Category: Story Pile

Here’s where you’ll find the blog entries that are about examining – specifically – TV, movies, and other forms of participatory media that interest me. This is the space you’re going to find talk of characters in TV shows, or specific moments in greater narratives, or why you might want to watch a particular show or why I love – or hate! – a particular movie.

Story Pile: Gone In 60 Seconds

All my friends know the low rider.

Nicolas Cage movies never feel like they’re doing anything exciting or novel as much as they are the kind of pipework and standard model that all other movies are riffing off. If you’ve never seen the type of movie in the genre before, any given Nic Cage movie is going to blow your mind, but by default, he’s not doing challenging work as much as he is doing fun work. The kinds of movies he chooses to do — well, I guess it seems like it’s more about who bothers to call him, the man will star in anything it seems — do not seem very avant garde or surprising. It means the man serves as a sort of grading label on any given movie, something that gets to be enjoyable to watch and maybe crests into very funny, but by default if they put Nicolas Cage on the poster, the movie you’re getting won’t be that complicated.

Before Fast And The Furious was an extremely muscular meme, that meme lived and breathed in Gone In 60 Seconds.

This movie is sort of high water mark for this sort of floor-and-ceiling of Nicolas Cage Quality principle: Gone In 60 Seconds is a dumb movie with poop jokes and weirdly PG-rated criminals, and it’s a pretty good time.

Your narrative: Nicolas Cage is Nicolas Cage, the best car thief who ever car thiefed, but he left that life behind. His kid brother, however, didn’t, and now he’s in trouble, so he needs his brother to save him, through Car Thiefing. He proceeds to do so, with some complication.

That’s it, that’s the tweet.

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Story Pile: Con Air

Con Air is a 1997 action movie that gets to be beloved. I don’t know why. I don’t know what could justify it. I mean, every part of this movie is stupid from the base of its soles to the top of its head and the whole wretched exercise uses that deliberate stupidity as a sort of performative figleaf for the things this movie very clearly thinks about how reality should be.

This movie is a beautiful example of verisimillitude, a long word we use to describe the impression of being real. Lots of times people will ask for ‘reality’ in their media, but they don’t want that – they want things to seem real. People don’t want realistic violence or sex scenes or relationships, especially since those things are both much faster and much slower than they think. It is a movie that somehow constructs a reality that’s meant to be ‘you know, like real things’ yet somehow every single thing this movie tries to show you tends to be just wrong.

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Story Pile: The Great Pretender

Anime is a crapshoot.

This slot has been tied for The Great Pretender for the better part of a year. The plan was, after seeing it, being so intrigued with the opening, that I’d watch the whole thing in the first few months, once Crunchyroll had it on their ads-paid area.

When I felt it was time, I watched the first two episodes.

Thought about it…

And stopped.

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Story Pile: Now You See Me 2

This movie is shockingly bad.

That’s not hyperbole; when I watched the first Now You See Me I was shocked at how bad it was, with the structure of the movie and its general incompetence creating this sort of impossibly tangled mess of failure. To describe the plot of that movie is to rush past constant cul-de-sacs of narrative failure, an act of will that requires you to treat the movie as if it’s better than it actually is, because of its bottomless well of failures. Now You See Me 2 takes that bottomless well of failure and installs a sub-basement, in all the ways that unnecessary sequels do.

This original movie was terrible, and this movie is aggressively worse.

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Story Pile: Wind of Change

Do you remember the song Wind Of Change?

Or, knowing my audience’s typical age, do you know that song your older sibling or parent or wine aunt or board game uncle liked, Wind Of Change, by 80s metal band Scorpions?

What if I told you that that song was not by Scorpions, but was, in fact, a CIA op designed to undermine the Soviet Union?

Okay, there are four broad responses to that idea and it depends on how you see media and how you see the CIA. If, for example, you think media is a completely powerless element of our reality, just a reflection that people partake of with no effect, and CIA as a sensible wing of the US government that largely spends its time listening to ambassadors and definitely not doing anything weird or unreliable with an enormous black budget, this probably sounds completely silly.

