Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 22)

Only 20 reviews, this time. A slow week. To be fair, I’ve got a brand new digital piano and that seems to be taking up a lot of my time. Also, down below the podcasts you’ll find a review of thing that required more words than usual. So, look forward to that.

Movies

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — This oscillated wildly. At its best, I thought it was pretty brilliant and lived up to the rest of the franchise, which I generally like. At its worst, it was slow, laboured, and a considerable waste of Julianne Moore. But the fantastic cast sees this through. Seriously, it’s like the casting director for these movies just raided my brain for the kind of actors I like: Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright (also underutilized, but twas ever thus), Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman (nice to see him, one last time), Elizabeth Banks… I could go on. Even Gwendoline Christie shows up for a scene. (Somebody needs to make a movie starring Gwendoline Christie and Jeffrey Wright.) Jennifer Lawrence continues to be wonderful. And, honestly, even Moore is so amazing that she manages to elevate her somewhat bungled character into the realm of watchability. With a cast like this, it’s easier to forgive weaknesses.

Star Wars — I watched a fan edit of Episode IV that aims to reconstruct as much of the original movie as possible — without special editionification — in high def. It was great. Star Wars remains a movie that I don’t especially admire, but I sure love putting it on when there are other people around, and talking through it. And I also learned that my childhood role model, C-3PO, remains my favourite character in the Star Wars universe.

The Empire Strikes Back — I also watched this in the despecialized edition, and it really is something. These edits are really worth checking out. And this movie is wonderful, in a way that the first one sort of isn’t. From Hoth to Cloud City, it’s enthralling. But this time through, it was especially clear that the best part of the movie (and the franchise) by a mile is the sequence of Luke training with Yoda on Dagobah. That senile little weirdo is the best thing in Star Wars (aside from C-3PO, obviously). Frank Oz is a wonder, and the Yoda puppet is more expressive than any of his Muppet characters. But more than that, Yoda is a plausible representation of what it might be like if the sharpest mind in the galaxy were forced into isolation for decades. He might be the most believable character in the series.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 22 — If the first half of this episode were all that John Oliver had ever done in his career, he’d still be awesome. Not only is this segment — on the needlessly thorny topic of Syrian refugees — amusing somehow, it is also beautifully argued. It is a thing you can send to people who think differently to you and say “This! Look! Reasoning!” The other segment, on pennies, is fantastic because we Canadians have been through this. Pick of the week.

BoJack Horseman: Christmas Special + Season 2, episodes 1-6 — “Hoo-ray! Begrudging acquiescence!” Okay, I’m properly loving this now. It’s sad, and dark, and the humour is incredibly writerly — full of wordplay and incredibly structured exchanges of dialogue. And the voice acting is universally wonderful. This must be one of the best things Netflix has produced.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” — The best episode of the season, and possibly of Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor. It’s really fantastic to see the Doctor get to be the main character in his own story, which surprisingly isn’t the default for this show, considering that it’s named after him. It takes considerable guts to do an hour of TV with basically only one character, but Capaldi carries it easily. The reveal towards the end (re: where all of the skulls came from) is something that only Steven Moffat could have come up with, and it’s why I love his version of Doctor Who in a nutshell. All that said, I’m going to try to avoid making the same show pick of the week twice in a row. So, it goes to another televisual Brit, this time around.

Literature, etc.

I dove back into No God But God this week. There will be remarks to be written on that very soon.

China Miéville: “Säcken” — Certainly the most frightening story in Three Moments so far. Apparently there are people who think that Miéville’s characterization is weak? No. The entire reason this story is terrifying is because we’re able to see through the protagonist’s eyes so easily. And because Miéville is very good at grotesque descriptions. The story doubles as an acute examination of the impact of loss.

China Miéville: “Syllabus” — Not so much a story as a whimsical joke. But it’s a whimsical joke that makes my brain hurt. Typical Miéville.

