Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 23, 2016)

Ooh, some good stuff this week. Also a few pans. Pans! Imagine. 26 reviews.

Games

Thomas Was Alone — After watching Charlie Brooker’s video games special, I was reminded of the occasional joys of a game where you mostly just jump. But I need my jumping to be mediated through several layers of metacritique and accompanied by a cast of colourful characters with actual personalities, because I am me. I had deleted this from my iPad for space, but I downloaded it again, not intending to reply the full game, but then I remembered how the puzzle mechanics pull you in, and how the gradual, minimalistic storyline eventually ends in staggering, sad catharsis, and I just had to play to the end. It’s marvellous, obviously. It’s one of the most seamless integrations of mechanics and story that I’ve seen in a non-IF context. Braid comes to mind as another, but Thomas Was Alone didn’t inherit Braid’s smugness. This game’s masterstroke is how it uses basic platformer mechanics to enrich characterization. When you need to use two different characters’ unique abilities in tandem to help them both reach their destinations, it doesn’t just feel like solving a clever puzzle (though it is that), it feels like you’re watching relationships form. That’s remarkable. This second time through, I had some minor quibbles. Occasionally the narration can be a bit overbearing. The spoken text in this has a delicate balance to strike: it can’t be so twee that it’s annoying, yet it also needs to be whimsical enough to mark a contrast with the rather terse written text that appears at the beginnings of certain levels to tell the larger story of what’s going on outside the narrative we’re seeing. Usually, the narration strikes that balance pretty well. But occasionally it veers into too-twee territory. Most of the time, I felt like a slightly different read of the same script might have done the trick. It’s such a minor thing. The larger issue is that the emotional climax of the story happens quite some time before the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, there’s a story event about 80% of the way through that paves the way for a really cool new mechanic that defines the late stages of gameplay. But from that point on, the story can’t match up with what came before. It would have been an easy storytelling problem to overcome: just a couple of strategically-placed evocations of the characters from early in the game might well have done the trick. But I also think it would have been wise to minimize the narration in those late phases, so that the game can accelerate to a close rather than drift into one. Altogether, I still love this game, though. Any game that’s mostly jumping that can compel me to play through to the end, twice, is a very good game.

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner — This arrived at just the right time. Sunless Sea is the only vast sandbox game that I’ve ever gotten into. I do like a game that lets me explore, but preferably in the service of a linear story. (Firewatch has kind of become my ideal in this sense.) This game is pretty much as close as I get to Skyrim. And while I haven’t actually played Skyrim, I’ll wager that Sunless Sea is even vaster, on account of the fact that it is so dominated by text: the densest medium. So, this is probably the only game that I’ve poured more than a half-dozen-or-so hours into since childhood. Clearly, it’s much too big and deep for me to have turned over every rock and scrutinized every crevice for searing enigmas and extraordinary implications (gosh, this game’s jargon is so infectious). But, I had put enough time into it that I’d seen the entire map and I had a general sense of what each locale is like. There’s still plenty to uncover after you’ve reached that point, but without the thrill of exploration the game does lose something. Zubmariner is a godsend because it not only introduces several new ports with new premises, characters and stories; it introduces an entirely new and mysterious map to explore. Sure, it’s an addition grafted onto the old map, but it still feels new. And the new ports that I’ve discovered so far (less than half of them, I think) are all among the most interesting in the game. I should specifically mention the underwater settlement of Scrimshander, my current favourite. Scrimshander is a settlement made of bones, where they are so obsessed with the recording, archiving and interpretation of history that they demand that nobody may leave Scrimshander without leaving something behind for posterity: a memory, a bit of your personality, a body part… It seems that the larger story in Scrimshander, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of, will turn out to be a purposeful interrogation of the Great Man model of history, in which you can choose to search the archives for either great heroes or telling patterns. That’s a whole level wonkier and more specific (and also more directly satirical) than anything on the surface of the Unterzee. (Well, except for Pigmote Isle, perhaps. That one was always a tad unsubtle.) One thing that’s great about this game being text-based is that it can actually go to places like this: where archiving and scholarship are as much part of your adventure as fighting and smuggling. And since it all happens in an imaginary world made of well-placed words, one type of adventure is just as vibrant and exciting as the next. This expansion is just what I needed to get pulled back into Sunless Sea’s warped magnificence.

Movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 — I honestly can’t even remember which Harry Potter movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t, but I was sure I hadn’t seen these two. And, thrown into a fit of nostalgia by The Cursed Child, I figured I’d check them out. After all, even if they sucked, at least there’s Alan Rickman. Part 1 is massively slow, and a bit superfluous. One of the most egregious downsides of massive franchises is that studios can make as many movies as they like and people will dutifully turn up. Still, Part 1 has some really excellent moments. The animated segment telling the parable of the three brothers is brilliant. Also, if there’s one good reason why the seventh book should have been split into two films, it’s to offer the three leads — all of whom, remember, were small children when the franchise began — a chance to do a proper three-hander, without being bolstered by the staggeringly prestigious supporting cast who has been there since the start. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson all acquit themselves quite well, here. Plus, Rickman’s not the only late icon who makes an appearance: it’s nice to see Richard Griffiths as well, if only for a few frames. The second film is the better one by miles, obviously. There are still problems, like Professor McGonagall locking the entirety of Slytherin house in the dungeons. Seems like a civil liberties infraction. But then, Slytherin has always been one of the biggest problems with the Harry Potter canon. As has been frequently observed, it’s a house for evil children. That will tend to cause storytelling issues. There are moments of moviemaking nonsense, like Malfoy grabbing Harry’s hand as he flies above on a broomstick, to suddenly being on his back in the next shot. But all of this is more than compensated for by the magnificent handling of Snape’s memories in the pensieve, and Harry’s final encounter with Dumbledore, in the bright white King’s Cross Station in his head. I have only just realized that both here and in the book, Dumbledore is essentially Alan Moore in this scene. First off, there’s his famous quote (and also J.K. Rowling’s most powerful benediction at the end of the series) “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” That’s pure Alan Moore. And then, when Harry asks him directly the question that the audience is already thinking (this sort of thing happens a lot in these movies), namely whether what’s happening is actually real or only in his head, Dumbledore rejects his premise: certainly, it’s in his head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s also pure Alan Moore. I doubt somehow that Moore would have time for the Harry Potter books, but that’s his loss. The movies are certainly the lesser iteration of the story, but it’s nice they exist for a quick trip back into that world now and then. And they do boast the most staggering array of overqualified supporting actors this side of Game of Thrones.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World — I expected more from this. First off, there are a couple of segments where I think Werner Herzog is labouring under a totally misguided premise. The whole bit about internet addiction has a slight tinge of daytime television about it. Herzog seems to be implying, by putting this chapter alongside other stories of how the internet has changed the world, that this is a new phenomenon, when it’s quite obvious from the interviews that it’s really no different from any other addiction. Gambling addiction in particular comes to mind. Addiction is age-old. Implying that this is a new human grievance brought on by the internet seems almost willfully ignorant. Plus, when Herzog talks about gamers wearing diapers so they can “avoid losing points by going to the bathroom,” it’s clear that he believes all video games are Pong. The other segment I thought was an odd choice is one about a family who were forced to confront disturbing images of their deceased daughter, who had been decapitated in a car accident, by emails from random malicious strangers. This is awful, certainly. But it’s a bizarre way to approach the cruelty of anonymous strangers on the internet. Saying “the internet can sometimes be bad, like in this one extreme example!” is not super effective when we’re constantly bombarded by horrifying stories of the online abuse suffered by women and people of colour as a matter of routine. What Herzog has put forth here isn’t the exception: it’s the sad, sad rule. But there’s much to love, here. The film opens with incredible panache. One plausible origin story of the internet is related to us by Computer-Science-Regis-Philbin (Leonard Kleinrock) accompanied by the Rheingold overture. Really, putting the Rheingold overture at the beginning of anything tends to make it feel momentous, but the combination of Kleinrock’s incredible charisma and Herzog’s sense of what details will pop out make it a really great opening scene. The segment featuring Ted Nelson is quite wonderful. He’s a computer scientist who conceived of a version of the internet before there was such a thing and is struggling even now to make it work, in spite of the World Wide Web’s indomitable presence. (Popular guy, lately. He cropped up in Kentucky Route Zero as well. Sort of.) But this scene is too short. Nelson gets to outline his vision in extremely broad strokes, and then we never hear from him again. I could have done with more of this kind of stuff — visions of internets past and future and possible and improbable — and less of the sort of stuff where Herzog asks people if the internet dreams of itself. That’s a question that sounds interesting until you think about it, and then it doesn’t sound that interesting. It definitely sounds very Herzog, which leads me to wonder if he’s just playing into the schtick at this point. Of the responses to that question that were included, exactly one of them is interesting, because it’s grounded in computer science, and offers a compelling argument that the World Wide Web is the internet dreaming of itself. But the fact that Herzog got that response seems like random good fortune considering that the rest of his interview subjects treat the question like the imprecise thought that it is. I think the biggest problem with this movie is that Herzog insists on looking at the internet as A Thing That’s Here Now, and it’s Doing Stuff To Us, as opposed to something that we made and continue to make. Herzog is good at thinking about the stuff that exists outside of us and in spite of us and that we can’t control. But the internet is not a grizzly bear. And as much as we probably can’t control it, we do shape it because we are it. “What is the internet doing to us” is a less interesting question than “what should the internet be?” And Herzog doesn’t seem plugged in enough to realize that this is a question that’s even possible to ask.