But if you see media as powerful, or you see the CIA as a pack of unaccountable weirdoes who occasionally destabilise governments ‘just in case we need that coup later’, then suddenly every part of it gets a little more believable.

And if you think that the media helps us shape our reality, especially as it pertains to political movements and popular uprising and that the CIA are the kind of organisation that spent thousands of dollars on developing cats that explode and dog poop radios, and then the whole thing sounds very believable.

This idea doesn’t come out of nowhere, mind you.

It comes  from the CIA.

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Story Pile: Capricorn One

Morning.

The TV broadcast is rolling.

The silhouette of the rocket on the launching pad, the black shape created by the cresting sun.

The sound, from somewhere, to somewhere, about the countdowns, about the tanks being flooded, about the expectations of the mission. About the vast things humans have done, to make this happen, about how this is a first step on a months long path.

About this, the first crewed flight to Mars.

And then, someone taps on the side of the module where you’re sitting, and says: You need to get out. We need to talk.

Capricorn One (1978) is a conspiracy thriller movie about NASA trying to fake an extraterrestrial landing in order to avoid embarrassment and funding failures, and the escalation required to maintain a conspiracy that does not hold.

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Story Pile: Poolhall Junkies

Even if you win, you can’t win.

I had no idea that I was going to like this movie so much.

Poolhall Junkies is a 2002 movie with the extremely worrying phrase in its byline: Written, directed by, and starring Mars Callahan. And he’s not in this movie as a minor character, this isn’t a Quentin Tarantino thing – this is Mars Callahan writing a script, then directing a movie, about a character that he plays, and relies heavily on the skills that Mars Callahan absolutely actually has.

But.

But.

Before we go on, some content warnings, and like, one of them is a big one. There’s a reason I invoked Quentin Tarantino.

CONTENT WARNING: In the opening five minutes of this movie, there is a white character using the n-word. It is used repeatedly, it is used in a conversation with a black man, and is used with a hard r. It is a conversation about n-word privileges, and at the end of the conversation, because the white man uses the hard r, the subject is dropped, only to come up shortly after when it’s shown that the black man knows the protagonist wouldn’t talk like that unless something was wrong. It definitely comes across as edgy comedy about Who Can Say That at first. Later, the n-word without the hard r is used to refer to a black man, by the villain, and that black man doesn’t show up to respond or retaliate about that until the end of the movie.

Since the character is played by the author of the script and the director, it feels very uncomfortable to me, and it happens so early in the movie that I can understand if it turns you off entirely.

CONTENT WARNING: In a very generally 2002 way, this movie uses the r-word twice that I saw. It also has some conversations in it between characters who the movie does see as kind of stupid goofballs, where they talk about boobs and vaginas in an extremely ‘oh god, I was twenty’ way to me. Doesn’t make it better, doesn’t redeem it, but yeah, this movie has that stuff in it. And that sucks!

These warnings make it awkward, though, because if you cut these bits from the film you get a film that may well be one of my favourite movies.

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Story Pile: Gen:Lock

If you’re not familiar with the term Rooster Teeth, well, congratulations on not being as tragically online as I have been for the past twenty years. First rising to prominence through the machinima web series Red Vs Blue, a 2003 comedy series told through the medium of the limited waggly animations of Halo characters in a multiplayer map, Rooster Teeth followed up on that success with a lot of minor projects, including animation work for a bunch of other people. They then went on to create the fanfic oroborous that is RWBY, a show I tried and wasn’t fantastically impressed with, but also seemed largely harmless. At the time I watched it, I said:

here is a show where you, girl born in 1995, get to be a main character superhero with a sick ass scythe gun.

Knowing this, I had no strong positive opinion on Rooster Teeth as a company. They were a sliver of 2003 humour that, yes, is undeniably part of my personal lexicon — which tastes like red bull. Which is disgusting — but I didn’t imagine that they were particularly important creators.

A friend mentioned hey, you should check out Gen:Lock. I think you’d like it.

And, because I was a little dubious about that, I didn’t check it out for two years. And it turns out that that friend knows me way, way better than I’m used to being known, ‘cos this year, on a lark, I watched Gen: Lock and then I became mildly insufferable as I tried to find an awake friend who had also watched it so I could talk to them about it.

