Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 5, 2016)

Every week, I tag my Omnireviewer posts with the relevant categories: movies, TV, comedy, books, comics, classical music, popular music, video games and podcasts. This week marks a new milestone: the first time I’ve got all the categories in one post.

*party favour noise*

Here are this week’s 28 reviews.

Movies

Captain America: Civil War — I LOVED this movie. But before I praise it to the high heavens, I need to puke up the obligatory caveat that cinematic universes are a bad idea and I want there to be small, self-contained movies again. The trailer for Rogue One at the start of this actually cast a shadow over the opening scenes of the movie. The idea that there are just going to be a million Star Wars movies now appalls me. Back when there were just two trilogies, the batting average may have been low, but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That seems inevitable now. On the other hand, Civil War gets maximum mileage out of the advantages that a sprawling canon affords. Every major MCU character save for Thor, Bruce Banner and Nick Fury are here, along with the bulk of their supporting cast. And when they all fight (spoiler: they all fight), their previously established relationships inform the way that fight plays out. The character dynamics in this remind me of two very different movies, both of which are far better than this one, but the fact that I’m even thinking about them speaks highly of Civil War. One of those movies is Mad Max: Fury Road. I wrote about the fight scene between Max and Furiosa in my year-end wrap up for 2015. The huge fight scene that serves as Civil War’s central set piece is far less focussed and less high-concept, but it is similar in the sense that the characters are not just trying to mow each other down and emerge victorious. There are more complicated dynamics at play for everybody here, from Black Widow and Hawkeye not wanting to hit each other too hard to Spider-Man being an obvious newbie and eager to impress. And, just a side note before I continue this line of thought: it looks like the third time’s going to be the charm where Spider-Man movies are concerned. The Tobey Maguire ones have aged very badly and the Andrew Garfield iteration was DOA. But this Tom Holland kid (says the guy who’s five years older than him, but spiritually, forty) has got the goods. If the writing for Peter Parker in the next Spider-Man movie is as sharp as it is here, we’re saved. This is the wisecracking, verbose, overenthusiastic character that I remember from the cartoons of my youth. I am similarly excited for Black Panther, though I don’t actually know the character. Anyway. The other movie that came to mind while I was watching this was, stay with me here, The Rules of the Game. Like I said a couple weeks ago, that’s a movie where everybody does what they think is right, and there are terrible consequences anyway. There’s no bad guy. There is a bad guy in Civil War, obviously. This is a Marvel movie; not a French drama from 1939. But, the villain here is essentially a MacGuffin. He even almost conceives of himself as a MacGuffin: he’s just trying to start a process that he himself will not have much to do with. This is the closest thing I’ve seen to a juggernaut franchise blockbuster that doesn’t have time for the idea of evil. Even Mr. MacGuffin doesn’t turn out to be evil, necessarily, though it takes a certain amount of ruthlessness to respond to his circumstances the way that he does. The point is: it’s almost immaterial whether you align yourself with “Team Cap” or “Team Stark”: the important thing is that they both think they’re doing what’s right, and violence ensues regardless. That is almost unprecedented in this kind of movie. But, this movie is trying to be a subtly different kind of franchise movie in a few different ways. Let’s return to Mr. MacGuffin for a moment. The big reveal about his character near the end of the movie is the exact opposite of the trick that Star Trek: Into Darkness played with Benedict Cumberbatch’s character, where they reveal some time into the movie that he’s actually been a huge iconic villain from the canon all along. Mr. MacGuffin’s big reveal is that he’s nobody. At this point, that’s more legitimately surprising in the MCU than, say, revealing that he’s the Green Goblin. It’s a willful subversion of a trope that has been established — largely by Marvel — only in the age of cinematic universes. Also, the fact that he’s a previously inconsequential victim of the carnage in Age of Ultron is an apt response to the appalling body count of many of these types of movies. The character Vision is one of the least interesting in the movie, but he has one interesting thing to say. He suggests that the presence of superheroes in the world leads to the inevitable presence of super-threats. What he’s really saying is that the Avengers need to be careful how they act, because their very existence proves that they’re in the kind of story where cities get levelled by monologuing AIs. Tony Stark is ready to not be in that story anymore. So, he tries to turn the story into a political drama. Stark has little to lose, narratively speaking. He can function just fine as a quippy guy in a boardroom. Cap’s not having it, though, because he can only function as a superhero. The fact that all of these themes are demonstrably present in this movie without it ever descending into explicit metafiction (not a given from a pair of directors who worked on Community) marks it as something special. The fact that I’ve written this much about a Marvel movie without saying anything outright negative marks it as something approaching a miracle. Pick of the week.