Music

The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come — This is about on par with the debut, to me. So, a magnificent album, better than Meat is Murder, but not quite as good as The Queen is Dead. Morrissey’s voice is remarkable on this. In fact, all four members of the band give their best performances on record here. It’s nice to hear Johnny Marr take a proper guitar solo on “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how one of my old favourite bands (but no longer), Marillion, are basically what the Smiths would sound like if they’d been huge Genesis fans. In addition to that, the Smiths’ four studio albums map neatly onto the first four Marillion albums, prior to their first breakup: there’s the promising debut, the problematic sophomore effort, the masterpiece third album, and the ever-so-slightly compromised final album. Strangeways is very much the Smiths’ Clutching at Straws, insofar as it’s remotely useful to compare one of the most esteemed bands of the ‘80s to a niche interest neo-prog band who weren’t even very good.

The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow — There’s a reason this singles/odds-and-sods collection is considered as essential as the studio albums. This is incredible. That guitar on “How Soon Is Now!”

Comedy

Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats — Just as funny the second time. The bit about how to eat a banana in public is one of my favourite bits of stand-up. The gimmicky audience cutaways, on the other hand, are less effective. Would have been better if this were a straight-ahead film of her show.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Desiree+Aaron” — This is a story about a woman who is deeply invested in Aaron Carter fandom. As you might expect, it’s an awkward listen. It lacks the humour and the slight remove of Mystery Show’s Britney episode, and you kind of don’t know whether to be sad or not. I do like the premise of this season of The Heart, though: following unusual relationships through their make or break moments. I intend to keep listening.

Reply All: “Yik Yak Returns” — One of Reply All’s best episodes gets an update. Alex Goldman’s story about how campus racism went especially bonkers on one particular mobile app, on one particular campus was fantastic journalism when it came out months ago. This expanded version covers a spate of similar violence on campuses across the USA. Pretty much essential. Pick of the week.

Fresh Air: “ Music Writer Peter Guralnick on ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’” — This and Good Night And Good Riddance are apparently part of my recent obsession with the people behind the success of iconic musicians. Sam Phillips — the founder of Sun Records, and discoverer of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others — was fascinating. I’m sure Guralnick’s book is also fascinating, and I’d love to read it. But I’ll have to space it out from Good Night and Good Riddance, because that might be a bit too much rock and roll reading material in too little time. But you can count on Terry Gross to curate a fascinating conversation, so this podcast will hold me over until I’ve actually got an appetite to read this book.

StartUp: “Words About Words From Our Sponsors” — As an episode of StartUp this is as good as usual. As a status update on Gimlet Media, it’s perplexing. Apparently, the plan is to introduce a new revenue stream by making branded podcasts in collaboration with companies. It seems clear that Gimlet will handle that without treading into any ethical murky areas, but I just don’t understand the idea of branded podcasts. I mean, you can listen to anything you want. So who’s going to listen to half-hour ads? I fully expect to be proven wrong in short order, but I don’t think I could ever enjoy a branded podcast. It’s not a matter of principle — I just think that when there are so many great podcasts out there, I’m always going to choose the ones that are passion projects, not ads.

Radiolab: “Birthstory” — Radiolab is always at its best when covering really complex stories. When stories are simple, they always end up trying too hard to imbue them with universal themes. This story is massively complex and has hundreds of moving parts. It starts off dealing with the circumstances that convene to prevent gay couples in Israel from having children via surrogacy, and it ends up detailing the circumstances that lead women in Nepal to become surrogates for pay. This episode, produced by Molly Webster, is extraordinary not just for its fascinating and important story, but also for its clarity and organization. Most shows would make a total hash of this. I was all set to make this pick of the week, until the end music faded down and Jad Abumrad came roaring back in with one of his superfluous thinky closing monologues. “In a way, this story is about dreams.” Oh, give me a break. If you stop listening to this when the actual produced story ends, it is 100% awesome.

99% Invisible: “Fixing the Hobo Suit” — Once again, Roman Mars introduces me to another podcast that I feel compelled to add to my rotation. Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds seems right up my street. This story about how and why superhero costumes have gotten so much less cringeworthy is fantastic, and apparently he does similarly nerdy things on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll see if I can fit it in.

