Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a muddy, self-important disappointment

Expectations could not have been higher for Chance the Rapper third mixtape, Coloring Book. His last mixtape, Acid Rap, was a masterpiece, 13 fantastic tracks that have held up in the three years since. His work since has been sporadic but memorable, taking a backseat role on Donnie Trumpet’s Surf which still gave him ample spotlight on great tracks like Wanna Be Cool and Sunday Candy, and stealing Ultralight Beams on Kanye’s The Life of Pablo with sixteen bars of fire, which included a promise that he’d do a good ass job with Chance 3. Throughout all of this, Chance has maintained his image as just a really nice guy, backed up by his bandleader approach to Surf and propensity to write cheer-up songs like Wanna Be Cool and Everybody’s Somebody. On Chance 3, the streak of goodwill ends for me. It’s a safe album where Chance lets go of most of what made him unique to fit the styles of his mentors and new, more famous friends, and where his all-around decentness finally starts showing signs of self-righteousness.

If there’s one thread that absolutely works at keeping Chance’s nice guy cred alive, its his treatment of his ex-girlfriend and daughter’s mother, which is the polar opposite of the Kim Mather’s treatment. “Man my daughter couldn’t have a better mother/If she ever find another he better love her,” he raps on opener “All We Got” without an ounce of sarcasm or defensiveness. But he spends more time on Coloring Book professing the evils of record labels and patting himself on the back for remaining unsigned and putting out a free mixtape (nevermind that it’s a timed exclusive for streaming services). It would be one thing for this to show up in a couple of lines, but it forms the hook of two separate tracks (“No Problem” and “Mixtape”). While the principle is a good one, his repeated mention of it makes it seem like he’s doing it specifically for the cred rather than any moral or personal stance. Repetitiveness of the message hurts the album overall: for example, “Same Drugs” starts off with so much promise, but runs out of new tricks twenty seconds in.

The biggest problem with Coloring Book is the mixing and production, which has some great beats that don’t fit its star whatsoever. Chance’s cadence has always been unique in the field, and while he can tongue-twist side-to-side with giants, he can’t command a beat like Kendrick and Rick Ross, for example. Acid Raps’ piano-based, relaxed jam band approach was the perfect fit, and while I like that Chance is trying new things, he gets lost in the beats that show up here. Particularly in “No Problem” and “All Night”, both of which have fantastically catchy beats that leave no room for the MCs to breathe. Even vet Lil’ Wayne gets completely lost in “No Problem”, and while “All Night” is worth listening too due solely to Kaytranada’s fantastic beat, Chance himself adds nothing at all. Chance apes Kanye throughout the album, particularly with over-indulgent gospel pieces which work in small amounts but become thematically and musically overbearing. Notably, on Future-featuring track “Smoke Break”, Chance apes Future’s delivery to awkward results, while the more relaxed beat gives Future’s rasp no favours.

It’s not all for naught though. “Juke Jam” is a touching laid back track, with Chance reminiscing on young unrequited love. “Angels”, which was previewed almost a year ago, feels most like old Chance, and remains the clear album standout, with Chance feeling alive and energized over trumpet and steel drums. It’s likely not a coincidence that this i the oldest track on the album, and one of the few to not feature a megastar. As Chance broke into the mainstream, he seems to have internalized the influence of the giants he now walks among. No good art exists in a vacuum, but on Coloring Book, Chance has lost the individuality that usually gives him spark. The result is unmemorable and infuriatingly unoriginal, but I’ll still eagerly anticipate what Chance does next.

C-

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Coloring Book (2016)
By Chance the Rapper
57:20
Available on Apple Music

Best Tracks: Angels, Juke Jam, All Night

Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book is a muddy, self-important disappointment

Civil War is great fun when it ignores the Captain America part

“Sometimes I want to punch you in your perfect teeth,” says Robert Downey Jr’s Iron Man to Chris Evans’ Captain America early in Civil War. At the risk to betraying my hashtag sympathies, I couldn’t agree more. Captain America is likely the least interesting of the main Avengers, a do-gooder beefcake with a kinda-dumb aesthetic. His fish-out-of-water tendencies are his redeeming feature, and he’s vastly outpaced in that department by Thor. He’s a bland hero, which makes him a fine center for the action of others but a difficult sell to carry his own movies. The First Avenger was fun enough thanks to its WWII period setting, and Winter Soldier similarly had fun with format while placing half of the star-power demands on the ever-capable shoulders of Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow. It’s no secret that Civil War is an ensemble piece, and much more of an Avengers movie than a Captain America one. What’s surprising is that, while Civil War still doesn’t quite sell Cap, it’s the best Iron Man movie since the first one came out eight years ago.

