Tag Archives: Star Wars

Omnibus (weeks of Dec. 10 & 17, 2017)

Hello again and Merry Christmas. As you’ll have gathered from the fact that I am here to write this, I am both alive and uninjured following my alpine adventure. What follows are reviews of the things I managed to take in before and since that adventure. I didn’t totally disconnect from pop culture in the mountains, but I did disconnect from thinking about it. If you want the definitive image of my last couple weeks, picture two snowsuited white men in a Mazda 3 singing along to this.

It strikes me that my two picks of the week are both at a pivotal moment in their history as texts. The first has been recently reawakened by the publication of a new book that I’m going to try and get to before New Year’s Eve. And the second has just reached its bittersweet conclusion after a run as one of the greatest achievements in podcasting. Read on.

10 reviews.

Literature, etc.

Philip Pullman: The Amber Spyglass — My 11-year-old self’s favourite book is still a masterpiece. Reading the first two instalments of His Dark Materials for the first time as an adult, I was struck by how similar an experience it was to what I remember feeling as a child. But reading The Amber Spyglass felt different. And I think the reason for that is because my first encounter with The Amber Spyglass actually changed the kind of person I was. When my well-meaning but not entirely in-the-know mother bought me these books, I was being raised, nominally, as a Christian. I went to church most weeks and learned Bible stories in Sunday school. For the rest of the week, it wasn’t really a concern. But the incontrovertible truth of the Bible and the inherent goodness of God were things I had been led to take for granted. So, reading this book, I could accept that the church depicted in its pages was corrupt and evil. Certainly, that was never in doubt. They tried to kill Lyra! Trying to kill any child is bad enough — but Lyra! Still, when they talked about Lyra’s coming role as the second Eve — a girl who would be likely to fall victim to the temptation of the serpent — I just thought they were wrong about her. They just don’t know Lyra well enough. Surely, she won’t fail the test like the first Eve did! She’s far too good for that. It wasn’t until the end of the book that I realized what Pullman was actually on about: that God himself was as evil and authoritarian as the church he begat, and that it was therefore best for Lyra to accept the temptation. For Pullman, original sin is something to be celebrated and Eve is a hero. All of humanity’s most admirable traits spring from that mythic moment in Eden, and the villain of Genesis is God. This hit me like a thunderbolt when I was 11. I didn’t immediately renounce my faith or anything, but it was one of the first moments in my life when I was made to recognize that received wisdom shouldn’t be accepted as a default. Reading it 16 years later, I had mostly forgotten the specifics of the plot. But this time, I read the book hoping for Lyra to fall. I think I can award Pullman a share of the credit for this transformation. Reading The Amber Spyglass with the benefit of 16 more years experience in the world made me admire other elements of it as well. Pullman dramatizes a “first contact” narrative in Mary Malone’s plotline, which is roughly analogous to the sorts of stories we hear from the early days of European colonialism — except that in Pullman’s telling, Malone comes to regard the strange creatures she encounters as her equals. It’s worth quoting here: “When she saw how they worked, not on their own but two by two, working their trunks together to tie a knot, she realized why they’d been so astonished by her hands, because of course she could tie knots on her own. At first she felt that this gave her an advantage — she needed no one else — and then she realized how it cut her off from others. Perhaps all human beings were like that. And from that time on, she used one hand to knot the fibers, sharing the task with a female zalif who had