Tag Archives: Philomena Cunk

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 1, 2017)

I’m beginning to put together my belated year-end list, as per tradition. Part of that involves going through a bunch of stuff I meant to get to when it actually still was 2016 that I didn’t. So, a bit of that here. Not sure any of it will make the list. But there’s a fair bit of good music here. And lots of other things. 29 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Return of Doctor Mysterio” — More than anything, this demonstrates how Steven Moffat writing Doctor Who is pure joy in basically any configuration. This is a purposefully slight, silly romp with virtually no consequences either held over from or contributing to past and future episodes of the show, and yet it kind of made my week. It’s a bittersweet reminder that this show, under this writer, is still pretty damn good even when it’s spinning its wheels. I say bittersweet because this is the last year when we’ll get to see it. Anyway, Moffat’s take on the Superman/Lois Lane situation is exactly what you’d think it would be, in the sense that it cranks the farce up to eleven (Twelve? Joke credit Sachi Wickramasinghe). And that’s basically what this is: a farcical reinterpretation of Superman. The story belongs to the new characters, Grant (our Clark Kent) and Lucy (our Lois Lane). The Doctor just sort of gets to be there — which is basically the only way to do a standalone Doctor Who story at this point. The Doctor’s plotline is too continuity-heavy for anybody to be able to just jump on board at Christmas. But there are some Easter eggs (Christmas eggs?) that I think are worth noting. Think about this: Moffat’s final season will surely clue up some lingering Twelfth Doctor plotlines, even if Capaldi stays on. The last line spoken before his era properly began was Eleven’s final line: “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” I’ve always thought that was a bit of a limp exit. But the Doctor seems to be keeping his promise: not only is he mourning River Song (primarily an Eleventh Doctor companion), but he seems to be trying to cope with his grief by attempting to contact Amy and Rory with his huge New York time antenna. Maybe series ten will focus on legacy and remembrance in some way. That would be a good theme for Moffat to go out on. For most writers it would be bombastic. But I think if anybody’s earned it, it’s this guy.

Sherlock: “The Six Thatchers” — I never thought that one of the best episodes of Sherlock would be one solely credited to Mark Gatiss. And I never thought that Mark Gatiss would produce my favourite episode of television in a week also featuring a new episode written by Steven Moffat. Yet here we are. This is a marvellous, tightly-wound episode that manages a huge amount of business with remarkable grace and poetry. This story continues (and supposedly concludes) Mary’s story from last season, at first in the guise of a new and self-contained case for Sherlock to solve regarding the smashing of Margaret Thatcher busts (satisfying in itself). And it does this while never forgetting about the show’s new status quo, in which Sherlock is primarily motivated by Moriarty’s final plot. It incorporates a wonderfully obtuse pairing of a man who meets death in Baghdad with footage of sharks, which comes full circle in the episode’s climactic scene. That will be the brainworm of this episode: the thing that sticks for the longest. It contains typically wonderful performances from its leads (and I’m including Amanda Abbington in that: she’s the best part of this) and an absolutely stunning series debut from director Rachel Talalay, who seems to have become Steven Moffat’s virtuoso of choice: the person he goes to when he needs something really complicated taken care of (i.e. the last two season finales of Doctor Who). Sherlock has always been a deliberately stylized sort of show, but Talalay gives this an artful elegance that it has occasionally lacked in the hands of other directors. The scene in the aquarium, and all of the visual references to it that play out subtly in other scenes are brilliantly deployed. There’s one moment where it’s done with just a hint of shimmery blue light on Sherlock’s face. Another director might have cut away to a shot of the shark tank, which would have been fine, but this is so much less intrusive. It’s a non-hamfisted way to portray the looming spectre of death. And that’s a difficult thing to pull off. So, incidentally, is killing off your best supporting character, and the one female character to have ever held any real purchase over the show’s major story arcs. And they don’t pull it off, because there’s no real way to do that because it’s both a bullshit trope and an obvious net loss for the show. But I won’t cry foul just yet because if they can keep finding ways to bring back Andrew Scott’s Moriarty, I’m sure we’ll be seeing more of Mary yet. Even if she is actually dead. Which, I repeat, would be a bad thing. But let’s think about that a bit more when the season’s over. If I have one other complaint about this, it’s that for the second season premiere in a row, Gatiss has glossed over what was supposedly a game-changing plot twist in the preceding season finale. In “The Empty Hearse,” he blithely declined to reveal the true means by which Sherlock survived the events of “The Reichenbach Fall.” And now, he allows Sherlock’s status as the murderer of Charles Augustus Magnussen in “His Last Vow” to be brushed away in the cold open (though, who’s to say how permanent that will turn out to be). There’s an argument to be made that Magnussen’s death was rendered essentially moot by the return (in some form) of Moriarty and the events of “The Abominable Bride.” And certainly that’s the argument that Mycroft would make. But this is becoming a concerning pattern, and if this season ends with a huge twist like the last two, I might find myself a bit sceptical of this show’s ability to solve its own puzzles. Still, none of that seems especially important given what a fabulous story “The Six Thatchers” is in itself.