This is gunna feature some broad ‘spoilers’ but nothing I feel is a big deal. This isn’t really a series about The Mystery, this is a series about the moment.

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Story Pile: The Mitchells vs. the Machines

There are two parts to this article.

The first part, the easy part, the nice part, is going to come before the fold. No spoilers, just a little summary of this fun little movie that I had a good time with, because it’s a fun movie.

The Mitchells Vs. The Machines is a 2021 animated movie about a family road trip. It was going to come out in theatres, but 2020 kept happening, so instead it came to Netflix, where you can watch it right now, if you want. It’s about a teenage girl about to leave her home for college to study animation, and the ensuing feelings of family distance that come with it. It’s about one last road trip to bond together, to build memories before the onset of college life.

And then the machine apocalypse hits.

Look, you know the kind of colour-by-numbers kids’ movie we’re dealing with here. A family against the world, in their so-called car, coming up with schemes and chicanery to try and survive, then save the world. The main characters are a kind of likable, the jokes are very funny, and the sense of humour relies on actually knowing a few things about the kind of things they’re teasing.

It’s one of your heartwarming everything-works-out-okay kind of movie, with some fun unexpected laughs, a great sense of timing, and an interesting instagram-filter-and-stickers kind of aesthetic to express its character.

Solid movie. I liked watching it with my friend. It was a good time.

See?

We’re done, right?

I’m smiling!

And the rest is below the fold.

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Story Pile: Sk8 The Infinity

Why now? Because it’s not Pride Month material, but it’s really close.

Sk8 The Infinity, stylised as SK∞ THE INFINITY, is a high water mark in the long-established genre of The Not Gays. Incarnated in this case as a classic ‘sports’ anime of ‘two hot boys and their mutual special interest,’ a genre deftly feigned by this year’s Misplaced Smooch Month Anime Haikyuu!!, Sk8 The Infinity is a Studio BONES production, with the talent of Hiroko Utsumi, formerly of the other most recent triumphant entry in the Not Gays genre, Free! which was about a heroic group of anime swimboys banding together to fund an animation studio, and also the anime adaptation of Banana Fish, an anime in the comparatively small Actually Gays genre.

And Sk8 The Infinity is, as much as this genre goes, real good.

Look, ‘good’ is a weightless word, all it tells you is I liked it, and I liked this. I liked this anime a lot and I think the story as much as it can signals that a bunch of these hot boys are kissing and it’s cool and the music is great and the sense of kinetic motion is excellent and the villain is ridiculous and the cultural insights are perfect and the boys are really hot and it’s great. I enjoyed it a lot.  If you’re just looking for some extremely lightweight, predictable anime about hot boys who probably kiss, then you should check out Sk8 and then get an AO3 account for what I am sure must be an absolute torrent of fanfiction.

For those who want more, gunna give you a plot rundown and some light spoilers after the fold.

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Story Pile: Zombieland Saga

Something had to be this month’s anime (so as to just not overload the Story Pile with being about anime this year), so your choice was deniably gay boys or definitely trans girls, so spin the wheel and here we are.

Hi!

This is an article about Zombieland Saga, an idol anime. To get into it we’re going to talk about some spoilers, we’re going to talk about the genre, and we’re going to talk about genders, but to get there, we’re going to have to talk about dead girls. Like, actually, literally, really dead girls. They died, and the series makes comedy out of it but undeniably, this is a series about a bunch of teenaged girls who died. If you’re not here for an anime which literally hits a child with a car in the opening minutes, as in ‘pair of minutes’ – then you can totally afford to skip this anime. Okay?

Content Warning: Child Death, abusive business practices, and some body horror! For comedy!

I’m also going to talk about this series without any concern for spoilers. If you just want the general ‘hey, Talen, do you think I’d like Zombieland Saga?’ the response is ‘I mean kinda?’ It’s about as good as it looks. It’s completely unremarkable as an idol show, from what I can tell, the songs peak at ‘eh’ and there’s pretty much no compelling reason to watch it except as it relates to the inclusion of some fun Pride-related stuff. It’s available for free to watch on Crunchyroll.

