If things seem a bit scant this week, well, I’ve been busy with my annual wrap-up, which I posted yesterday, and from which some of this is repurposed. 21 reviews.
Arrival — I came out of this genuinely feeling that it’s the best movie of the year. One gradual process I’ve been through this year is that I’ve come to see how spoilers are an actual thing that’s worth avoiding. And it’s really hard to talk about Arrival without dealing with the twist. This is one of those movies that becomes an entirely different film from start to finish once you know the whole of the story. I suspect that’s probably why everything I’ve seen written about it seems more effusively positive than it can actually back up with analysis. To talk about what makes this movie extraordinary as opposed to great is to spoil it. This movie’s ending is a narrative rug pull of Steven Moffat proportions. Still, for the bulk of Arrival’s running time, we don’t know the big secret, and it’s still an excellent movie. Amy Adams gives one of the best performances of the year (again, a performance that is elevated by knowledge of the ending) as the person that the military brings in to help them communicate. Specifically, with aliens. Couching a first contact story in terms of understanding language is a winning premise, especially when the story introduces the idea (a real idea in linguistics) that language actually fundamentally affects the way that a person thinks. That makes it critical to any understanding of another culture, yet alone another species. As far as I can tell all of this comes straight from the Ted Chiang story that Arrival’s excellent screenplay is based on. But if the movie were only a brute force expression of some clever ideas, it wouldn’t be my favourite of the year. Director Denis Villeneuve imparts an element of profound lyricism to the story by allowing us to see small moments, and letting our eyes linger on images that one assumes the citizens of this movie’s world are being fed through a much more frenetic TV news approach. Villeneuve is a director that I’ve been aware of since he made Incendies in 2010, but this is the first of his movies that I’ve seen. It’s clear that he’s a major talent, and one hopes that he’ll continue making movies like this, even after he’s made his franchise juggernaut debut later this year with the new Blade Runner. Pick of the week.
Mad Max — I saw Fury Road when it was in theatres, because it was essential viewing. And oh my god am I ever glad I did. But I hadn’t seen any of the previous Mad Max movies. Now I’m rectifying that. This is astonishing for having been made for $2.3 million, adjusted for inflation. So much is communicated by implication here, with cuts made in opportune places so that major events are left to the imagination. It’s both dramatically effective, and a great way to cut expenses. Considering how far off from Fury Road this movie is — in terms of time, budget and the series not having yet built its cultural legacy — it’s incredible how many of the ingredients are already in place. The deranged gang of predatory biker dudes in this are so over the top that they don’t even need makeup. But, when you throw a bit of magic character design juice over that same basic formula, you get Fury Road’s war boys. And of course, their leader is the same guy, just younger and with more of his face visible. Neither of the Mad Max movies I’ve seen have especially involved stories, but of course this isn’t a problem. It’s more of a problem in Mad Max, though. Because, in Fury Road, the chase scenes are so detailed that plot can occur at a micro level: every chase and fight scene has dozens of tiny plot events. A character gets plucked from a friendly vehicle into an unfriendly one; a man being pursued spies the promise of sunlight through a grate; the unconscious guy chained to Max as he’s fighting wakes up. That’s what $150 million well-spent buys you. In the 1979 rendition, you have to be content with a slightly blunter instrument. Still, well worth the hour and a half.
Downton Abbey: Season 3, episodes 6-9 — At its best, this season is like a less thoughtful, more conservative, British Horace and Pete. More than either of the previous seasons of Downton Abbey, it foregrounds the series’ central tension, which is that things can’t remain as they are. Lord Grantham is the most interesting character, at least symbolically, because he is the primary representative of the old guard, and we see him undermined again and again: regarding how his estate is to be run, the church in which his granddaughter will be Christened, whether his middle daughter should be allowed to write a newspaper column, and most compellingly which doctor to listen to when there’s a life at risk. The fact that he makes his every decision based on a crumbling value system that will only lead to his own ruin is a tremendously interesting throughline that also serves to explain at a granular level why the big houses like Downton fell, historically. It really comes down to people like Grantham being entirely out of touch with any traditions and ways of life save their own. (A personal favourite moment: Grantham’s valet is released from prison and his chummy advice for how to spend his first day of freedom is: “Stay in bed! Read books!” Honest to god.) However, that’s where the positives stop. This is the first season where the upstairs plotline has struck me as substantially more interesting than the downstairs plot, which in this season is completely insufferable. It revolves around O’Brien trying to take brutal revenge on Thomas for something I don’t remember, and a messy, dull love pentagon between Thomas, two new footmen, Daisy and the kitchenmaid. Good lord, kill me now. And then, off in their own tangentially connected world, are Matthew and Mary, who have been highlights of previous seasons, but who are actually worse in this season than the love pentagon. Even if the huge twist at the end of the season is incredibly contrived (and Jesus Christ, the writing around it could not be more hamfisted), I’m quite happy that it’s removed a relationship from this show that has become a source of aggravation. Actually, the entire final episode of this, a Christmas special, is awful. The worst episode of the show so far. At some point during its running time, Lord Grantham bids his fellow toffs “good hunting,” which only reminded me of that other show I’m much more enthusiastic about getting back to.
