Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 20, 2016)

Do you ever listen to podcasts at 1.5X speed? Pro-tip: do that. You can listen to more podcasts that way.

27 reviews.

Television

QI: “Keys,” “Jumpers” & “Jobs” — If I am not mistaken, I have watched three episodes (in a random batch of six) of QI in the past two weeks that all reference bungee jumping.

Fleabag: Episodes 1-3 — Watched on the recommendation of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m really enjoying this, even if my snootiest, least charitable self wants to believe that I had it pegged as a Louie-esque-difficult-person-dramedy-with-an-occasionally-cloying-indie-sensibility right from the start. The important thing is not that it happens to fall into an increasingly identifiable box, but that it’s brilliantly executed and succeeds at being both sensitive and hilarious at the same time. Also, it’s always nice to see a show that succeeds without having a big, pitchable marquee concept (“women’s prison show” or “washed-up cartoon horse”). How would you summarize Fleabag? “A young woman deals with grief?” Yawn. Yet, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. Television producers take note: “show with ordinary, real-life story, interesting characters, and good jokes” might actually be an elevator pitch worth paying attention to.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Well, I went to a movie theatre and was pleasantly diverted for a couple of hours, so I guess that’s a win. But this is not a very good movie. Aside from just being sort of superfluous in general (also, five movies!?!? that’s far too many movies), it has some problems even when taken entirely on its own terms. The plotline suffers from the sense that groundwork is constantly being laid for later things. Jon Voight shows up pointlessly about three times, and will presumably be important later. Also, in the end, the focus turns to a thing called the Obscurus, which is a big evil repression monster, but the bulk of the movie is just people running around chasing other, unrelated escaped monsters. Those plotlines don’t sit easily together, and I think Rowling should have just picked a thing. Story concerns aside, there are also character concerns. Namely, the two main characters are both ill-conceived ciphers. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fun to watch in the way that Eddie Redmayne is usually fun to watch, but he has to state outright that he has the tendency to annoy people because he is never seen to do that thing. Anyway, this is genuinely weak in most respects, but also strangely hard to dislike. It’s nice to be back in the wizarding world, even though the absence of Great British Character Actors A through Z makes this feel like a drastically different thing, tonally. (The cast here is fine, but the thing that makes the Harry Potter movies occasionally more than workmanlike is that particular species of British acting proffered by Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Helena-Bonham Carter, and tons more. Nothing of the sort here — by design, clearly. But I do miss that.) If there’s one silver lining to an American-set wizarding world franchise, it’s that modern fantasy’s least subtle left-wing allegorist has been unleashed on a country that just elected Donald Trump. This is not necessarily a winning formula, but I’ll hold out hope that future instalments could be interesting. Also thievery platypus.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House — This is my kind of horror. The premise is classic pulp fodder: a young hospice nurse moves into a house to care for a senile author who used to write horror novels, and the house turns out to be haunted. But this film takes a dramatically more ambitious approach to this material than you might expect. It is slow and contemplative, with deliberately artificial performances and artfully framed static shots. The bulk of the script is delivered in voiceover, pairing enigmatic images with obtuse, circuitous discussions of themes rather than exposition. It’s a movie that actively challenges you to figure out what it’s really about, given that its story is so basic and told at such a slow, deliberate pace. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. There’s lots in there about the act of looking, but I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Seems like something I might be able to parse on a second viewing, when I’m not preoccupied with the curry I’m eating. And there will be a second viewing. This is that kind of movie.

Literature

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt this much like it was written specifically to connect with me. This monograph by Dan Fox is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention. It is by no means a refutation of populism, but rather a love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. And he tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody in the media to read this book. There’s a personal anecdote in the postscript about how Fox grew up in a time and place when a young person could be introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger and the music of John Cage by way of the public broadcaster. Makes one wistful, frankly. There’s a quote near the end of the book that I consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. Fox doesn’t quite go there in his book but I think if more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting the same in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. Pick of the week.