I can’t just say ‘watch one episode and ditch on it’ because the cast largely doesn’t show up until episode three, and that’s when you’ll know if you care about the characters at all.

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Story Pile: The Old Guard

A long time ago, and by that I mean ‘before 2020’ I spoke to a friend about the Rangers from Babylon 5, where I described the telescoping bo staff for use in combat in space ships where people had space lasers and psychic powers as being both extremely sick and extremely dumb. They then thoughtfully considered that the specific intersection of those two ideas was in fact, the entirety of their jam and I kind of agree with them.

I also have spoken about how ‘queer media’ is in some cases kind of isolated to these spaces where it invokes specific varieties of heavily introspective and personal narratives. It’s your artsy queer films or single moments expanded out into whole narratives, like a repeated argument over a dinner table, that kind of thing. These narratives are not in any way bad, but I don’t like talking much about them. Partly because they are just generally not resonant with me, and partly because they aren’t fun.

I like talking about fun media.

I like talking about the media we engage with because we enjoy it. I like talking about things that excite and inspire, because I don’t think those are separate things. The idea that ‘good’ movies and ‘popular movies’ are opposite elements frustrates me, as a devotee of the subconscious matter of pulp media.

And also, like, good fun media is really hard to make? It’s treated as if it’s a lesser form because big, expensive movies do it and do it a lot, but as with TISM’s expression: pop songs aren’t just more fun, but the constraints of popular media create tension that you can’t necessarily replicate with media that explicitly resists that form.

Anyway, The Old Guard.

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Story Pile: The Detectorists

This is one of those British series that I think people like saying they like more than they like.

The Detectorists is a 2014 British sitcom, one of your six-episodes-a-season shows made by Mackenzie Crook, who you’ll recognise as The Office Dullard from the British The Office Series that existed, remember? Anyway, The Detectorists is a well-researched sitcom based in some part of the lovely English countryside with twinkly folk music background following a pair of what you can only call nerds whose hobby is going out into the fields and parks of their area to look for interesting stuff you can find with a metal detector.

Discovered, it seems reasonably recently thanks to the attention of, I dunno, Netflix or the Internet or The Algorithm or Lockdown or something, people talked about it, said it was better than the Office, and Netflix recommended it. With that in mind, I watched it, and, like,

Yeah I guess it’s better than the Office.

That doesn’t make it good though.

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Story Pile: Toy Story

Toy Story is a 1995 animated feature film by Pixar Studios, distributed by Disney, that serves as one of those iconic examples of early 3d Animation that ‘holds up’ over time by people who haven’t gone back and looked at any of the humans in it. With the voice talents of Tom Hanks and Tim Toolman, it follows the narrative of a pull-string cowboy doll competing with a kung-fu action grip spaceman toy for the attention of their gigantically towering owner, whom they must never allow to know that they live, breath, and know his name.

For kids!

Look, classic yada yada, groundbreaking yada yada, wholesome yada yada. I actually got to see this one while inside a controlled christian media bubble, and if tomorrow I found out all copies of it had been deleted I would react like that ‘oh no, anyway,’ meme. It is not a movie for which I have an enormous amount of affection. I don’t want to talk to you about the narrative, though, not of Wilson’s Best Friend negotiating with the Last Man Standing about which of them will be more validated by an actual literal child and the ontological questions of why aren’t the parts of Mr Potato Head independently alive?

I want to talk to you about the humans of Toy Story. Specifically, about Andy, and Sid, and the weird world they live in, and the weird world they’ve created.

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Story Pile: BNA

BNA or BNA: Brand New Animal or Oh No I Guess I’m Hot For A Tanuki Girl Now Does This Make Me a Furry is a 2020 anime from Studio Trigger, the people you recognise the second you see their animation work, formerly of Kill La Kill, Little Witch Academia, DARLING in the FRANXX, SSSS.GRIDMAN, Promare, and a ton of other work including Indivisible, Flip Flappers, KILLER SHERLOCK, Akame ga Kill!, Steven Universe, Sword Art Online, and Space Dandy, and only one of them I made up.