All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace: Episodes 2 & 3 — This three-part documentary on the way that ideas from computer science won an unwarranted psychic victory over humankind is one of the most astonishing pieces of documentary filmmaking I’ve ever seen. The third episode is especially haunting. The filmmaker, Adam Curtis, is both a lucid guide through some fairly complex ideas, and a spectacular aesthete. The documentary is effectively a work of collage, with lengthy clips from news footage, satire programming and previous documentaries all given entirely new meaning by way of clever juxtaposition with Curtis’s voiceover and musical choices. And the actual story in the third episode, where a computer scientist and a geneticist collaborate to justify a concept of humans as machines — all while horrible violence is playing out in the African nations where the materials for computer technology are mined — is a thing of intense power. I would almost recommend the third episode as a standalone television masterpiece to anybody who feels they only have an hour to spare. But I’d much sooner suggest watching all three parts of this. It will change the way you think about the legacy of modern technology. I will say, though, that there’s something almost unacceptably perverse about using music from West Side Story over footage of the Rwandan genocide. I’m sure that to most people it slipped right past. But I find that slightly tasteless. It’s a vanishingly minor point. Pick of the week.

Charlie Brooker’s 2016 Wipe — I think I’m over my Charlie Brooker phase. There are maybe about three good lines in this (aside from those given to Philomena Cunk who, as usual, is the funniest thing in the world), and aside from that there’s just a whole lot of rote reiterations of how awful 2016 was, without any attempt to offer a new take. However, it is a good way of recalling some of the smaller bits of weirdness that happened this year, like The Great British Bake Off leaving the BBC. And, the Trump rap that concludes this is strangely cathartic. Also, apparently Jeremy Corbyn supporters have their knickers in a twist about this? Seriously? He comes off better than any other politician in the country in this. Or maybe I’m just naturally attracted to leftist political figures with absolutely no clue how to court an electorate.

Cunk on Christmas — “Scientists now believe that 80% of all burps occur at Christmas, threatening to put a hole in the Oz-wan layer at precisely the moment the sky is full of vulnerable reindeer.” Philomena Cunk is an amazing character because she’s not just a generic buffoon, she’s a very specific type of buffoon, whose buffoonery has a sort of fanciful logic to it.This isn’t one of her best specials, but I did plenty of laughing, and it isn’t even Christmas anymore. “Merry Christmas. And a very new year.”

Battlestar Galactica: “Act of Contrition” — There are some bits of this where the televisual language hasn’t aged well, i.e. the rocket’s eye view in the first scene where all the pilots get killed. That’s a shot that should only be used for comedy. But that sort of thing is made up for with things like the way that Starbuck’s attempts to suppress painful memories is conveyed through editing. Story wise, this focusses on one of my favourite threads in the show so far: Starbuck’s grief and guilt. She even throws a bit of heat on what’s going on with the two Adamas, who are among my least favourite characters — at least when they’re in scenes together. 

