Omnireviewer (week of May 7, 2017)

23 reviews. My most frequently-occurring number of reviews, I’d wager. I don’t know why that is. I just seem to do 23 reviews a lot.

Television, etc.

American Gods: “The Secret of Spoons” — Wow, it got better. This episode is, on balance, less flashy than the first. Though it has its moments of visual splendor, such as the way Chicago’s dot on the map of America crossfades to Zorya’s padlock, the tumblers of which are then juxtaposed with a slot machine (foreshadowing of the coming fateful checkers game). But by and large, this is a less cinematic, more theatrical episode of television than “The Bone Orchard.” They always used to say television was a writers’ medium, but in a post-Breaking Bad — and indeed, post-Hannibal — world, that’s becoming a more dubious claim. David Slade has directed both of those shows, and his style is abundantly evident here. Still, the measure of this second episode comes from the writing and acting, much more so than the first. And that starts in the opening scene, which introduces a radically different, much more interesting version of Anansi than the one readers will know from the novel. (I loved the version of Anansi in the novel, but he’s too nice for 2017. Better by far to have him be angry, sardonic and powerful.) Orlando Jones may be my favourite thing about this show so far, which is not nothing when the show also has Ian McShane in it. Everything about this scene is perfect, from the writing for Anansi to the prayer that his supplicant speaks to summon him, to THE SUIT OH GOD THE SUIT. What’s amazing about this scene is that Anansi, without saying a single untrue thing, tricks his followers. He tricks them into sacrificing themselves so that he could find his way ashore to America. (And how great is that shot of the spider — whose colouring is as flamboyant as its human form’s wardrobe — creeping off of the floating plank and onto the shore?) But he’s also not wrong that the sacrifice is potentially more meaningful than what many of the captives on the boat had ahead of them. This is not only a better version of Anansi than in the book, it’s also more thoughtful and up-to-date take on the Middle Passage than the one in the book. This scene would be an effective short film in itself, with absolutely no other context from American Gods. And it basically functions as one in this episode, since Anansi doesn’t enter the main story until later. Still, its themes resonate with the aftermath of Shadow’s lynching (an unexpected valence to add to the image of Odin hanging from the world tree; yet another addition on the part of the show) and the extremely uncomfortable conversations he has with Czernobog. Oh, yes, can we talk about Czernobog? Peter Stormare is third of three perfect casting choices for this show’s main trio of Old Gods. Given that I am primarily familiar with him from his famously taciturn performance opposite the famously verbose Steve Buscemi in Fargo, it’s nice to hear him get some dialogue to wrap his mouth around. And they’ve really made him look disgusting. His grubby, blood-soaked wife-beater is as brilliant a costume choice as Anansi’s suit (OH GOD THE SUIT). I am very much looking forward to the part of the story where we get to see Czernobog, Anansi and Wednesday together, because these actors are everything I love about television. I’m also extremely fond of Cloris Leachman’s performance as Zorya, and I hope the show contrives to give her more to do than in the book. And as if this isn’t enough, we’ve got Gillian Anderson doing “sinister Lucille Ball,” which is the role she was born to play. What I’m trying to get at here is that sure, American Gods is proving itself to be a televisual feast worthy of the creator of Hannibal. But this episode proves that the basics are so solid you could just take these actors and this script and play it out on a stage and it would still work. Easily my favourite episode of TV I’ve seen so far this year. Pick of the week.  

Better Call Saul: “Chicanery” — My wish for the Jimmy/Chuck/Kim plotline to move forward was granted. This is the side of the show that I’m usually close to 100% confident in. Jimmy’s transformation into Saul was always the impetus for this show’s existence, story-wise. I sometimes feel as though the presence of Mike, and now Gus, is only to maintain Better Call Saul’s connection to the violent, shocking world of Breaking Bad, where crime is right in front of you and not a matter of courtroom litigation. But this show has always been good at making a comparatively everyday story into something with equal dramatic weight to the sordid tale of Walter White. This week’s episode is maybe the best the show has ever done, and it’s basically a straightforward courtroom drama. What’s most satisfying here is seeing the two drastically different legal strategies of Jimmy and Kim employed in tandem. Kim’s meticulous and strategic in her cross-examination and Jimmy employs a pickpocket. (Huell!!!) The moment when Chuck realizes that he’s genuinely betrayed himself at the end of the episode is one of his best character beats in the show so far. Like courtroom dramas often do, this offers an opportunity to put this story’s conflict in the starkest relief it’ll probably ever get. Jimmy: the compassionate grifter. Chuck: the ruthless champion of justice. Outstanding stuff.

