Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 14)

16 reviews. What on earth have I been doing? (Playing my new accordion. That’s what I’ve been doing.)

Movies

Shadow of a Doubt — I haven’t seen a lot of Hitchcock, and I honestly find him a mixed bag. I do not share the rest of the world’s reverence for Vertigo, and I think that Psycho is essentially saved by Bernard Herrmann. But I enjoyed this movie, screening at the Cinémathèque, on a number of levels. First off, the structure of establishing at the start that Joseph Cotten’s character is being chased and may be guilty of something terrible, and then avoiding the reveal for most of the movie worked brilliantly for me. In terms of the things that are happening for the bulk of the running time, this is mostly a comedic family portrait (it’s co-written by Thornton Wilder) with a Hitchcock-shaped cloud hanging over it. The tension of not knowing what Cotten did, or if he did it, is heightened by the fact that the family’s interactions are such a pleasure to watch. In fact, if there’s a real problem with this movie, it’s that the small-town comedy of manners is a better movie than the thriller it lives inside. The precocious young girl Ann is a complete scene stealer. And Herb the eccentric neighbour is far and away the best thing in this movie. I’m uncertain if some of the things I found funny were actually meant to be. Certainly, some of the laughter in the theatre was at the expense of the old-timey values espoused by the script. (“No champagne for me,” says the local priest. “And none for my wife, I’m sure!”) But there’s a fine line between reading the film as openly misogynistic and patriarchal and reading it as a critique of those same ideologies. It seems I prefer lesser-known Hitchcock movies to the critical juggernauts. As it stands, this is neck-and-neck with Saboteur for the mantle of my favourite Hitchcock movie. Bearing in mind that I have problems with both of them.

Television

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 7-9 — This is still great. In fact, two of these three episodes probably rank alongside season two’s best. “Unauthorized Cinnamon” in particular is just a classic hour. But “Amateur Night” is a joy as well, because it makes Brian Cox, a relative newcomer to the show, into an audience surrogate: he and we are both just enjoying the usual business of being in Deadwood. If this show manages to screw up the landing as badly as everybody says it does, it’ll have to do it real fast, because there are only three hours left and this season is still brilliant.

Last Week Tonight: August 14, 2016 — Neither here nor there. It’s fine, but it’s probably the least excellent episode so far this season. I have no further thoughts.

Comedy

Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theatre — The first time I watched this it completely blew me away. I’ve cited it as my favourite stand up special on at least a few occasions. It holds up. Louis is amazing down to the tiny details, like “he sticks his face right in the front of his fuckin’ head…” His bit about not giving his first-class airplane seat to a soldier is possibly the definitive Louis C.K. bit, and there are few comedy bits with more repeat value than the segment on the evil child called Jizanthapus. I do think that even in the few years since this, he’s matured a bit in terms of knowing what he probably shouldn’t say. His bit about First Nations peoples is well-intentioned, but still stereotypes massively. His bit about men being bad at sex is similarly well-intentioned, but heteronormative. You take the good with the bad, I suppose. This is still a very, very good comedy special.

Music

St. Vincent: St. Vincent — Unbeknownst to me, this was my first exposure to John Congleton. He and St. Vincent are a great match, because he’s very good at blending rock and electronic music, and Annie Clark is a songwriter with a modern sensibility but also a virtuoso guitarist. This is a really great album. “Rattlesnake” and “Severed Crossed Fingers” are especially irresistible. But this time through, I also developed a greater appreciation for “Regret” and “Bring Me Your Loves.”

The Tragically Hip: Day For Night — I never got into the Hip. But right now, it’s pointless to resist getting sucked up into the Hipmania that has swept the nation. And rightly so. In preparation for last night’s epochal broadcast (not reviewed for CBC reasons, and also because the knowledge that you’re witnessing history makes assessment sort of beside the point), I listened to my first Hip album. I went with Day For Night rather than Fully Completely on the strength of “Scared,” a ballad I listened to for the first time on Friday, and then immediately five more times. It’s a really good album. I won’t pretend like it’s a clear all-time favourite. There are moments that feel crashingly generic to me — only musically, though. Gord Downie’s lyrics are anything but. I completely get why this band is so important to so many people. The Hip have a distinct identity, even when a song is sonically just cookie-cutter 90s rock and roll. The songs stretch past five minutes, just for the luxury of it. It’s not a statement; they just don’t really care about economy. There are good solos to be had. But mostly, this is a showcase for the very, very good songwriting of Gord Downie, accompanied by a very competent backing band. The songs that are the most obvious heavy-hitters are classics. Aside from “Scared,” which is still my favourite, “Grace, Too,” and “Nautical Disaster” are outstanding mood pieces. Downie’s lyrics are at their very best in the latter. Also, perhaps strangely, the other song on this that made a lasting impression is “Titanic Terrarium.” I’m not even sure what it’s about, or how the various threads of lyrical imagery running through it are meant to connect. But any song that starts with the lines “Growing up in a biosphere/ no respect for bad weather” has me straight away. This is a band that’s at their best when they are at their most idiosyncratic — lending credence to my theory that it’s intense specificity that endears audiences to artists’ broader oeuvres, even if blandness isn’t necessarily a hindrance to producing gigantic hit singles. This won’t be the last I listen to the Hip, even if they are a phenomenon that will keep me slightly at arm’s length, despite their admirable efforts to welcome all. My estimation of this may be higher than it would be otherwise, owing to the zeitgeist. But regardless, this is certainly the thing that has preoccupied me most this week. Pick of the week. 