Television

Last Week Tonight: June 5, 2016 — I never have anything substantial to say about this show, because I feel like it leaves everything pretty much said for itself. This was a fantastic episode that completely transcends its headline-grabbing gimmick of forgiving $15 million dollars of real-world debt. I was thinking as I watched this, I think part of why it’s so good isn’t necessarily because it’s funny from top to bottom. Take note of where the audience laughs versus where they applaud. Part of why this feels so good is that it’s skilful rhetoric. That word has taken on a bit of a ghostly pall these days, and deservedly so. Rhetoric is used by politicians to peddle talking points, and in that service it need not necessarily be reasoned. But John Oliver has a standup comedian’s ability to take you gradually from point A to point B to point C, until you reach clarity. I can’t name a moment where I’ve actually disagreed with John Oliver, and while that might be partially because we are approximately the same species of liberal, I think part of it is simply because of the power of his argumentation. That’s not scary in this instance; it’s laudable. I lump him in as much with people like Bob Garfield and Brooke Gladstone as with Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. I haven’t given this show pick of the week very often, and I’m not going to this week either. But as a sustained thing that I check in with each week, it’s absolutely one of my favourite things being made right now.

Archer: “Deadly Velvet, Part 2” — Well, shit. Now I’m definitely watching the next season. This was really funny, and brought the story full-circle in a way that made some jokes pay off after an entire season of waiting. Archer is still capable of intense cleverness, even if it is starting to feel a bit thin in places.

Game of Thrones: “The Broken Man” — Ian McShane! The Hound! Jon and Sansa are building an army! Arya got stabbed! Oh, so much for Ian McShane.

Lost: “Confidence Man” — There are so many characters that don’t work in this first season. Sayid is almost one of them, just due to Naveen Andrews’s atrocious fake accent. But mostly I’m talking about Sawyer because he is noxious. And frankly, even a sympathetic origin story and the considerable writing talents of Damon Lindelof himself cannot paper over that.

And Then There Were None: Episode 1 — If I’m not mistaken, not only have I never read anything by Agatha Christie, but I also have never seen an adaptation of her work. The closest I’ve come is that silly Doctor Who story where she gets attacked by a giant bee. This unfamiliarity makes it interesting to watch a series that perceives itself to be telling a familiar story. And Then There Were None, elegantly retitled from Christie’s original very racist title, introduces its characters with great ceremony, as if they’re all James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. Presumably, they are better known to the average BBC viewer than they are to me — Christie is a nearly unparalleled British cultural touchstone, of course, and I am a mere hayseed from the colonies. But once you get over the feeling that you’re being presented with the phenomenon of Agatha Christie: familiar thing, the story rockets along in this miniseries premiere. The acting is the most obviously phenomenal thing, and the show gets a lot of mileage out of just letting Miranda Richardson be charismatically horrible, Burn Gorman be charismatically skittish, and the rest of them be charismatic variants on other unsavoury traits. But it’s also wonderfully written, shot, paced, etc., and the sets are fantastic. I’m loving this so far, but I’ll leave it there for now because I suspect things are going to go bonkers in the next instalment.

