A round 20.
Ex Machina — Fearsomely good. I’m detecting a recent trend in screen-based entertainment that indicates people are beginning to hanker for the theatrical rather than just the cinematic. We saw it in Horace and Pete, clearly. Also The Hateful Eight. And while Ex Machina is a film about robots, with an Oscar for visual effects, I could totally see it produced as a stage play. It’s directed by a writer, and it shows. This is a movie that is about three things: writing, acting, and sets. The writing deals with big contemporary questions, like all of the best plays of any given time. The acting is top-shelf — Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are my two favourite newly-minted A-listers — but the bulk of it is performed by only four people, giving it the intimacy of theatre. And the sets, if you eliminate the gorgeous natural scenery outside of the vast panes of glass, are designed in a similarly symbolic way to the sets of good theatre pieces: the glass that separates Ava and Caleb, the cameras that stand in for Nathan even when he’s not present, and the mirrored, casket-shaped cases holding [insert spoiler here] are just a few examples. (And yes, that’s the second acknowledgement of spoilers on this blog. Like Horace and Pete, this is best if you’re allowed to process information as it is presented to you, without prejudice.) But, theatrical tendencies aside, Ex Machina is cinematically glorious as well. It lets the camera linger on magnificent natural vistas, to emphasize what Ava’s missing, locked away in her glass cage. It uses effects to communicate the idea that everybody’s being surveilled constantly for reasons they couldn’t possibly know. And it makes Ava look really, really cool. This is what I want genre movies to be like. If even half of the money that is currently being budgeted to franchise juggernauts could be routed into smaller films like this, contemporary cinema would be a hundred times more interesting than it is. Pick of the week.
Game of Thrones: “Oathbreaker” — Things are getting interesting on a few fronts and continuing to bore me on others. So far, this season’s unforgivable sin is its forced writing for Tyrion and Varys — two characters who should always be at the apex of wit. Also, much as I admire what Emilia Clarke can do with her face alone, it would be nice to see her get more lines, and possibly a story where she isn’t totally helpless. Daenerys is at her most interesting when she’s powerful, but making mistakes. Taking away her agency is problemsy for many reasons, but significant among them is that it makes her storyline boring. Such a waste of a great character and a great actress.
Last Week Tonight: May 8, 2016 — Marvellous. John Oliver’s takedown of science reporting on morning shows isn’t as incisive as Brooke Gladstone’s, but it’s got jokes. And H. John Benjamin.
Cunk on Shakespeare — Philomena Cunk made me realize how much I miss The Colbert Report. This is a complete idiot’s take on Shakespeare, presented in a format that makes it feel authoritative. There are reaction shots in this that are funnier than most American sitcom one-liners.
Archer: “Bel Panto: Part 2” — Like the ones in this, for instance. But it’s Archer. It’s fine. I laughed.
Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — This is the moment where Eno mastered ambient music. He would devise a number of additional, quite different, and perhaps equal variants on it over the next twenty-odd years. But I’m not sure he’s ever substantially improved on Music for Airports. It is simultaneously unobtrusive and totally memorable. When I haven’t listened to it for a while, I tend to forget what it sounds like. But as soon as I play it, it comes right back. It is so simple it barely seems like something a human could have made, which makes it all the more profound — it’s as if it has been made by nature. Any reasonable list of Eno’s great accomplishments would be at least twenty or thirty entries long, but this should be near the top, up with the first three solo albums, the first two instalments of the Berlin Trilogy, and Remain in Light.
Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool — Lack of hyphen notwithstanding, this is quite good. I suspect we may be into the part of Radiohead’s career where they don’t blow anybody’s minds anymore. Of their last four albums, only In Rainbows has been a masterpiece on the level of their early 2000s work. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a really solid album. It has plenty of variety, and it feels like a new direction — two things you couldn’t say about The King of Limbs. I suspect it’ll be a grower. Years from now, after the band’s officially done, maybe we’ll see A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Some Girls: the good album they made a few years after their heyday that’s the last thing in the discography that’s really worth a look. Or maybe not. This is a band with near-infinite capacity to surprise, after all.