The Girl on the Train — I didn’t hate it. But it’s not very good. For a thriller, it’s pretty dull for the bulk of its running time. It really only picks up once the penny drops and the events that the movie has been obscuring become clear. That’s an odd thing: to be more engaged once you know everything. The acting’s hit and miss. Emily Blunt alone is hit and miss. She’s made to look extremely rough, like you’d expect such an extreme alcoholic to, but the performance feels mannered, and the moments where she really cuts loose don’t hit home like they should. They’re more pathetic than sad. Haley Bennett ranges from quite good to “Did Jennifer Lawrence forget how to act??” And Justin Theroux gives a reasonable performance, only to throw it away at the end with some deeply unconvincing, erm, twitching. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Honestly, the best part of this movie is watching consummate professional Allison Janney do marvellous things with extremely limited material. She plays the detective. You know, the detective. That role. And she can make implications and cast aspersions without even saying anything. I’m always happy when she shows up in stuff. I wish somebody would give her a lead role in something I want to watch. (Though, after this I may go and watch Tallulah, just for the acting.)

Literature, etc.

Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible — Yeah, I bought the meaty one. And I immediately made a delicious meal of ginger-glazed salmon with fresh tarragon and broiled grapefruit. Both Flavor Bibles have proven themselves to be spectacular reference books that make cooking more fun, and in a few cases easier. I’ve never felt this confident in just selecting a couple of vegetables and a few spices and serving them together, uncomplicatedly. I haven’t looked at the intro yet. I’ll do that when I finish slogging through the one in the vegetarian edition, which is useful but quite dull — unlike the vegetarian meals I’ve made using that book, which were not dull at all. For vegetable-inclined omnivores such as myself, it really is worth having both.

Natalia Ginzburg: “He and I” — An essay anthologized in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, a book that I love very much and would recommend to literally everybody. Ginzburg’s essay is a fascinating glimpse into a marriage — her marriage, to a man who seems like a bit of a condescending shit, but who must have something going for him, because Ginzberg seems to mostly like him. Basically, it’s about how people in relationships can be different from each other, which is both extremely obvious and an extremely huge concept to take on in a short essay. But Ginzberg manages, because she’s able to describe the differences between her and her husband with great specificity. I really enjoyed this. Go buy The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s got everything.

Wole Soyinka: “Why Do I Fast?” — Soyinka is a fascinating figure: a literary pioneer whose experiments took place while he was in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. This essay about a practice he would occasionally undertake during that period — fasting in protest — is staggeringly visceral. This is not the last of his work I’ll read.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 23, 2016 — Another good week, with only a couple of jokes that didn’t land. The segment on the third debate is particularly good, which is a remarkable thing to say given how completely worn out I am from hearing the same horrible sound bites from that debate again and again. Also, I think this might be the first time that Oliver doesn’t introduce an interstitial with “And now, this.” Don’t know why I felt compelled to make that observation. But here we are.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “United Nations” — Incredible. Bee’s segment on Catholic-run hospitals is as revealing as John Oliver’s best semi-investigative segments, but with the added touch of actually featuring original interview footage with women who have been denied medically necessary late-term abortions by Catholic hospitals. It’s harrowing. And then there’s an interview with Madeleine Albright. This is great.

Nathan Barley — I really wanted to like this. I would really love for it to be an ahead-of-its-time critique of vapid internet personalities and proto-tech bros (this is the concept of the show that was pitched to me in an excellent episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything called “The Future,” which you should check out because it’s better than the actual show), but it’s actually really obvious, and doesn’t have much to say except that sometimes people who are seen as fashionable are also stupid. Big news. I’m having second thoughts about watching more Black Mirror, if this is what Charlie Brooker thinks constitutes satire. I think this show would have been better if it made the sceptic Dan Ashcroft (a wonderful, pre-Boosh Julian Barratt) a stronger, more present protagonist, and made the show’s titular fashion-conscious scenester idiot more of a thing that happens to him. Like with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby. The story of a well-meaning sceptic who becomes embroiled in the very world he’s trying to stave off in spite of his best efforts is a better story than the one told here. On the other hand, you do get to see a bunch of future stars in small roles, which is cool. Noel Fielding shows up to do the Noel Fielding thing. Ben Whishaw is hilarious in a role with almost no lines. And Benedict Cumberbatch himself shows up as a fully-formed, wonderful actor with obvious leading man potential, and he’s in two scenes. So that’s fun.

