Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 18, 2016)

15 reviews. These small numbers are making me feel so well-adjusted.

Television

O.J.: Made in America: Episodes 4 & 5 — I’ll double down on what I said last time: this is the best documentary I’ve ever seen. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that’s quite this good at telling the big story and the little story at the same time. This is not just the story of the O.J. Simpson trial. It is the story of the fraught relationship between police and African Americans (yes, this series comes at an appropriate time). It is the story of how a pre-infamy O.J. Simpson made the conscious attempt to distance himself from his race. And most fascinatingly of all, it is the story of how the former narrative, about police brutality, was cynically co-opted by Simpson’s defence team in spite of the latter narrative in which O.J. preferred not to be seen as black. This series also makes a lot of time for Nicole Brown, which is extremely important given that this is as much a story about domestic violence as it is about race. If I go on any longer, I’ll go on much longer, so I’ll leave it there. But suffice it to say that this is head, shoulders and torso above every other new thing I’ve reviewed on this blog in 2016. I will certainly be writing more on at some point. Pick of the week.

BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 1-3 — Oh man, I love this show. So far, this season is relatively light (very relatively) but I’m sure that will change. For now, it’s fun to just reacclimate to the density of visual humour in this show. (The titles on Princess Carolyn’s bookshelf are all bad cat puns, etc.) This is certainly my favourite of the current crop of adult cartoons.

Movies

Ghostbusters — It’s great! It is essentially a delivery system for hilarious jokes and a quartet of excellent performances. The story isn’t much. But, that’s not the point. This is a marvellous update of a franchise that was always more memorable than good. The fact that it stars four women and has a red pill shitsack as its villain certainly adds to the appeal. But mostly, this is great because Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and especially Kate McKinnon are extremely funny and likable screen presences.

Music

Nonkeen: The Gamble/Oddments of the Gamble — I’m reviewing them together, because their titles make it seem like they’re meant to be taken together. That said, they’re no much alike. The Gamble itself is a dark, moody thing that I can’t see myself returning to that often. But Oddments of the Gamble, in spite of having a name that explicitly marks it as the subordinate one in the pair, is enthralling and far more energetic. (It may help that I listened to the latter while watching fireworks, but I don’t think that necessarily kills my objectivity.) Taken together, The Gamble and its Oddments are lovely ambient music. They’re slight, but nice.

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel (2) — Gabriel’s least-appreciated album has always been an idiosyncratic favourite of mine. It was produced by Robert Fripp, whose primary function seems to have been making Gabriel work quickly. That’s not necessarily as utilitarian an approach as it may seem. Gabriel is an infamous slowpoke, and possibly the easiest way to get him working outside of his comfort zone is to speed the process up. The result is the only Peter Gabriel studio album where it sounds like there may be such a thing as “The Peter Gabriel Band.” It all sounds fairly live, and there’s a consistency across the album, because it was primarily played by the same people. Roy Bittan from Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band gives particularly evocative performances on piano. It’s true that there are some weak moments — “Home Sweet Home” is the ghastliest track in Gabriel’s catalogue, vying only with his awful cover of “Street Spirit (Fade Out).” (And for some reason, he put both of them at the end of their respective albums. Self-sabotage? His early album covers suggest he has a taste for it.) “Perspective” hasn’t aged well. And “A Wonderful Day In A One-Way World,” much as I love it in spite of myself, is too clever by half. But, they’re more than counterbalanced by, in my estimation, five classics: “On the Air,” “Mother of Violence” (astonishing), “Animal Magic,” “Exposure” (better here than on Fripp’s solo album of the same name), and “Flotsam and Jetsam.” Throw in “D.I.Y.,” which isn’t quite the “Solsbury Hill” cash-in that some have accused it of being, the pleasantly elaborate “White Shadow,” and “Indigo,” which I love when I’m in my least cynical mood, and you’ve got an album nearly worthy of the two acclaimed classics on either side of it in the discography. I shall sit and wait for the global reappraisal.

