Omnireviewer (week of Jun. 26, 2016)

23 reviews.

Movies

The Nice Guys — Seldom have I been so totally entertained. This is a big, rompy action comedy that just allows itself to be that thing. It’s trope aware, but most of the humour in this doesn’t come from undercutting the tropes: it comes from great, great iterations of those tropes. There are physical comedy setpieces in this that are so beautifully intuitive you wonder why you’ve never seen it done before. Both leads are good; Ryan Gosling is fabulous — and unexpectedly dextrous at physical comedy. We knew he could deliver a joke from The Big Short. But jokes aren’t the primary comedic currency of The Nice Guys. It says something about both Shane Black and Ryan Gosling that the move can get laughs from pratfalls in 2016. Also, this movie corrected a problem I’ve been seeing in a bunch of movies (mostly by the Coen Brothers): it’s got dumb comedy liberals in it, who stage vacuous protests about social ills they don’t adequately understand — but it also has comedy conservatives who monologue villainously about American exceptionalism. In a Coen Brothers movie, the monologuing villain would have been subbed out for some variant of the plainspoken cowboy, who espouses moderate views and good old-fashioned common sense — as if that’s what the liberals are fighting against. And yet it doesn’t feel like South Park-esque false equivalency. It’s nice to see a movie that calls out its comedy liberals for being dumb — because, in this movie, they really are very dumb — without actually siding against them or their cause. Go see this movie! The reviews are lukewarm, but they don’t take into account how much fun it is.

Finding Dory — I was an actual child, or something like it, when Finding Nemo came out. (Though old enough to be mighty annoyed by all of my friends constantly going “Mine! Mine!” like those damned seagulls.) My memories of its details are hazy, so this movie didn’t really have many nostalgia points going in. But it’s really cute (the frequent flashbacks featuring a saucer-eyed baby version of Dory, voiced by a seven-year-old, are almost too adorable) and it’s got some great sight gags. I imagine as soon as the words “camouflaging octopus” were spoken in a meeting, a hundred animators began seizing with joy. Ellen DeGeneres is fantastic, obviously. Also, there is a character in this — Gerald the sea lion — who is not identifiable as a Disney character. He comes straight from the dankest part of the internet. (Oh! And apparently Adrian Belew wrote the music for the opening short! It does not consist entirely of noisy guitar squalls. The man contains multitudes.)

Television

Orange is the New Black: Season 4, episodes 1-4— This season is enormously hyped, but so far it seems to be playing its cards close to its chest. I will withhold judgement until things explode. (Speaking of withholding: going three full episodes without Sophia was a masterstroke. Makes her eventual return feel super momentous.) For now, it’s just great to have these characters around again.

Last Week Tonight: June 19, 2016 — A marvellous episode that breaks Brexit down probably exactly enough for most non-British people to understand. (Were it not for Slate’s Political Gabfest, I would have been clueless going in.) It also boasts an excellent shorter segment on the Dickey Amendment, which lends clarity to how the NRA can be so effective yet so small.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: June 20, 2016 — The thing that Full Frontal has that Last Week Tonight doesn’t are Bee’s remote pieces. John Oliver used to be great at those too, on The Daily Show — and I know he’s done a couple on LWT, the Snowden one being especially great — but he’s mostly put them away in favour of just sitting at his desk. He can do a lot from that desk, to be fair. But when Bee visits a Cherokee tribal court to learn about how white people can pretty much do whatever they want on native land and take no responsibility, you’re reminded of why it’s good for satirists to get out in the world a bit.

Game of Thrones: “Battle of the Bastards” — As hour-long episodes of nothing but brutal violence go, this is extremely well deployed. It is essentially a whole episode of wish fulfilment, in the sense that the worst people in the show (the masters, Ramsay) suffer gruesomely at the hands of the most noble (Daenerys, Jon, Sansa). And while my feelings about Ramsey’s demise are more relief than satisfaction, I will confess that his particular battle tactics in this episode were marvelously in keeping with his entire brutal character. As big ‘splody episode nines go, it isn’t “Baelor,” and it certainly isn’t “Blackwater.” But it isn’t bad.

Games

The Walking Dead: Michonne: “In Too Deep” — I don’t think I’ll ever tire of Telltale. To some extent, all of their games are the same, but only in the sense that they share all of their mechanics. Those mechanics can be used to tell dramatically different kinds of stories. In fact, within the Walking Dead universe alone, we’ve seen a bunch of different kinds of stories. I’m not familiar with Michonne’s character having never read the comics and not having made it that far into the show. But this game’s opening does a brilliant job characterizing her efficiently. In fact the fight that starts this episode might be the most ingenious one in the series so far, because of the way it invokes backstory as it proceeds. Looking forward to the two remaining episodes — and really looking forward to season three in the fall.

