Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 3, 2016)

I suppose I should start putting the year in the titles of these things. I guess when I started this I didn’t think I’d still be doing it in 2016. But here we are. My weekly exorcisms continue. So, here’s the first fully 2016 edition of Omnireviewer, with 19 reviews.

Movies

The Hateful Eight — On first viewing, I think this is Tarantino’s second-best movie. I adored this. It’s slow and talky (until it’s not) and made up almost entirely of the sorts of scenes that are my favourites in other Tarantino movies. That scene in Inglorious Basterds in the bar, with the three fingers? That’s this whole movie. Sam Jackson and John Travolta in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction? This whole movie. It’s worth seeing in 70mm, because it’s just the kind of movie that deserves a lavish presentation, with an intermission and an overture. Speaking of which: apparently Ennio Morricone is still alive and writing brilliant movie music. In terms of satisfying cinemagoing experiences of the last 12 months, this is second only to Fury Road for me.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Bastard Prompt” — This is certainly one of the more twisted stories in this broadly speaking fairly twisted collection. What’s best about it is that it’s the story of something that happened to someone close to the narrator, but not to the narrator himself. All the same, the narrator has his own interests that don’t directly involve the story at hand, but do influence his telling of it. This is the sort of thing that’s just par for the course for Miéville, I’m learning. Even if you don’t respond to his stories, you can’t help but be dazzled by his technical capacity.

China Miéville: “Rules” — Another tiny story, and a very enigmatic one. You can read it in two minutes, and you should, if you happen to see Three Moments of an Explosion on a shelf in a store. If you like it, you’ll like all of these stories and should definitely buy the book to read larger more wonderful stories like “The Bastard Prompt” and “The Dusty Hat.”

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I always like to have something in the vein of cultural criticism on the go, and now that Good Night and Good Riddance is done, this seems like just the thing. It’s a large, handsome hardcover volume that I got for a good price at the Indigo hardcover sale (Jesus Christ, I’m out of control). Each page contains a segment from Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic (one of my favourites as a kid, and still), and the text is surrounded by David Day’s entertaining analysis. His argument is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is essentially a full classical education delivered in code. Aside from being a marvellous read, so far, this is such a beautifully designed book. It’s filled with paintings and photographs referenced in the text. I feel like this is one of those rare books that I probably won’t be constantly putting down to Google stuff, because it’s basically the internet in paper form.

China Miéville: “Estate” — This is one of those stories I feel like there’s a definitive “point” to, but I missed it.

China Miéville: “Keep” — Another fabulously counterintuitive premise from Miéville. This is a story about people with a disease that causes trenches to form in the ground around them when they stand still for too long. This guy writes amazing stories out of the sorts of random thoughts that I discard three or four times a day. Would that we all followed through like he does.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — Even better than the first act. I still don’t know what this game’s on about, but I’m becoming increasingly invested in the story, which is basically just some guy’s quest to get a shipment of antiques to an address that isn’t real. I feel like there was a lot more to see in this act than I actually saw, which is not something I can usually say. I’m one of those slow, deliberate gamers. It often takes me twice as long as average to make it through a game. But with this, I felt an urgency to the story that compelled me to keep going. I’ll probably play all three available acts again before Act 4 comes out, though, so I’m not worried about missing anything. As with the first act, this is full of wonderful strange details My special favourite is an office building that has an entire floor occupied by impassive bears.

Papa Sangre — I don’t think I’ll be finishing this. I bought it weeks ago, played it for about twenty minutes, and another twenty just now, and it really doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be anything other than a game of hide-and-go-seek-in-the-dark. Which is a shame, because the possibility for storytelling and world-building in a game that’s all sound, no visuals is immense. I got this for cheap with two other games from the same developer, so I suppose we’ll see if those are any good, then possibly wash our hands of the whole thing.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — This remains mysterious and obscure, but in this act it always feels like it’s about to tip its hand. An offhand reference to mold and transistors back in the first act now feels like it might be the key to the whole thing. Meta-references to digital narratives abound. (One scene may simply be an extended riff on Adventure and/or Zork or it may be something more. An elegy to the limitless vistas of parser-based interactive fiction? Hard to say. There might even be one character who’s meant to stand in for the guy who wrote Adventure. There’s a resemblance.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge is important, somehow. There are frequent allusions to the effects of the 2008 economic crisis: homes being reclaimed, people not buying consumer goods anymore, that sort of thing. As fantastical as this is, there remains some thread of connection to the real Kentucky. So, much like Lost or The Shining (or, I suppose, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), this game actively encourages not just close readings but paranoid readings: where every detail, however minute, seems like it could be significant. This isn’t just rote surrealism. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not nothing, and better yet it’s not one specific thing. Apparently Act 4 is nearly done. It had damn well better be. Pick of the week.

Screen Shot 2016-01-03 at 9.29.03 PM.png

The wonderful bleakness of Kentucky Route Zero.