On The Media: “The Language of Terror” — After international tragedies, the media people I most want to hear from are Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. You can trust them and their producers to keep their heads and present clear lines of reasoning while TV gets totally histrionic and people start shouting tirades of bigotry at each other on Facebook. This show is really, really not just for news junkies and media types. It’s useful to anybody who wants to be able to parse news coverage in a way that keeps them more informed.

Fugitive Waves: “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” — This is a decent way to passively spend 20 minutes. There’s nothing here that provides more insight into Nick Drake than even the most casual fan would already have. But there are some nice remembrances of him, and a few (scrappily recorded) extracts from a live covers project that sounds like it might have been good. Anyway, this vapourized upon impact.

Live events

King Crimson: Live at the Vogue — *breathes deeply*

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. It was a matter of principle. The whole idea of a version of King Crimson that exists specifically to play the back catalogue is anathema to the basic concept of King Crimson, to me. I’m all for playing the old favourites, but every version of King Crimson should focus on developing its own music, and until now all of them have. Still, when it came down to crunch time, I just couldn’t not buy a ticket. It’s King Crimson.

Here’s how that went down.

When I entered the Vogue, I was told very sternly by the bouncer not to take any photos whatsoever — before, during or after the show. Which is a shame, because the setup — with three drum kits across the front of the stage and a Long & McQuade’s worth of guitars, basses, pedals, reed instruments and miscellany on a riser across the back — was the most #prog thing I’ve seen in my life.

On either side of the stage were giant white signs again entreating the audience to take absolutely no photographs at all from this point forward. I sat in the hall for nearly an hour before the show, because I’m like that. A soundtrack of placid Frippertronics burbled along as dudes in Magma t-shirts name-dropped Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. This is a room full of older versions of me.

Just as the show was about to start, Fripp’s familiar voice rang out over the PA, with just one more reminder: no photography. Ah, Fripp, you curmudgeonly so-and-so. Never change.

Never change. What an odd thing to say to the most volatile and restless rock musician this side of David Bowie. But is he still? What shall we make of this new, seven-person King Crimson repertory company?

The most compelling new feature of this lineup is not actually the three drummers (though that’s certainly novel), it’s the absence of Adrian Belew. I adore Belew, lest anybody misunderstand. I saw his trio play in Edmonton a few years back and it’s still one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (much better than this one, as it turns out). But Belew had been a major creative force in King Crimson for longer than anybody who isn’t Robert Fripp deserves to be, and it was threatening to force the band into stagnation.

Still, even with Belew gone, the only members of this lineup who haven’t been in at least one previous lineup of King Crimson are Bill Rieflin and Jakko Jakszyk — the latter of whom has been involved in Crimson side-projects (and projeKcts) for so long that he may as well have been. There is no way around it: for the first time ever, King Crimson is touring as a nostalgia act.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen legacy tours that have knocked me flat. But this version of King Crimson has some issues. Firstly, you can’t hear anything through the drums. Fripp’s playing in particular was so obscured that there were times when I caught myself wondering “is he playing a solo right now?” Same goes for Tony Levin.

But the larger problem is that this band plays like consummate professionals who don’t give a shit. (Except for Pat Mastelotto. He gives all the shits, and was by far the most interesting musician onstage to listen to.) There’s no commitment to the big moments in songs like “Epitaph,” and “Level Five.” This King Crimson sounds bored, a lot of the time. I’m tempted to blame the mix, but there were moments that came off gorgeously: I’m thinking mainly of “Starless” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.” So, it seems like the problem is just that they were on autopilot for most of the show.

A lot of the time, I found myself missing Belew in spite of myself. His real value to the band was his ability to play the wild card. He’s a disciplined musician, but he also knew how to keep the band on their toes: keep them from becoming complacent.

Complacent. What an unfortunate word to resort to when describing the most volatile and restless rock band this side of Radiohead. But there you go.

On the other hand, Mel Collins was actually wearing crimson suspenders. Well played, Mel Collins.

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