The central argument of Civil War, Iron Man defending regulation of the Avengers while Cap demands autonomy, is sold surprisingly convincingly and with as much gravitas as possible without being too ridiculous. The Avengers leave a wake a destruction with little culpability; Tony Stark recognizes this at long last, after creating the last Avengers supervillain in Ultron, while Captain America (ironically) is untrusting of government intervention. It’s a neat inversion of their character types, but one that makes sense in context. The decision of #TeamCap or #TeamIronMan really does come down to how tethered to reality the MCU is. If we can believe that the Avengers are some incorruptible moral force, then UN oversight is clearly a terrible plan, especially given that we know that William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross is a bit of a megalomaniac. However, the movie pays much more than lip service to reality, putting the Avengers to task for the collateral damage they are responsible for. For Cap’s side, extra motivation comes when Bucky Barnes re-appears as The Winter Soldier, possibly framed for an attack on the UN, while a mysterious operative played by Daniel Bruhl lurks on the sidelines. Barnes is probably my least favourite character in the MCU, a mopier Steve Rogers with a too-coincidental origin story, and his re-appearance is a bit too much after taking a major role in the last Cap outing. But he’s a cog in the big machine this time, and suffices as a plot device to divide the extended Avengers (sans Hulk and Thor, plus Spider-Man and Black Panther).

What is really remarkable about Civil War in the context of the MCU is how it keeps the stakes relatively small. Floating cities and alien invasions are nowhere to be seen, and while Bruhl is an effective and memorable villain in the underwhelming Marvel pantheon, the conflict is nearly entirely between heroes. While not nearly as many faceless lives are at risk, the battles seem to have real consequence and are miles more engaging than anything in Age of Ultron. The action scenes in the first half are a less involving, as they mostly involve the team fighting goons with guns, but when hero-on-hero action starts, Civil War finds its feet fast and produces the most flat-out enjoyable MCU scenes since the first Avengers.

It helps that Marvel has crafted its squad so carefully. While some of the motivations for the minor characters are fuzzy (notably Hawkeye and Ant-Man), these characters work best when together. Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is more enjoyable in his five minutes in Civil War than the entirety of his own movie, and Anthony Mackie proves himself once again as the secret weapon the Cap movies. The two big new additions, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther, are both great, even given semi-awkward introductions. Spider-Man in particular is a joy, easily stealing the movie and injecting some much-needed new blood. The scene where all these personalities meet is worth the price of admission alone.

If the MCU films haven’t worked for you, Civil War isn’t likely to wave the problems away. They’re still dumb fun which uses physics any way it wants and takes itself maybe a smidge too seriously, but they nicely avoid the darkness that plagues their DC bretheren in favour of sheer joy. While Cap is as uninteresting as ever, the cast around him is exceptional and the interplay on display is fantastic fun. The movie doesn’t hit the reset button, and nicely sets up future MCU films by leaving some distrust sown among the heroes. I’m sure a big space alien will force everyone to make nice again soon, but mining trouble in paradise has led to one of the better Marvel films, even if pieces are getting tired.

B

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Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Anthony Mackie, Chadwick Boseman, and Robert Downey Jr.
Rotten Tomatoes (90%)

  • Heads up: two post-credits scenes, one halfway through and one at the bitter end.
  • SPOILER THOUGHT: To nicely tie it all together, while Cap is right that Bucky’s situation is not what it seems, it once again is entirely a consequence of previous actions taken by the Avengers. If someone had held them accountable for anything at any point, perhaps Helmut would have gotten some satisfaction another way. As for the Avengers in prison, Tony isn’t wrong when he says they broke the law, and there didn’t even turn out to be a time-sensitive Helmut scheme for them to stop after all to justify the airport brawl. It obviously sucks to see these great characters behind bars, but they did earn it.
Civil War is great fun when it ignores the Captain America part

Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant

Anyone looking to survive Canadian content restrictions could do a lot worse than Sleeping Giant, a film set by the cottages of Thunder Bay during a summer that could have been anytime from 1980 to 2010 were it not for a lone telling cell phone. However, judging Sleeping Giant on that curve would be wholly unfair, as director Andrew Civindo has created a film with a clear vision, extracted excellent performances from a young cast, and presents numerous beautiful shots. The film understands better than most how teenage boys work, crafting three unique and interesting lead characters. It’s faults are not in being dinky or cliche, but rather in steeping in a bit too much unjustified misery.