Emily Nussbaum: “How Jokes Won the Election” — This feature is a good corollary to HyperNormalisation. It argues that the rapidly thinning line between “joke” and “not a joke” is a clear contributor to Trump’s victory. It also contains an excellent assessment of Trump, Obama and Clinton as varying comedic personalities.
Michiko Kakutani: “Why ‘1984’ Is a 2017 Must-Read” — Here is a confession. I have never read 1984. Here is another confession. I have been lying about having read 1984 for years. In fact, I think I’ve been lying about having read 1984 for so long that this isn’t the first time I’ve gone public about not having read 1984. It may actually be the third. But nonetheless I feel another confession is necessary, because it’s a lie I’ve repeated as recently as a couple of weeks ago. And it’s such an easy one to keep up, given how familiar the central tenets of 1984 are in our culture. But perhaps I should take this opportunity, while this whole American fascism thing is going on, to see for myself why it is so enduring. I’ll add it to the list.
Olivia Laing: “The Lonely City” — The very act of writing a book about one’s own loneliness is an act of bravery. If this book were simply Olivia Laing’s account of the period in her own life when she felt the most alienated, it would still be worth reading, and not at all self-indulgent. Nothing could be less self-indulgent than proclaiming loneliness, because we all intuitively know that such a proclamation will have the counterintuitive effect of worsening one’s own isolation. But Laing only uses her own narrative as a spine: a framing device that she uses to string together her readings of the lives and works of several definitively lonely American artists. Though it is often conflated with depression, Laing considers loneliness as a unique affliction: an undesirable one by definition, but one without which the human experience is incomplete and possibly less inspired. The chapter that focuses on Andy Warhol’s outsiderness, his alienation through not having a firm grasp of language, is shattering and actually makes Warhol’s famous repeated images take on a bittersweet quality that I had never detected in them before. Laing is sensitive to the alienating tendencies of patriarchy and heteronormativity, and offers compelling portraits of people who lived lonely lives due to a society-wide lack of understanding. A substantial amount of the chapter that begins by focussing on Warhol veers off to consider Valerie Solanas, an early radical feminist of some genius who has since become known for only one thing: shooting Andy Warhol. The Lonely City is a beautiful book: equal parts sad and validating. It made me want to jump on a plane to New York to go look at art. By myself.
The Tragically Hip: Live Between Us — I’ve been into live albums lately, and it occurred to me that maybe I could start to understand the Hip a little better if I heard a full live show from them in their prime. I think it worked. Gord Downie has always been the part of the band that I liked: his lyrics, his whimsical character as a frontman, his conscience. It’s the rest of them, with their almost aggressively generic sound that always posed a problem. But live, that sound is almost a virtue, because there’s no more semiotically rich sound than two guitars, a bass, drums and a screaming crowd. This is straightforward rock and roll, with a very non-straightforward frontman. I’m sold.
Reply All: “Man of the People” — This is another story from the annals of American demagoguery — and one that played out on a similarly massive scale to the current one, relative to its time. It’s about John Brinkley: a fake doctor who patented a raft of fake medicines and marketed them to a nation of credulous customers on a radio station that he owned. (This was the earliest days of commercial radio, and it already sucked.) It’s gratifying to hear that flimflam was always a thing. It’s depressing that it’s still just as much of a thing in an era where we’re each equipped with far more of the facts than we were in the 20s.
99% Invisible: “Tom Swift and His Electric Rifle” — The story of the taser is as fraught as you’d think it would be. Framing this as a design story is a great idea, because then it becomes the story of whether the design of the taser is a fitting design or a catastrophic one — and that depends, of course, on whether you’re talking to a police officer.