BNA starts out with a tanuki girl crossing the boundary from conventional society to make her way to Anima City, the one city on earth, we’re informed, where human-animal hybrid shapeshifters can live, outside of the oppression of people who don’t transform, and therefore, view those who do with a sort of fundamental dehumanising horror. It’s, you know, furry racism, except handled a little bit less embarrassingly than normal.

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Story Pile: Moneyball

Lots of movies are about games. Most of them are kind of bad – sports movies famously depicting weird strategies or rules loopholes or just bad versions of how their games are played to create the most dramatic moments. And if your sport is one of the heavily merchandised sports in the United States, your sport has absolutely got a set of movies, filling the niches of What If Sports, What If Sports But Girl, What If Sports But Animal, and eventually, What If Sports But Your Dad Cries. Moneyball is firmly in that last category, a rhapsodic story about how important a game Baseball is to culture, which is why it’s mostly only played by three countries, and I know someone’s coming along to go hey, you forgot Poland and I do not care.

Ostensibly, Moneyball, a 2010 film about a 2002 season of ‘Baseball,’ the 1845 game, follows Billy Beane, a lone, hard man, a bitter and tormented man, a baseball man, where he took the conventional wisdom to the table, rejected the model of running a baseball team and defeated the system with facts, and logic, showing that once and for all, baseball doesn’t care about your feelings.

I promise, promise, promise, this tone is necessary.

Because Moneyball as a movie owns bones.

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Story Pile: Tenchi Muyo (Kinda)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, or one like it.

The story starts in a remote, boring little bucolic space where nothing is happening but there’s talk about an old mystery that connects to a family line. Our hero, Tenchi Masaki, wants to go explore the interesting thing, but his grandfather tells him he has to do his chores, instead. When he slips from his grandfather’s attention, he winds up exploring an old cave he’s been told not to, whereupon he gets a sweet laser sword that’s a relic from a more civilised age, and also wakes up an ancient demon, which kicks off a series of events resulting in his whole house being teleported next to the same bucolic shrine, meaning it’s easy to hide spaceships coming and going, and you don’t have to draw as many backgrounds in a city or non-major characters.

Along the way, he discovers the demon is actually a cool space pirate who wants to jump him, she’s being hunted by a haughty princess, who wants to jump him, and then a steadily coagulating core of Other Girls arrive to join in the queue of Wants To Jump Him.

It’s not a hentai.

There’s space-faring adventurers, battles with spacefaring criminal types, a vast empire, and deep powerful forces that well up from inside Tenchi (who is secretly a prince).

Now I may have described The Most Generic Anime Plot ever, but the good news is that’s because I also described The Most Generic Anime ever, an anime that has been part of the background of anime for a while now.

Content Warning: Mentions of incest.

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Story Pile: The Hork-Bajir Chronicles

Hey, remember how I gave that list, ‘five reasons you shouldn’t read Animorphs?’ The ways that the books aren’t necessarily fully transitive to your experiences now, and that doesn’t mean that you should necessarily take my love of the series to heart and follow through on it? Maybe then I should follow that up with a good way to ease yourself into the story, or some sort of reading list that skips awkward bits?

Or, and hear me out, I could talk about one book in the franchise, that occurs near the tail end of it, and is both the earliest point in the narrative and a standalone science fiction story and a deep lore dive that features no human characters at all.

Let’s do that one.

Let’s do the incomprehensible one.

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Story Pile: Robotech

It is challenging to know one of your favourite things is so aggressively mediocre.

This music, this opening, set the standard in my child mind for what epic truly represented. This opening that starts with a clearly damaged, recovered piece of footage, then switches constantly between different arcs of the story, showing characters who, at the start of the series aren’t even born. Three generations of a narrative collected in the opening, and in an 85-episode show, screened weekly if I got to catch all the episodes, some of these story beats were a literal year away.

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Story Pile: Only You Can Save Mankind

Johnny Maxwell is an extremely ordinary 12 year old child in 1995. He goes to school, he struggles with homework, he pirates videogames cracked by his nerdier friend Wobbler, and he avoids his parents shouting at each other by submerging himself in the glow of his screen. And it’s all going perfectly well for him as he plays his way through Wing Commander 2 Only You Can Save Mankind until one afternoon, the Kilrathi Screewee reach out to talk to him.