Doctor Who: “Oxygen” — Not bad. I always like the feel of Doctor Who episodes that take place on a spaceship/station with plenty of emphasis on the void of space. (“Kill the Moon” comes to mind in particular.) I dunno what I find intrinsically compelling about the void of space, but I to tend to like stories that take place there. I also like critiques of capitalism. And I love the note tacked onto the end of this that indicates the events of this episode were the impetus for some sort of space communist revolution. But I can’t help the feeling that the monster-based horror of this episode is awfully familiar from last season’s (awful) “Before the Flood.” This show is contriving more and more ways to do zombies without doing zombies these days. Fun to have Nardole actually on a TARDIS trip. I like him in limited doses. I’m curious about how the Doctor’s blindness will factor into the series’ main plot arc, which I”m hoping will start in earnest next week. But that final line, “I’m still blind!” was a bit much, wasn’t it? May as well have been followed by a huge DUN DUN DUUUUUUHHH. This was alright. Better than “Knock Knock.” Much better, in fact. But not a destined classic.

Bill Wurtz: history of the entire world i guess — I guess there is a point to YouTube. The cosmic stuff at the beginning of this is the highlight. Wurtz is funny, obviously. But he also manages to convey the inconceivable weirdness and complexity of the universe having at some point been empty and timeless. The closer we get to society, the easier a job he has. But he doesn’t hue too closely to the usual narratives and makes sure to not just do European history. I already feel like I’m taking this too seriously. I’m going to stop now.

Movies

The Darjeeling Limited — Hmm. Well, it’s got some really good stuff in it. Adrian Brody, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson are three actors who are wont to give excellent Wes Anderson performances. This is a very particular kind of performance. You have to be really good at listlessly staying in the same place. You can’t move your face too much. All three leads do this very well. Also, the movie is very distinctly not in these characters’ camp. Not entirely, anyway. The film is set in India, and is a Western portrayal of India, but doesn’t convey India as a fountain of exoticism for its white protagonists to dip into. The protagonists themselves certainly see it that way, which is the source of much of the movie’s humour. Still, I retain some suspicions about whether the more sincere moments in the movie (especially the young boy’s funeral) are accurate. If not, then I think this film is making some assumptions about its audience that it probably shouldn’t. Still, I don’t have the information to make the final judgement. Dramatically, I liked this as much as The Royal Tenenbaums (which I very much wanted to enjoy more than I did), but not quite as much as The Life Aquatic, and certainly not as much as my two favourite Anderson movies: Moonrise Kingdom and the spectacular masterpiece that is The Grand Budapest Hotel. But I’m a sucker for Anderson’s brand of intensely mannered filmmaking and this fits that bill.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 — Basically, I enjoyed this. I like these actors, these characters, and the general tone of these movies. But this isn’t quite as fleet-footed as its predecessor. The issue isn’t just repetition; it’s that this movie doesn’t execute its jokes as thoughtfully as the first Guardians did. There’s nothing here that rivals that movie’s most iconic shot: the slow-motion corridor walk where instead of stoically staring ahead, they’re yawning and crotch-scratching and whatever. The joke being, they’re doing a thing that people only do in movies, except they’re all acting like they’re not in a movie. This has ideas that come close to that, but it doesn’t really follow through on them. The opening credits have a similarly promising premise: the Guardians fight a giant space monster, out of focus in the background while Baby Groot dances adorably in the foreground. But that’s the whole of the joke, basically. There aren’t really any beats to the scene except for the other characters getting thrown towards the camera one at a time. If we could actually follow the battle and watch it get progressively more disastrous as Groot dances, that would have been funny throughout its duration, instead of just at the start. The monster should be dead by the end of the credits. Then we should see the Guardians up close for the first time, exhausted and covered in goo. And somebody should snark about how Groot used to be helpful. Or something. I’m not a screenwriter. I’m just saying, that’s the definitive way that scene should have worked. The rest of the action-comedy in the movie is often fun, but I couldn’t shake the feeling after a while that in its action sequences, this movie only has one joke, and it’s basically “terrible violence is wrought upon villains to a sunny, 80s soundtrack.” Contrast with the master, who has scores of specific, bespoke jokes in every fight. Other problems! Chris Pratt can’t do feelings! Chris Pratt can do banter. That’s what you’re supposed to hire Chris Pratt to do. The story makes no sense! Why did Kurt Russell give Chris Pratt’s mom brain cancer? He didn’t have to do that! And at what point was it explained that Chris Pratt would lose his short-lived god powers if he killed his dad? How does that even work?!? Also, the characters are all split up so we don’t get to see any of the relationships between them! This is an observation I semi-nicked from Pop Culture Happy Hour, but the panelists there are definitely right about it. We don’t really get to see the dynamic between the members of the team we got to know in the first movie, because every one of them gets paired with a minor character instead. This hurts Zoe Saldana the most, because she gets lumped in with the not-reliably-brilliant Karen Gillan. But it doesn’t really do Pratt any favours either because he gets stuck in an emotional arc with a Kurt Russell character who does not crack wise, thank you very much. Rocket and Drax fare better with Yondu and Mantis, respectively. (Evidently, the less humanoid you look, the more likely I am to refer to you by your character’s name.) But I miss the Rocket/Pratt dynamic from the first movie a lot. Also! There are platitudes o’plenty in the screenplay, and not all of them get comedically undercut by Drax! They should. “I control the arrow with my heart” is one of the most unforgivably shitty sentiments ever to be allowed into a Marvel shooting script. And if I see one more genre film where the entire resolution rests on the intrinsic nobility of humanity I will lose my mind! Ahem. But it’s not all bad! Dave Bautista is consistently hilarious as Drax, and steals this movie to a much larger extent than he did the first one. Baby Groot is adorable! But they would do well to retire that version of the character now (as it appears they will), since his entire characterization is based on a single gag in the first movie’s post-credits scene. That cannot hold for long. There are a number of very funny jokes! That is much appreciated. There is a spaceship with lasers that roll around its exterior on tracks! It’s hard to describe, but it’s a lovely bit of design that spices up the huge space battles substantially. There is a certified dank special effect where their faces go weird from doing too many hyperspace jumps! I love that. There is Cat Stevens! I love Cat Stevens. So basically, there are many problems with this. But the Guardians of the Galaxy remain a pretty solid second place among my favourite properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (next to Captain America). I’ll watch Vol. 3, and I won’t even complain about it, probably.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: The Special Special Special — This is distinctly less excellent than her more recent special that I watched last week, but I think I’m pretty much always on board for Maria Bamford at this point. This is the special that she shot for an audience of only her parents. I confess that while I appreciate this choice as a joke in itself (and I certainly appreciate Bamford’s ability to talk openly about the darkest elements of her inner life right in front of her parents) I’m not sure it shows her material in its best light. I do generally prefer comedy specials to be as verité and sketch-light as possible — incursions of surreal sketch comedy mar specials that I otherwise love by Chelsea Peretti and Zach Galifianakis, for example. And to a certain extent, this entire special is a sketch with standup in it. Old Baby also has elements of this, but for the bulk of its running time, Bamford is at least telling jokes to a crowd large enough to have a homogenous reaction to those jokes. No such luck with the ‘rents. The material’s still awesome, though. The bits about Paula Deen and the double standard that applies to mental vs. physical illnesses are both perfect demonstrations of what’s great about Maria Bamford. But on balance, I think she stepped it up for this year’s special. It’s actually nice to find that an artist you’ve recently discovered is on an upwards trajectory rather than a downwards one. It doesn’t usually work that way for me because I’m wilfully late to every pop culture party. But yeah, this cements Maria Bamford among my top three or four comics, probably.

