I was underwhelmed by podcasts this week, so I’ve chosen two non-podcast picks of the week instead. And here they are at the top.
Swiss Army Man — You know this as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.” What you don’t know is the extent to which that is exactly what it is for its entire 97-minute duration. But, in spite of And, because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. The movie’s dreamlike magical realist logic comes to life in the hands of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who don’t get bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, they turn the whole story into a visual fantasia, piling found objects one on top of the other in elaborate hallucinatory montages. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of weird, unpredictable, probably bad movies with crazy premises like this one to another year of bland superhero blockbusters. Pick of the week.
BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 4-12 — This is now officially my favourite Netflix original. I loved the fourth season of OITNB, but if you take the past two seasons of both of these shows and average them out, BoJack wins by a mile. The fourth episode of this season does a thing that I wish cartoons would do more often and proceeds with almost no dialogue. It is completely virtuosic and manages to be dark and moving in the way that this show always is even while it’s doing silly sight gags for the entirety of its duration. Two episodes later, we get a wonderfully non-hand-wringy story about abortion. Episode eight is one of the most beautiful episodes of TV comedy I’ve seen since last season’s “Hank After Dark.” It addresses one of the strangest elements of storytelling, which is our tendency to root for the protagonist regardless of everything. It’s an episode where everything falls apart for all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, which results in a happy ending for a few characters we don’t. It’s brilliant. This show has everything, including one of the best casts on any current show. I may just be misremembering, but it seems to me that Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins have substantially upped their game this time around. Tompkins in particular is bringing out many subtler shades of Mr. Peanutbutter than existed in prior seasons. I think that this is currently my second-favourite scripted program of 2016 so far, next to Horace and Pete. Pending my capriciously changing opinions, it will beat Better Call Saul by a narrow margin. Pick of the week.
Lost: “Solitary” — Ooh, I dunno about this. The love story segment of Sayid’s backstory is maybe the most contrived element of this show’s first season. Even Sawyer, while generally a shit character, has a better backstory than this. On the other hand, Hurley’s plot in this is one of the most beautiful moments of the season. A mixed bag.
Last Week Tonight: July 24, 2016 — This contains one of this show’s greatest moments ever and one of its most lacklustre. (Is it “most lacklustre?” Or just, “least lustrous?”) The good one is a moment where Oliver pulls a distressing if-then formulation from an interview with Newt Gingrich. In the interview — whether out of ignorance, malevolence or whatever arcane combination of the two is currently fueling the GOP — Gingrich asserts that feelings are facts. Or, at least, he fails to understand that this is not the case. Given this, Oliver provides this calculus: if candidates can create feelings, and feelings are facts, then candidates can create facts. “That is the closest thing to an actual magic spell I think I’ve ever seen,” says Oliver, and he is shudderingly correct. The least lustrous bit is the celebrity feature at the end where a bunch of major recording artists sing about how they don’t want candidates to make unauthorized use of their songs, which is a thing that happens constantly. It’s one of those things where the writers obviously just trusted that having a whole bunch of celebrities would be sufficient, so they didn’t write any jokes. (Sorry, they wrote one joke: about Spotify. And they gave it to Josh Groban to sing, because he was the only one who appeared to even care. Josh Groban loves being on TV.) This is fine. But I wish this show wouldn’t do that sort of “event” programming. They don’t need to: no matter what Oliver talks about, he’s going viral the next day.
Laurie Penny: Welcome to the Scream Room — No, this isn’t another of the Lovecraftian horror stories I’ve been so into this year. It’s a series of five posts on Medium about the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. Penny is a spectacular writer, almost to the point of showing off, and her existential dread at the implications of both conventions is intensely relatable. She sees the same apocalypse in the Republican convention that every sane person in the world does, but she also decries the horror of the lesser-evilism that was the spirit of the day at the Democratic convention. “Outside,” she writes, “an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor.” Nearly every paragraph has a sentence that good. But the cream of the crop, and the most enraging thing I’ve read in awhile is “I’m With the Banned,” a crazy piece of first-person journalism that tells the story of Penny’s experience at the Republican National Convention with the infamous Twitter hate speech geyser Milo Yiannopoulos. Throughout the evening, she also encounters Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, and most disturbingly, Roosh V, whose relative lack of cynicism marks him as especially dangerous. This series is a quick, engrossing read, but have something calming nearby to serve as a chaser.
