Tag Archives: SOMA

Omnireviewer (week of Mar. 20, 2016)

18 reviews. I’d like to think I’m making up for the comparatively small number with extra thoughtfulness, this week. Or maybe not. It occurs to me that a lot of what I write here is complete nonsense to anybody who doesn’t have near identical cultural touchstones to me. Therefore, to those of you who actually read this: thank you for your substantial feat of empathy.

Television

Horace and Pete: Episodes 2-5 — I think we’d better start with episode three, in which two people have a conversation, and that is all. Horace and Pete was already becoming a testament to the power of good writing and good acting presented straightforwardly, but that episode took it to another level altogether. Laurie Metcalf, an actress that I’ve never seen in anything before, opens the show with a ten-minute monologue in a single close-up shot. And even when Louis C.K.’s character enters the picture, it doesn’t get much more complicated than that. It’s just two people, telling each other captivating stories that they each have personal reasons to be particularly captivated by. It’s electrifying. Metcalf’s performance is completely staggering, in the same way that Alan Alda, Edie Falco and Steve Buscemi’s performances are staggering in other episodes. C.K. himself is a less technically able actor, and it’s occasionally bizarre to see him playing opposite people who are obviously much more accomplished than him, but in general he knows what he can and cannot do. The other episodes aren’t quite as good as the third one. But then, none of them take quite such a big swing. This is a really good show, that expanded its remit from the political theatre of its premiere remarkably quickly. Pick of the week.

Last Week Tonight: March 20, 2016 — This was brilliant, don’t get me wrong. But I’m beginning to become concerned that John Oliver is obsessing over the same ludicrous shit that everybody else is. When his show premiered, I had stopped watching Jon Stewart because I was starting to get tired of Stewart’s particular preoccupations — which is to say, the preoccupations of daily television news. Then Oliver came along and explained net neutrality with dingo metaphors. I’m hoping that version of Last Week Tonight doesn’t get forgotten in favour of being merely the most authoritative source of humourous Trump debunking.

Better Call Saul: “Bali H’ai” — One of my two favourite episodes of Better Call Saul. (The other is “Marco.”) The moment at the beginning where Kim stays home a little later specifically to hear Jimmy sing to her over voicemail is one of the sweetest moments ever to appear on this show. So much is communicated in that scene, about both characters. Rhea Seehorn is becoming one of my favourite supporting players on television right now. It’s really something to watch the longing play out on her face as a partner from a rival firm offers her a job she knows she can’t take. Plus, we have another intrusion of Breaking Bad into the Mike’s Better Call Saul plot. It comes in a gloriously creepy moment that also features some of Jonathan Banks’s best work in his role so far. Even Patrick Fabian impresses this week, with almost no screen time. He’s doing a great job of making Howard not be a cruel, cold bastard, even when he’s acting punitively. If the third episode of Horace and Pete were less brilliant, this would be the pick of the week.

Music

Madvillain: Madvillainy — You know when you love an album so much you try not to listen to it too much so it stays fresh? That’s how this album is with me. It’s absolutely one of my favourite rap albums, but I don’t actually know it that well because I want it to stay surprising. When I listen to this, I get the sense that MadLib and I are essentially the same person, except he’s a talented hip hop producer and I’m a hack radio writer. But this is basically what the inside of my head sounds like, complete with bits of Frank Zappa and Gentle Giant flying around. MF Doom, on the other hand, is very much unlike the inside of my head, because there is literally no other human who thinks like him.

The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band — There is no other album about which there is so little left to be said.

The Beatles: Revolver — Except maybe this one. All the same, I think I can say some things. Revolver seems to be the internet’s consensus favourite Beatles album. I have no metric to measure this, but I get the sense that Gen Xers picked this as their Beatles album in opposition to the boomers’ reverence for Sgt. Pepper. And while neither of those are my favourite (I’d pick the White Album, Abbey Road, Rubber Soul, and Magical Mystery Tour over both), I’m going to have to decisively side with the boomers on this one. Revolver has some of the best songs in the Beatles canon (“Eleanor Rigby,” “She Said She Said,” “And Your Bird Can Sing,” “For No One” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”). But for an album that’s consistently touted as maybe the single greatest utterance of a generation, it has a lot of relative duds. “Taxman” is an early iteration of mid-70s fatass popstar syndrome — wherein most of England’s biggest stars were living in tax exile making bland, safe music. “Love You To” is a culturally appropriative misguided experiment that lacks the lyrical and melodic brilliance of Pepper’s similar (but equally problematic) “Within You Without You.” “Here, There And Everywhere” marks the first appearance of the saccharine Paul McCartney that the world would come to resent, post-Beatles. “Yellow Submarine” is fine. Everybody stop hating on “Yellow Submarine.” “Good Day Sunshine” is musical plain yogurt. It’s all subjective, of course. But during four of Revolver’s 14 tracks, I always find myself wondering who crowned this one king.