become her particular friend, fingers and trunk moving in and out together.” There is not enough YES in the world to express my feelings about this passage. Where Malone could easily have gone on thinking herself superior to the inhabitants of this new world, she instead has the self-awareness to recognize that their way of doing things has its own value that hers does not share. Would that people could always be like this. There are some complaints to be had about this book. Is Lyra sidelined for a good chunk of it? Yes. Is she in need of rescue by a cast of largely male characters? Yes. Is this frustrating? You bet, for a couple different reasons. But does it undermine her role as the primary hero of His Dark Materials, with the highest amount of agency? No, it does not. She is still the character whose decisions matter the most at the end of the book. She is still of cosmic importance in a way that Will, for instance, is not. I daresay the reason that Lyra is given a whole book to herself, before Will is even introduced, is that Eve is the hero in Pullman’s reading of Genesis. She is the originator of original sin, and therefore the single most laudable and important personage in the history of creation. That is the company into which Pullman thrusts Lyra. The reason we come to love her so much, and that we are so frustrated by the stretch of The Amber Spyglass that finds her drugged and comatose in a cave, is that Pullman himself has such obvious affection for her. This is also the reason why we can never accept Lord Asriel as a hero, in spite of the fact that he is a great leader on the right side of history. His indifference towards Lyra makes him a monster. Even the vile, murderous Mrs. Coulter does not commit this sin. And frankly, if there’s anything in The Amber Spyglass that isn’t entirely convincing, it’s the transformation of Mrs. Coulter from irredeemable villain to perversely doting mother. It’s an obvious attempt on Pullman’s part to cast her as a foil to Asriel: the monstrous, inhuman “white hat” vs. the humanized, tragically flawed “black hat.” But to Pullman’s credit, he realizes that both of these characters are so irredeemable in their respective ways (and also because they are both child murderers) that the only sensible ending for them both is to die horribly at the climax of a vast historical conflict they were on opposite sides of. Whatever the flaws of their plotlines — and Coulter’s in particular — their endings are perfect. And speaking of endings, all of my most vivid memories of The Amber Spyglass come from the last few chapters, after the cosmic war the entire trilogy has been building towards is over. Perhaps the most remarkable thing about His Dark Materials is that God literally dies in it, and that’s not even the climax of the story. The larger, more contextual story of His Dark Materials concerns the huge vortex of theological conflict that Lyra and Will find themselves drawn into. That narrative climaxes with the death of God. But the more crucial story in the trilogy, which may have even more importance within the story’s cosmology, is the story of Lyra and Will as the new Eve and Adam. And, of course, with Dr. Malone as the new serpent — a character I barely remember from my first readthrough, but who I’m now convinced is the second-best character in the trilogy. The smaller story of these three characters plays out quietly, intimately, and heartrendingly in the final chapters of the book. Pullman saves his most beautiful writing for after the cosmic war is over: all of the sound and fury of the war in Heaven is eclipsed by a simple, elegant story about marzipan, and a star-crossed young love affair of Shakespearean proportions. It is one of the great endings conceived by any novelist of our time, writing for people of any age. The Amber Spyglass is nearly perfect. It is exhibit A in sticking the landing at the end of a series. If I ever have kids, I really hope they read these books. But I would never force them to: Pullman taught me too much for that. Pick of the week.