SOMA — My computer can pretty much run this, when I turn the graphics options down to the lowest settings the game has. So, yay! Anyhow, I’ve written before about my ambiguous thoughts on horror. I think that, in the same way that comedy succeeds if it makes you laugh, horror succeeds if it actually scares you. I think both of those standards are perfectly acceptable for those genres. There’s plenty of comedy and horror that has other goals as well (more “literary” goals, we might say), and that’s great and I personally tend to like that stuff best, but it’s not fair or right to critique horror or comedy on the grounds that it’s merely funny or merely scary. If it’s that, then it’s fine. But the trouble with horror movies that aim primarily to frighten you in the moment is that they don’t work on me. I just don’t get scared watching movies. But I do love being scared. And that is why I like horror games. Because, for whatever reason, horror games scare the living crap out of me. I guess it’s just that in games, you have to actually respond to a threat. So, you can’t just passively accept an outcome and move on like you have to do in a movie. Horror games leave you scrambling to come up with a solution to a problem under pressure. They engage you in a way that almost no other medium does. But then, the issue with horror games is that they have all of the problems associated with games more broadly: most notably, the caliber of writing and voice acting in games is just lower than it is in movies. That’s not to say that there isn’t any top-shelf writing in games, just look at Kentucky Route Zero, for Chrissakes. Also Sunless Sea, 80 Days, The Stanley Parable, anything made by Simogo, tons of Twine stories and parser games and probably a bunch of more conventional stuff that I’m overlooking. Likewise for acting: The Walking Dead game has better acting than the show. But you can’t play an acclaimed game and have the same level of assurance that the writing and acting will be good as you can when you see an acclaimed film. The art form hasn’t gotten there yet, and don’t let any videogame boosterists try to convince you otherwise. It’s a bit too early to judge SOMA on these criteria, but the few bits of sustained story I’ve seen so far have been pretty solid. The voice acting for the player character is excellent, which is a great mercy. Nothing worse than being trapped inside a crap actor’s head. A promising start, and already pretty spooky.

Television

QI: “Messing with your Mind” — This Tommy Tiernan fellow, I dunno.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: “Wednesday, January 6, 2016” — I meant to check out Noah’s Daily Show long before this, but this episode seemed essential. And it was good. Not outstanding, but good. There are moments in this where you kind of go “that’s a joke.” And Noah’s monologue about Obama’s gun control executive order finishes with an inadequate kicker. But it’s definitely, on balance, good. Which is nice, because towards the end of Jon Stewart’s tenure, that’s pretty much what you could say about his Daily Show as well. (On the other hand, the correspondent piece about the Nike resale market is insane.)

Mildred Pierce: “Part One” — So far, Kate Winslet makes this. It’s a gorgeous-looking series, as you’d expect from Todd Haynes, but the drama isn’t taking off yet. Every scene with Melissa Leo is gold, though. Almost makes up for the children in this, who are difficult to take. Actually, if the whole series were just Kate Winslet and Melissa Leo talking to each other, that’d be fine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2015: The Year In The Loud And The Weird” — This is what I’m talking about. I’d heard none of this music beforehand, and I think the only artist featured that I’d heard of was Iron Maiden. I suspect it would be the same for most people. Which is a shame, because people need more weirdness and extremity in their lives. I sure do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Melancholidays, Sisters and 2015 Highlights” — Not much to say except that it’s always nice to see an indication that there are others equally obsessed with Hamilton as I am.

Radiolab: “Year-End Special #1” — The opening of this show reminded me that there really were some spectacular episodes of Radiolab this year. I’m thinking specifically of “The Rhino Hunter.” But the rest of it — which consists of Radiolab’s top three most downloaded segments ever, all from the last two years —  reminded me how much I miss the version of Radiolab that did shows like this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ciao 2015, Hello 2016!” — Everybody who loves pop culture should listen to this if only to hear a recap of Linda Holmes’ predictions for 2015, which are a fabulous indictment of the entire culture industry. She literally just wrote a huge rant and read it into a microphone and it’s entrancing and forceful and fantastic. I should really read her blog more.

Fresh Air: “In ‘Carol,’ 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair” — Terry Gross’s interview with Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy is a quiet thing of spectacular virtuosity. I came for Haynes, but it’s Nagy that Gross gets the most interesting stories out of. Nagy wrote the screenplay for Carol, which I loved, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Nagy and Highsmith knew each other well, and Nagy is keen to portray her late friend as the real-life Therese Belivet, Rooney Mara’s character in the movie. But, without ever becoming indelicate, Gross prompts responses from Nagy that imply there may have been a certain amount of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in her as well — though Nagy is careful to clarify that she herself was never Therese to Highsmith’s Carol. I have never heard Terry Gross more artful than this. Also, there was unexpectedly a snippet of Gross’s 2005 interview with the recently deceased composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who’s always been an interesting figure to me, and made some of my very favourite recordings. I never anticipated he’d be so charming. So that’s a bonus. Imagine: Todd Haynes being the least interesting part of a podcast. Pick of the week.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Todd Haynes/Sarah Silverman” — Thank God this exists, then. Maron is nearly as much of a cinephile as Haynes is, so this pretty much turns into two film geeks babbling. In the process, they appear to confirm everything I assumed about Haynes in my review of Carol a couple weeks back. Haynes explicitly talks about how this movie is concerned with which character is looking through the camera at any given point (especially pointed since Therese is a photographer), which I’m taking as total validation of my interpretation of Carol as a vast, all-encompassing metafiction. Say what you like about Maron, but he’s not afraid to go deep with his interview subjects. 

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