Tag Archives: Cucumber

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 13, 2016)

19 reviews. Back in normal person territory.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: episodes 6-8 of all three, plus “The Screwdriver” — One thing I didn’t bring up in my pick of the week entry for this last time is that while Cucumber is a showcase for Russell T Davies: idiosyncratic stylist, Banana is a showcase for a number of different writers as well. Sue Perkins and especially Charlie Covell do magnificent work as guest writers on this show. So, even when Davies stops writing Cucumber, I really hope that he keeps doing Banana. I touched on this last week, but it bears expanding on: every time there’s a movie about LGBTQ people that manages to capture the attention of a mainstream audience (i.e. one that includes ignorant straight dudes such as myself) it is almost without fail a joyless slog. So, an LGBTQ anthology show with a sense of fun, that tells a different story every week and highlights the work of LGBTQ writers, is just something that needs to exist. I don’t think there’s anybody better to oversee it that Russell T Davies, but Banana could easily have a continued life once he moves on from it. I really love these shows, and I think it’s a dreadful shame that they’ve been so overlooked. I can’t urge you enough to watch them. (Although, since I am ostensibly reviewing things on this blog, I will say that I felt that the much-hyped sixth episode of Cucumber was the weakest of the lot, and the one time when the show crossed the line into self-indulgence and soapy plot contrivance. It’s a minor quibble. Nothing’s perfect.)

Last Week Tonight: March 13, 2016 — Nothing much to say except “yes.” And “ha!” And “yes.” And if you stay until the end of the credits, you get to see Rich Sommer try to eat a computer.

Better Call Saul “Rebecca” — Easily the season’s best episode yet. Jimmy and Mike’s plots are more amusing than substantial, but sidelining those characters gives us a chance to get to know both Chuck and Kim a bit better. Both are wonderful characters played by brilliant actors. What’s really interesting is seeing them explicitly linked in the way that they treat Jimmy. Given that Chuck has so much more experience in this regard and that they’re apparently comparing notes now, I’m fairly certain that Chuck will end up being a key factor in Jimmy and Kim’s inevitable breakup. Come to think of it, that could be an intentional play on Chuck’s part. The opening seems to suggest that Jimmy somehow drove a wedge between Chuck and his former wife. Revenge?

Horace and Pete: Episode 1 — Oh, I’m going to like this. Louis C.K. is explicitly going in for a critique of American values, and that is a ride I want to go on. But he’s not leaping feet-first into Kevin Smith polemical territory — there’s a division of labour here. Supporting characters are allowed to talk politics explicitly, but the main contest of old values vs. new values takes place in the A plot, with no explicit references to parties or primaries or Donald Drumpf. The first episode is structured around mirroring the supporting characters’ political arguments with the main characters’ family struggle. There aren’t any neat A to B comparisons to be made, because Louis C.K. has more subtlety than that. But this is essentially political theatre, and C.K. is setting himself up to be for the centre-left what the Coen brothers are for the centre-right. And I guess he can just work with whoever he wants now? Seriously, Steve Buscemi, Alan Alda, Edie Falco, Jessica Lange and Rebecca Hall in the same show? With a theme song by Paul Simon? On the internet? It’s possibly that C.K.’s imperial phase has only just started. Very excited to catch up on this and see where this goes.

Movies

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot — What the hell was this? Okay, look. Normally, I’m all about that thing where you don’t worry about whether you’re making a comedy or a drama. None of the best TV seems to care, after all. (See three out of four shows listed above.) But I feel like when you’re telling a true story about a recent war, you need to make a decision. There were some good lines in this, and some good performances. Tina Fey is great in this. But holy hell does the script go every which way. Really not very good.

Music

Patricia Kopatchinskaja, Teodor Currentzis, MusicAeterna, et al.: Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto & Stravinsky Les Noces — I don’t give a shit about the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. Really, I can’t even tell you how little I’d normally care to hear another recording of this mouldy, overdone repertory warhorse. And it frustrates me to no end that people keep recording it when there are actual living composers writing music (and needing money). And it frustrates me to no end that I basically can’t tell the difference between any of those recordings. So, if you’re going to record this piece, I will almost certainly not care. This recording made me care. It is a totally insane interpretation, with a seat-of-your-pants spontaneity to it such that Currentzis’ orchestra sometimes struggles charmingly to keep up with Kopatchinskaja. I’m sure that there will be many classical fans and critics who will meet it with tut-tuts of disapproval. But to me, this is the standard to which we should hold classical musicians. The question shouldn’t be “how well do these musicians offer us the standard reading of this piece,” but “how do these musicians make this piece new?” Classical musicians should be expected to go back to the score and interpret it afresh every time — like Glenn Gould did, and the late Christopher Hogwood. Every other approach is lazy. This came across my desk a while ago. I wouldn’t have taken it out of the shrink wrap if not for Stravinsky’s Les Noces. But, as fantastic as Currentzis’ Stravinsky is, it’s the Tchaikovsky that sells this. That is something I thought I’d never say. Maybe this whole classical music thing has a future after all. Pick of the week.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels — Their second album has been one of my favourites for ages, but I was yet to hear the first. This needed to be rectified. I like this a lot, but there’s nothing on this that hit me quite like “Close Your Eyes,” “Oh My Darling Don’t Cry” or “Crown.” But El-P is a hell of a producer, and both he and Killer Mike take some fantastic verses.