Comedy

Mitch Hedberg: Comedy Central Presents Mitch Hedberg — This is amazing. It’s like a battle between a man, his sense of self, and an audience that he wrongly perceives as hostile. Actually, listening to the audience only sort of get the jokes is half the fun. There are so many quotable one-liners packed into these 37 minutes, that it’s hard to fathom how long it must have taken him to put together all that material. His whole career, I assume. This is messy and weird and probably still one of the best specials I’ve seen.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “The Red Tower” — This seemed to me to be the most hyped story in Teatro Grottesco, and I certainly understand why. It is exceedingly unorthodox not just in its subject matter, which is a given for Ligotti, but in its approach. Aside from the narrator, about whom the reader never learns any details, there are no characters in this story. It is simply a description of how an incredibly unsettling supernatural factory operates. It left my skin crawling, because I’m certain that it’s a metaphor for something but I’m not sure what. The operation described in this story has the shape of a vaguely familiar thing, but twisted into a grotesque parody. That feeling of not quite being able to put your finger on the reason you’re upset is, I’m learning, a hallmark of Ligotti’s writing. I’m not sure this is my favourite story in Teatro Grottesco so far — I’m still quite fond of “The Town Manager” — but I suspect it’s objectively the best one.

Alex Clifton: One Week // One Band, Punch Brothers — Having grazed through bits and pieces of this group blog’s back catalogue, I’ve found that there are some weeks that feature solid critical theory worth revisiting long after the fact, and others that take a more companionable approach something like a really smart radio host. This is the first week that I’ve followed as it goes along, and Clifton tends towards the second approach — but boy does it work better when delivered in real time. Every so often, you’ll get another dose, and by the end of the week, you feel like you’ve got a handle on the band. The Punch Brothers are a band I’ve meant to get into for ages, having seen a bunch of Chris Thile related stuff on YouTube. Now I’ve got a bunch of context and I’ve seen a bunch of live stuff that I might not have if I’d just dove in with an album from the start. I think this is what Tumblr is for. This made me not hate social media for a while, which is a real trick in a week where I also read…

John Herrman: The Content Wars — I dunno about you, but I’m feeling more and more like Facebook is leading us all to the brink of an intellectual apocalypse. And I’m starting to feel the backlash coming on. The first inkling of it that I observed outside of my own head was Vox co-founder Joshua Topolsky’s post on Medium a few weeks back. Then, I heard my favourite fellow tech sceptic Benjamen Walker bring it up on Theory of Everything. And that episode led me to John Herrman’s column The Content Wars that ran on the Awl throughout 2014-15. Being me, I decided to read every column, straight from the top. I’ve got a ways to go yet, but so far it is excellent and frightening. The upshot is that social platforms, Facebook in particular, are interested in promoting content (Herrman always stylises it as CONTENT) that makes people use those platforms more. Whether anybody clicks on or engages with a publisher’s CONTENT is essentially irrelevant. Thus (and Herrman doesn’t argue this didactically though he clearly feels it very acutely), publishers who produce content in the hopes of taking advantage of Facebook’s algorithm are not only cheapening their respective brands. They are also helping Facebook cement its monopoly on the sharing of information. Which, in turn will force more publishers to cater to Facebook’s algorithm, and we’re suddenly in a big dumb feedback loop of fail videos, listicles and inane hot takes. Some of Herrman’s posts are newsy and of their time, but the best ones are the most abstracted, and they’re still very relevant a year later. It ought to be required reading for anybody working in any media company because the impact of social media on editorial CONTENT is bad and it is real and it will either end soon and take us all with it or it will lead to the utter nadir of human thought. Unless we stop it. Read this series to know what I’m talking about.

Matt Fraction/Gabriel Bá: Casanova, Volume 3 “Avaritia” — Man, this comic is really hard to follow. I can’t imagine what it’s like to actually follow on an issue-by-issue basis. I can barely keep track of everything when I’m reading the trade collections. But the penny does usually drop at some point, and that moment was pretty awesome in the second volume, so I will hold out hope. Also, Fraction is the only writer who composes an SF story this intricate and still fills it with recurring sight gags.

