Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 17, 2016)

It was a week of trains, busses and airplanes. That explains why there are more podcasts and stories than usual, and also why some of the reviews barely reviews at all. Regardless, there are 23 of them:

Movies

The Revenant — I was expecting this to be a joyless slog, and most of the people I went with seemed to come away from it with that impression. It is possible that I am a monster, because I actively enjoyed this from start to finish. It’s the second most visually stunning movie I’ve seen this year (next to another film with Tom Hardy in a supporting role). My initial reaction to the first few shots of this was “Well, here comes another year in which Roger Deakins will not win an Oscar.” But even through this movie is super dark, I found it totally thrilling. Part of that is just the effect of Emmanuel Lubeski’s long takes, but it’s also that the movie really puts you on DiCaprio’s character’s side — not through characterization, but just by making you a witness to his willpower and ruthlessness. I’m almost ashamed of how badly I wanted Tom Hardy’s character to bite it by the end. This is a big, messy, gorgeous, ambitious, singular sort of movie and you should see it in whatever format costs the most. Pick of the week.

Television

Mildred Pierce: Part 3 — It’s a rare moment in scripted television where there’s a fist-in-the-air moment that comes out of the intricacies of front-of-house restaurant management. In this, that moment comes courtesy of an actress named Mare Winningham, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything but is my new favourite person. (Oh, wait. Apparently I’ve seen her in Torchwood and 24. I feel bad now.) Mildred’s daughter Veda is still intolerable and every scene with her in it is a slog. (I wonder if the direction “furiously plays the Can-Can” appeared in the screenplay anywhere?) Also, aside from Mare Winningham and Melissa Leo’s characters, Mildred lives in a universe of awful people. Truly terrible people. I am not one of those dummies who can’t watch anything that’s got unlikeable characters in it, but this is toeing the line, even for me.

QI: “Menagerie” — The average number of legs for an animal, when you take into account all of the animals is approximately none.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “Covehithe” — I’ve mentioned a bunch of times before how Mieville’s greatest strength is his premises. But the flipside of being able to come up with limitless unpredictable premises is the ability to make them not seem ridiculous. This is a story about decommissioned oil rigs coming to life and walking ashore to take their revenge. It’s a brilliant thought, but it shouldn’t work in a story that’s not played as broad satire. But Miéville makes it work through brilliant description, making the live oil rigs into impressively scary monsters. This seems to have been one of the stories from this collection that made the largest impression on the critics, and I can see why. Though I can’t say it’s one of my favourites.

China Miéville: “The Junket” — In which China Miéville impersonates a smug, mediocre magazine writer. He’s still fun when he’s slumming. Also, as usual there’s a clever structural trick. Miéville’s narrator talks about a controversial, fictitious movie for half the story without ever revealing its title or subject matter. When the penny drops, so much becomes clear.

China Miéville: “Four Final Orpheuses” — One of the shortest stories in the book: too short to make much of an impression. But the idea of posing alternate theories about why Orpheus looked back is a good one. Because it’s never made any sense.

China Miéville: “The Rabbet” — Nightmare-inducingly scary. Miéville doesn’t reveal his premise until about halfway through, so to say too much would be spoiling it. But this is definitely one of my favourite stories in the collection, even if it isn’t one of the most accomplished. Just because it’s so damn frightening.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “David Bowie” — Not really a very good interview. It’s 2002, and Bowie isn’t in the mood to talk — especially not about the 30th anniversary of Ziggy Stardust, which is what he’s there to talk about. It’s a half-hour of Bowie rejecting the premises of Terry Gross’s questions, and Gross never quite catching on to the game he’s playing.

StartUp: “Disorg Chart” — Lisa Chow tries really hard to put Alex Blumberg’s feet to the fire in this, but he’s still her boss and it shows. Time for StartUp to move on to another new company. I don’t understand the people who actually think this show is better when it focusses on Gimlet. This mini-season has been fine, but the Dating Ring season is the best thing this show has done so far.

Sampler: Trailer — Normally I would think this is a bad idea. Shows that just stitch together bits of various podcasts the producers like have been done before by companies that shall remain nameless, and it’s dumb. But I already love Brittany Luse as a host, and I suspect she has sufficiently left-field taste that I’ll discover some crazy stuff through this that I’ll want to subscribe to. Or, maybe I’ll discover some crazy stuff that I definitely won’t want to subscribe to, but am glad I at least heard once. A sort of All Podcasts Considered, you might say. I am tentatively excited for this.

Reply All/Radiolab: “The Cathedral” —  Firstly, it’s about time Reply All got a plug on Radiolab. It’s been a better show than Radiolab for a year. This is a story about the making of That Dragon Cancer, a game that’s famous in some circles, about dealing with having a one-year-old son with cancer. The game sounds more emotionally draining than I’d like to deal with. But hearing the story of its development, and the story of how the family who made it dealt with their loss, is totally worthwhile. Sruthi Pinnamaneni is one of my favourite radio producers anywhere. I liked this enough that I listened to both cuts: the Reply All cut and the Radiolab cut. Which one you should listen to depends on whether or not you feel you need a crash course in the concept of “grown-up” video games. If so, go with Radiolab. If not, go with Reply All. However, the best line comes from Abumrad: “How do you finish a game where you don’t have many choices and you can’t win?” Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Comedian John Mulaney” — Audie Cornish is good at talking to funny people, and John Mulaney is one of the funniest. That is my review of this podcast.