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Part 3 — I so badly wanted to love this, but I confess that I found it tedious in a way that I didn’t find the first two parts, in spite of the substantial mechanical improvements made for this third part. Let me spoil just a bit of the game in order to demonstrate why I find it simultaneously brilliant and frustrating. Sorcery 3’s key mechanic is a set of beacons distributed throughout the map that you can shine anywhere in a 360 degree radius, and all of the area within the beacon’s beam is cast back in time by hundreds of years. Basically, there are two layers to the game’s map, one of which can only be exposed in fragments. One thing that you can use a beacon to do is reconstruct a little seaport town that’s been gone for presumably centuries. That allows you to hitch a ride across the lake with some fishermen from a bygone time. But if you happen to steer the boat outside the beam of the beacon, it vanishes into the mists of time along with its crew, leaving you to struggle in the cold water. Here’s what I love about this: it’s not just that any given point on the map can take two possible forms, one past and one present. It’s that the act of crossing the threshold has consequences in itself. This is soooo complex, and I admire Inkle very much for attempting it. On the other hand, this mechanic means that you might not discover the consequences of a choice you make on one edge of the map (namely, where to shine a beacon) until you’re already halfway across the map from that beacon. And without the benefit of foresight, you’re likely to have things happen like boats disappearing from under you quite a lot when you mess with the beacons a lot. This led me to rewind my game and replay the same sequences of events a lot more that I would consider optimal, just to find a particular outcome that would allow me to accomplish the game’s key task: killing seven serpents before you find your way to the map’s exit. The open-world concept of this game seems to indicate that Inkle learned some stuff from making 80 Days and incorporated it here. But where 80 Days’ story moves you relentlessly into new territory, even when you’re purposely biding your time, Sorcery 3 forces you to traverse the same parts of its open world again and again. It is immensely tiresome, and at some point I started looking forward to finishing the game. Never a good sign. I still hold out hope that the fourth part might synthesize the strongest points of the second and third parts. We’ll see soon enough.

Music

Kate Bush: The Kick Inside: — The fact that this is a) one of the most auspicious debuts in pop history and b) definitely not one of the best Kate Bush albums speaks volumes. Bush would really come into her own when she started producing her own albums, in the period when she’s stopped playing live and her label started ignoring her. The Kick Inside finds her instead filling the not entirely befitting role of ingénue: a bona fide pop phenomenon, coming off of the success of a masterful, chart-topping debut single, and having been graciously ushered into “the system.” The result is a good album, but one that doesn’t yet have Bush’s creative DNA in every note, the way that The Dreaming does. The Kick Inside is very much a rock album, in the same way that the second Peter Gabriel album is a rock album. Both of those solo records have the feel of being a band record, because a lot of the same musicians are present throughout. I think that’s kind of a defining trait of rock albums: “made by bands.” Whereas both Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush would gravitate towards more of a revolving door sort of approach to sessions on their artier, poppier records: using what musicians seem necessary at any given time. That doesn’t preclude frequent collaborators on both of their parts, but the sense that there’s such a thing as a Kate Bush Band vanished after Lionheart and didn’t really return until her live shows with the KT Fellowship. That makes the first two Kate Bush albums (and particularly this one, because Lionheart just isn’t very good) really compelling period pieces. And if you focus in on the songwriting specifically, regardless of arrangements, performances and all of the other territory that’s often occupied by producers, it’s incredible the extent to which Bush started as she meant to go on. Her songs are already defined by incredible specificity: “James and the Cold Gun” comes to mind immediately. As does “Wuthering Heights,” which is of course one of the best songs ever, period. Though for my money, the remixed and extended version with the alternate vocal on the compilation The Whole Story is better than the version that appears on the album. You can hear the guitar solo a little better, it goes on for a little longer, and Bush’s voice has gotten a little fuller by that time. (It comes from around the time of Hounds of Love, I believe.) Still, the strengths of the song lie in the song itself, and that doesn’t change from version to version. It’s a fun game to try and decide where the phrases begin and end. Is the chorus three repeating measures in four? Or is there a measure in two on the lyric “…home, I’m so…” and then a measure in six before it repeats? I wrote recently about Syd Barrett’s intuitive mode of songwriting, which is also characterized by odd phrasing. But frankly, the sheer naturalness of Bush’s oddly-phrased debut single puts “Arnold Layne” to shame. Also, consider the lyric in the chorus: “Heathcliff, it’s me, Cathy; I’ve come home! Let me in your window!” That is the entire chorus of a hit song. How is it possible to turn that into the chorus of a hit song? Anyway, this album is great. And it’s unbelieveable that Bush was 19 when it came out. And still, it feels like she’s being held back by everybody else in the room.