Music

John Storgårds, Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, Gerald Finley, Mika Pohjonen et. al: Works by Rautavaara — Einojuhani Rautavaara is one of the best living composers, and probably one of the most revered by people who are inclined to revere people like him. But his name hasn’t quite punctured through into the mainstream classical consciousness in the way that, say, Steve Reich or Arvo Pärt have. I wish it would. Rautavaara’s music sits exactly on that perfect line between Romantic familiarity and postmodernist novelty. Storgårds and his Finnish orchestra are no strangers to this music, and perform it wonderfully. Gerald Finley’s performance on the first work on the disc is typical of his dramatic, unforced approach to concert material and reminded me why he’s one of my favourite baritones — not only can he really, really sing, but he’s also a great champion of new work. (This song cycle was commissioned for Finley specifically by Wigmore Hall.) Tenor Mika Pohjonen is new to me, and honestly not my kind of singer. He’s got that paint thinner vibrato; you know the kind. But he’s tolerable in the fairly small tenor part of the cantata Balada. And the Helsinki Music Centre Choir gets their time in the sun during Four Songs from the Opera Rasputin, an opera which I am now determined to see.  Anybody looking for a way into Rautavaara’s music should check this out. (Then high-tail ‘er straight for the Latvian Radio Choir’s amazing recording of his sacred music. That’s also incredible.)

Punch Brothers: Who’s Feeling Young Now? — Alex Clifton’s recommended starting point did not disappoint. The music on this album seems generally more straightforward than some of the stuff on their first two, though that doesn’t stop Chris Thile from pulling out an inscrutable polyrhythm on “Movement and Location.” There are no bad songs on this, and it’s so much more than the novelty you might expect from a bluegrass group fronted by a mandolin virtuoso that does Radiohead covers.

Games

Super Meat Boy — I confess, I played this for a few minutes this week just so that I could finally sweep all of my Omnireviewer categories. But since I’m here, I may as well talk about how this sort of game is the kind of thing that I can appreciate, but never really enjoy. I bought it out of curiosity after watching Indie Game: The Movie, and the beauty of the mechanics was obvious from the start. Still, it is much too “video game” for me, in general. I like my games to be books. This is very much not a book. I will say, though: I beat a few levels I’d been struggling with, and man did it feel good. Mark this down as a potential danger to my health.

Podcasts

More Perfect: “Cruel and Unusual” — This story of the way that lethal injections enter the United States, the first in a miniseries from Radiolab about the SCOTUS, is the best Radiolab-related story I’ve heard in some time. And that’s coming from a staunch Robert Krulwich devotee, and he’s not in this. It contains the most amusing bit of tape I’ve heard in awhile, where a dogged but pathologically good-natured British reporter presses a cartoon villain of a pharma reseller with questions he absolutely does not want to answer. It’s glorious. The whole thing is. Jad’s theme song is the dumbest thing I’ve heard in my damn life, though. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “X-Men: Apocalypse and Supervillains” — On one hand, I’m not sure why they decided to do this, since none of them seemed to have strong feelings about the movie one way or another, but having Chris Klimek and Daoud Tyler-Ameen in lieu of Glen Weldon’s usual brand of comic book geekdom is refreshing in a topic like this. And I admire Linda Holmes’s tenacity in constantly referring to Apocalypse as “Oscar Isaac Blue God Man.”

On The Media: “When to Believe” — Worth it for the story of a New York Times reporter who changed the way the media covered AIDS. It’s hugely moving, in a way you don’t normally expect from this show.

The Heart: “Hands on the Wheel” — I can’t make it pick of the week every week, but I’m tempted to. The Heart has already found its way into my top podcasts of the year, on account of this series alone. Which is not to say that The Heart isn’t always good — it is. But this series is gut-wrenching and well-made and if you’re not listening to it right now you’re doing podcasts wrong. Or, you don’t want to hear a long, detailed story about a woman grappling with her childhood sexual abuse, which is totally fair. But if you’re open to hearing that kind of story, get on this.