Alanna Bennett: “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads” — This is a fascinating portrait of a fandom growing up. The really interesting thing about the Harry Potter fandom right now is that they (we? I would include myself, if I weren’t so obviously less invested than the superfans referred to here) learned about social justice in part from Harry Potter, and now they find themselves butting heads with J.K. Rowling herself when she does boneheaded, offensive things like trying to fictionalize Native American culture. This is fascinating. About halfway through, I stopped to reread the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. (It’s all I could get on iBooks; my own copies have been packed away in boxes in my hometown for years.) And I suddenly understood the fans in this story even more. It sort of all came rushing back: even at that early stage, writing for young children and nowhere close to the height of her powers, J.K. Rowling wrote the most compelling characters in modern children’s literature and was brilliant at conveying a sense of place. As soon as Albus Dumbledore appears for the first time, sucking the light from the streetlamps of Privet Drive, you’re forced to think of modern Britain as a hiding place for another whole, glorious world. It’s a magical book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how so many fans have had more trouble than I have accepting the mediocrity of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows Potter projects. I’ll reread these books just as soon as I can get into those boxes.  

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — I think I’ve returned to considering this my favourite Kate Bush album. I gave it a listen this week in anticipation of her new live album, which has nothing from this on it. And holy smokes, this is the most intricate songwriting, maybe ever. There’s a tempting narrative about Kate Bush that suggests that the directness she embraced on Hounds of Love was the result of lessons learned from the critical and commercial failure of The Dreaming. But that’s ridiculous — why on earth would she care? I think that a better reading is simply that The Dreaming represented the furthest possible extension of this kind of songwriting. There’s no out-dreaming The Dreaming, so Bush took a different approach. Both albums are masterpieces. But this is the more virtuosic by far.

Pink Floyd: Cre/Ation: The Early Years 1967-1972 — God, I want that 27-disc box set so bad I could curl up in a ball. This paltry two-disc sampler only makes me lust after it more, because so much of it is exactly what I’ve been wishing for from Pink Floyd for ages. It is only the very nerdy among us who are interested in hearing an early version of “Echoes” that consists almost entirely of the triple-time bit that comes right before the final reprise on the album version, but I am extremely nerdy. I want to hear every miniscule step in the evolution of this band. I suppose I’ll have to wait for it to gradually find its way onto streaming services. Because I do not have the wealth to indulge this obsession. Still though, for a two-disc sampler, this is really a lot of fun.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ: The Politics and Passions of Roger Waters” — “I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m not. I’m actually a wise man.” He’s not wrong, on either count. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are simply not the people to interview Roger Waters. He is far too given to extraordinary statements and long rants for a pair of music broadcasters to handle. Marc Maron managed, somehow. But this is a mess.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: “Targeted” — I can’t quite tell if Walker’s story about giving his son a stuffed Pepe is true. If so, that was a dumb move. The segment about facial recognition software is as disquieting as anything in this series so far.

All Songs Considered: “What Was It Like To See Pink Floyd In 1966? Joe Boyd Knows” — This is the highlight of the three parts of this show’s Pink Floyd week. Joe Boyd has a unique perspective on the band, given that he was right there in the early days, but his recollections aren’t necessarily coloured by having been involved beyond that. I will say that I think he gives Rob Chapman’s argument in the book A Very Irregular Head a bit too much credence. Chapman is probably right to argue that the narrative about Barrett declining because he took too much acid is too simple. But considering the extremity of his post-Floyd condition, Chapman’s assertion that his behaviour was part of a grand conceptual art project is patently ridiculous, and clearly born from an impulse towards hagiography. That aside, this is a nice interview. I do wish that Boilen had chosen to play some of the previously unreleased stuff from the box set instead of just returning to the iconic songs. That’s what the box is for, after all. Ah, well.

99% Invisible: “Space Trash, Space Treasure” — A fascinating look at the necessity of cleaning up the junk we keep leaving in space. But the really fascinating part is an interview with a professor who responds to the moniker “Dr. Space Junk” about why we should also consider leaving some of it there for anthropological reasons.

Code Switch: “Everyone Is Talking To Barry Jenkins But Our Interview Is The Best” — I need to see Midnight so bad. This is one of Gene Demby’s best interviews, partially because of how much he obviously loves the movie, but also because of how much he openly identifies with elements of the story and the filmmaker’s perspective. I think this show is really successfully walking a tonal tightrope where it acknowledges some of the tropes of thinkpiece journalism — but still does it, because the alternative is being dumb.