Pink Floyd: Wish You Were Here — More boomer music! This used to be my favourite album from Pink Floyd’s most revered period (Dark Side through The Wall). These days I tend to lean towards Animals. But Wish has a certain appeal for being the most loosely constructed of the post-Dark Side albums. “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” is the most obvious illustration of this — that opening goes on for at least one chorus longer than it probably needs to. But economy isn’t the concern here, nor should it have been. It’s the slow burn that makes the song. And the whole album benefits from the feeling that the band has time to kill. It would have been a mistake for Pink Floyd to follow up Dark Side with another ruthlessly focussed album. Wish You Were Here is the final statement from the free, jammy psychedelic band that Pink Floyd was before they hit it big. From here on out, the albums meander less and less. And that is both a gain and a loss.

NPR Music: the Austin 100 — This is a six-hour, 100-song playlist of music from artists playing at this year’s SXSW, compiled by Stephen Thompson, who will not shut up about it on the two podcasts he’s on that I listen to. Having very much enjoyed All Songs’ SXSW coverage, I figured I may as well check out the giant heap of music that they’ve made available for download. And you know what: good decision. There’s a huge range here, much of which falls under the valuable category of “stuff I don’t really want to explore further, but am glad I heard once.” Just when you think it’s going to be a bunch more indie rock and songwritery stuff, alphabetical order gives you back-to-back Chynna Rogers (kickass rap) and CONAN (metal, obvs). You can download all 100 songs for free until the end of March and you should, because why wouldn’t you?

Literature, etc.

David Sheppard: On Some Faraway Beach — I’ve had David Sheppard’s Brian Eno biography on my phone for ages, having only gotten through a couple of chapters. Early this week, the third chapter became my commute entertainment of choice. It’s fantastic, and as much a look into the London experimental music scene — including notables like Cornelius Cardew, Gavin Bryars and Michael Nyman — as it is into Eno’s formative years. It’s fun to see how the approach that made Eno one of my creative heroes — Sheppard summarizes it as “create parameters, set it off, see what happens” — basically originated with John Cage, and was circulating around the experimental circles that Eno stumbled into. The line from Cage to Eno is an obvious one to draw, but what’s cool is seeing how everybody else who caught on to it (including Americans like La Monte Young and Steve Reich) was using it to make a sort of “art music,” and Eno was the only one to realize he could use it to produce pop albums.

Games

SOMA — Finished, at last. This did what I wanted it to, namely: to offer me a detailed world to wander around in as part of a linear story, and to occasionally scare the willickers out of me. SOMA really wants to be a thoughtful game, and sometimes it is. But the existential questions that are its thematic bread and butter are too hypothetical to be especially preoccupying. “Are digital copies of ourselves still ourselves?” Ehh. It’s worth noting that this is close to the same question that animated the first storylines of Swamp Thing, and that comic really started getting good when Alan Moore stopped worrying about it. (It’s also worth noting that there’s a famous philosophical thought experiment colloquially known as “Swampman” that offers almost the same hypothetical as Swamp Thing, but which was apparently conceived some time after Swamp Thing began. In any case, both of these iterations of this idea are more sophisticated that their expression in SOMA.) These days, I’m disinclined to grapple with such abstract notions. Give me Bioshock: Infinite. That game’s hypotheticals are beginning to look like the daily news. Altogether, I’d say SOMA was very much a video game. It was fun while it lasted, but it won’t be lingering with me for long, and I certainly won’t ever play it again.

The Dream Machine: Episodes 1-3 — This is more my speed. First off, it’s amazing that somebody made a stop-motion point-and-click game with clay models. Aesthetically, The Dream Machine is the most distinctive game I’ve played since… I dunno, FEZ? It’s so beautifully presented that the apartment building where most of the game’s real-life segments take place is just as vibrant as its fanciful dream sequences. The puzzles, such as they are, are intuitive and don’t disrupt the flow of the story. The writing is clear and refreshingly non-stylized, and all of the characters have distinct voices — even in the third episode, where they literally all look the same. It’s not quite Kentucky Route Zero, but what is?