The Heart: “Samara+Kelsey” — I’ve really enjoyed this season of The Heart. They’re technically incredible radio producers with an ear for great characters. But it’s kind of difficult to describe what makes it good. Just go listen to this, and you’ll either like it or not.

99% Invisible: “Best Enjoyed By” — News you can use, from 99pi. Basically, the dates on groceries aren’t related to food safety. Didn’t we kind of know that, though?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “American Idol and People We’re Pulling For” — Two panelists I’d never heard before! This show does have new tricks!

Reply All: “Perfect Crime” — This is another of those clever things that only Reply All can do, where they tell a story that doesn’t actually have anything to do with their stated intent of making “a show about the internet,” but then present it in a way that says something to a web-steeped audience. This is ostensibly a story about an off-Broadway play that nobody likes, but it’s actually a story about our need for validation, on- and offline.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Hateful Eight and the Evolving Theatrical Experience” — I love this podcast because it always forces me to pause it and talk to myself. Regarding The Hateful Eight, I’m totally on-board with Linda Holmes’s reservations regarding the treatment of Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, but I’m confused by the fact that everybody on the panel seemed to find this movie a brutal slog of the “accomplished but difficult” persuasion. I don’t think Tarantino means for the violence to be difficult to watch, certainly. He takes a perverse delight in cinema violence. I normally don’t, but in Tarantino films (with some very notable exceptions) his delight tends to rub off on me. That was mostly the case with The Hateful Eight, which I found tremendous good fun. And as for “the evolving theatrical experience,” I felt the need to rush in and offer the “millennial perspective”: I don’t think that whole idea of the home movie experience getting better and better and thus cinemas becoming obsolete is really valid anymore. I know too many people who watch movies mostly on their computers to buy that.

Fresh Air: “Critics Pick The Best Film & Television of 2015” —  Yeah, I’ve got a lot of catching up to do with podcasts. The time has come to for god’s sake start running again. I recovered from my cold weeks ago, and my rolled ankle months ago, so really. Come on, Parsons. Anyway, when that eventually happens, there’ll be a lot of obviously old episodes of things showing up here. But for now there’s just this, which is really not that interesting and I’d skip it if I had my time back.  

Fresh Air: “Jennifer Lawrence” — I downloaded this before I learned Joy was bad. But Gross doesn’t dwell on it too much, and Lawrence is a totally fascinating person to listen to. She’s in a more businesslike mood here than we’re used to seeing her on late night shows, and whatnot. Because, I mean, it’s NPR. That makes it really worth listening to because she gets more of an opportunity to be thoughtful than she does elsewhere.

Radiolab: Year-end specials #2-4 — I have too many podcasts backed up to actually listen to these producer-chosen reruns, but I did scan through them to at least see which episodes the producers picked as their favourites: “Guts,” “The Bad Show,” and “Galapagos.” Of those, “The Bad Show” is certainly among my favourites. I can’t believe nobody picked “Inheritance,” “Stochasticity” or “Lost & Found” though. Those are three of the most sublime hours of radio ever made.

Song Exploder: “Courtney Barnett — Depreston” — I hadn’t loved a lot of what I’d heard of Courtney Barnett’s much-admired first album. But the thing about Song Exploder is that it really makes you pay attention. Isolating the vocal on this really brings out the (actually really obvious) fact that the lyrics are incredible. I think I’ll check out the rest of the album.

Theory of Everything: “Holy War” (parts I and II) — I really do appreciate that there’s someone as radical and willing to be divisive as Benjamen Walker in Radiotopia. If not for his incredible skill, he’d seem like the sort of person who would be kept away from mainstream podcast networks at all costs. That’s why I love him. This two-part speculative fiction satire of America’s Christian right is one of the outright angriest things he’s ever written, but Walker also actually engages with the specific faiths of his characters, especially in the second half. His critique of Christian America is stronger than his critique of religion more broadly — near the end of the first part, things veer uncomfortably close to Richard Dawkins new atheist territory, though he does pull back at the last minute. I used to sort of consider ToE just basically WireTap methadone. But stuff like this and “New York After Rent” would never have flown on that show. Benjamen Walker is more heretical than Jonathan Goldstein ever was.

Bullseye: “John Cleese and Dee Dee Penny” — I should really listen to more Bullseye. Damn, this is a good show. As for this specific episode: Cleese can be a real dick sometimes, but he’s in a good mood here. Jesse Thorn pulls great clips to facilitate the conversation, and they dive into Cleese’s early years. It’s amazing to hear how tentative his first steps into comedy were. He was on track to be a lawyer. Imagine. I admit I kind of spaced out during bits of the Dee Dee Penny interview. But I love some of the tracks Thorn pulls.

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