Bon Iver: 22, A Million — I’ve always kind of hated Bon Iver. His first album — the one that every beard-having, flannel-inclined person thinks is the best thing ever — inspired more intense resentment in me than any other album not made by Arcade Fire. As far as I can remember, not having heard it since it came out, For Emma, Forever Ago is mawkish and sentimental, and it’s slathered in an affected lo-fi aesthetic that calls more attention to its log-cabin origin story than to the mediocre music that it doesn’t quite manage to hide. Bon Iver, Bon Iver was not so much a step in the right direction as a massive overcorrection: a grandiose, fussy record of the type that I’m generally inclined towards, but the meticulous production seemed to be attempting to mask the same thing that For Emma’s self-mythologizing was: a lack of basic musical material. So, I wasn’t planning to listen to this at all, until “22 (OVER S∞∞N)” unexpectedly knocked me flat on All Songs Considered. And having listened to this third album in its entirety, I’m wondering if I haven’t gotten Justin Vernon completely wrong from the very beginning. I can’t quite put my finger on why I like this so much more than his first two albums, and naturally I resent myself slightly for having confessed this to myself. It’s strangely important to me to hate Bon Iver. But this album is so delicate, and so concerned with its fragile surfaces, which always threaten to come apart at any moment, that it offers the immediate impression that those surfaces are the whole product. Nothing is being disguised here. Vernon is simply offering a thin film of gorgeous sounding music: more a sound collage than a collection of songs. And this observation, laid on top of my specific objections to Vernon’s first two albums (namely that he uses aesthetics to mask a lack, rather than as an end in themselves) makes me think that I’d best go back and reconsider his earlier work as well. It’s possible that my entire distaste for the first two Bon Iver albums came about because I was mistaking a painter of frescoes for an architect. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that the songs must be the point for an artist with roots in acoustic folk. But that’s an assumption, and possibly a wrong one. In any case, regardless of whether my opinions of the first two records change, 22, A Million is absolutely brilliant.

Run the Jewels: Run the Jewels 3 — I don’t want to say I’m underwhelmed by this. I do think it has a fairly sizable mid-album slump, from “Stay Gold” (probably the weakest track they’ve ever done) through “Everybody Stay Calm.” But the five tracks prior to that run and the three tracks after are up to RTJ2 standards, more or less. It’s going to take more than one listen to sink in, clearly. What’s important is that there’s more Run the Jewels. We’ve heard enough from this duo to know how they work, and know what we should expect from them. But that doesn’t mean that they’re anything close to played out. It means they’ve hit their stride. I’ll report back when I figure this out a bit more.

Huerco S: For Those of You Who Have Never (And Also Those Who Have) — This kind of thing is the reason I like Pitchfork’s year-end list. I didn’t hear this mentioned anywhere else this year, yet here it is. It’s a nice bit of ambient music that I’m happy to have heard, though I can’t say it captured my attention to the same extent as some of the year’s other ambient releases by, for instance, Nonkeen, and especially Tim Hecker. I do admire Huerco S for having the guts to just cut his tracks off at the end rather than always fading. It almost makes the music come off more like a work of art you’d see in a museum than something performative. It’s like he’s saying, “Here, look at this for a while.” And then he opens a cupboard, and the thing exists in front of your eyes for a duration of time. Then he closes the cupboard. The music doesn’t have anywhere to go, it just is a thing, and it could conceivably keep being that thing for any arbitrary amount of time. Nice.

Danny Brown: Atrocity Exhibition — Oh god I don’t know what I think of this. Brown’s lyrics are great, and the production is the exact kind of unhinged that I find compelling. But that voice is just nails on a chalkboard. When Danny Brown raps in his lower, more human sounding register, like in “Tell Me What I Don’t Know,” I’m totally onboard. And I think that his high register could work as excellent seasoning, like in his guest verse on RTJ3. But he uses it on most of this album, and I kind of find it a bit much. When it works, it really works, though. “Ain’t it Funny” is probably my favourite track, and that’s got Brown’s helium voice all over it. Anyway, this is well worth hearing, but I don’t think anybody is necessarily guaranteed to like it. That’s a good thing.

Podcasts

Fresh Air: “Best of: 2016 Pop Culture Wrap-Up” — This TV critic really likes Better Call Saul. So do I, to be clear, but he’s made it his best show of the year two years running. That seems a little much. This is interesting, overall, but it’s also a reminder that pop culture podcasts are better at pop culture discussion than public radio interview juggernauts. This is neither as fun, nor as thoughtful as Pop Culture Happy Hour’s year end episodes. Still fine.