Chris Gethard: Career Suicide — I really like listening to somebody just tell a story. That’s ultimately why I like Mike Birbiglia so much, even though I generally think his jokes don’t rise to the level of some of my other favourite comics. Neither do Chris Gethard’s. But that doesn’t stop this from being wildly compelling viewing. This is a 90-minute (!) account of Gethard’s lifelong journey through intense mental illness. Gethard’s gift is that he can see how the following two things can both be true: depression is awful and has taken him to some truly dark places, and the experience of being depressed has provided him with some objectively funny stories. This is also a really excellent corrective to certain specious narratives about mental illness, especially the one about antidepressants taking your creativity away. I’ve watched three new comedy specials so far in 2017. It speaks to the caliber of the first two that I would rank them as follows: Maria Bamford, Chris Gethard, Louis C.K.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: October — China Miéville’s self-admittedly partisan history of the Russian Revolution is off to a good start. That said, as a fan of his fiction, it is almost offputtingly straightforward. Aside from a few words necessitating a quick Google (ogee?) Miéville has basically put aside his most obscurantist tendencies here. And I confess, I always kind of loved him for those. I’ve read the first chapter of this book, and so far, Miéville’s introductory portraits of Lenin and Trotsky are the most promising elements. Though, the best single moment in this opening chapter is Miéville’s marvellous, withering depiction of Nicholas Romanov: “Absence defines him: absence of expression, imagination, intelligence, insight, drive, determination, élan. Description after bemused description turns on the ‘otherworldliness’ of a man adrift in history. He is a well-educated vacuity stuffed with the prejudices of his milieu — including pro-pogramist antisemitism, aimed particularly at revolutionary zhidy, ‘yids’. Averse to change of any kind at all, he is wholeheartedly wedded to autocracy. Uttering the word ‘intelligentsia’, he makes the same disgusted face as when he says ‘syphilis’.” So, yeah. He doesn’t hold back. And even in a comparatively simple idiom, Miéville’s use of English is still impressive. This bodes well.