Music

Ghost: Meliora — This was exactly what I hoped for it to be: totally over-the-top, gothic, theatrical metal with an underlying pop sensibility. It has essentially hit the perfect formula to lure me back to a genre that I thought I was done with. It’s fun, trope-aware, and definitely taking the piss. But it’s also a really solid metal album with great riffs and good playing from the band of masked persons who stand alongside the face paint-wearing, self-styled Satanic pope who sings lead vocals. “Cirice” is the obvious highlight on first listen, with its suspenseful acoustic opening, and its well-deployed vocal hooks (yes, hooks), but I’m also already quite taken with “Majesty” and the final track, “Deus in Absentia.” Admittedly, that last one works better as a finale to the album than it does on its own. This is one of those cases where the band knew it was okay to go (even more) over the top at the very end, because what came before seems to call for it. (See also: Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, the Chemical Brothers’ Further, Mahler’s third symphony.) Maybe it’s just because it seems seasonal, but I’ve been really getting a charge out of Meliora this week. At this rate, it’s likely to end up one of my favourite albums of the year. Didn’t see that coming. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Margo Price” — This is instantly classic WTF. Right at the start of the conversation, Maron says it directly: “I like you.” And Margo Price says it back: “I like you too.” That’s the key, on this show. And here are two people with some common hardships to talk about and a similar sense of the world. Price is a lot of fun, and she’s got great stories. Plus, listening to this made it clear that there really isn’t anything on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that’s not based on Price’s own life experiences. Which is distressing. But at least she could channel it all into great songs. This is an engrossing conversation that could also act as proof-of-concept for WTF if you haven’t gotten into it. Listen to this. It’s super. Pick of the week.

In the Dark: “The Truth” — As a conclusion to In the Dark, this doesn’t hit quite as hard as last week’s episode, but it does manage to sink a few more nails into the coffin of the Stearns County sheriff’s office’s reputation. Which is all you can ask. This has been a pretty good podcast, based on a truly extraordinary investigation. I’m pretty excited about the future of APM Reports.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 15 & 16, plus Sinatra rerun — It’s a really good thing that Longworth employs somebody to mix the audio now. Because, even if it is still just music playing underneath talking, at least the music isn’t edited in such a distracting, ostentatious way, like it is in the older episodes that have been replayed in this series. There’s a moment in the Sinatra rerun where the same brief segment of a very recognizable Gershwin piano piece plays again and again, and it is infuriating. This series has been incredible on average. At its best, and the final two episodes are among its best (along with the episodes on Dorothy Parker and Lena Horne), it is staggering. I’m undecided whether I prefer it to the Charles Manson season or not, but I did really love it. 

Theory of Everything: “Honeypot” — This series on surveillance is already one of my favourite things that Benjamen Walker has done. It’ll be nice when he manages to get out in the world a bit more, for a bit of sonic variety. But I’m always on board for the episodes where Walker turns a critical eye towards the emerging future of the internet. His sharing economy series is the reigning champion, but considering how terrified I am about online surveillance, this could easily surpass it. And I’m really wondering what he’s working up to with that fake midroll ad spot. Funny that Andrew Calloway from the “Instaserfs” series showed up in this one: he’s got a new podcast out, and DMed me on Twitter to listen to it. I haven’t. I will. I wonder if it’s part of an elaborate fiction devised by Benjamen Walker…? Nah, that’s just paranoid.

In Our Time: “Plasma” — I think maybe I should steer clear of science on this show. Science researchers talking on the radio like they talk to each other has limited appeal compared to the same thing done by historians or English professors.

The Memory Palace: “In Line” — A short one, but affecting. It’s about the circumstances that led to the Voting Rights Act, and how familiar they still seem today. More interestingly, isn’t it notable how Radiotopia is putting its funding model front and centre in this pledge drive (nearly over, go support it) just when the wheels look like they’re coming off of Gimlet? (I don’t think they actually are, mind you, but they’ve had their trials front-and-centre, lately.) DiMeo even comments specifically on the lack of venture capital backing Radiotopia. Hmm.

The Bugle: “Buglemas Eve – a final preview” — The relaunch had already happened by the time I listened to this, but I’m glad I did, because these snippets make me more confident that it’ll go on being funny with these guest hosts. And Wyatt Cenac! Seriously, this is going to be an embarrassment of comedic riches.