Philip Pullman: Lyra’s Oxford, Once Upon A Time in the North & “The Collectors” — While I’m revisiting Pullman, I figured I may as well check out the three miniature books he’s written to tie into His Dark Materials before I move on to La Belle Sauvage. The first, Lyra’s Oxford, is a beautiful short story that demonstrates Pullman’s ability to write beautifully and movingly even when he doesn’t have a gigantic narrative canvas to work with. The story is low on continuity, though it relies on one’s familiarity with His Dark Materials for effect. The note the story ends on — the idea that Lyra and her daemon are being protected by Oxford itself, the city they call home — is much more effective when you know that Lyra is responsible for freeing the dead so that they can become part of everything. More than anything, Lyra’s Oxford is an illustration of the grace Lyra has received in return for her heroism and compassion in The Amber Spyglass. That makes it worthwhile. Also, I appreciate that there are only a couple of mentions of Will, as if her love for him was something very important that happened to Lyra, changed her, and now is over. That said, one of the most moving things in the book is a real photograph of a real bench in the botanic gardens at Oxford, where we are to assume, I suppose, that Lyra and Will still meet once a year in their separate worlds. The picture is shown on a postcard sent by Mary Malone, who jokes about what a crap postcard it is — because presumably these are just pictures taken by Pullman, or somebody working for him, of landmarks chosen for their narrative importance rather than their actual beauty. It’s a nice touch. Once Upon A Time In the North is a slightly more substantial read. Lee Scoresby was always the supporting character in His Dark Materials who seemed most likely to spin off. And indeed, this is a satisfying adventure story for him, with a substantial walk-on part for Iorek Byrnison. But the real heart of the story is more development of the relationship between Lee and his daemon Hester, which is probably the most colourfully rendered human/daemon relationship in the books. Rather than simply being a sort of emanation of her person, Hester is a snarky manifestation of his better judgement. Pullman knows well what Lee’s most memorable scene in the main trilogy is — his final stand in The Subtle Knife — and he’s sure to subtly evoke it just once. This is, among other things, the story of how Lee got his Winchester rifle. And because it’s Pullman, it cannot simply be a rollicking shoot ‘em up action story: it is also a political allegory for how demagogues hide their agendas behind hateful rhetoric. Philip Pullman: teaching kids the important shit since 1995. As for “The Collectors,” a short story available only as an audiobook read by Bill Nighy, it focuses on the specific element of the His Dark Materials universe that probably initially attracted me as a kid: namely its roots in the crusty yet oddly seductive world of British academia. I was a weird kid, and the culture of these head-in-the-cloud scholars that Lyra grew up with seemed nearly as romantic as the northern wastes where The Golden Compass’s adventure begins properly. It’s the most intimate of these three stories, consisting largely of a conversation between two art collectors, with its connections to the main trilogy existing mostly by implication. And perhaps unexpectedly, given all of this, it is also more straightforwardly horror-tinged than most of Pullman’s other writing. In this conversational setting, Pullman’s explanation of his version of the many-worlds theory comes off like something out of Borges — but horror Borges. So, basically China Miéville. I love that Philip Pullman can channel that. My only complaint is the recording: a better engineer might have rolled off some of Nighy’s natural sibilance. Funny how this is only an issue in audiobooks and never in the more professional echelons of podcasting. Taken together, these three stories really do enrich the world of His Dark Materials. I’m unspeakably excited to dive into the next proper novel.