Games

Fallen London — With last week’s encomium to Sunless Sea, I inspired myself to go back to the original. I found Fallen London a few years ago when I was really into interactive fiction in general — Twine, parser-based stuff, the whole works. Fallen London stuck out to me for all of the reasons I’ve already praised Sunless Sea, i.e. the prose is incredible. But it’s been a while. I can’t remember where I was at in the game and it’s taking me awhile to figure it out. But that’s fine! Because everything you do in Fallen London is a delight. It’s clear to me that a huge amount of the mythology that underlies Fallen London is still a mystery to me. (What the hell even is the Bazaar???) At first, I thought that the aura of mystery was the whole of the game and that you’re never really meant to get past the protective coating that sits on top of all of the lore. Certainly, most of the characters walking around seem to have just as incomplete an understanding of what the hell is going on as I do as a player. But playing a bunch of Sunless Sea made me realize that there are answers to the questions. Some of them, anyway. I’m looking forward to learning them. Also! There’s an app now! And it’s really pretty. Way prettier than the browser game. Now this feels like a bespoke product the same way Sunless Sea does. It’s a cosmetic thing, but cosmetics are important.

Music

Buffalo Springfield: Buffalo Springfield — Ah, fuck it. If I’m doing a Neil Young binge, I’m going to do it properly. From here on out, we’re going for completion. I’m defining that as “everything that’s been officially released by Neil Young or an act he was a member of.” This includes official and archival lives, and rarities on odds and sods collections. This is going to be taxing, but I’m experiencing a severe compulsion that I don’t think I’m going to best. Buffalo Springfield is not a bad album by any means, but it is first and foremost a period piece. It is interesting primarily for being an early work by Neil Young and Stephen Stills, both of whom would go on to do work that has aged much better than this. (The former in particular, obviously.) But I am always in favour of listening to things that are of primarily historical interest. In general, Neil’s songs are more adventurous and interesting than Stephen Stills’, but Stills penned the obvious standout, “For What it’s Worth.” It was tacked on in the second pressing after it became a hit. It would be a far poorer album without it, honestly. That’s how much better and more iconic it is than anything else on here. And the track it replaced, “Baby Don’t Scold Me,” is about as good as its title promises it will be. Neil’s songs don’t quite sound like Neil Young songs except for when he sings them. (Everything sounds like a Neil Young song if he’s singing it. Even if it’s a Beatles song.) And he only sings two of his own songs here. “Burned” is the stronger of the two, but I know from the Decade compilation that Neil’s best contributions to the Buffalo Springfield oeuvre will come later. Strangely, this record’s most notable “oh, Neil Young’s here!” moment isn’t on a track that he wrote. His guitar playing on “Leave” is remarkably similar to the way it’ll sound four years later in the outro of “Woodstock” with CSNY, or on “Southern Man.” A really interesting and intermittently good album.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 and W. Kamau Bell” — Sounds like Guardians 2 is basically what everybody expected it to be. (He says, having written this before he saw the movie, which he reviewed above.) I’m in. (He says, not knowing he’d see the movie within the same week as this review, and that this would later read really weirdly because of my structural choice to always put podcasts last.) W. Kamau Bell is very funny.

Reply All: “The Silence in the Sky” — Nice to hear something where P.J. Vogt did the reporting. Seems to me that’s rarer than Alex Goldman-reported segments, but I don’t have the stats in front of me. I agree with Vogt that “Across the Universe” is not the best Beatles song.

The Media Show: “Secrecy and whistleblowing, Times Literary Supplement editor Stig Abell, Radio style guides” — Ah, good, there’s an excellent media-focussed show on BBC Radio 4. I love BBC Radio 4. I got linked to this from I can’t remember where and listened to it to hear the segment on the Times Literary Supplement. Maybe I’ll subscribe to a literary magazine. I could see myself doing something like that.

WTF with Marc Maron: “John Michael Higgins / Maria Bamford” — Too bad the Maria Bamford spot is so short. I need to go back into the archives and listen to previous Maron/Bamford conversations. These two understand each other. John Michael Higgins is not a person I know (the only Christopher Guest movie I’ve seen is, wait for it… Waiting for Guffman) but he’s super interesting and Maron’s good at getting him to tell the story of his crazy road through showbiz. Fine listening.