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: More SXSW coverage — The tail end of All Songs’ SXSW late night dispatches found Bob Boilen invigorated by an environment that most people, including apparently everybody else involved in NPR Music, would find exhausting. But the team’s tenacity paid off in this week’s proper episode of All Songs, which features some really fantastic discoveries that I’ll probably check out more from. I am so excited for that John Congleton album. Pick of the week.

On the Media: “Party People” — I can’t say I have any better an understanding of who the hell these people who support Trump are after listening to this, but it was certainly interesting to hear more about how ineffective the campaign finance system is — to the point where it’s almost hard to think of it as evil anymore. Just inept.

In Our Time: “Bedlam” — I continue to be equally fascinated by this show’s existence as its content. It’s refreshing — almost shocking, really — to hear Melvyn Bragg respond to a guest’s meandering answer to a question with “that was an excellent survey, but can you just give me the answer?” He’s totally artless and I kind of love him for it. The actual content of this episode is horrifying and fascinating.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Glen Weldon’s ‘The Caped Crusade’” — Fun! I will say, I find that as a culture critic, Weldon can be a bit on the orthodox side for my Phil Sandifer-inclined tastes. He has a tendency to recite the standard narratives of cultural history, rather than offering the sorts of counterintuitive arguments I tend to enjoy. But it sounds like in this book he’s really gone out of his way to put the most toxic parts of nerd culture under a microscope. I fully intend to read Weldon’s Superman book, having enjoyed the Amazon preview some time ago. This new Batman one may have to wait, but I’ll probably get there because Weldon is good company, in podcast and printed form.

On The Media: “Gawker, Hulk Hogan, and the First Amendment” — Bob Garfield is the best. This is a case study in why he and Brooke Gladstone are a great team. This is the sort of straightforward, umbrance-driven story that he would be way more into than her. Meanwhile, she’s probably off thinking about how Marshall McLuhan would have critiqued Twitter. It’s the perfect arrangement.

Reply All: “Good Job, Alex” — You know what’s something you can’t do on public radio? Be the main character in your own story. Thank god there are podcasts, because the Vogt/Goldman double act has never been funnier than in this, where Goldman tries to solve a problem and Vogt makes fun of him mercilessly.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “SXSW Wrap and Songs That Changed Our Lives” — This arrived just in time for me to reach peak NPR SXSW ‘16 coverage. After hearing Bob Boilen and co. geek out about the music at SXSW, it was nice that this offered Stephen Thompson, Katie Presley and Audie Cornish the opportunity to talk about it more broadly, as a phenomenon. And honestly, after hearing about the masses of sweaty people and the pace of it all, I think I might not bother ever going. I’ll just experience it vicariously through NPR.

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.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 10, 2016)

Here’s the non-Bowie portion of my week. The Bowie portion is here. 10 reviews. No picks of the week. Nothing stood out. (Scan down to the fourth item on the list and decide for yourself if this is a deliberate provocation.)

Television

Mildred Pierce: “Part 2” — Oh my god the children in this are insufferable. It’s not just the acting, it’s the way the roles are written, too. If Haynes’s next movie is going to be starring four children, as he recently told Marc Maron, I’m genuinely concerned. Not sure he knows what he’s doing. Everything else about this is pretty much fine. It’s certainly the least remarkable thing I’ve seen of Haynes’s so far, but even his worst work is still pretty great.

QI: “Making a Meal of it” — I cannot unknow the fact that one time, five drunk royalists cut their own butts off.

QI: “Incomprehensible” — Sometimes you just have to sit down and watch two episodes of QI. I will say, though, if there’s one episode of this show that demonstrates what’s good about it, it might be this. Watching Ross Noble and Brian Cox (the professor, not the actor) riff off of each other is completely wonderful.

Movies

Star Wars: The Force Awakens — I liked this exactly as much as I expected to, which is to say, about as much as the original trilogy. A good Star Wars movie takes you on a grand romp, delivers some laughs, tugs at the heartstrings a bit, and lets you get on with your week. This did that. And I got to see my cherished C-3P0 again, if only for a few precious moments! Though I must say, Anthony Daniels is really giving a folk memory performance of his character in this. And to be fair, the writers pretty much wrote a folk memory version of C-3P0. His bluster seems more caricatured than before.

Die Hard — Alan Rickman will be dearly missed. But Die Hard is not a good movie.

