This month, the AE team is bringing you our Pop Culture Picks from our home offices and, as things begin to reopen here, our office office too! We’re focusing on the things that support our physical and mental health while practicing social distancing. Keep scrolling to find out what’s helping us through these challenging times – we hope they can help you too!

Jenn’s Pick

Jenn's September PCP - The Tale of Princess Kaguya

Jennifer Paul, Intermediate Developer

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Movie)

TL;DR: This Studio Ghibli movie is a stunning standout with its beautiful, simple animation and story based on old Japanese folklore.

Ever since Netflix released the entire Studio Ghibli collection a couple months ago, I’ve had a weekly movie night to watch all the ones I haven’t seen before. This movie, released in 2013, is the biggest standout for me so far. The story is based on the 10th century Japanese folklore story (warning: spoilers in link) The Tale Of The Bamboo Cutter and it is delightful. A bamboo cutter who lives in a rural village finds a baby in a bamboo stalk; he and his wife decide to raise the girl as his own. The bamboo cutter also finds extravagant gifts in the bamboo, which he takes as a sign to bring the girl to the city to raise her as royalty. As she grows up, she is wanted by a series of suitors. The story is simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking, and will give you all the feels.

The art of the film is totally dreamlike – it is simple and vague but in that perfect way where your brain wants to fill in the details. This gives it a personal and interactive feel, and helps to give a deeper meaning to the movie. I was especially moved by one scene where the girl is running through the woods, and the animation is so abstract but incredibly portrayed through movement and music. It is truly a breathtaking moment.

You should watch The Tale of the Princess Kaguya – and the critics agree. This film was nominated for Best Animated Film at the 2014 Oscars (among many other awards), and was the first movie of the 2010’s to get 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Take some time out of your modern day to escape to this far-away world.

Grant’s Pick

Grant's September PCP - Mpow M30 true wireless earbuds

Grant Spychka, Head of Customer Success

Mpow M30 True Wireless Earbuds

TL;DR – The Mpow M30 true wireless earbuds are the perfect companion for running/exercise in general, with a pretty solid overall soundstage, intuitive touch controls, locking eartips, and a USB-C charging case that gives up to 25 hours of battery.

This one is a little long overdue, but I’ve been meaning to write about my new favorite pair of true wireless earbuds for a while. Earlier this year I found myself in the market for a new pair of running headphones as my wired Shure in-ears bit the dust (or a toddler yanked on them too hard, no one will ever know). Budget-wise, however, I wasn’t in the market for much at all so had to steer clear of big name brands like Bose or Samsung. Luckily, after what seemed like an eternity of exploring numerous YouTube rabbit holes, I found a review made by a fellow trail runner for the Mpow M30s. He detailed how these wireless earbuds could compete with the Samsung Galaxy Buds on sound and function, and that their fit was reliable even in the sweatiest of training sessions. Plus, they were on sale at the time so I managed to snag them for around $50 CAD.

Honestly, these little guys have blown me away. First off their case is powered by USB-C which is an easy win to start. USB-C everything, please. Second, they come with 4 different sets of ear tips so you can find a solid fit, as well as these cool sharkfin-style external tips that help lock the buds into your ears. The sound is solid too, and quite clear. Soundstage is nice and open, with highs coming in clear, lows having a nice mix of punch and rumble, and mids not muddying up too badly (quick caveat – these won’t beat out a pair of $200 headphones from a competing brand, but at a quarter of the price it’s an absolute steal). As an added bonus they have some incredibly intuitive/responsive touch controls on the outer pads of the buds, making it super easy to adjust volume, skip tracks, play/pause, and activate Google Assistant. Since I use these when running, that feature is wildly underrated. It means you don’t have to click a physical button, which always feels uncomfortable and briefly pushes other headphones deeper into my ears. Just a couple quick taps and you’re good. Plus, they’re comfortable to wear for 1-2 hours at a time, though I wouldn’t wear them all day at my desk or anything.

Overall the Mpow M30s have been a welcome addition to my exercise routine. The carrying case (which charges the earbuds when not in use) is compact and easy to toss in my bag, and gives up to 25 hours of charge, so I’ve never found myself even close to being low on battery. Highly recommended for anyone doing moderate to intense exercise! My only recommendation, if you’re on Android, is to grab an EQ app like EqualizerFX to really unlock the M30’s potential.