Beyoncé: Lemonade (audio-only version) — Yeah, it works just as well without the visuals. This is mighty powerful stuff. The visual album is very much its own wonderful thing, but the songs aren’t given their full expression. On this version, “Freedom” stands out as the best track, thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar’s characteristically virtuosic verse (cut from the video for pacing, I assume). I still think “Formation” is a bit ersatz, but it’s also inessential to the album. Everything before that final track is gold. This isn’t my favourite album of the year so far, but I think it’s probably the most accomplished.
Kanye West: Yeezus — I had to give this another listen after being so disappointed by The Life of Pablo, just to make sure it was as good as I remembered. It is. Maybe better. When I think of this album now, I generally have three tracks in mind: “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and especially “On Sight.” But this listen reminded me that “I Am A God,” “Blood On The Leaves,” and “Hold My Liquor” are also great songs. I suppose Pablo really is just the first bad Kanye album. “Bound 2” is still stupid, though.
David Auerbach: “The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” — I’ve got a copy of Phil Sandifer’s new Kickstarter-funded work of theoretical madness, Neoreaction a Basilisk, coming in the mail sometime this summer. So, I figured I’d better do a bit of reading on its central metaphor written by someone a little less idiosyncratic. (Also, this ties in with Ex Machina in ways I didn’t expect.) I won’t summarize this here because I am just enough of a crackpot to find it terrifying. I will, however, link it. Read at your own risk.
Sarah Boxer: “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy” — Fantagraphics finished its heroic 25-volume reprinting of Peanuts recently, and the internet went into Schulzmania mode. I stumbled upon this at some point in a Google wormhole while looking for a specific strip. If you need to have this comic’s brilliance explained to you, this is where to go. The defence of Snoopy that forms the core of the argument may not seem necessary to many, but it is extremely successful.
All Songs Considered: “The Season Of Surprise Albums, From Beyoncé To James Blake” — Honestly, it was nice just to hear a snippet of Lemonade again. It was also revealing to hear about the completely bogus way that record companies are calculating streaming metrics. The idea that Drake’s album could have accumulated hundreds of millions of listens on its first day, just because of the advance plays of “Hotline Bling” is absurd. The world is bad. But there is a lot of good music in it. I’m not sure how much of it is made by Drake.
This American Life: “Who Do We Think We Are?” — Sean Cole is a really good host. Somebody should give him a show. The fact that he also produced the second half of the show only adds to this episode’s consistency. The story in the first half, about a woman dealing with the consequences of female genital mutilation, is one of the best radio stories I’ve heard so far this year. It’s worth noting that I’ve also heard the version that went out on The Heart, which I’m not reviewing these days for Podquest reasons. (It was staggeringly good.) But the two versions of the story are sufficiently different that both are basically essential. Pick of the week.
Radiolab: “Bigger than Bacon” — A good but rather slight story about how an unassuming species of shrimp makes bubbles as hot as the sun. Yeah, bubbles as hot as the sun. Robert Krulwich can’t believe it either.
Welcome to Night Vale: “Water Failure” — One of the best episodes of Night Vale. They break the format without relying on continuity, and the jokes feel fresher for being told in a new way. This is an episode of the show that I would point newcomers toward to demonstrate what it’s like at its best.
Code Switch: “The Code Switch Podcast Is Coming!” — The title of this three-minute trailer says it all. I would personally add a few more exclamation points to express my joy, but that is basically all I have to say.
Reply All: “On The Inside” — I was wondering why it had been so long since Sruthi Pinnamaneni had done a story. This is worth the wait. It’s going to inevitably remind you of Serial season one, because it’s full of phone calls to a prison. But it’s not really about crime: it’s basically a character sketch of this guy who’s spent his entire adult life in prison. It’s super. And next week’s part two promises to be even more interesting.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Captain America: Civil War” — Linda Holmes’s interview with the Russos made me more interested in them than I was before. I have briefly suspended my distaste for cinematic universes in general. I guess I’ll see how this Civil War thing is.
StartUp: “Dear Music Fans…” — The sordid, and strangely moving tale of Grooveshark, a company that everybody knew was bad, but that still had a bunch of committed employees. This is almost a crime thriller.
All Songs Considered: “This Week’s Number 1 Song” — NPR Music listeners selected “I Need A Forest Fire” from the new James Blake album as their favourite song of the week. That record was released on May 6, and announced three days prior on May 3. That day, a wildfire burned down a substantial chunk of my hometown. Careful what you wish for, James. Somebody else might get it instead.