This American Life: “Seriously?” — I had no idea that “patriotic correctness” was a thing. Also, this is most notable for its first act, produced by Ira himself, where he talks to his Republican uncle about the things he believes that are factually untrue. It is frustrating beyond compare, no doubt moreso for Ira himself, because it didn’t used to be like this. There was a time when the two sides of the political spectrum merely had a conflict of values. Now, there’s an entire side of the discourse (and it really is mostly just that one side) that contests even the demonstrable facts. This is one of those things that you can basically only listen to and despair.

The Heart: “Helen Breger’s Last Kiss” — A charming story about an elderly woman’s love and sex life. What better ode could there be to a recently-departed grandparent?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Halloween Candy Debate with Mallory Ortberg” — PCHH live episodes are always great. They’re funnier in front of an audience. I have to say, I laughed harder at the segment on Halloween candy than I have at some actual comedy podcasts in recent weeks. The three core members are especially on their respective A-games here, with Glen Weldon providing some classic Weldonisms, including a description of Tootsie Rolls as Madame Tussauds’ elegant turds. I generally agree with their assessments, though I think I’m less enthusiastic about candy in general. There’s just something about listening to people talk about food, though. This honestly rivals The Sporkful at it’s most gleefully frivolous. Really fun.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Sorting Hat” — It’s possible that this hit me at exactly the right time, considering my current wave of Cursed Child-induced Potter nostalgia. But I think this is one of the best episodes of Imaginary Worlds. Hogwarts’ four houses are one of the most compelling elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, partially for the problems they pose. I’ve always felt that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were the only houses with properly specific, house-like identities, because Gryffindor and Slytherin are essentially narrative constructs: one is for protagonists, one is for antagonists. And that opens up the oft-stated issue of Slytherin being a house for evil people. However, listening to this, it was interesting to hear other fans’ take on this: people who self-identify as Slytherins, for instance. That demonstrates to me that I must be at least slightly wrong. Besides, Snape’s a Slytherin. (Sidenote: Slytherin and Gryffindor make up the same approximate yin-yang as Snape and Dumbledore, don’t they? The good within the bad; the bad within the good.) Plus, there’s a fan’s in-universe theory about why the Sorting Hat chooses to put Harry, Hermione and Ron in Gryffindor as opposed to Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff respectively. And that theory gets at a much deeper notion of the value of education than I expected to come into this at the beginning. Really nice.

New Yorker: Out Loud: “Beyond Citizen Kane” — Somehow, I came to the New Yorker’s defunct short-form podcast before I ever listened to their much-beloved New Yorker Radio Hour. I’ll get there. But this is about Orson Welles and it has Alex Ross on it, so how was I not going to listen? I’ve made a note to watch F for Fake. My Welles experience is too limited, it seems.

This American Life: “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” — One of the most rage-inducing things I’ve heard during this rage-inducing election. The main attraction is a great story by Zoe Chace about St. Cloud, Minnesota, where conservative America’s racist panic over immigration (which, as Ira points out, doesn’t even make sense given the falling immigration rate) has been bubbling over for a few extra years. There’s tape in this of people saying things that are… hard to forgive. It’s not even the racism itself that’s so galling; it’s the fact that many of the people saying these things believe wholeheartedly that they aren’t racist. Even an elected representative who outspokenly opposed his own constituents’ call for a moratorium on Somali immigrants (honest to god) says things like “I know these people! They’re good people! They’re not racist, they’re just…” and then he tries to defend them. But they’re obviously, totally racist. They may be good people in many other respects, but they do not understand what constitutes racism, and why it’s wrong. That’s what’s really great about this story: it demonstrates specifically how these kinds of views made it into the mainstream of the Republican party from out of the fringes. I know plenty of people like this myself, coming from a conservative part of Canada (relatively speaking). Some of the most thoughtful, generous and kind-hearted people that I know are also pretty racist. And it doesn’t come out in their interactions with specific individuals of other races; but it does come out in the policies they support because they’ve been made to perceive a larger problem. One that doesn’t exist. This episode gets into all of this, and also has Neil Patrick Harris singing in character as Paul Ryan. It is great, important radio, but it is not my pick of the week because right now I feel like I don’t need this as much as I need Marc Maron shooting the shit with Margo Price. It’s November in the year of an American election. We’ve got to stay sane somehow.

99% Invisible: “McMansion Hell” — Primo 99pi. If you didn’t support the Radiotopia fundraiser, feel bad. Then listen to this hilarious episode about tacky, tasteless gigantic homes and feel worse. Then go to the blog that it was inspired by and laugh more.

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