John Hermann: The Content Wars — I am finally finished reading this and I am too anxious and confused to have any feelings. I will say that I highly recommend Hermann’s writing. He has a wonderful way of clearly stating what’s happening in cases where most writers would find it hard to even quantify, and rather than directly editorializing, he’ll just lapse into an intentionally glib, irony-laden voice. So, he never comes off as a prophet of doom, in spite of his considerable scepticism about the future of platforms. The sheer imperiousness of his writing makes him much harder to ignore than even highly-regarded but slightly frantic tech-sceptics like Benjamen Walker. One last lengthy quote before I leave this be forever: “Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)”
Nils Frahm: Solo — I listened to this while I read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, which is probably why I didn’t claw my eyes out during the course of that. It is immensely calming without feeling cheap. Think Brian Eno and Harold Budd. It is worth hearing simply for the sound of the piano itself, which is an unconventional thing about ten feet tall. It is marvellously sonorous, and well recorded here.
Strawbs: Ghosts — This is far better than I expected this band could be after a few listens of their apparent masterpiece, Hero and Heroine, many years ago. I dare say that this is much better than that album, with even the middling tracks reaching the heights of Hero and Heroine’s best ones (“Autumn,” the title track). Both albums find them a ways from their folk origins, playing a unique sort of laid-back symphonic prog. But this one is lower on treacle. Perhaps the album doesn’t quite belong on the prog 101 syllabus, but anybody who likes that genre ought to hear its best two tracks: “Ghosts” and “The Life Auction.” My favourite ‘70s prog discovery I’ve made in a while.
The Decemberists: Picaresque — Ah, memories. I first heard this album around the time when I first became amenable to music that was made after 1975. It was an easy sell, because Colin Meloy’s theatrical story-songs smacked of Genesis. That’s not the end of their prog connection: it would only be a few years before the Decemberists would go full neo-Tull on The Hazards of Love, which I like far more than most critics did. But Picaresque is their masterpiece. Every song is good, most are excellent. This album hits that perfect mark several times, where both the melody and the lyrics have a hook simultaneously. “16 Military Wives” may be the definitive song of the George W. Bush administration, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as funny and haunting as ever 11 years later. A classic.
Undertale — I sunk a bunch of free hours into a second playthrough of this, and thank god. Without spoiling anything, all of this game’s endings require you to take drastically different approaches throughout. So, it actually didn’t feel like a second playthrough so much as a totally different game taking place in the same overworld. I saw completely different sides to several of the characters I encountered on my first time through. These new characterizations in no way contradict the old ones; rather they suggest that these pixelated video game characters contain multitudes and respond in drastically different ways to drastically different circumstances. But the real genius of Undertale, I’m realizing, is its capacity for staggering narrative rug-pulls. The one in my first ending was earthshaking; this one less so. But still, the fact that playing the game through once will only yield a third of the story at most is properly impressive. My initial assessment of this game as being overrated is entirely due to how tightly it holds its cards to its chest. It is in fact a marvel. And I’ve still got one ending to go.
Imaginary Worlds: “Ghost in the Shell” — This kind of slipped past me, honestly. I will say this: there is no defence for casting Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman. None. I won’t see that movie. I’ll just watch the original anime. (Maybe. But probably not.)
99% Invisible: “The Mind of an Architect” — This features never-before-heard tape of several renowned architects participating in a study about human creativity. That alone should make you want to listen.
Code Switch: “Black and Blue” — This is a more structured and thoughtful extension of last week’s extra episode about the most recent spate of violence between police and black people. I’m sure the Code Switch blog always did this kind of thing, but I’m really glad that it comes directly into my podcast feed now, because there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.
Reply All: “Stolen Valor” — The main segment is a really interesting story about people who attempt to shame people who falsely wear military uniforms in public. It’s great, and does a great job of demonstrating why there are people who find this very offensive and others who are taking it way over the line. The attempt to do something, anything, on the police violence of the previous week is as good a take as you can ask for from a show that focusses on how our experiences of the world are mediated by the internet. It’s an angle I hadn’t heard before, even if it is a bit of a paltry response.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “On Endings And Road Trips” — This is a rerun, and awww, they all sound so young! It’s a fun show, and if anything it ought to clear away any notion that they’re treading water these days, because the panel is actually less engaged-sounding here than they are on 2016 episodes.