Literature, etc.

Thomas Ligotti: “My Case for Retributive Action” — Ligotti is really good at tying the stakes of his stories to specific traits of their narrators. He did it brilliantly in “Sideshow,” and here he does it in a more straightforward setting. Our narrator has a nervous condition. He is very clearly unwell. The story wouldn’t be very effective without that little bit of knowledge. But given that, it’s really disconcerting. Loved this.

Thomas Ligotti: “Our Temporary Supervisor” — This actually builds on ideas in the previous story, particularly the mysterious corporation/governing body called the Quine Organization. I tend not to be a fan of world-building and continuity in short-form narratives, but the Quine Organization, being a shadowy company with a stranglehold over the citizens of whatever fictional nation this is set in, offers a particularly interesting set of tropes with which to tell labour-related parables. I understand Ligotti went back to that well in his collection My Work is Not Yet Done, which would also have sufficed as a title for either of these stories. I wonder if Q. Org makes an appearance?

Peter Henderson: “Back to the Drawing Board” — This Maisonneuve feature (which I read because I was, and am, trying to convince myself to subscribe) tells two stories of artistic obsession. One is about the animator Richard Williams, best-known for Who Framed Roger Rabbit? He spent years and years on his would-be masterpiece The Thief and the Cobbler, only to have it taken away from him by a studio who couldn’t handle the blown deadlines any longer. The other is about Garrett Gilchrist, a struggling filmmaker who abandons all potentially lucrative work to try and piece together a complete version of Williams’ film from what scraps remain. It’s a fabulous pair of yarns that also encompasses much of animation history. I may subscribe to Maisonneuve yet.

Music

Yes: Close to the Edge — I don’t think I’ve ever gone longer between listens of this album than just prior to this time through. It really feels like an old friend. For a lot of years, I sort of wore myself out on this Yes album. Even my beloved Tales From Topographic Oceans got less play, because you just don’t have the time to listen to an 81-minute-long record quite so frequently as a 37-minute one. But now that it no longer feels overfamiliar, all of its original impact came roaring back. The title track is one of the most perfect album sides ever made — and not perfect in the meticulous sense that people wrongly associate with Yes. The best moments of “Close to the Edge” are organized chaos — five people making music together in a room, playing fast and loose within a predetermined structure. There are moments here that, in spite of having heard them hundreds of times, made me gasp aloud on the bus, or tear up a bit behind my sunglasses: the first entry of Jon Anderson’s voice, just for a beat, a cappella; the moment at the end of Steve Howe’s opening guitar solo where finishes on nine sixteenth-notes in unison with Bill Bruford’s snare drum; Anderson’s repeated refrain “I get up, I get down,” gradually ascending to a climax just before Rick Wakeman’s church organ solo; Chris Squire’s dissonant bass note, just before the final “seasons will pass you by.” It’s a masterpiece. If there’s anything wrong with this album, it’s just that the first side is so complete in itself that the second side seems superfluous. Which isn’t to say it’s not good — “And You And I” would have been the best track on a couple other great Yes albums. “Siberian Khatru” isn’t a personal favourite, but this lineup of Yes never rocked harder. Close to the Edge is one of the best records of the 70s, in any genre. If prog rock’s not your thing, then you obviously won’t be into this. But any outright malice you may hear expressed towards Close to the Edge can only be born of blind prejudice. Pick of the week.

Peter Gabriel: “I’m Amazing” — Peter Gabriel has never been known for the timeliness of his records. When Up was released in 2002, reviewers pointed out that it had been in development since the early days of industrial music and marked it down as DOA: Dated On Arrival. (Taken in retrospect as an album divorced from history, it works a lot better. It’s one of my favourite records ever, actually.) Yet here’s Gabriel releasing a new track about Muhammed Ali, shortly after his death. It’s decent. Neither a classic, nor an embarrassment. It’s got some African vocal samples near the end that demonstrate how Gabriel still hasn’t quite wrapped his head around the notion of cultural appropriation, in spite of his famously good intentions. But it’s fine. What’s really interesting is that “I’m Amazing” has apparently been in the vault for years, which is why Gabriel was able to get it out so comparatively quickly after Ali died. This suggests that Gabriel may not be the notorious procrastinator, or the anti-prolific elder statesman that some of us have pegged him as. We know that he records a lot more than he releases. This is the first glimpse behind the curtain, and it’s not that bad. What other interesting experiments are locked up in that vault?