99% Invisible: “Mini-Stories: Volume 1” — This is a lot of fun, and also notable for containing the sound of Roman Mars laughing, which is disorienting. I’m always happy to listen to these “peek behind the curtain” sorts of podcast episodes. I think the highlight is Sam Greenspan’s mini-story about a place called Circleville, which was laid out on a circular pattern rather than a grid, making everybody miserable and resulting in a process of “squaring” that resulted in presumably a billion puns. (Roman picks the low-hanging fruit by gleefully proclaiming the city “Squaresville.”) Looking forward to volume 2. Also, groovy handpan music at the end. Nice.

This American Life: “Kid Logic 2016” — Marvellous. The great thing about This American Life’s structure is that the specificity of their themes. These are all stories about kids using comprehensible logic to arrive at the exact wrong conclusions. And it is hilarious. It starts with Jonathan Goldstein asking children what they think the tooth fairy does with all the teeth, continues with a reading by Michael Chabon, and also contains contributions by Howard Chackowicz (unmediated, for once, by Goldstein) and Alex Blumberg. I laughed more times during this than during most comedy podcasts.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Casey Affleck” — So, the sexual harassment allegations (which warrant a Google for those unconcerned about triggers) cast a pall over this otherwise engaging conversation. I didn’t actually know about any of that until Maron mentioned it at the start of this interview. In any case, Affleck is clearly a smart, grounded person with a level of devotion to his craft that isn’t surprising, given his incredible performance in Manchester by the Sea. I continue to love that movie, but Affleck’s past is distasteful enough that I think this is the last interview with him that I’ll listen to.

In Our Time: “The Gin Craze” — One of the most fun, least consequential episodes of this show that I’ve heard. Melvyn Bragg has a surprising amount of fun talking about drunkenness. The best stuff in the podcast comes after the actual radio show ended, however. And it’s always amusing to hear Bragg wheedle his guests about why they did or didn’t bring up such a thing during the actual show. Delicacy isn’t his strong point. That’s why I love him.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “8-bit Sounds” — Twenty Thousand Hertz is a welcome addition to the “about ten minutes” club: miniature stories about a very specific topic. This particular one is about how a set of extremely stringent limitations resulted in the production of some of the most iconic sounds of all time. If they heard this, Brian Eno and Peter Gabriel would both be proud of the sound designers and composers responsible for the sounds of early video games.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: All Songs Considered Listeners’ Favourite 100 Albums of 2016” — I have been generally amenable to all of the massively hyped albums of 2016 except for the Radiohead record. I like “Burn the Witch” and “Sleepwalking” well enough, but I imagine that twenty years from now we’ll look at A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Goat’s Head Soup: the moment we knew they didn’t have much fight left in them. And yet, NPR Music’s listeners rated it the number one album of the year, so what do I know. This is a fun listen with a ton of great music, but it’s better to just stick with the end that’s got Ann Powers and Stephen Thompson on it, because their taste is way more interesting than a horde of randoms (one of whom was me).

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Mystery Hum and its Government Coverup” — This episode about a mysterious, ever-present hum in Windsor, Ontario really only needs to mention that such a thing exists to be good. But now I really want to hear the whole season of Serial that discovers what it actually is.

The Gist: “Bob Boilen: Tiny Desk, Big Effect” — The Bob Boilen interview is nothing much, but Pesca’s spiel about confirmation bias implicit in the universal dubbing of 2016 as the Worst Year Ever is essential. (Starts at 19:40.) Bits of 2016 were intractably awful, sure. And tons of people that everybody loves did in fact die. But Pesca thinks rationally: we just don’t hear about all of the people who could have died but didn’t, because they didn’t die. We didn’t hear about the relative lack of ebola, because a lack isn’t a story. It’s a good way to go into 2017: knowing that there are certain things that happened in 2016 that will make the world materially worse, but also not pretending that only bad things ever happen.

A Point of View: “The Shape Of Our Time” — A somewhat lightweight essay from Adam Gopnik about the difference between nationalism and patriotism. Still, not unworthy of ten of your Earth minutes.

Twenty Thousand Hertz: “The Sound of Extinction” — This episode about the sounds that we lose over time focusses on modern sounds, like the sound of dial-up internet, or Big Ben. And that’s lovely. But I’m reminded of the composer and acoustic ecologist R. Murray Schafer, who has devoted his life to the preservation of what he calls the natural soundscape. It would be interesting to hear a second part of this that deals more with the concerns of acoustic ecology. But I really liked this.

Radiolab: “Lose Lose” — I can deal with sports stories when it’s Radiolab, plus Mike Pesca, plus Chuck Klosterman. That’s just about the only permutation that works. This is fine, but not a season highlight by any stretch.