On The Media: “The Country of the Future” — A bit of appealingly self-conscious parachute journalism from Bob Garfield and Alana Casanova-Burgess. This will be really edifying for anybody who doesn’t know anything about the Brazilian media. Considering that Brazil has a controversial publicly-funded broadcaster, I’d actually like to see more Canadian journalists take these topics on. The implications for our audience would be dramatically different from those for Garfield’s presumed American one.
All Songs Considered: “My Cell Phone Rights At Shows Vs. Yours” — This isn’t a reasoned debate so much as it’s just Boilen’s platitudes vs. Hilton’s curmudgeonliness. Maybe this would connect with me if I went to more concerts.
More Perfect: “Object Anyway” — This is only tangentially related to the Supreme Court, but the history of racism in jury selection, and the ineffective rules put in place to prevent it, is a really interesting story.
Invisibilia: “Flip the Script” — Another pair of stories without distinction. The first finds some Danish cops choosing to treat radicalized young Muslims with respect and discovering that this is an effective way to fight radicalization. Well, who’d have thought. I could have told you that. The second is about a guy with a really dumb idea about how to fix online dating. StartUp did a whole season on people with a good idea about how to fix online dating. I don’t need this story.
NPR Politics Podcast: Democratic National Convention coverage — This podcast was posting daily during both conventions, which is a great thing for a show like this to do. It’s good conversation. Being a politics show, it’s not as appealingly frothy as Pop Culture Happy Hour, but it’s as close as you can come to that show for politics. This was my media of choice throughout the convention because I hate TV (and don’t have one) and Facebook is worse. It was a great way to keep up without feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with messaging. I’ll certainly return to this when the convention’s over and they’re back to regularly scheduled programming. I bet the episodes on the Republican convention would have driven me insane, though.
Fresh Air: “The Rise And Fall Of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes” — This is a somewhat airless discussion, but the topic is fascinating. Roger Ailes is, of course, the scum of the earth. And now it turns out that creating Fox News isn’t even the worst thing he’s done in his life. Check this out for some horrifying context about this mess.
The Heart: “The Understudy” — A lovely piece by Sophie Townsend that was first produced for Love Me, the CBC podcast from the producers of WireTap that I somehow haven’t checked out yet (but which I won’t review for obvious reasons). The premise of having an actor portray her ex, and then using mostly the parts of the sessions where he talks about how he can’t get the lines right is brilliant. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fact that the ex in question wasn’t quite able to play the part of Townsend’s dead husband. Really nice.
99% Invisible: “America’s Last Top Model” — “Knowledge creates wonder.” If there was ever a credo for this show, it’s that. The rest of the episode, about a gigantic ridiculously accurate model of the Mississippi River floodplain that could predict levee failures more accurately than modern computers, is vintage 99pi.
Fresh Air: “Comic Mike Birbiglia” — A fun interview, but it touches on a lot of the same topics that are in Birbigila’s well-known specials and his first movie. It would have been nice to hear more about the new movie.
Code Switch: “46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile” — This gets far into the weeds of Castile’s driving record. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not just discrimination in policing that’s the issue, although it’s the main one. It’s also housing discrimination and segregation.
Theory of Everything: “Something will happen, eventually” — Benjamen Walker is the only person who can do a reported piece based on an interview and make it sound like a prose poem. This show begins with the premise that coincidences aren’t as unlikely as they seem and weaves a tight 14 minutes around that idea without ever defaulting to the standard formats and techniques of public radio. If I were giving a podcast pick of the week it would go to this, but I’m not, so consider it a technical victory.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ghostbusters and Mr. Robot” — I think they’re pretty much spot on about Ghostbusters. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but definitely lesser work from all those involved. Mr. Robot has never particularly drawn me.
WTF with Marc Maron: “Chuck Klosterman” — I think Klosterman slows down for Maron’s benefit here. But a fun chat that offers some insight into culture criticism’s most accomplished dilettante.