Games

SOMA — I’m struck by the extent to which SOMA’s story is Stasis done right. (You’ll recall I spent many weeks playing Stasis, all the while strongly disliking it.) As with that game, this one is structured into a number of related areas, all of which have been affected differently by the same disaster. But where Stasis strained credulity by having its entire backstory told through diaries left scattered about for all to read, SOMA embraces unreality and just lets you hear the final moments of the corpses you pass by touching them. It’s genre fiction: you can make the rules up as you go. If a ludicrous convention allows you to tell better stories, go for it. But mostly, SOMA is better than Stasis for a really obvious reason: the writing is of an entirely higher order. This game is a blunt instrument at times — it is horror, after all. It needs to be scary, and dammit, it is. But it’s also quite thoughtful a lot of the time. For instance, it doesn’t mind slowing down the pace to let you piece together the story of a man who refused to abandon his post in the face of disaster, even after his entire crew had deserted, and gradually lost his mind. It’s a familiar-seeming story but it’s told piecemeal, one poignant discovery after another: like a log on his PC, noting that he’d just won his 1000th game of computer chess. Then, before you know it, you’re being chased by terrifying electromagnetism zombies again. I’m quite taken with this.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “A Second Slice Manifesto” — Another short thing, quite excellent. It isn’t served well by coming after “Keep,” which, if I didn’t make it clear last week, is definitely one of the three-or-so best stories in the collection so far. What’s interesting about this is that it’s not even a story. It’s really more of a thought: one that starts off intriguing and gradually becomes disquieting.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “16 Number One Songs From Our First 16 Years” — I’ve decided I really like this show. I knew a surprising number of their picks, actually. I’ll probably never understand Arcade Fire or Bon Iver, but everything else here was awesome. That Radiohead track really took me back. It occurs to me that In Rainbows might have been the first album that I bought when it was new, ending 16 years of thinking there was nothing worthwhile in modern music.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Star Wars (The Force Awakens)” — The best thing about finally having seen Star Wars (aside from finally having seen Star Wars) is being able to read/listen to all of the spoilery stuff I’ve been avoiding for nearly a month. This was basically just ten minutes of companionable enthusiasm, but I certainly agree with Holmes and Weldon (has Linda Holmes ever said “elementary, my dear Weldon” on this podcast?) about the miracle of magnetism that is John Boyega.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Expanded Universe” — At long last, I get to finish Molinsky’s five-part series. This made the movie better, actually. As ever with Star Wars, I find the discussions in the fandom more interesting than the actual movies. And in this case, I got more feelingsy hearing fans react to [GIANT BUT INEVITABLE PLOT POINT THAT MUST GO UNSPOILED in spite of me being the last person alive to see this movie] than I did when it actually happened in the movie.

Omnireviewer (week of Jan. 3, 2016)

I suppose I should start putting the year in the titles of these things. I guess when I started this I didn’t think I’d still be doing it in 2016. But here we are. My weekly exorcisms continue. So, here’s the first fully 2016 edition of Omnireviewer, with 19 reviews.

Movies

The Hateful Eight — On first viewing, I think this is Tarantino’s second-best movie. I adored this. It’s slow and talky (until it’s not) and made up almost entirely of the sorts of scenes that are my favourites in other Tarantino movies. That scene in Inglorious Basterds in the bar, with the three fingers? That’s this whole movie. Sam Jackson and John Travolta in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction? This whole movie. It’s worth seeing in 70mm, because it’s just the kind of movie that deserves a lavish presentation, with an intermission and an overture. Speaking of which: apparently Ennio Morricone is still alive and writing brilliant movie music. In terms of satisfying cinemagoing experiences of the last 12 months, this is second only to Fury Road for me.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “The Bastard Prompt” — This is certainly one of the more twisted stories in this broadly speaking fairly twisted collection. What’s best about it is that it’s the story of something that happened to someone close to the narrator, but not to the narrator himself. All the same, the narrator has his own interests that don’t directly involve the story at hand, but do influence his telling of it. This is the sort of thing that’s just par for the course for Miéville, I’m learning. Even if you don’t respond to his stories, you can’t help but be dazzled by his technical capacity.

China Miéville: “Rules” — Another tiny story, and a very enigmatic one. You can read it in two minutes, and you should, if you happen to see Three Moments of an Explosion on a shelf in a store. If you like it, you’ll like all of these stories and should definitely buy the book to read larger more wonderful stories like “The Bastard Prompt” and “The Dusty Hat.”

