Omnireviewer (week of Feb. 7, 2016)

19 reviews, many good things:

Movies

Hail, Caesar! — I think this is the least good Coen brothers movie I’ve seen. I haven’t seen any outright bad ones, but Hail, Caesar! is hugely inconsistent. There are scenes that are totally brilliant — one near the beginning where Josh Brolin’s gregarious Hollywood producer talks theology with leaders from four religions is primo Coen. But for every scene like that, there’s an unfunny joke that goes on for ages. One of the problems here is that the Coens commit so wholeheartedly to every single one of the fragmented bits and plotlines they threw in. So, if one of them isn’t doing it for you, tough. You’re stuck in it for seven minutes, probably. I will say this: the Coens are the most politically inscrutable filmmakers working. This film’s attitude towards Communism is almost impossible to make out. To take that line of thought further would head into spoiler territory, so would somebody I know please go see this movie and have that conversation with me? Thanks.

The Big Short — This is possibly the saddest movie I’ve ever seen. Civilization is broken and we’re all hopelessly fucked. (To be less emotional about it, this is a big swing of a movie with an aesthetic all its own and lots of unlikely choices. Most of those choices are the right ones, but some of the jokes early on don’t land because of problems with the delivery or editing or something. I have problems with the infamous “Margot Robbie in a bubble bath” scene — how much irony does it take to offset decades of cinematic sexism? But on the other hand, I love that this movie begins as a big broad comedy that revels in its own excess like The Wolf Of Wall Street — to which Robbie is an obvious and intentional connection — only to do what The Wolf failed to do in the end: namely, to condemn the entire financial system in a miasma of sudden bleakness. The Big Short is messy and ambitious and mostly really good and everybody should go see it.)

Television

Doctor Who: “Paradise Towers,” episodes 2-4 — One of the biggest problems with the classic series is that every episode save for the last in a serial needs a cliffhanger. And, while the cliffhangers themselves are often delightful, their resolutions tend to be trite. The Doctor just kind of clevers his way out of a situation so that he can get on with the rest of the story. But when it’s Sylvester McCoy doing the clevering, it makes it easy to ignore the seams in the storytelling. Seriously, this guy is the most underrated of the Doctors by a mile. And everything else about this story is delightful as well. The cannibalistic grandmas are obviously the best part, but the main villain’s wonderful overacting comes in a close second. This is the period in the show’s history where they realized that the budgets aren’t going to increase, and neither is the audience, so they may as well do what they like. It’s all approached with a heavy dollop of irony, which manages not to overpower the actual brilliance of the story. There are actually worse places to start with classic Doctor Who than this, I’d expect.

Lost: “House of the Rising Sun” — There are problems with Sun and Jin’s storyline in early Lost, but they’re papered over by a pair of totally wonderful performances by Yunjin Kim and Daniel Dae Kim. Also, one of the real pleasures of these early episodes is seeing various cast members share scenes for the first time. This episode, it’s Charlie and Locke’s scenes that really pop.

Music

Kanye West: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — This is the album that got me into hip hop, and it’s still probably my favourite album of the past decade. (Run the Jewels 2 might be its only competition.) It’s basically psychedelic rap: a giant Dionysian pastiche of colours and lights and hazes and paranoia and regrets. (According to my taxonomy of psychedelia, Fantasy qualifies as a “Pepper.”) It’s a bit bloated, maybe. I’d lose “So Appalled,” cut a bit off “Devil in a New Dress,” and excise Chris Rock from “Blame Game.” But, better to have too much. And if Kanye’s ego makes him insufferable at times, it also gives him intense self-knowledge, which he calls up in every verse on this. It’s amazing to hear such a complex psychology reflecting on itself.

Literature, etc.

Alejandro Jodorowsky/Moebius: The Incal — I enjoyed this a lot, but I don’t know if I’d actually recommend it. I’m fascinated by Jodorowsky’s esotericism as it pertains to the Kabbalah and Tarot. But here, his belief system seems to mostly revolve around the idea that “there’s light and there’s darkness and you can’t have one without the other,” which is such a drug cliché of an observation that I can only roll my eyes. Much of the dialogue is terrible, and a lot of the sex in this seems to have been shoehorned in, just to ensure that we all know this is an “adult” comic, and only ends up making it seem adolescent. Also, in terms of sequential art technique, there are a lot of moments where it kind of seems like there are key story beats or transitions missing between panels — in a way that doesn’t seem intentional. Plus, there are instances on nearly every page where it’s unclear in what order to read the speech balloons. This all stems from bad decisions and inexperience on Jodorowsky’s part. Fortunately, he’s only half of the team. Moebius is a nearly peerless illustrator, and it’s almost worth picking up The Incal just to bask in the colours and details of the world he draws. Almost. If you have a relatively high threshold for sci-fi bullshit and new-agey nonsense, this is something you should probably check out.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Blindness” — I have a wonderful book called The Art of the Personal Essay that I’ve read just over half of. It is much better than its bland title would suggest: it is a selection of wonderful personal writing by some of the greatest authors in history — people like George Orwell and Virginia Woolf — edited by Phillip Lopate. I go back to it very occasionally and read a few of the essays I haven’t read before. This one is a wonderfully companionable account by Borges of being appointed director of a national library, ironically just as he’d gone blind. I had never read any Borges, having been slightly scared of him, but I think I may have been missing out and will add Ficciones to my already unmanageable reading list.