Reply All: “Flash!” — One of the most lacklustre episodes of Reply All in a while. The Yes Yes No segment is as funny as usual, but the story of a lost tortoise ad on Craigslist ends up being exactly as boring as it sounds.

Science Vs: “Antidepressants” — The subject matter of this is fascinating, but there is a recurring Hamilton reference that defines what I find grating about this show. There’s a thing in mental health research called the Hamilton scale, and every time but one that it is referenced here, a sample from Hamilton is used. A reference. Is not. A joke. And I know it may be a little much to expect top-notch humour from a science podcast, but this kind of thing is so much a part of its aesthetic that I think I’m out at this point. That was the last straw. Never thought it would be Hamilton.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Prophets of Doom” — A wonderfully curmudgeonly defence of dissatisfaction from Howard Jacobson. I tend to be a rather optimistic sort, though I have my particular doomy moments. It’s vindicating to hear something like this in a world that often feels full of mindless boosters for things that aren’t making our lives better.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Musicals and Politics” — This almost made me feel better about politics. What’s most incredible about this rundown of political musicals (aside from the regrettable absence of any Kander and Ebb) is not so much that there’s such a preponderance of them, long before Hamilton. It’s that Hamilton still stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not just that there are no other musicals that have engaged so thoroughly in the political process, it’s that there are barely any other works of art that have done that. Save a few by Aaron Sorkin.

99% Invisible: “The Shift” — I’ll listen to sports stories when they’re on 99pi. That said, this is really the same story as the earlier one about basketball: innovations in the game make it less exciting and provoke a backlash. Still, fun.

On the Media: “Debunking the AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ Myth” — A quick story about how horribly Gaëtan Dugas was treated by the media: he did not give the world AIDS. That’s the Coles Notes version.

StartUp: Season 4, episodes 4-6 — Dov Charney is a compelling character, but this isn’t popping out of the headphones for me. I appreciate the return to serialized storytelling (I remain one of the few staunch defenders of StartUp season two) but I can’t help but think that this show is now suffering by comparison to its more consistent Gimlet stablemates. (I have not been reviewing Heavyweight because of an upcoming thing I’m doing, but informally: it is one of my favourite new shows of the year.) We’ll see how this ends.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Doctor Strange and Moonlight” — I wish the rest of the panel had given Kat Chow a bit more space to say her piece on Doctor Strange. It does sound like a fun movie that I’d like to see, but the whitewashing is some serious bullshit. Moonlight on the other hand sounds like something I am going to love unreservedly. Can’t wait.

99% Invisible: “Reverb” — Ooh, this is some great 99pi. I was aware of Wallace Sabine before, because the story of his minuscule acoustic measurements is incredible, but I was unaware that his formula has become obsolete in our increasingly quiet world. There’s also apparently a technology that simulates different reverbs in the same sized room using microphones and speakers distributed around the walls and ceiling. I would love to experience that.

Reply All: “Hello?” — The premise “P.J. and Alex open their phone lines to anybody for 48 hours” was bound to result in something bonkers, but this is far longer and more bonkers than you could possibly expect. A meandering, borderline pointless, destined classic of this amazing podcast. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?” — The Code Switch team plays phone messages from people who are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they have family members who voted for Trump. It is what it is.

Theory of Everything: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — Benjamen Walker’s speculative story behind the appalling image (which I missed on election day) of Trump spying on Melania’s vote is a brilliant way of working Trump into his surveillance season. I mean, there are other more obvious ways. But why go the obvious route? I love the approach Walker is taking right now, of just continuing to do his show and respond to current events, but through the lens of surveillance. This series is going to get awesome eventually. It’s already great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “ Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani” — Nanjiani and Linda Holmes talking about rom coms is great. Throw in a markedly less enthusiastic Steven Thompson and a MUCH less enthusiastic Glen Weldon, and you’ve got… almost gold. Yellow-tinged silver.

99% Invisible — “Dollar Store Town” — Audibly a shorter version of a longer, more visual documentary. Still, the fact that there is a town in China where they manufacture  nearly all of the worthless tchotchkes sold in American dollar stores is amazing.

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