The film takes it title from a rock formation in Lake Superior, an uninhabited peninsula surrounded by cottage country. It focuses on three fifteen-ish boys. Firstly, there’s wallflower Adam, who arrives with his middle-class parents. His father wants to connect with him through rote, vaguely bro-ish life lessons, but teaches him the biggest lesson through a secret he harbours. Adam joins up with cousins Riley and Nate, visiting their grandma and both clearly from poorer households (as told in shortcut via smoking and talk of failing math). Riley is an earnest kid, and Adam’s father quickly takes a liking to him; Nate is the type to act out and egg on others in vulgar ways. Each of the kids starts out as a stereotype (particularly Nate), but is shaded in well. By the midpoint, these kids feel developed, and more than that, feel very real and true to the teenage-boy experience. The class struggle between Adam and the cousins nicely bubbles under the surface, and the cousins’ involvement in a potential romance between Adam and long-time friend Taylor throws some chaos into the mix.

But maybe too much chaos. Between the class issues, hormonal complications, and secrets of the father, Sleeping Giant comes dangerously close to melodrama in its final act, unleashed in what is probably the most dramatic game of Settlers of Catan ever played. It survives based on the goodwill it generates leading up to its finale, but never fully recovers in the end. However, all the way through, this is a very memorably visual movie, with upside-down voyeurism and an odd number of long takes of bugs (all of which are great). Civindo relishes in the hijinks, the cliff-jumping and fireworks and play-fighting, all kinetically shot with a great sense of joy and fear. The movie also has perhaps the most realistically stylized first-time-on-pot scene I’ve seen, with slight blurs and lots of cheese puffs. Youth eventually ends, and all can’t be fireworks and cheese puffs, but Sleeping Giant’s sudden disregard for youthful joy in its end is a more bitter pill than it needs to be.

B

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Sleeping Giant (2016)
Dir. Andrew Civindo
Starring Jackson Martin, Reece Moffat, Nick Serino, and David Disher
Rotten Tomatoes (88%)

Spoilery thoughts below

  • Looking at many of the other reviews for this film, the love triangle is often presented about being about Taylor. Forgive me if this is a misread, but Adam was gay, right? From his longing looks at Riley, this seemed like only interpretation. That twist in the story, which never played for high-drama, really affects how the final act of the film is viewed, with Adam trying to break up Taylor and Riley but not take the blame, or his confrontation near the seagull with Nate. The movie ends with Adam and Riley on the beach, seemingly making peace, which makes more sense as an ending if Adam’s crush was on Taylor and not Riley, so maybe I’m off-base here.
  • So what is there to read out of the death of Nate? He was the only one who wasn’t part of the love triangle, instead used as a pawn by Adam. Yet he is the one punished. Adam’s self-blame is not entirely accurate (Nate made the choice at the end of the day), but if we take him as the intended guilty party, is Nate punished for his sins, a token of what happens when you use people? Riley mentions midway through to Adam that straight-up honesty is the best policy; Nate’s death is the indirect consequence of Adam’s lie.
  • How fantastic is the shot of the two bugs having sex, then being splattered, with the left-out bug standing triumphant? A bit on the nose after Adam finds out about Taylor and Riley, but so so very good.
Teenage summers in Ontario get lit in Sleeping Giant

Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us

I feel like its important to note that I’m nearly as much of a gamer as I am a movie buff, so I am mostly blowing smoke here. When deciding between the PS4 and Xbox One, one big deciding factor was back catalog. I had a 360, which I liked a lot, but I felt like I missed out on two PS3 titles in particular: Uncharted and The Last of Us, both from developer Naughty Dog. Fortuitously, both of these games were released in updated versions for the PS4, as Uncharted: The Nathan Drake Collection and The Last of Us Remastered. There are many similarities and differences between the two, but having spent time with the first two Uncharted games and the main storyline of The Last of Us, only one is essential enough to go back to.

Both games are highly cinematic, with gorgeous cutscenes and well-developed characters through scripted dialogue. Games like Mass Effect and Grand Theft Auto often deservedly are called cinematic as well, but unlike those games, both of these play linearly like a movie, forcing you into one perspective with no independent choices to be made. In that sense, the role-playing is kept to a minimum, but they both remain engaging by creating characters worth watching. Uncharted’s Nathan Drake is a swaggering treasure hunter who would definitely feel at home in a multiplex, spouting one liners while performing daring acrobatic feats, while The Last of Us’ Joel and Ellie are deeply tragic characters exploring a world where humans are everywhere but humanity is rare. You never feel like you are these characters, but you definitely want them to succeed, and are more than happy to help out however your controller will allow.

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The difference between the two, as you could probably tell by the character descriptions, is what kind of movie each is. Uncharted is a fun summer blockbuster, full of high-wire stunts, explosions, romance, and good old-fashioned map-checking. In each, Nathan Drake is on the hunt for a treasure following clues from a classic explorer (Francis Drake and Marco Polo), with a bad guy on his tail who looks to use the treasures magic for nefarious means. Comparisons with Indiana Jones are valid, and the whole flow of Uncharted is refreshingly throwback as opposed to high-octane; stuff happens on trains and jeeps rather than fighter jets. Outside of the main action, Drake also has flirty interactions with reporter Elena Fisher, who is great, and fellow treasure hunter Chloe Frazer, who is OK I guess, while putting up with questionable allies Victor Sullivan, who curmudgeonly cigar chomping puts everything in perspective, and dashing Harry Flynn, who is just the worst character in the world. Its all in good fun, and would be great for two hours, but stretches a bit thin at ten.

