scene and Emma Stone in high socks. How it compares to that Other Superhero Film of the Year, Dark Knight Rises, I sadly can't answer, as I still haven't seen it – something which owes a lot to the deflated reaction that followed its incredibly hyped release, and a conversation with Tim 'Person of the Year' Maytom in a Camden pub in which he described trucks of cash being driven up to Chris Nolan's front door in a borderline threatening manner.
As seems to be the official line on it, Brave wasn't Pixar's best, but it was still a non-Cars Pixar film, and therefore pretty great.
It took a standard-issue fantasy setting and set of tropes, along with a rather broad sense of humour, and made something beautiful (though it was out-prettied by the accompanying La Luna short) and engaging, with the rare achievement of fight scenes that had me rooting desperately for the good guys. Also, it was yet another reminder that the combination of sweeping scores and parental relations in a cinema can put a very big lump at the back of my throat.

“THIS DECADE'S THE MATRIX,” the poster screamed. The chorus of early reviews roughly concurred. I went into Looper thinking it might be my film of the year, which is never a healthy expectation, and given that, it handled itself very well.
Looper is a neat package – a smart concept, neatly executed, and full of neat moments I won't spoil here. It's set in just the right kind of sci-fi world, one that is rarely pushed in your face, but rather gives you the pleasure of hunting through the background details and piecing together a history of the future yourself. It toyed with other film's visions of the future, but found its own identity in the wide open spaces that surrounded the futuristic city. There's also a full essay on how cleverly it presents and contrasts Willis and Gordon-Levitt's firearms, to characterise the differences between them and to help define the plot, and what we can all learn from that.
But that's a story for another time - and besides, what's most important, more than how stylish and smart it was, is that how surprisingly emotionally involving Looper was. Watching it the week after Brave, its climax matched that film in the 'nearly making Alex cry' stakes.
What time is love?
Beyond that, I'm finding myself having to score the release schedules to remember what I actually saw. Young Adult was a downbeat, volume-turned-down follow up to Juno from Cody/Reitman, swapping that film's primary colours caricature for something more muted and aching. Something a bit more adult... but not quite grown up. It was great, and just the right level of tough, and deserves a spot on everyone's DVD shelf.
Cosmopolis left me cold despite taking the approach to sci-fi I described above, and despite the great line-up of talent involved. Seen on a whim, Red Lights was very pleasant, if unspectacular, company for two hours. American (Pie: The) Reunion left me wandering around Tesco's feeling strangely desolate about growing up.

It's the End of the Year as We Know It: THE PLAN

2012 Banner
As we rapidly deplete what remains of 2012, people like me get the sudden itch to make lists like these. I've done it for the past four years on this very blog, and have tried to find an interesting format each time - whether it's 100 one-sentence reviews, long-form essays, or imaginary mixtapes.

This year, I'm too old and too tired to think of anything particularly original, so I'm going to use that most hackneyed of formalist devices: mirroring. From now until the New Year, I'll be publishing a quick rundown of my year's highlights in pop culture, starting today with film, and then start January with something more longform on a single example of the year's best in each.

On New Year's Eve, as the centrepiece of this tomfoolery, we'll have our annual Person of the Year piece from Tim Maytom (winner: Alex's personal man of the year, 1997-present, and owner of a shiny new blog at

There's a full schedule below, if only so you can watch how quickly I veer off it. I'll try and add links as I go.

27 Dec - Film
29 Dec - Games
30 Dec - Comics
31 Dec - Music
31 Dec - Person of the Year
1 Jan - Games: ?????????? & ??????
2 Jan - Music: ????????
3 Jan - Comics: ????
4 Jan - Film: ??? ????? ?? ??? ?????

About Me

My photo
London, United Kingdom
Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.