And they want to surrender.

This isn’t part of the game, at least, as far as anyone else has said. It’s not anything that Wobbler’s seen. It’s not in the manual. And back in the day, videogames sometimes did things you didn’t expect, for really specific, interesting reasons and there wasn’t some sort of online compendium you could pop open to check out all the details of how these games work.

And that means that Johnny is confronted by a mystery that may just be a really interesting thing a game does.

Or maybe something else.

 

I’m going to spoil chunks of the rest of the book, though not exactly how it concludes. If you want to go read the book, it’s on Audible, it’s on Amazon, it’s on Google Books, and I like it a lot. It is however, a book extraordinarily of its time. It’s a book from 1995 about a twelve year old, playing videogames back when Amiga and Amstrad and Macintosh were all names to mention in the same breath. It’s also a book from when Terry Pratchett himself just didn’t understand women so well, and that means there are moments when a major character who’s a girl says some stuff that’s…

Well.

It’s very ‘precocious 12 year old’s vision of sexism,’ and that can make her feel pretty embarrassing to look back on now, especially because there are ways in which the story goes out of its way to prove her wrong. Like, it’s not like it makes the story markedly worseBut at the same time there’s a tragic kind of missed opportunity: That the story could have still kept what was important to Johnny while also showing more nuance and depth for the girl character.

Who I’m not naming, because it’s? It’s complicated?

Anyway. I like this book a lot and I’d like to recommend it, but with the caveats that it’s a white guy from 1995 writing about videogames and is a bit of a thicko about some of the topics he handles. Just stuff that hasn’t aged great.

Nonetheless, after this, there be spoilers.

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Story Pile: Black Books

Black Books is a short British TV series, available on Netflix and other less reputable streaming services, that was made in 2000 through to 2004. It means that this series is twenty years old and oh goodness me I am old now.

The series Black Books follows the … let’s be very generous and say ‘life’ of Bernard Black, a second hand bookstore owner in London who hates his job and hates his customers and hates having to do his taxes and hates restocking. It is, on a very deep level, an entire sitcom oriented around the story of a misanthropic shopfront owner, which may read as very true to life if you’ve ever encountered this kind of shopowner. Now, he’d be content to just boil away in his horribleness on his own, occasionally prodded into activity by his ‘friend’ next door, Fran, but then one day, circumstances bring Manny Bianco, a bohemian accountant into his life shortly before an incident of violent assault by some skinheads.

It’s a show that does a lot of weird stuff without spending a lot of money on doing weird stuff. You’re more likely to get weird people saying weird things than special effects, but it does a good job of showing off those weird things.

Black Books is one of those small-cast, small-season British comedy shows that leaves the more sitcom-oriented viewers wondering where the rest of the show went – you can watch all eighteen episodes and think ‘oh that was a short season,’ only to find that was the whole show.

It’s really good, it’s funny, it doesn’t overstay its welcome, and you’ll see, if you watch it, a small who’s who of British comedy people from twenty years ago, people who have since moved on to do solo shows or more prominent roles on their own. Particularly there’s the excellent Bill Bailey’s Guide To The Orchestra, which should be available for free on Youtube at the moment. Dylan Moran’s done solo shows and Tamsyn Grieg went on to lead Green Wing. Great stuff all.

 

Sooooo…

We’re done, right?

Right?

Weeeeellll…

Content Warning: Transphobes

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Story Pile: The Muddle-Headed Wombat

There are fifteen books that could be called Muddle-headed Wombat books. They have such titles as The Muddle-Headed Wombat And The Invention and The Muddle-Headed Wombat Is Very Bad. They are all pretty simple and formulaic narratives following the central character of Wombat, who is muddle-headed, his best friend Tabby, who is convinced that nobody in the world has suffered like him, and his other best friend, Mouse, who is a Mouse.

The stories follow a pretty consistent pattern: Wombat gets an idea inspired by some passing fancy or local event, and tries to get involved, gets it all a bit wrong because he’s a bit stupid, the friends have a bit of a tiff because someone is being a jerk, and then they sort it out by communicating and forgiving one another for their very understandable limitations. They all go home and have lemonade, or a tea cake, or something.