Literature, etc.

A week of reading excellent writing on the internet. Also David Day’s Alice annotations, but you know about that already.

Hasit Shah: “Poor Lonely Computer: Prince’s Misunderstood Relationship With The Internet” — A glorious longread from NPR Music, this doubles as a rare inside look into Prince’s exclusive Paisley Park concerts and an exploration of digital copyright law. It’s totally ingenious, and Shah knows exactly who to talk to to make the points he wants to make.

Nitsuh Abebe et al.: “25 Songs That Tell Us Where Music is Going” — This New York Times Magazine feature is a completely over-the-top surfeit of awesome. Instead of limiting their impressive stable of staff and guest writers to the 200ish word blurbs that are standard in these kinds of lists, the NYT lets fly with a collection of op-ed style pieces and full-on reported features. (I realize now that the entire issue of the print edition is devoted to this one feature. Nice.) Of particular note are the long pieces about hip-hop group The Internet and session drummer Matt Chamberlain. And Marlon James’ long analysis of Kendrick’s “The Blacker the Berry” takes the final prize. Plus, my perpetual favourite Caroline Shaw made the list! This is no mere, vapid listicle. This is a proper thing.

Kieron Gillen: “The New Games Journalism” — If these Omnireviewer posts have taught me anything about myself, it’s that I’ll never be a “gamer.” I just don’t have the damn time. But I do love games as a medium, and I’m fascinated (and frequently disgusted and appalled) by gaming culture. And if there’s anybody associated with that culture who I trust to be interesting about it, it’s Kieron Gillen. This is an essay he wrote three years before launching Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which is essentially a manifesto arguing that a writer’s personal experience with a game is more important in writing than the mechanics of the game itself. That makes it basically transferrable to every discipline, and I’d encourage anybody who writes about the arts to check this out. In terms of its specificity to games journalism, though, Gillen manages to coin the wonderful phrase “travel journalism to imaginary places.” (Also, Gillen uses the line “just saying it could even make it happen” from Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting” to justify his enterprise, as if his essay is a sort of incantation. That seems to me like a precursor to the idea that music is magic — the premise of Gillen’s Phonogram.)

Games

SOMA — It’s been ages since I played this, because it got too scary. I can handle jumpscares and things chasing me down dark corridors. But when unknown consciousnesses start trying to talk to me through monitors, the willies come on something fierce. I think I’m close to the end of the game now, but I wanted to check in here a bit in advance to gripe about a truly godawful bug that forced me to do one of the game’s scariest chapters twice. There’s a moment where you need to use an item to unlock a door and it’s supposed to be automatic, but it just… doesn’t happen. After some Googling, I found that others had this same problem, and when they reloaded their save files from the previous chapter, it works. But that entails having to traverse the darkness of the ocean floor, teeming with anglerfish, for a second time. And my nerves have their limits.

Podcasts

I’m suspending Radiotopia reviews in case I decide to enter Podquest.

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” parts 5-12 — This series tells an enormous story with such finesse. I haven’t got much to add to what I said last week, except that it continues as brilliantly as it starts. Longworth makes late 60s Hollywood seem extremely rotten. She emphasizes that Manson was part of a larger counterculture that was becoming poisonous by 1969, but that studios were still falling over themselves to monetize. And her detour into the post-Manson life of Roman Polanski is just as disturbing as the murder narrative. Seriously, what a wretched creep. I have quibbles, as you do. I wish Longworth wouldn’t do silly voices when she reads quotes. She should either get an actor, like she often does, or read the quotes straight. I wish she wouldn’t use the phrase “and/or” so much — and in her tagline, no less. But altogether, this is a unique and wonderful use of the podcast medium to tell really dense, resonant stories. I can’t recommend it enough. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Debatable” — Okay, now we’re back in the territory that I like Radiolab to occupy. The question here is basically “How do you engage in debate when the very structure of debate is designed to exclude you?” The answer that this episode’s protagonist Ryan Wash comes up with is “Always debate the structure of debate.” I loved this. As a sidebar, if you want to get really mad, go read the comments on this and “The Cathedral” on the Radiolab site. I agree with some of them that Radiolab isn’t what it used to be, but those aren’t the episodes to gripe about. How typical of the internet that the episodes that prompt so much bullshit are one that engages with systemic racism and another that features an indie game. If there are two things that internet fuckwits hate, it’s challenging racism and indie games.  