Peter Gabriel: Live in Athens 1987 — Having exhausted my Tidal trial (and the second month that I accidentally paid for), I’ve moved on to a free trial with Apple Music. They’ve got a Peter Gabriel collection on there that’s got all of the non-soundtrack studio albums, plus a bunch of live stuff. This was the only live album in there that I hadn’t heard before, and it 100% trumps both Plays Live and Secret World Live. By a lot. Gabriel is at his vocal prime, having built up substantial grit since his Genesis days, but still with every ounce of his flexibility intact. His live band has not yet started to sprawl: it’s a tight four-piece of his long-term collaborators David Rhodes on guitar and Tony “best bassist alive” Levin, plus David Sancious on keys and the completely astonishing Manu Katche on drums. The setlist is heavy on material from the then-recent commercial breakthrough So, but that’s not a complaint. While I prefer other Peter Gabriel albums to that juggernaut, listening to him perform these songs while they’re new is really something. It’s the first and last time in Gabriel’s career that he’s managed to write songs with this kind of directness, and he’s audibly delighting in the extent that he’s connecting with his audience. Two years before Say Anything, “In Your Eyes” is an anthem of white-hot spiritual euphoria. This 11-minute rendition, containing the introductory verse that got lopped off the studio album, is the definitive one. The same could be said for a bunch of the earlier stuff, too — in front of a crowd, “Solsbury Hill” releases all of the latent joy that’s reined in on the studio version. This is incredible, and a great argument for live albums in general.

Chance the Rapper: Colouring Book — This is the album that I wish The Life of Pablo was: big shimmery gospel hip hop with great beats and without Kanye’s 2016 full-time troll persona mucking up the works. In fact, Chance is so likeable that it almost seems like an overcorrection of Pablo. This is the most overtly joyful album I’ve heard this year. It is the only one of my favourite albums of 2016 that isn’t extremely dark. That counts for a lot.

Podcasts

In Our Time: “The Invention of Photography” — Melvyn’s in an odd mood, this time around. At one point he feels compelled to urge his guests to move forward with the story more rapidly. But that made me realize something: some of Melvyn Bragg’s idiosyncrasies come down to his having to preside over a rounded conversation on a complex issue that must fit exactly into a timeslot. What you’re hearing on the podcast has presumably not been altered from what I occasionally forget is a live broadcast. If Bragg seems a bit brusque at times, it likely has something to do with that. The actual content of this episode is enthralling as ever, with Simon Schafer proving an especially compelling guest. The early history of photography is full of personalities, and they’re brought to life here. Nice.

Invisibilia: “Frame of Reference” — At one point in this, Hanna Rosin describes “a science fiction story she once read” that actually sounds like it might just be Plato’s cave allegory. That aside, this is a strong episode. The first story, about a woman with Asperger’s who is momentarily afforded a glimpse of a world seen without Asperger’s is moving as a character-driven narrative, even if the themes don’t hit as hard as the producers probably want them to. But the second, an interview with comedian Hasan Minhaj about how his father’s reference points for suffering hindered their mutual understanding, is really lovely. It helps that Alix Spiegel has a similar relationship with her mom. This season is yet to produce an earth shattering story in the vein of the first season’s locked-in syndrome story. But it is now reliably satisfying me.

Code Switch: “No Words” — This was the first time I heard the tape of Philando Castile’s girlfriend after he was shot. I am glad I have not seen the video. It is appalling and unbelievably sad. Code Switch has had a lot of news to react to since its inception, and it tends to be the kind of news that there’s almost nothing to say about, thus the title of this extra episode. But they’ve comported themselves admirably.

On The Media: “Breaking News Consumer’s Handbook: Bearing Witness” — I don’t tend to find myself in situations where I’ve got to film horrible things on my phone, and also I am not American, so different laws apply. But this was interesting in a more abstract way than it was possibly meant to be.

Radiolab: “David and the Wire” — This is a borderline non-story, and consciously so. But I was riveted. It’s a personal narrative, related by a man who records everything in the hopes that he will someday become Scott Carrier. Radio about radio will always appeal to me. I’m interested to see what else happens on Radiolab while Jad’s away on other business.

The Memory Palace: “Oil, Water” — A slight episode, but nice. It’s good to know that the river doesn’t catch fire in Cleveland anymore. It’s distressing to know how frequently it once did.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Pokemon Go” — Glen Weldon is so often a real curmudgeon that it’s nice to hear him being so wonderfully enthusiastic about something that so many people are being curmudgeons about. I will be checking out Pokémon Go when my life has space for it.

The Allusionist: “Generation What?” — I think this maybe gives a bit too much credit to Strauss and Howe. They’re the guys who devised the generational theory that says the characteristics of generations are predictable in advance, and therefore history is a relatively tight cycle. Their system always read like horoscopes to me. But when Zaltzman focusses on the language, this is great. Also, this has Megan Tan on it from the Millennial podcast, which I’m intending to check out. She is not super insightful here, and anybody who tries to own the label “millennial” is inherently suspect to me. But I won’t write her off until I’ve heard her show. Possibly not even then!

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