The Last of Us is much less action based and more of a survival thriller (not quite survival horror, but related), with a tension that leaves a pit in your stomach and an episodic structure based on seasons that feels well suited to a miniseries. From the first loading screen, with spores swirling around over sparse strings, the game establishes mood in a way that most movies don’t. While ostensibly a zombie game, the real enemy is other people, whether the martial-law rulers of the cities or the raiders and cannibals of the uncontrolled areas. This puts it much more in line with The Walking Dead than Resident Evil, but through the way it carefully paints every corner of its torn down world, The Last of Us still finds something new to do with a tired genre. Most of that has to do with the interaction between the main characters, aged smuggler Joel and fiery young Ellie. The game presents itself as an examination of the father-daughter dynamic, but also explores loss and survivor’s guilt in non-trivialized ways. As the two travel across the country, they meet new characters at every stop who are every bit as interesting, particularly Joel’s partner Tess and hungry hunter David (played by Nathan Drake himself, Nolan North). It moves at a fast clip, always leaving you wanting more of each location but providing a complete picture of a world in chaos, and ends on a morally confusing note that doesn’t betray the characters in the slightest.

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But what matters most to many is the gameplay, and even here, the drama wins. Uncharted does have its share of fantastically fun set pieces (a train and convoy chapter late in Among Thieves stands out), but is usually split half-and-half between platformer climbing sequences and shootouts. The platformer elements are fun for a while, but can be incredibly annoying, often reducing to jumping at a wall until Drake grabs something or looking around like a moron for a ledge. The shootouts are not varied enough to keep interesting throughout the entire runtime, although a gameplay shift in the form of new enemies late in the first Uncharted brings some much-needed spark (a minor similar attempt in Among Thieves falls flat). Among Thieves introduces some minor stealth mechanics, which are fun to use but usually irrelevant. Sporadic puzzles are also fairly uninvolving. It adds up to a game that’s fun for a while but becomes a bit of a chore, even though the story keeps the player invested enough to see it through.

The Last of Us still has plenty of shooting, but is gives you a much wider variety of ways to deal with situations. Running and gunning isn’t an option, but straightforwardly playing the game as a cover-shooter like Gears of War is possible. For ammo conservationists like myself, a stealth playthrough is fantastically fun, with a neat listen-mode mechanic that lets you map out the enemy locations from a distance. It’s also often possible to skip combat altogether. Switching between human and zombie encounters keeps things fresh, even though it stops bringing out zombie variants early, and a mid-game switch to Ellie’s perspective changes the strategy yet again. That praise being said, there are some swimming sections which stop the game dead, and puzzles involving ladders and planks that serve little to no purpose.

One stark distinction between the two is their treatment of violence, summarized in the Last of Us review at the great Giant Bomb. At one point in Uncharted 2, the bad guy notes how many men Drake has killed as an off-hand comment. Drake shrugs it off, but he’s not wrong; hundreds of faceless grunts get offed by Drake with no real comment, creating a weird narrative dissonance that never quite gels. Sure, Indiana Jones killed some Nazis, but never an entire battalion. The brutal mechanics of The Last of Us make each kill feel like it has some weight, even if that fades after many hours in the game. Eventually, Joel and Ellie’s kill-first-ask-questions-later approach comes back to bite them in a terrifying way, and comrades are lost in ways that make the stakes feel very real. One of the bigger questions the game asks is whether Joel is a good person and if his actions are justified, in addition to how growing up in a brutal world will shape Ellie, and the violence serves the arcs of both characters as well as the demands of gameplay. Rather than act in contrast to the narrative, it directly reinforces it. Despite the fact that The Last of Us is much bloodier than Uncharted, it feels much less gratuitous.

The Last of Us and Uncharted are both short games with no exploratory value, which makes them easy sells for those of us with time restraints that are more strict than our budget. Uncharted is decent popcorn entertainment, with some good setpieces (particularly in Among Thieves) but ultimately less value than its time investment due to frustrating gameplay mechanics. The Last of Us, on the other hand, is as engaging as entertainment gets, not so much breathing fresh air into the tired zombie genre but perhaps acting as the definitive take on the subject. It’s a complete experience (a sequel seems ludicrous), and as tender and terrifying as any movie could hope to be.

Uncharted (2007) C
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves (2009) C+
The Last of Us (2014) A

 

Playing catch-up with Uncharted and The Last of Us