David Day: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland Decoded — I always like to have something in the vein of cultural criticism on the go, and now that Good Night and Good Riddance is done, this seems like just the thing. It’s a large, handsome hardcover volume that I got for a good price at the Indigo hardcover sale (Jesus Christ, I’m out of control). Each page contains a segment from Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic (one of my favourites as a kid, and still), and the text is surrounded by David Day’s entertaining analysis. His argument is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is essentially a full classical education delivered in code. Aside from being a marvellous read, so far, this is such a beautifully designed book. It’s filled with paintings and photographs referenced in the text. I feel like this is one of those rare books that I probably won’t be constantly putting down to Google stuff, because it’s basically the internet in paper form.

China Miéville: “Estate” — This is one of those stories I feel like there’s a definitive “point” to, but I missed it.

China Miéville: “Keep” — Another fabulously counterintuitive premise from Miéville. This is a story about people with a disease that causes trenches to form in the ground around them when they stand still for too long. This guy writes amazing stories out of the sorts of random thoughts that I discard three or four times a day. Would that we all followed through like he does.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 2 — Even better than the first act. I still don’t know what this game’s on about, but I’m becoming increasingly invested in the story, which is basically just some guy’s quest to get a shipment of antiques to an address that isn’t real. I feel like there was a lot more to see in this act than I actually saw, which is not something I can usually say. I’m one of those slow, deliberate gamers. It often takes me twice as long as average to make it through a game. But with this, I felt an urgency to the story that compelled me to keep going. I’ll probably play all three available acts again before Act 4 comes out, though, so I’m not worried about missing anything. As with the first act, this is full of wonderful strange details My special favourite is an office building that has an entire floor occupied by impassive bears.

Papa Sangre — I don’t think I’ll be finishing this. I bought it weeks ago, played it for about twenty minutes, and another twenty just now, and it really doesn’t seem like it’ll ever be anything other than a game of hide-and-go-seek-in-the-dark. Which is a shame, because the possibility for storytelling and world-building in a game that’s all sound, no visuals is immense. I got this for cheap with two other games from the same developer, so I suppose we’ll see if those are any good, then possibly wash our hands of the whole thing.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — This remains mysterious and obscure, but in this act it always feels like it’s about to tip its hand. An offhand reference to mold and transistors back in the first act now feels like it might be the key to the whole thing. Meta-references to digital narratives abound. (One scene may simply be an extended riff on Adventure and/or Zork or it may be something more. An elegy to the limitless vistas of parser-based interactive fiction? Hard to say. There might even be one character who’s meant to stand in for the guy who wrote Adventure. There’s a resemblance.) Samuel Taylor Coleridge is important, somehow. There are frequent allusions to the effects of the 2008 economic crisis: homes being reclaimed, people not buying consumer goods anymore, that sort of thing. As fantastical as this is, there remains some thread of connection to the real Kentucky. So, much like Lost or The Shining (or, I suppose, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland), this game actively encourages not just close readings but paranoid readings: where every detail, however minute, seems like it could be significant. This isn’t just rote surrealism. Whatever’s going on here, it’s not nothing, and better yet it’s not one specific thing. Apparently Act 4 is nearly done. It had damn well better be. Pick of the week.

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The wonderful bleakness of Kentucky Route Zero.

SOMA — My computer can pretty much run this, when I turn the graphics options down to the lowest settings the game has. So, yay! Anyhow, I’ve written before about my ambiguous thoughts on horror. I think that, in the same way that comedy succeeds if it makes you laugh, horror succeeds if it actually scares you. I think both of those standards are perfectly acceptable for those genres. There’s plenty of comedy and horror that has other goals as well (more “literary” goals, we might say), and that’s great and I personally tend to like that stuff best, but it’s not fair or right to critique horror or comedy on the grounds that it’s merely funny or merely scary. If it’s that, then it’s fine. But the trouble with horror movies that aim primarily to frighten you in the moment is that they don’t work on me. I just don’t get scared watching movies. But I do love being scared. And that is why I like horror games. Because, for whatever reason, horror games scare the living crap out of me. I guess it’s just that in games, you have to actually respond to a threat. So, you can’t just passively accept an outcome and move on like you have to do in a movie. Horror games leave you scrambling to come up with a solution to a problem under pressure. They engage you in a way that almost no other medium does. But then, the issue with horror games is that they have all of the problems associated with games more broadly: most notably, the caliber of writing and voice acting in games is just lower than it is in movies. That’s not to say that there isn’t any top-shelf writing in games, just look at Kentucky Route Zero, for Chrissakes. Also Sunless Sea, 80 Days, The Stanley Parable, anything made by Simogo, tons of Twine stories and parser games and probably a bunch of more conventional stuff that I’m overlooking. Likewise for acting: The Walking Dead game has better acting than the show. But you can’t play an acclaimed game and have the same level of assurance that the writing and acting will be good as you can when you see an acclaimed film. The art form hasn’t gotten there yet, and don’t let any videogame boosterists try to convince you otherwise. It’s a bit too early to judge SOMA on these criteria, but the few bits of sustained story I’ve seen so far have been pretty solid. The voice acting for the player character is excellent, which is a great mercy. Nothing worse than being trapped inside a crap actor’s head. A promising start, and already pretty spooky.