On the Media: “Print is Back, Back Again” — This episode gives us the actual, not that pessimistic state of the publishing industry, an inside look at Amazon’s super weird bricks-and-mortar location, and the knowledge that used books are sometimes sold by the foot as decorative objects in particular colours. Really good.

Imaginary Worlds: “Why They Fight” — I probably will not watch Batman v. Superman. But it’s cool to hear Molinsky parse the relationship between those two characters in terms of D&D character alignments. God, but I’m a nerd.

All Songs Considered: SXSW coverage — This encompasses All Songs’ hour-long preview of little-known artists they’re excited to see in Austin and their nightly debriefs after full days of, presumably, sensory overload. It’s fun to hear Bob Boilen and co. in this environment, which is presumably where they would all like to spend their entire lives. They do a great job of capturing the vibe of the place. One of these years, I’ll go.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton” — At last. I’ve been looking forward to the PCHH panel seeing Hamilton about as much as they were probably looking forward to seeing Hamilton. If you’re in any way remotely skeptical about this universally and justly beloved high-water mark of human creativity this ought to allay any doubts. As Lin-Manuel Miranda himself put it on Twitter, these guys really went in. Linda Holmes reveals how Hamilton calls back to every great Broadway musical ever (though she skips the Jesus Christ Superstar homage, maybe intentionally), and Gene Demby does the same with its references to much of the history of rap. I am so glad that all four of them loved it so much, because this is one of those cases where I’m totally okay with the hive mind. As far as I’m concerned, anybody who doesn’t like Hamilton stands revealed as a charlatan. This episode is also the perfect example of why I like PCHH so much better than Slate’s Culture Gabfest. This is both more analytically incisive than their episode on Hamilton, and also much funnier.

Reply All: “Earth Pony” — This is both named after and most notable for its magisterial “Yes Yes No” segment. The main segment is a fairly unremarkable but basically fun bit about a fictional, but nonetheless successful political prognosticator. But it’s that “Yes Yes No” featuring Jason Mantzoukas in the role of Alex Blumberg that really sells this. It might be the best that segment has ever been.

Serial: “Thorny Politics” — Oh no, now Trump’s involved. Two things I’ve loved in this season have been the actual narrative of Bergdahl’s life, capture and imprisonment; and the political ramifications of his release. This, therefore, is one of the best episodes of the season, focussing as it does on the latter of the two.

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Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 6, 2016)

It was the kind of week where I took in large amounts of a small number of things. So, a mere 20 reviews, this time. Having finally caught up on my podcast subscriptions, I can at last binge on some other podcasts that I’ve been meaning to check out for a while. I started listening to two new ones this week that are both blowing my mind. But first, everything else.

Music

Emerson, Lake and Palmer: Tarkus — When I was a kid, I wanted to be Keith Emerson when I grew up. I listened to this album for the first time in ages when the news broke that he’d died. I’m eternally frustrated that the second side is so patchy when the first is so good. So, let’s just focus on what everybody comes to this album for: the 20-minute title track, which is simply a classic. And it’s almost entirely Emerson that makes it so good. Every one of his solos is a perfectly thought out little architectural marvel. This track, as much as anything, is the reason why I’ve never understood people who gripe about long solos. Actually, if “Tarkus” has a flaw, it’s that the organ solos are so good that you kind of find yourself waiting for the next one when Greg Lake starts singing or, bless him, playing guitar. And it all ends with the most gloriously silly synth riff ever written. This record is both a definitive period piece and a (half) masterpiece. RIP, Keith.

Glenn Gould & Toronto Symphony Orchestra: Beethoven PIano Concertos 1 & 2 — This is a scratchy, barely listenable old thing taken from a 1951 CBC broadcast. Gould was only 18, and had already been a regularly-featured soloist with the TSO for four years. CBC had caught on that this kid’s performances needed a national audience. It would be four more years before Columbia Records caught on, signed him and lifted him to international prominence with his debut recording of the Goldberg Variations. So, as a document, this is super cool. As an actual recording, the early 50s radio broadcastiness of it makes things difficult, but Gould is great here. People tend to be split on his Beethoven. It’s like, the Bach is beyond reproach, the Mozart is best forgotten, and the Beethoven is somewhere in between. I like Gould’s Beethoven. (And some of his Mozart, if we’re being honest.) And by age 18, he already had that unique tone that I love him for.