The Bugle: “VIB – Very Important Bugle” — I saw that title and thought, oh, John Oliver must be leaving The Bugle. And I was right. The Bugle is great, but I’ve only been listening for a short time, and even then only occasionally. I can’t help but feel that its best days were prior to my having found it. Maybe the upcoming soft reboot, with a rotating panel of second chairs (Wyatt Cenac! Helen Zaltzman!) will reinvigorate it into a show I feel compelled to listen to when the title isn’t “Very Important Bugle.”

The Memory Palace: “Family Snapshot” — A lovely, slight little thing, but when it comes to moon landing-related episodes of The Memory Palace, there’s only one for me. You know how it is.

All Songs Considered: “Sean Lennon’s Surreal Ode to Michael Jackson’s Pet Chimp, Bubbles” — This is an odd, odd song. I feel somewhat tempted to check out the album, just on account of how odd this song is. Sean Lennon is a strange bird, but can you blame him?

Radiolab: “The Buried Bodies Case” — This is quite basic in its approach, but it’s a super compelling story. It starts with an account of a manhunt that’s totally absorbing, and then it moves into a discussion of the criminal defence lawyers in the case, and the unusual position they found themselves in where they had to disobey their consciences to be good lawyers. Really interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Not Soon Enough” — I had to go back and listen to this whole episode after Roman Mars played the opening on 99pi and Nate DiMeo cited it as his favourite on The Memory Palace. The middle portion didn’t make a lot of sense, I’ll admit, probably because I hadn’t heard the episode where this character (a real person, maybe?) was introduced. See below. But the beginning and end, featuring a pair of monologues from Benjamen Walker about trying to jump into a painting, are glorious. This is that magical thing: a combination of fiction and nonfiction with a bit of art criticism thrown in for good measure. This show is unlike anything else and I love it so much that I’m going to listen to two more episodes now.

Theory of Everything: “Admissions of Defeat” — I listened to this in the hopes that the middle section of “Not Soon Enough” would make more sense. It does, but I’m still not sure how much of it isn’t real. It shouldn’t matter, but today it did for some reason. The rest of this episode is amazing, though. Walker attends (well, no he doesn’t; he just says he does) a post-gentrification, tech bubble psychic, and a correspondent explains an NSA plot to put backdoors in podcasts. This is the only show tied to a major podcast ring that’s got the guts to go this far out. I love it so much.

Theory of Everything: “sudculture (part I of II)” — Okay, this is a bit earnest. I love craft beer, and I am all for any anti-corporate attitude that results in a more flavourful brew. Actually, I am pretty much for any anti-corporate attitude. But this is the first time that Walker’s statement-making felt like rote hipsterism to me. I suspect that the second part, which he’s suggested has something to do with craft beer opposing one corporate monoculture only to impose another, will be more interesting.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: The Black Film Canon” — A useful summary of a Slate piece I’ll likely skim fairly soon.

99% Invisible: “H-Day” — There’s a feeling you sometimes get as a radio producer where you find a piece of tape that is so absurd, so wonderful, and so unexpected that you know it will make everything around it more memorable just by proximity. This episode has a song, funded by the government of Sweden, intended to remind people to drive on the right side of the road. The key lyric, approximately translated: “Keep to the right, Svensson.” That song is going to make this a 99pi I will remember. But it’s also just pretty fantastic in general. Other revelations include the fact that the Swedish government instituted a sweeping infrastructure change in spite of a referendum that showed over 80% of the population opposed it, and that there’s a phone number you can call to be connected to a random Swede.

Code Switch: “Made for You and Me” — This podcast is proving to be a massive reintroduction to the extent of my own whiteness. This is an entire episode about the stereotype that people of colour don’t do outdoorsy things. I didn’t even know that stereotype was a thing.

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