Code Switch: “Obama’s Legacy: Diss-ent or Diss-respect?” — If this first part is any indication, this three-part series on President Obama’s legacy might be one of the best things Code Switch has ever done. Just hearing a lowlight reel of the racist bullshit that Obama had to put up with from his professional colleagues, let alone the right-wing media, is enough to make a powerful point about specifically why he has become a divisive figure. But it’s also interesting to hear a take on how Obama was so different from previous visions of a Jesse Jacksonesque possible first black president. Looking forward to parts two and three.

Jay and Miles X-Plain the X-Men: “The Strangest Podcast Of Them All” — Oh, this is a very good thing. I don’t know if it’s specifically the kind of very good thing that I need in my life, since I am really not that invested in the X-Men. But I’m clearly invested enough to have read two of Jay and Miles’s favourite story arcs, namely those by Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon. Whether I return to this or not is entirely down to how fatigued I become with my usual selection of podcasts, and how in need of new stuff I am.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Sherlock, Carrie Fisher, George Michael, and Debbie Reynolds” — I mutedly disagree with Glen Weldon on Steven Moffat’s supposed tendency to use women as plot devices in his shows, buuuuut the episode of Sherlock that they’re actually discussing here doesn’t really help me back up my opposition. I also disagree that Sherlock’s 90-minute episodes are too much. It seems to me like the only way to fit in all of the plotline that’s necessary and also have the very necessary scenes that are mostly just banter. The banter is crucial, and it wouldn’t survive if these episodes were cut down to an hour. The in memoriam segment is lovely, especially where Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds are concerned. Maybe I should watch Postcards from the Edge? Definitely I should watch Singing in the Rain.

Fresh Air: “Lin-Manuel Miranda” — It’s nice to hear Miranda talk in a bit more detail than in other interviews about the impact of Stephen Sondheim on him as an influence and a mentor. As far as I’m concerned, they are not just the two best musical theatre songwriters of their respective generations, they’re also the two best songwriters ever to have emerged from Broadway. Also cool to hear him apparently reference Code Switch. I suppose he’s not necessarily referring to the podcast specifically, but it kind of seems like he is. Somewhere, Gene Demby squealed with delight.

Chapo Trap House: “No Future feat. Adam Curtis” — This focusses on Adam Curtis’s latest documentary, HyperNormalization, which I haven’t seen yet. There is a mindblowingly subtle moment in this where Curtis is explaining what Ayn Rand meant when she said that she wouldn’t die, but rather that the world will die. He explains that when you’re a nutjob individualist narcissist of Rand’s capacity, the world seems to actually be inside your head. So, death actually means the end of the world. At this point in the interview, which has thus far been a pretty standard, lo-fi conversation between three people, the producer edits in a snippet of “Don’t Stop Believing.” Because (spoiler for the most infamous television finale ever ahead) this is what happens, probably, at the end of The Sopranos. Tony dies, and the world ends. Journey is silenced mid-phrase. The Sopranos didn’t actually come up in conversation here, mind you. It’s just a lovely little illustration of the idea, for the benefit of the people who will be able to discern what’s going on. Very clever. Plus, Curtis has a brilliant critique of modern liberal activism that is tied up in the inadequacies of social media. It goes something like this: social media is great at organizing people and allowing them to do things, but it’s terrible at fostering the kinds of complex discourse that leads to viable ideas for how to run a country. So, when Mubarak was overthrown (a wonderful idea in principle), the populace that did the overthrowing was left without a clear idea of what was to happen next. But, as usual, the reactionary right had an idea. And in this case, it came in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood, and soon enough we’re back at square one. Silicon Valley has constructed social media platforms not in accordance with any way that ideas have traditionally flowered, but with contemporary, vapid notions of management. Mark Zuckerberg wants to “connect people.” He assumes, like many managers I’ve known, that if the infrastructure is in place for people to talk to each other, that’s enough to bring change in the world. It’s not. Change requires ideas. Ideas aren’t born out of platforms that privilege the simple. I’ll be watching HyperNormalization very soon. And I’ll definitely be listening to more Chapo Trap House. I will not, however, be following them on Twitter. Pick of the week.

Advertisements

Omnireviewer (week of May 8, 2016)

A round 20.