Literature, etc.

Assorted Tragically Hip-related thinkpieces (Stephen Marche in the New Yorker, Chris Koentges in Slate, Michael Barklay in Macleans) — Before I get to these, I’ll say that my favourite single example of Hip-related media on the night of the concert came from Vox TV critic Todd VanDerWerff on Twitter. VanDerWerff happened to be vacationing in Canada and watching the Olympics on CBC, and then he tweeted this: “I didn’t even choose to watch this concert. I just turned on the TV in our cabin, and it was on. Like it was mandatory Canadiana.” Yup. We’ve got a bunch of problems up here, and Gord Downie has helped point them out as poetically as anybody. But I love that this is a place where there’s a band whose final concert is your civic duty to watch. VanDerWerff rightly proposed that there is no American equivalent to this. Of the three pieces listed here, my favourite is Koentges’s in Slate, where he frames Downie’s final tour in terms of post-Terry Fox Canadian heroism. Marche’s contains the best prose in terms of quantifying the Hip’s appeal. Barklay’s goes into the most detail about Downie as a figure in the broader Canadian community of musicians. But honestly, the only reason to read all three of these is if the Hip is all you’re thinking about for a certain period of time. And, speaking as a person who had very little interest in them two weeks ago, that is definitely the mood I was in after the show.

Podcasts

The Sporkful: “Is This Pizza Worth Waiting For?” — I want pizza. Dan Pashman makes me hungry. Also, this managed to be a convincing exploration of the psychology of expectation, as well as a narrative about a legendary pizza place. It’s a subtle narrative stunt, but it’s pretty impressive radio making.

Fresh Air: “Meryl Streep” — Streep’s a dull interview. But Terry Gross does her best to get an interesting conversation going by using singing as a throughline. Streep’s there to promote her new Florence Foster Jenkins biopic, from which there is copious hilarious audio in this. Streep’s approximation of Jenkins’s terrible singing is enough to maybe compel me to see this movie. But when she talks about Jenkins, this thing happens that often happens with very empathetic actors: she gets defensive of her character. Jenkins was a bad singer. A terrible one. That’s what she’s known for. That’s why there’s a movie about her. And even though Streep had to painstakingly learn to sing in the particular bad way that Jenkins did, she still has a tendency to try and point out Jenkins’s musical virtues, of which there are none. Still, once Terry Gross moves past the new movie and starts talking to Streep about singing more broadly — as a young woman studying opera, as a professional doing Broadway, and as a major movie star in Into the Woods — things pick up.

Reply All: “Sandbox” — Most of this episode is devoted to an alternate cut of P.J. Vogt’s story about his mom and his aunt for Invisibilia. But, tellingly, this cut is substantially different and actually a fair bit better. It is framed as a story about two people using technology to interact in a way that highlights their respective idiosyncrasies — two people who happen to be Vogt’s mom and aunt. That whole intro was lopped off in Invisibilia, which takes emphasis off of some of the broader implications of the story. Maybe I’m just a Reply All partisan.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Steven Universe and Board Games” — I probably won’t watch Steven Universe, not because I’m averse to children’s entertainment, but because committing to a children’s show feels weird to me. I saw Finding Dory like the rest of the world. But I’m not putting more than a couple hours into something like that, no matter how awesomely social justicey it is. And it does sound like a really great kids’ show. The discussion of board games that follows is an odd thing. Three of the four panelists are really devoted to talking about mostly pretty traditional games that aren’t pop cultural productions in any meaningful way (spades?), and Stephen Thompson keeps hearkening back to a prior discussion of board games from a couple years prior. Ehh.

Criminal: “Eight Years” — A pretty sobering tale of ongoing, long-term internet harassment. The founder of one of the major Harry Potter fansites, from way back in pre-social media days, has been mercilessly abused by one specific, clearly mentally ill person for nearly a decade. It’s a crazy story.

Science Vs: “Guns,” parts 1 & 2 — I’ll confess to already being slightly put off by the hokey tone of this. But the content is spectacular. Wendy Zukerman cuts through rhetoric on both sides of the political spectrum — though as any reasonable person would expect, the arguments posed by the gun lobby are more thoroughly untrue than those opposing them. I’ll definitely keep listening to this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Mr. Robot’s Sam Esmail” — I’m not interested in this show and I’m not interested in this man.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Werner Herzog/Godfrey” — The Godfrey segment is funny because Maron’s a jerk. But like most everybody, I expect, I listened to this to hear Werner Herzog’s Bavarian deadpan for an hour. It’s a miraculous interview, in which Maron proves himself to be a far more existentially anxious person than Herzog, but only because Herzog has come to know the void that they both stare at with much more depth. Herzog has come to terms with the void. Maron’s quaking in his boots. I can’t wait for Herzog’s four upcoming movies. Pick of the week.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Get Down and TCA 2016’ — I hope Brittany Luse comes back to this show often. They ought to make her a regular fourth chair. That is essentially what’s notable about this episode, the discussion topics of which are not totally compelling to me.

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