Crimetown: “Power Street” — Ohhhh, it’s back. This show is catnip to me. It’s basically everything that Criminal isn’t, which isn’t a slight to either of them. Criminal is a show that demonstrates the multifacetedness of criminality, and thrives on telling stories of all sorts of different characters. Crimetown is True Crime, note the capitals. It’s got charismatic gangsters, fisticuffs, mob hits, and corruption that goes right up to the top. It’s a yarn that you can just get lost in the grisly details of. It’s the best. I’m just as much looking forward to hearing what city their next season will focus on as I am to how they deal with the rest of this one.
Welcome to Night Vale: “[Best Of?]” — This basically proves that it’s the structure of Night Vale that annoys me most. Every time they break from the structure, I love it. This episode responds to Cecil taking a bit of time off by installing a mysterious new host in his seat. It features a clip from Cecil’s early career (but not as early as you’d think, considering) where he reports on the invention of radio, which of course begs the question… how was he reporting it? This is clearly one of the classics, and has an absolutely haunting twist at the end. If I can expect periodic episodes like this one, I’ll happily groan my way through a few potboilers. Pick of the week.
Chapo Trap House: “Mr. Chapo Goes To Washington” — An incredibly edifying hour of the Chapos and their guests bitching about the inauguration, which is clearly the worst thing that ever happened. Just as good: general bitching about Washington, D.C., which is clearly the worst place that ever happened.
On the Media: “Future Tense” — This is an hour on the future of the White House press corps in the Donald Trump administration. The usefulness of that institution isn’t universally agreed upon, even in the media. So this is a contentious hour with no easy answers. But easy answers are not what you come to On the Media for in the age of Donald Trump. You come to it for the BIG WIDE 70MM SUPER CINEMASCOPE view of how fucked we are.
The Gist: “Don’t Mind Us, We’re Just Collapsing” — Ahhh, lovely. This features an interview with an archeologist who’s actually calling from the jungle to talk about the warning signs before the fall of a civilization. I love that they thought to talk to somebody like this. Pesca’s spiel about reconsidering #oscarssowhite is less convincing to me — last year’s Oscars were so white.
Twenty Thousand Hertz: “What Makes up a Movie Soundtrack?” — This isn’t that interesting, story-wise. A big segment of it is given to the great sound designer Ann Kroeber. She’s a good talker, but the stories she tells about getting animal sounds for movies don’t really go anywhere. (This is something that 99% Invisible does too — where it just throws stuff at you rather than telling a linear story. But I think you’ve really got to be a radio grandmaster to pull that off.) The most interesting bit is where they take apart the layers of sound in a movie explosion. I could have listened to more like that: an entire episode of deconstructing sound effects would have been great. (Explosion Exploder?) Anyway, this show has mostly been really good in its short life so far. It’s allowed an off week here and there.
The Gist: “Deregulation Nation” — I think I need to read this guy’s book. Jacob Hacker argues that it was the effective use of government that made America prosper in the first place, and that Republicans have fundamentally misunderstood the history of policy-making. Really interesting.
The Gist: “Yeah, We’re Scared Too” — Oh, good. Here’s an interview with a Bush appointee about how establishment Republicans are still as terrified of Trump as during the primaries. Excellent. Flippancy aside, Eliot Cohen is a reasonable person, and it’s good to know they exist in Trump’s party, even if they have no hope in hell of actually swaying him to the centre.
On the Media: “New Reality” — Bob Garfield visits the flailing White House press corps, and commiserates and berates in equal measure. That’s something we needed. Also, there’s an interview with Jay Rosen, who’s always great to hear on this show, on the question of why the hell anybody would even bother interviewing Kellyanne Conway.
99% Invisible: “The Revolutionary Post” — The post office invented America. That’s a hell of a premise, and with evidence found at the bottom of the Grand Canyon and in the life story of Benjamin Franklin, it doesn’t seem absurd.
On the Media: “Week One” — Sean Spicer is a piece of shit. Honest to god, there are no decent people among Trump’s staff at all. The most powerful country in the world is being run by goblins. The only thing that makes him seem a little less noxious is that Steve fucking Bannon is even worse.
Imaginary Worlds: “Winning the Larp” — I love the idea of LARPing. I just love it. The part of me that used to do improv and also the part of me that admires Wagner for fusing a bunch of art forms together are both complicit in this. But I don’t think I’ll ever do it, because there are lines that even I won’t cross.