It’s all very low-stakes high-emotion narrative, because it’s aimed at five year olds, but it has a sort of easygoing charm that makes it easy to enjoy as an older reader. Oh, the plots aren’t interesting, not in a truly complex way, but there’s a lot to be said about the way that the stories put weight on finding fault and blame – there’s a lot of effort put in the way the stories flow that the story seldom treats accidents or happenstance as a get out clause for a character being a dickhead to someone else.

Iiiii love this character. I love the illustrations, I love the language, I love the charming simplicity of it all, and I love the way the stories breeze on by. I love the people who respond to this character by laughing and remembering his silly phrases or the way he fell about and kicked his fat little legs in the air. It’s so wombatty with Wombat’s stubbornness and his near indestructibility meaning that he’s not in danger of harm as much as he is in danger of upsetting someone or being upset. It’s a story full of feelings!

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Story Pile: Ascendance of a Bookworm

It’s something of a meme that ‘light novel series’ is a subgenre of anime that throws up some warning signs. It shouldn’t – after all, two of my favourite anime of all time are both from light novels, but traditionally the field of light novels are known as being primarily harem or isekai anime, often being quickly produced to cash in on recognisable or marketable characters. Often these characters have some particular visual motif that makes them very recognisable and makes for good merch opportunities. Well, Ascendance of a Bookworm is an anime that started its life as a series of light novels, and it is an isekai, and it features a recognisable main character who has a lot of good merch opportunities.

It’s just that she’s also five.

The premise! Urano Mototsu, college nerd and bibliophile dies in a hilarious bookshelf-collapsing incident during an earthquake. Upon her death, she wakes up in a new body, in a fantasy kingdom, which should be considered rather rad, except Urano was not someone who lusted after adventure in fantasy kingdoms, she lusted after books which are pointedly absent in this fantasy kingdom, and her new body, Myne, is also five years old.

What you then follow is a sequence of narratives about a five year old girl personally trying to catapult herself up the tech tree in order to have access to books, even if she has to prompt industrial revolutions to do it.

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Story Pile: Until This Shakes Apart

Five Iron Frenzy are one of the few remnants of my Christian upbringing I am in any way fond of. Even the hymns I respond to I don’t like, but Five Iron Frenzy are the rare example of a Christian band that are primarily a good band.

They also were in the habit of getting into trouble with the conventional Christian media landscape that presented the hegemony. You might wonder, hey, how does a Christian ska band do something to annoy the people printing their CDs and distributing them?

Well, there’s this thing with Five Iron Frenzy: They practice what they preach. They formed, they got repeatedly rebuked by Christians for their anti-corporate, pro-Native American, anti-revisonist Christianity stance. Basically, they made the right kind of enemies. Eventually, after having done what they wanted to do, and, rather than make demands of a band member who was facing a religious crisis, the group resolved to break up the band.

Then they gathered back together, for The Engine of a Thousand Plots through Kickstarter. And that was kinda a nice denoument on the band. That album had some reflections on what it’s like being a 1990s none-hit-wonders, about being in your forties doing a musical style that’s renowned for being immature, for being ultimately a bunch of gen-X nerds who love Millenial fans. It was a bit more mellow, a bit reflective, a bit sad. After Cheese of Nazareth, and Engine, I thought maybe that was going to be the farewell to music that the band had. They’d made their points, they’d shouted their rage, they’d changed what they could, and they were done.

Right?

In 2020, right at the tail of the year during lockdown, the band kickstarted and released another album, and…

No, turns out that they’re still mad and they’re still right.

This latest album, Until This Shakes Apart is, well, it’s more Five Iron Frenzy. It’s the best produced album they have, and turning forty-five has done a lot for the voices and talents involved. The vocals are clearer when they want to be and the writing of the lyrics is still that mix of thoughtful and angry I like.

The weird thing about recommending an album rather than a movie or a series is that it feels like it’s something I can just like, link to you, and share with you directly so you can decide what you think of it yourself.