Movies

Ex Machina — Fearsomely good. I’m detecting a recent trend in screen-based entertainment that indicates people are beginning to hanker for the theatrical rather than just the cinematic. We saw it in Horace and Pete, clearly. Also The Hateful Eight. And while Ex Machina is a film about robots, with an Oscar for visual effects, I could totally see it produced as a stage play. It’s directed by a writer, and it shows. This is a movie that is about three things: writing, acting, and sets. The writing deals with big contemporary questions, like all of the best plays of any given time. The acting is top-shelf — Alicia Vikander and Oscar Isaac are my two favourite newly-minted A-listers — but the bulk of it is performed by only four people, giving it the intimacy of theatre. And the sets, if you eliminate the gorgeous natural scenery outside of the vast panes of glass, are designed in a similarly symbolic way to the sets of good theatre pieces: the glass that separates Ava and Caleb, the cameras that stand in for Nathan even when he’s not present, and the mirrored, casket-shaped cases holding [insert spoiler here] are just a few examples. (And yes, that’s the second acknowledgement of spoilers on this blog. Like Horace and Pete, this is best if you’re allowed to process information as it is presented to you, without prejudice.) But, theatrical tendencies aside, Ex Machina is cinematically glorious as well. It lets the camera linger on magnificent natural vistas, to emphasize what Ava’s missing, locked away in her glass cage. It uses effects to communicate the idea that everybody’s being surveilled constantly for reasons they couldn’t possibly know. And it makes Ava look really, really cool. This is what I want genre movies to be like. If even half of the money that is currently being budgeted to franchise juggernauts could be routed into smaller films like this, contemporary cinema would be a hundred times more interesting than it is. Pick of the week.

Television

Game of Thrones: “Oathbreaker” — Things are getting interesting on a few fronts and continuing to bore me on others. So far, this season’s unforgivable sin is its forced writing for Tyrion and Varys — two characters who should always be at the apex of wit. Also, much as I admire what Emilia Clarke can do with her face alone, it would be nice to see her get more lines, and possibly a story where she isn’t totally helpless. Daenerys is at her most interesting when she’s powerful, but making mistakes. Taking away her agency is problemsy for many reasons, but significant among them is that it makes her storyline boring. Such a waste of a great character and a great actress.

Last Week Tonight: May 8, 2016 — Marvellous. John Oliver’s takedown of science reporting on morning shows isn’t as incisive as Brooke Gladstone’s, but it’s got jokes. And H. John Benjamin.

Cunk on Shakespeare — Philomena Cunk made me realize how much I miss The Colbert Report. This is a complete idiot’s take on Shakespeare, presented in a format that makes it feel authoritative. There are reaction shots in this that are funnier than most American sitcom one-liners.  

Archer: “Bel Panto: Part 2” — Like the ones in this, for instance. But it’s Archer. It’s fine. I laughed.

Music

Brian Eno: Ambient 1/Music for Airports — This is the moment where Eno mastered ambient music. He would devise a number of additional, quite different, and perhaps equal variants on it over the next twenty-odd years. But I’m not sure he’s ever substantially improved on Music for Airports. It is simultaneously unobtrusive and totally memorable. When I haven’t listened to it for a while, I tend to forget what it sounds like. But as soon as I play it, it comes right back. It is so simple it barely seems like something a human could have made, which makes it all the more profound — it’s as if it has been made by nature. Any reasonable list of Eno’s great accomplishments would be at least twenty or thirty entries long, but this should be near the top, up with the first three solo albums, the first two instalments of the Berlin Trilogy, and Remain in Light.

Radiohead: A Moon Shaped Pool — Lack of hyphen notwithstanding, this is quite good. I suspect we may be into the part of Radiohead’s career where they don’t blow anybody’s minds anymore. Of their last four albums, only In Rainbows has been a masterpiece on the level of their early 2000s work. But A Moon Shaped Pool is a really solid album. It has plenty of variety, and it feels like a new direction — two things you couldn’t say about The King of Limbs. I suspect it’ll be a grower. Years from now, after the band’s officially done, maybe we’ll see A Moon Shaped Pool as Radiohead’s Some Girls: the good album they made a few years after their heyday that’s the last thing in the discography that’s really worth a look. Or maybe not. This is a band with near-infinite capacity to surprise, after all.