Justice: Audio, Video, Disco — I’d say it’s self-evidently better than their debut, if that weren’t obviously untrue on account of how few people agree with it. But I was way more swept up in this than I was in Cross, which I also liked. It’s probably just on account of how proggy it is. But I also think that it has a greater wealth of melodic invention than their debut record, which is important to me in dance music.

Podcasts

The Gist: “Chuck Klosterman is Wrong! (He Says.)” — I had meant to check out The Gist since hearing Brooke Gladstone refer to Mike Pesca as one of the smartest people she’d ever worked with on the Longreads podcast. Now I see why. This is two acclaimed abstract thinkers talking abstractly, and neither one is obviously smarter than the other. Pesca is less insufferable, though.

The Memory Palace: “A White Horse” — A beautiful, timely, sentimental (in the absolutely most tolerable and completely earned way) tribute to gay clubs as safe spaces. DiMeo has the ability to harness the emotional power of language moreso than probably anybody outside of hip hop. This week, he used that power in service of a mourning community. I don’t want to paint him as saintly, or anything like that, because that would be crass. But this is beautiful, and you can definitely spare ten minutes to hear it.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “O.J.: Made in America and a Television Quiz” — Okay, that settles it. I’m watching O.J.: Made in America as soon as I’m done Orange is the New Black. Gene Demby has some really interesting context to offer about Simpson’s troubled relationship with his race. This is one of many times when this show has tipped me over the edge and encouraged me to check out something I was only halfway planning to.

Radio Diaries: “Majd’s Diary: Two Years in the Life of a Saudi Girl” — This is outstanding. It completely proves the value of first-person narratives as journalism. Majd is a fabulous narrator of her own life. It’s really wrenching to hear the conflict she feels between wanting to be a successful scientist and an independent woman and hoping her family (particularly its male members) can accept that decision. Great radio. Pick of the week.

On The Media: “Never Again, Again” — I’ve got to confess, this was kind of noise to me this week. We’ve reached the point in Orlando coverage where it’s just turned into the same depressing stew of narratives that surfaces after every similarly atrocious act of violence. And those narratives tend to be either self-evident or obviously bullshit to me. As for Brexit, that story has me totally lost at this point. Maybe another podcast about it will help…

Slate’s Political Gabfest: “The ‘Brexit Pursued by a Bear’ Edition” — I confess, the episode title had a lot to do with my decision to listen to this. I don’t tune in very often because Emily Bazelon is kind of the only member of the panel I enjoy listening to. And she’s not here this week. So, mm. The Orlando segment provoked a similar reaction from me as OTM’s. The Brexit segment, however, was invaluable. The Economist’s David Rennie is as level-headed a guide through the whole sordid affair as you could ask for. By the time this review is posted, the vote will be in, and you will be depressed. But if you’re still clueless about why it even happened, go back and check this out.

Invisibilia: “The New Norm” — I was mixed on the first season of Invisibilia. On one hand, the stories were really moving in a lot of cases. On the other hand, the show’s voice (not the hosts’ voices, mind you — I’m speaking abstractly, here) can be cloying. This episode displayed both sides, right from the top. The opening segment, about the first McDonald’s in Russia, is spectacularly forced in its attempt to introduce the episode’s theme. But the story of the southern oil rig where employees were encouraged to set aside their macho bullshit and open up to each other is totally compelling. I anticipate another mixed season.

StartUp: “From the Cell to the Sell” — The second part didn’t disappoint. This story of a drug dealer turned startup founder is the high-water mark of StartUp’s third season so far, and given my prior frustrations, I expect it to remain so.

This American Life: “Tell Me I’m Fat” — This is an astonishing and provocative hour of radio that brings up stuff I’ve never even thought about. Lindy West is at the centre of it, reading segments of her new book Shrill, which sounds fantastic. She puts forth the view that fat people (that is her preferred term) shouldn’t be obligated to lose weight, but rather should find a way to be happy as they are. The showstopper, though, is Elna Baker, who tells the story of successfully losing half her body weight, along with a good chunk of her identity. The way she talks about how her relationship to the world changed along with her weight is viscerally distressing, as is the way she talks about the surgery she had to remove her excess skin.

The Gist: “Brexit Stage Right” — I came for Pesca’s take on Team Leave (yeah, they’d already left, but I was still confused) and stayed for his interview with Big Freedia. Pesca is respectful without being deferential, and treats Freedia with engaging irreverence.

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