Still, some of the songs and my thoughts on them:

  • In Through The Out Door, a piece about the cruelty and violence of conservative christianity in America, with its anti-immigrant, pro-corporate position.
  • So We Sing. Oh my god, they said ass. I kid you not, this is a big deal! The song is also a very real feeling of mortality in a space and style that tends towards being brief. As someone who feels 17 when he listens to their songs, hearing the song evoke Peter Pan rings true for me.
  • Tyrannis and Renegades both capture that same intense rage that they’ve always had against corporate entities.
  • Wildcat is a classic Christian story of looking at the life of someone who considers themselves outside their faith and yet what it gives them. Not wild about the message but undeniable that the character they outline is vivid.
  • Huerfano seems to be a song sung for a friend who was abused and bullied for being queer. Five Iron Frenzy have considered their role of enforcing queerphobia in their childhoods, and in older songs like Farenheit they reflect on what they know now.

Me, I recommend this album, I liked it a lot.

Story Pile: Chess

Chess is a 1984-to-pretty-much-still-going-on-now musical made in part by the brains behind the band ABBA and Tim Rice. It is institutional in the world of musicals, one of those theatre productions that give a lot of people ‘favourite’ songs to do. It includes a well-known pop song, One Night in Bangkok, and the enormously popular look-I-can-belt song Nobody’s Side. It follows the narrative of basically three people across a set of chess games done for the sake of International Relations during the Reagan era of anticommunist nonsense.

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Story Pile: The Quintessential Quintuplets, Season 1

It wasn’t intentional by any measure but it turns out, to my surprise, that I became a fan of anime through the introductory template of the Harem Anime. For me, it was, in my early anime watching days, just a natural part of how anime worked where you’d have a character, then four or five people who really wanted to jump them. It was literally something that I think of as foundational to anime, because I mean, I watched Ranma 1/2 and then Tenchi Muyo and at that point that was my lens for how I thought the whole genre worked, and therefore I assumed that say, Sailor Moon must have harem stuff over there where I wasn’t watching in the episodes I missed. As a result, I watched a lot of harem anime, and it took me a long time to realise that the dynamics of a harem anime weren’t universal. Like, I didn’t realise that you weren’t ‘supposed’ to ship every Slayers character with Lina Inverse and I was equally surprised when there was a definite end to the relationship tangle in Ranma 1/2.

This genre tends to boil down to one [TARGET AUDIENCE GENDER] with a set of [THREE OR MORE] [TARGET AUDIENCE INTEREST GENDER WITH SPECIFIC DETAIL]s that want to [COMICAL INNUENDO INVOLVING RIDICULOUS WORD]. The template is that simple, but harem anime in particular have a few complications that come from what’s not common to them. Specifically, if you have three characters who can’t choose between one another, then all you’re looking at is a love triangle and those are kinda easier to resolve and much more about a small number of characters who relate to one another. A harem anime is instead about watching one character as they interact with a group of other characters, and ideally, it has something else going on like a sci fi story or an adventure or a fight tournament or just goddamn anything that isn’t just ‘which characters will get it in the end’ or it tends to get boring. They also tend to mix in some gimmick with the girls, either to add interest to the narrative or to sound the sirens about the author’s personal fetish.

With that said, welcome to Quintessential Quintuplets, an anime about one dude with a set of five hot girls with giant racks that want to ride his baloney pony. And you know the twist of this one?

They’re all related!

Wait, no, hold on, this is good, please, put down the broom!

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Story Pile: Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-kun

You know it kinda amuses me how much I rubbish on webcomics when I keep doing story pile articles on webcomics that are either just good on their own, or that gave rise to other products I think are really good.

Monthly Girls’ Nozaki-Kun is a 12 episode (and some OAVs) anime based on a gag-a-day 4koma webcomic of the same name. The premise is a high school girl named Chiyo Sakura confesses to her crush, and thanks to a reasonable (?) misunderstanding, he thinks she means she’s a fan of his work.

Because he has work.

Because he’s a successful and renowned manga-ka who makes a girly shojo manga, and what ensues is Chiyo falling down into the gravity well that is Nozaki’s social space and the near constant commentary on how weird he is as a person, how weird his assistants are, and importantly, how weird Chiyo is by how all of these elements of the behaviour and personality of actual manga-ka are in some way, natural to her.

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