Kate Bush: The Sensual World — This is Kate Bush’s version of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous. Both were renowned for work that they did at very young ages, and both were increasingly ignored as their music approached increasingly adult subject matter. The Sensual World isn’t as consistent as Hounds of Love or as experimental as The Dreaming, but it has some of Bush’s most thoughtful songwriting. The title track, “The Fog,” “Heads We’re Dancing,” and obviously “This Woman’s Work” are all among the best music she ever made, and she couldn’t have made it as a less mature artist. Of course, many years later, she’d pull the same trick again on Aerial to even greater effect.

Movies

Where to Invade Next — Michael Moore’s gotten soft. Considering that he’s Michael Moore, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. I enjoyed this very much, because I think that the United States needs as many reminders as it can get that the American experience is not the default human experience. But at the same time, I wanted to cry for most of its duration, because there are so many places that get such obvious things so right, and so many people who would doubtless call them wrong. Giving kids healthy, good meals in schools like they do in France shouldn’t sound revolutionary. Neither should Italy’s eight weeks of annual paid vacation, or Iceland’s policies on gender equality. It’s enough to make even us smug Canadians hang our heads in shame.

Television

Cucumber/Banana/Tofu: Episodes 1-5 (of all three) — This is Russell T Davies’ antidote for every austere, staid, Oscar-nominated movie about gay people you’ve ever suffered through. I didn’t see this on any year-end lists, and that is a travesty. Cucumber, Davies’s middle-aged spiritual sequel to Queer as Folk, is unbelievable television. It has more kinetic energy than anything I’ve seen in ages. If you’re not pulled in by the first episode, which, holy hell does that ever start in one place and end up in another, then you’re watching television wrong. And in case eight hours of drama about middle-aged gay dudes doesn’t appeal, there’s Banana, the nearly-as-brilliant companion piece which focuses on members of the younger supporting cast. Tofu, the series of 11-minute documentary shorts that rounds out the trilogy, is not very good. But that in no goddamn way should prevent you from watching the other two shows. Now I feel bad about some of the crap I’ve said to people about Davies’ Doctor Who scripts. He is a genius, and I hope he quits smoking so we get maximum years of prosperous creativity from him. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 6, 2016 — “What sound does Ann Coulter make as she falls down the stairs?” is my new favourite line on this show. Well, second favourite. My new actual favourite is “Tonight we are talking about special taxing districts. So, hello people watching for the first time because of our Trump piece! And also, I presume, goodbye.”

Better Call Saul: “Gloves Off” — So far in this show, it’s been obvious that Jimmy McGill has a long way to go before he properly becomes Saul Goodman. But it hasn’t been that obvious that Mike Ehrmantraut is on a similarly lengthy journey. Jonathan Banks’s wonderful performance is outwardly the same in its mannerisms, regardless of whether he’s the ruthless “cleaner” of Breaking Bad or the regretful ex-cop in Better Call Saul. But this episode demonstrates that there’s a chasm between those two versions of the character.

QI: “Misconceptions” — The episode I watched last week was apparently Stephen Fry’s last episode filmed, but this is his last transmitted. Dear me. How will they get by without him.

Podcasts

Welcome to Night Vale: “Homecoming” + Bonus Episodes 1 & 2 — I like Night Vale best when the comedic horrors give way to a bit of humanity. I don’t necessarily mean that the show is best when it has long character arcs. I’m inclined to think the opposite. “Homecoming” does it right. It tells a typical Night Vale supernatural story, but one that has specific resonance for Cecil. And it’s basically self-contained, without depending too heavily on your knowledge of continuity for emotional investment. The bonus episodes are not written by Fink and Cranor, and both are excellent (the first is exceptional), indicating that a bit of new blood could really punch up the show. Come to think of it, I wonder what Night Vale would be like if it had a writers’ room the size of a sitcom? Would it lose what makes it singular? Or would it have the variety it sometimes lacks?