Hubert Butler: “Beside the Nore” — Another personal essay, this one by an Irish writer that more people should probably know. This is a short, simple account of several elements of old, rural life in a riverside town in Kilkenny. It is presented unpretentiously, without a framing device or thesis statement. It’s just some lovely writing about a charismatic place. At the very end, Butler appends a few extra sentences, to say that he believes local history to be far more important than national history, which has no impact on the vast majority of people — thereby justifying his entire enterprise. Really nice.

E.M. Cioran: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” — This is an essay about how insufferable writers are and how meaningless the international community of people of letters is. It’s about how only an incredibly egocentric person would dare take on a career as a writer, and about how narcissistic it is to assume that other people want to read about what you think. Hi there. You reading this? Good, then we’re fine.

Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 3 — Now for some actual smart comics. I was wary of the idea that this entire trade volume would diverge from the main WicDiv story, but these issues featuring the supporting cast of the main story add such depth to the world of this comic. Each one is probably among the best stand-alone stories that Gillen and McKelvie have ever done. The issue featuring Woden (the jerk-ass Daft Punk god) is particularly impressive, being a sort of remix issue, made up of scenes from prior issues of WicDiv. Also, there is a cat goddess in this who looks like Rihanna but acts exactly like an actual housecat: getting distracted by laser pointers and such. A comic that does complex formal experiments and also has Rihanna getting distracted by laser pointers can only be a straightforwardly good thing. Pick of the week.

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I read the introduction to this a while ago and got sidetracked. I’m still kind of sidetracked, honestly. But this is what I’m reading, now. The tiny bit of this I just read was fascinating — the politics of Christ Church College at Oxford is more compelling than you’d think.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “‘Mad Max’ Director George Miller’” — Listening to this guy talk makes a bunch of connections become immediately clear. If it seemed incongruous that Mad Max and Babe were made by the same guy, consider the extent to which Babe is a conventionally Campbellian hero’s journey. If it seemed like The Road Warrior and Fury Road have no precedents in action movies, look beyond that to Buster Keaton’s The General. I’m disappointed that Terry Gross wasn’t around to do the actual interview. I’m sure she would have probed into his feminism more deeply. Still, Dave Davies acquits himself admirably. Anybody who likes Miller should check this out.

Serial: “Adnan Syed’s Hearing,” days 1-3 — I’m glad Sarah Koenig was there to report on Syed’s hearing, because she’s probably the most knowledgeable person about his case. But what this is actually going to do is remind everybody how much more invested they were in season one of Serial than season two. In any case, these three mini-episodes are great, and feature Koenig and Dana Chivvis speaking extemporaneously for longer than I think they ever have on the show — which is great, considering that they both know the case inside out. I’m still unconvinced of Syed’s innocence, but convincing people one way or the other has never been the goal of Serial, in spite of what certain critics might say.

All Songs Considered: “Andrew Bird Gets Personal” — This sounds like a great record, but wow, this is an awkward conversation. Bird does NOT want to talk about these songs. I’m excited to hear more of this considering Blake Mills is on guitar, and his guest spot with Vulfpeck last year was one of my favourite performances I’ve heard on a record in a while.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch Super Bowl 50” — All due respect to Beyoncé, but was I the only person who thought Bruno Mars stole the halftime show?

The Heart: “Ghost: Bobby” — A totally mundane breakup story that’s told well enough to be worthwhile. The sort of thing that only The Heart can do.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Danny Boyle” — Still catching up on episodes from December, apparently. But this is great. I like Maron with filmmakers. He’s such an insightful film geek that it’s easy for people like Boyle and Todd Haynes to talk to him.

Fresh Air: “Filmmakers Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson on ‘Anomalisa’” — “I have a tendency to read about syndromes,” says Charlie Kaufman near the beginning of this interview, to nobody’s surprise. I need to see Anomalisa.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Charlie Kaufman & Duke Johnson” — It’s interesting to hear Terry Gross and Marc Maron interview the same people about the same things. Since hearing that wonderful episode where Maron interviewed Gross, I’ve looked at them as two sides of the same coin. On one side, you get the bare-bones story of a thing from Gross, and on the other side you get self-psychoanalysis by proxy from Maron. It shouldn’t be about picking a winner, but in this case Maron wins. Apparently Kaufman was scared to go on this show because he was uncomfortable with how deep Maron probes. But Maron keeps this one relatively light, and just gives Kaufman the opportunity to be funny. It was also a really good decision to do a segment with Kaufman alone before bringing in Duke Johnson to talk about Anomalisa, which I really need to see. (Also, how weird to hear an ad for Blackstar that was clearly recorded before Bowie’s death but released after.) Pick of the week.

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