Every Little Thing: “Rapture Chasers” — Not bad, but not as substantially different from Surprisingly Awesome as I’d hoped it would be. If your premise is basically “things are great when you look into them,” you’d better have some serious personality in your show. Because that is essentially the premise of all journalism that isn’t hard news. This is the sort of show that I think will likely produce a lot of great episodes, but I’m having the same sort of hard time figuring out why it exists as I had with Undone, and we all remember how that worked out.

Beef and Dairy Network: “A Tribute to Paul Kitesworthy” — A segment based around a slightly predictable joke: the dead guy isn’t really dead; he just owes everybody money. Still funny and well-made. If I wasn’t so behind on my subscriptions, I’m sure I would have gulped this whole thing down.

Code Switch catch-up — Wow, I just listened to six episodes of Code Switch. (The most recent six.) I am sad and confused! Highlights include a segment in the mailbag episode where the problems with the Native American hunting rights episode get addressed (thank god), Audie Cornish talking about writer/comic John Leguizamo, and the entire episode about the L.A. unrest (as relevant a topic as ever). But the real standout episode is the most recent one, co-hosted by Shereen Marisol Meraji and Kat Chow, about Miss Saigon. This is the musical where, the first time around, a bunch of the characters were played in yellowface makeup, but now they’re not, but it’s still an intrinsically problematic piece because of “fragile Asian woman” stereotypes, etc. Maybe this is only the standout to me because this comes up frequently in the opera world (Miss Saigon is based on the same text as Madame Butterfly) except it’s even worse in the opera world. Yellowface is still considered acceptable at many (most?) opera houses and the drama of Madame Butterfly is so wrapped up in shitty racism of the century-old variety that it is actually not a good opera anymore. (Well, I mean, it never was. But I can understand why an early 20th-century audience in Italy might have thought it was.) I’m not sure if this applies to Miss Saigon or not, but Madame Butterfly has a protagonist that we’re expected to sympathize with and feel bad for in spite of the fact that she has absolutely no strength of character. We’re expected to feel gutted at her fate because she can’t help being the sort of person she is, because of her race. If Butterfly had been a white character and acted the same way, nobody in the opera’s original audience would have believed it. And yet, here we are today, still believing it. I really hate Madam Butterfly. And I think I hate Miss Saigon by extension now.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #5: Temple” — Fun to hear Nate DiMeo do one of these Met episodes that’s a little bit critical of the Met. Basically he follows a timeline posted in the Met’s reconstruction of an Egyptian temple and points out the interesting bits (and the boring bits). Not one of my favourites of these stories, certainly. The one about Prince Demah Barnes is still the best one, followed closely by the one about John Vanderlyn’s panorama. But this is probably number three.

The Memory Palace: “Notes on a Plaque, Still Imagined” — This was one of the first Memory Palace episodes I heard, back before I was completely sold on it. Listening again, I don’t know what I was thinking. This is a beautifully written proposal to affix a big, gaudy plaque to a statue commemorating the military record of a racist. And not just any racist: the first Grand Wizard of the KKK. Nate DiMeo muses about how the plaque should be designed and what it should say to convey the message that this statue of this man is a product of its time, and of a morally inexcusable value system. Beautiful stuff.

The Memory Palace: “The Year Hank Greenberg Hit 58 Home Runs” — Outstanding. This is that rare thing: a story about American Nazism in the years prior to Pearl Harbour. Which was very much a thing and quite a popular one, though it’s been conveniently scrubbed from American history. Nate DiMeo finds his way in through two sports figures: the Jewish baseball virtuoso Hank Greenberg and the Jewish strongman Joseph Greenstein (“The Mighty Atom”). Most satisfyingly, it features said strongman beating up some Nazis with a baseball bat. What kind of baseball bat? Listen to the episode. It’s a more satisfying revel than you might think. Also, on the show’s website, DiMeo tagged this episode “Richard Spencer sucks,” just in case the subtext wasn’t clear. Pick of the week.

99% Invisible: “Sounds Natural” — Way to be buzzkills, 99pi staff. Honestly, I’ve always wondered how nature documentaries get such clear sound. But I never looked into it because I feared that the answer would be “it’s all fake,” which it is. I don’t really mind, but I’m going to be conscious of it now.

99% Invisible: “Reversing the Grid” — A strangely compelling policy story about how governments should deal with the phenomenon that power meters are reversible: i.e. they go backwards when you put power back into the grid. Like with solar panels.

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