You Must Remember This: “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” Parts 1-4 — I confess that my first impression of this was “why is this a podcast and not a book?” It is essentially just Karina Longworth reading a script, with no tape save for a few quick movie clips, and the unexpected presence of Nate DiMeo in the role of Charles Manson. But then I just got lost in how good it is. This is the sort of cultural history that I am a complete sucker for. The first episode is Longworth’s summary of everything that was set to go rotten in American counterculture in the late 60s, and it’s enthralling. Manson is a lens by which Longworth examines the dark side of the hippie movement — and not just the extreme dark side that culminated in a cult and several murders, but the more mundane dark side that resulted in the mainstreaming of outlaw culture. There was a segment of Flower Power that never meant to stop at mere resistance: there would be open rebellion. And, as Ian Anderson once observed, there was something more than vaguely fascist about that segment of counterculture. That’s all baked into Longworth’s narrative, but seen through the lens of Los Angeles as opposed to the more familiar (to me) London narrative, and through the lens of psychedelic film as opposed to the more familiar (to probably most people) psychedelic music narrative. Which is not to say that Longworth ignores the musical connections in the story. The third episode, which I understand is widely regarded as the crown jewel of the 12-part series, is the heartbreaking story of how Charles Manson broke Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys. If you only feel like committing to one episode of Manson brutality, make it that one. I’m sure there will be others that equal it for me, but that’s really good radio.

Limetown: Season 1 — Yeah, I binged the whole season. It’s short. Many thoughts. First off, choosing the title of the final episode of Serial season one as the title of the first episode of your fictional Serial riff is ballsy. But Limetown lives up to the affectation. This is as convincing an impression of actual radio as Night Vale isn’t. And, I know they don’t bear comparison. And, I know they probably get compared more than they should, simply by virtue of being two of the three most buzzy fictional podcasts out there. (I will never listen to The Message, by the way. I’m sure it’s fine, but I don’t want to live in a world where all of the successful podcasts are fucking branded.) But truthfully, if Night Vale had this level of aesthetic verisimilitude, it would be a better podcast. Anyway, this had me emotionally invested and in suspense from the first minute. And from the second episode on, it is terrifying. I’ve talked before about how horror games are scarier to me than horror movies because they implicate you in the story. I think the same goes for audio, which forces you to paint the picture in your head, while maintaining the pace and the sense of inevitability of a movie. Plus, there’s even a bit of subtle metafiction in here: listen through earbuds, and you’ll know what it’s like to have people talking directly into your head. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season. Orson Welles would be proud. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Ghost: Emily” — The best episode of the season so far. Several people discuss their animosity towards their partners’ exes. Of course, this being The Heart, it’s not played for laughs. It’s thoughtful and has plenty of that thing they do where half of the story is in the mix — things spoken aloud are separate in space from things left unsaid. Really good.

All Songs Considered: “New Mix: Sturgill Simpson, Beth Orton, Julianna Barwick, Damien Jurado, More” — Wasn’t feeling this quite as much as the last few, but hoo boy does that Heron Oblivion track ever hit that perfect 1967 sweet spot.

Theory of Everything: “Paris” — Benjamen Walker is really good at talking about the stuff that insufferable lefty arts people talk about without actually coming off as insufferable. Using that gift, he has become one of the great storytellers of the decline of modern cities — first by demolishing the sharing economy in “Instaserfs,” then by railing against the commodification of all space in “New York After Rent,” and now by exploring the chasm between the Paris of memory and the Paris of today.

99% Invisible: “The Giftschrank” — There are actual rooms in German libraries where they keep the dangerous literature. This is basically an account of what kinds of literature were considered dangerous at various points in time — courtesy of Sam Greenspan, who it is always good to hear from.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: American Crime” — Linda Holmes is in New York, talking to culture people! Danielle Henderson is great, and I would love to hear her on this show again. But I will not be watching American Crime.

The Memory Palace: “Homesteading” — DiMeo reigns it in, this week. A tight six minutes, and a tiny, charming story. It really is a bit too slight to be memorable, but I prefer this to the occasional bloat of recent episodes.

Reply All: “Milk Wanted” — Breast milk is apparently really expensive. Trust a Reply All producer (Phia Bennin, who is wonderful) to find out the internet repercussions of that.

All Songs Considered: “Iggy Pop & Josh Homme Talk ‘Post Pop Depression’” — Iggy Pop is one of the wittiest people in rock, and he and Josh Homme make a good double act. I intend to listen to the album, but I can’t have it be the first Iggy Pop album I listen to. Hell, I haven’t even heard Fun House.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr., Kanye, and Gilmore Girls” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen is a very clever interviewer and I would love to hear him do his own podcast. His interview with Leslie Odom Jr. really demonstrates that Lin-Manuel Miranda is not the only super smart person involved in Hamilton. I agree with Sean Rameswaram that all of the people who gave overwhelmingly positive reviews to The Life of Pablo the day after its release should be fired. And I’ve been told to watch Gilmore Girls by enough people, now including Daisy Rosario and Linda Holmes, that I probably will.