Television

QI: “Messing with your Mind” — This Tommy Tiernan fellow, I dunno.

The Daily Show With Trevor Noah: “Wednesday, January 6, 2016” — I meant to check out Noah’s Daily Show long before this, but this episode seemed essential. And it was good. Not outstanding, but good. There are moments in this where you kind of go “that’s a joke.” And Noah’s monologue about Obama’s gun control executive order finishes with an inadequate kicker. But it’s definitely, on balance, good. Which is nice, because towards the end of Jon Stewart’s tenure, that’s pretty much what you could say about his Daily Show as well. (On the other hand, the correspondent piece about the Nike resale market is insane.)

Mildred Pierce: “Part One” — So far, Kate Winslet makes this. It’s a gorgeous-looking series, as you’d expect from Todd Haynes, but the drama isn’t taking off yet. Every scene with Melissa Leo is gold, though. Almost makes up for the children in this, who are difficult to take. Actually, if the whole series were just Kate Winslet and Melissa Leo talking to each other, that’d be fine.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Viking’s Choice 2015: The Year In The Loud And The Weird” — This is what I’m talking about. I’d heard none of this music beforehand, and I think the only artist featured that I’d heard of was Iron Maiden. I suspect it would be the same for most people. Which is a shame, because people need more weirdness and extremity in their lives. I sure do.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Melancholidays, Sisters and 2015 Highlights” — Not much to say except that it’s always nice to see an indication that there are others equally obsessed with Hamilton as I am.

Radiolab: “Year-End Special #1” — The opening of this show reminded me that there really were some spectacular episodes of Radiolab this year. I’m thinking specifically of “The Rhino Hunter.” But the rest of it — which consists of Radiolab’s top three most downloaded segments ever, all from the last two years —  reminded me how much I miss the version of Radiolab that did shows like this.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ciao 2015, Hello 2016!” — Everybody who loves pop culture should listen to this if only to hear a recap of Linda Holmes’ predictions for 2015, which are a fabulous indictment of the entire culture industry. She literally just wrote a huge rant and read it into a microphone and it’s entrancing and forceful and fantastic. I should really read her blog more.

Fresh Air: “In ‘Carol,’ 2 Women Leap Into An Unlikely Love Affair” — Terry Gross’s interview with Todd Haynes and Phyllis Nagy is a quiet thing of spectacular virtuosity. I came for Haynes, but it’s Nagy that Gross gets the most interesting stories out of. Nagy wrote the screenplay for Carol, which I loved, based on Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt. Nagy and Highsmith knew each other well, and Nagy is keen to portray her late friend as the real-life Therese Belivet, Rooney Mara’s character in the movie. But, without ever becoming indelicate, Gross prompts responses from Nagy that imply there may have been a certain amount of Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) in her as well — though Nagy is careful to clarify that she herself was never Therese to Highsmith’s Carol. I have never heard Terry Gross more artful than this. Also, there was unexpectedly a snippet of Gross’s 2005 interview with the recently deceased composer/conductor Pierre Boulez, who’s always been an interesting figure to me, and made some of my very favourite recordings. I never anticipated he’d be so charming. So that’s a bonus. Imagine: Todd Haynes being the least interesting part of a podcast. Pick of the week.

WTF With Marc Maron: “Todd Haynes/Sarah Silverman” — Thank God this exists, then. Maron is nearly as much of a cinephile as Haynes is, so this pretty much turns into two film geeks babbling. In the process, they appear to confirm everything I assumed about Haynes in my review of Carol a couple weeks back. Haynes explicitly talks about how this movie is concerned with which character is looking through the camera at any given point (especially pointed since Therese is a photographer), which I’m taking as total validation of my interpretation of Carol as a vast, all-encompassing metafiction. Say what you like about Maron, but he’s not afraid to go deep with his interview subjects.