Beyoncé: Lemonade (audio-only version) — Yeah, it works just as well without the visuals. This is mighty powerful stuff. The visual album is very much its own wonderful thing, but the songs aren’t given their full expression. On this version, “Freedom” stands out as the best track, thanks in part to Kendrick Lamar’s characteristically virtuosic verse (cut from the video for pacing, I assume). I still think “Formation” is a bit ersatz, but it’s also inessential to the album. Everything before that final track is gold. This isn’t my favourite album of the year so far, but I think it’s probably the most accomplished.

Kanye West: Yeezus — I had to give this another listen after being so disappointed by The Life of Pablo, just to make sure it was as good as I remembered. It is. Maybe better. When I think of this album now, I generally have three tracks in mind: “Black Skinhead,” “New Slaves,” and especially “On Sight.” But this listen reminded me that “I Am A God,” “Blood On The Leaves,” and “Hold My Liquor” are also great songs. I suppose Pablo really is just the first bad Kanye album. “Bound 2” is still stupid, though.

Literature, etc.

David Auerbach: “The Most Terrifying Thought Experiment of All Time” — I’ve got a copy of Phil Sandifer’s new Kickstarter-funded work of theoretical madness, Neoreaction a Basilisk, coming in the mail sometime this summer. So, I figured I’d better do a bit of reading on its central metaphor written by someone a little less idiosyncratic. (Also, this ties in with Ex Machina in ways I didn’t expect.) I won’t summarize this here because I am just enough of a crackpot to find it terrifying. I will, however, link it. Read at your own risk.

Sarah Boxer: “The Exemplary Narcissism of Snoopy” — Fantagraphics finished its heroic 25-volume reprinting of Peanuts recently, and the internet went into Schulzmania mode. I stumbled upon this at some point in a Google wormhole while looking for a specific strip. If you need to have this comic’s brilliance explained to you, this is where to go. The defence of Snoopy that forms the core of the argument may not seem necessary to many, but it is extremely successful.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “The Season Of Surprise Albums, From Beyoncé To James Blake” — Honestly, it was nice just to hear a snippet of Lemonade again. It was also revealing to hear about the completely bogus way that record companies are calculating streaming metrics. The idea that Drake’s album could have accumulated hundreds of millions of listens on its first day, just because of the advance plays of “Hotline Bling” is absurd. The world is bad. But there is a lot of good music in it. I’m not sure how much of it is made by Drake.

This American Life: “Who Do We Think We Are?” — Sean Cole is a really good host. Somebody should give him a show. The fact that he also produced the second half of the show only adds to this episode’s consistency. The story in the first half, about a woman dealing with the consequences of female genital mutilation, is one of the best radio stories I’ve heard so far this year. It’s worth noting that I’ve also heard the version that went out on The Heart, which I’m not reviewing these days for Podquest reasons. (It was staggeringly good.) But the two versions of the story are sufficiently different that both are basically essential. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “Bigger than Bacon” — A good but rather slight story about how an unassuming species of shrimp makes bubbles as hot as the sun. Yeah, bubbles as hot as the sun. Robert Krulwich can’t believe it either.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Water Failure” — One of the best episodes of Night Vale. They break the format without relying on continuity, and the jokes feel fresher for being told in a new way. This is an episode of the show that I would point newcomers toward to demonstrate what it’s like at its best.

Code Switch: “The Code Switch Podcast Is Coming!” — The title of this three-minute trailer says it all. I would personally add a few more exclamation points to express my joy, but that is basically all I have to say.

Reply All: “On The Inside” — I was wondering why it had been so long since Sruthi Pinnamaneni had done a story. This is worth the wait. It’s going to inevitably remind you of Serial season one, because it’s full of phone calls to a prison. But it’s not really about crime: it’s basically a character sketch of this guy who’s spent his entire adult life in prison. It’s super. And next week’s part two promises to be even more interesting.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Captain America: Civil War” — Linda Holmes’s interview with the Russos made me more interested in them than I was before. I have briefly suspended my distaste for cinematic universes in general. I guess I’ll see how this Civil War thing is.

StartUp: “Dear Music Fans…” — The sordid, and strangely moving tale of Grooveshark, a company that everybody knew was bad, but that still had a bunch of committed employees. This is almost a crime thriller.

All Songs Considered: “This Week’s Number 1 Song” — NPR Music listeners selected “I Need A Forest Fire” from the new James Blake album as their favourite song of the week. That record was released on May 6, and announced three days prior on May 3. That day, a wildfire burned down a substantial chunk of my hometown. Careful what you wish for, James. Somebody else might get it instead.