Jason’s Pick

Jason's September PCP - Berlin Station

Jason Scriven, Head of Enterprise Sales

Berlin Station (TV Series)

In Short:  Berlin Station is a TV series set in the German station of the CIA that ran 3 seasons.  Modern threats faced by the CIA – violent right wing politics, Russian encroachment into Europe, moles inside US intelligence – are mixed with a stellar cast of recognizable sci-fi stars to create an insanely watchable series. And David Bowie sings the theme song.

If you like modern spy drama, it doesn’t get better than Berlin Station. It was created by Olin Steinhauer, one of the best known and award winning modern spy writers. His focus on ordinary people in jobs that have international consequences plays well in this series, where clandestine meetings, betraying your country, and dead drops replace James Bond type spy action.

The writing in this series is world class, but it’s the cast that makes me smile. At Appreciation Engine, sci-fi cred goes a long way and this cast has it in spades. The lead spy is played by Richard Armitage, more famous as Thorin the Dwarf King from The Hobbit movies, and he is matched by an excellent Michelle Forbes (BSG ‘s Admiral Helena Cain) throughout the 3 year run. Rhys Ifans trades his tighty whiteys for sleek suits as an on again, off again spy, Ismael Cruz Cordova from the Mandolorian is a very alpha field agent in season 3 and Commodore Oh from the Picard series, Tamlyn Tomita, provides personal balance to the spy game in season one. The most unfortunate character name belongs to Ashley Judd, whose character is a Washington DC fixer who you are not sure can be trusted with the moniker BB Yates. Somewhere, off the planet of Naboo, Poe Dameron is missing his droid.

Roxanne’s Pick

Roxanne's September PCP - Hamilton

Roxanne Baker, Marketing Magician

Hamilton (Movie/Musical)

In short: Find a friend with Disney + and watch Hamilton. You will laugh, you will cry, and you will dedicate far too much time to trying to convince everyone around you to watch it.

This month’s PCP is no surprise to anyone who knows me. I haven’t stopped talking about the musical Hamilton since it was released on Disney + back in July. I walk around my house singing the songs, I’m stuck firmly in Hamilton TikTok, I even sneak Hamilton songs into our Three Track Thursday playlists. I’m obsessed.

Hamilton was created in 2015 by Lin Manuel-Miranda after he read and was inspired by Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the United States. The musical follows the life of Alexander Hamilton, from his roots as an orphan in the Caribbean, to the American Revolution, to the politics behind how the US financial system was structured and finally to Alexander Hamilton’s death at the hands of his lifelong rival Aaron Burr.

If you’re wondering how a musical about a historical figure could be interesting, let me assure you that Hamilton is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. The music is a delightful mix of classical musical theatre, rap and R&B (check out the Schuyler Sisters and Guns and Ships). Almost every song is a total bop (and the memes about the “worst” songs are hilarious). The choreography is incredible – every movement is intentional, with the ensemble performing actions in the background that foreshadow events later in the play.

All the major roles in Hamilton, barring King George III, are played by non-white actors. While this decision has caused controversy and led to cries of “reverse racism”, I think it’s absolutely brilliant. Broadway has traditionally been very white. It’s time to see some diversity on our stages and provide role models for those who don’t necessarily see someone who looks like them in the spotlight.

Casting non-white actors as the Founding Fathers also adds another layer of storytelling. I think Christopher Jackson (George Washington in the original Broadway cast) puts it best: “It was a very powerful choice to take the idea of these men and present them through the bodies and vessels of Black and brown actors. It represents the fact that our role in building this country has never truly been acknowledged, and I think it opened up the audiences’ minds to the spirit of what these men meant, even if they were woefully incapable of living it out in their own experiences.”

If you love the music from Hamilton, you’re not just limited to the soundtrack. A year after the Original Broadway recording was released, an album of remixes, covers and unreleased deleted songs called the Hamilton Mixtape came out. Does your fancast include Usher, Kelly Clarkson, Sia and Jimmy Fallon? Well you’re in luck, because they’re on the Hamilton Mixtape.

After the Hamilton Mixtape was released, Lin Manuel-Miranda released a series of Hamilton-related songs called “Hamildrops”. Some of my favorite artists were included in the series: The Decemberists, Sara Barielles and even Weird Al Yankovic (Hamilton Polka?! Yes please!). My favourite Hamildrop? The 44 Remix of One Last Time, featuring Christopher Jackson from the original Hamilton Cast, a gospel choir and President Obama reading George Washington’s farewell address. Even as a Canadian, it’s a total tearjerker.