Stephen King: On Writing — I bought it impulsively and it turned out to be one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. It is also approximately half autobiography. I came to this for good solid advice, and then suddenly he’s writing about how his wife’s poetry made him fall in love with her and suddenly I’m crying in the airport. THAT’S NOT WHAT I SIGNED UP FOR. Still, the autobiographical sections of the book are lovely illustrations of how a writer’s craft can interact with the rest of their life — without superseding it. That’s crucial. Of King’s many wise dictums, this may be the wisest: “Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way around.” As for the more practical section of the book, I was surprised to find myself seldom disagreeing with King and taking a lot of what he wrote to heart. I love King’s writing, but it’s really different from the more ornamented sort of prose that I usually admire. I somehow expected to find him dogmatically insistent upon simplicity and directness, like George Orwell. But he’s actually one of the least dogmatic writing teachers I’ve ever encountered. Mostly he just wants you to focus on the story. His thoughts on theme and symbolism are wonderful: don’t start with either of those things, but they’ll certainly help your readers make sense of the story if they arise naturally. I can see myself revisiting this periodically when my worst impulses as a writer start coming out again.

Movies

Lady Bird — A beautiful movie. Greta Gerwig’s story takes its name from its protagonist, but it could just as easily be called Sacramento. Lady Bird is a movie about the specific experience of growing up in that town: a hard place to be for a kid with a big sense of herself. Speaking as somebody who was once a highly performative small-town teenager with a penchant for weird music and theatre, this movie sooooo gets it right — the drama club scenes in particular. Those are the kids who are in drama club. And those are the songs they sing at auditions. And that’s the way they sing them. The thing that makes Lady Bird such a brilliant coming-of-age story is that it focuses on Lady Bird’s changing sense of her place in the world. Her character arc starts with shame: shame of where she’s from, shame of her class and the neighborhood she lives in, shame of her parents. Then, we see her try to escape from the life that causes her shame. We see her attempt this through theatre, through a deeply misbegotten relationship with another theatre kid, through an even more misbegotten relationship with an antisocial aesthete type, and finally by actually leaving. And finally we see her accept her circumstances. Much of what’s been written about this movie focuses on the relationship between Lady Bird and her mother, which is only appropriate since that’s actually the core of the movie. (And because Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf both give incredible performances.) But it’s the sense of place that jumped out at me more than anything: the sense that every human settlement is a network of connections and memories and regrets that have richness for the people who live there, whether they like the place or not.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi — Hey, this is fun! I never have much to say about Star Wars movies because it’s just not a franchise I feel a lot of attachment to. I get why others love it so much, but for me it’s just something that exists, and I’m not really engaged enough to have strong opinions one way or the other. I have opinions of middling strength. I liked The Force Awakens because it had a fun cast of loveable new characters romping through familiar story beats. I didn’t like Rogue One because it was dull, had a cipher for a main character, and Mads Mikkelsen was badly miscast. I can’t quite access the sort of adoration for this franchise that leads people to proclaim their childhoods ruined when it puts a foot wrong. I do, however, have some strong opinions about Rian Johnson movies. I think Brick and Looper are two of the most dazzling genre movies of the last two decades. And I think The Brothers Bloom is maybe the only Wes Anderson impression that’s actually worth anybody’s time. Among Star Wars movies, The Last Jedi is firmly in my upper echelon, along with the first two instalments of the original trilogy. But alongside Rian Johnson’s other work, I’d put it in the bottom half. I find it hard to credit the notion that anybody would find this more accomplished than Brick, with its virtuosic dialogue and flawless location shooting, or Looper, with its complex but comprehensible story and outstanding action. But it’s a good movie! You should go see it if you weren’t planning to.

Music

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy — I dunno what possessed me to listen to this just now. It’s been like five years since I even thought about listening to Led Zeppelin. But this is still awesome. Either this or Physical Graffiti is my favourite Zep album. They’re a bit more elaborate than the more celebrated first four, and I like that. There are clunkers on Houses of the Holy (“The Crunge,” “Dancing Days”), but the best bits are sublime rock and roll. “The Rain Song” is one of their very best. It finds Jimmy Page elaborating on a few very simple ideas, including one of the most delicate acoustic riffs he ever devised (that syncopated thing in the sixth measure). The song’s slow build, from John Paul Jones’s elaborations of the harmony on Mellotron through John Bonham’s brushes, to the point where the band kicks into full electric mode, is to my ears a major refinement of the same idea in “Stairway to Heaven.” (Yeah, “The Rain Song” is better than “Stairway to Heaven.” Fight me.) “Over the Hills and Far Away” might be my favourite of the band’s major singles. Perhaps it’s a bit clichéd, but don’t blame Led Zeppelin for that. Blame the second-best guitarist at your high school. The one who was better than the dude who could only play “Smoke On the Water,” but not as good as the girl who could play “Eruption.” It’s a song where Jimmy Page’s abilities as a producer are really becoming obvious. Listen to the way the acoustic guitar starts off dead centre of the stereo image, as a matter-of-fact statement of the song’s musical material, then splits into a wide open binaural image on the second time through. It would sound hollow in the long term, but then Robert Plant comes in dead centre and holds it all together. Lovely stuff. And that little ten-note riff that Page brings in just before the outro is one of the loveliest tossed-off moments in the band’s catalogue. My other highlights are “No Quarter” and “The Song Remains the Same,” which is the best thing in the world when you need a sudden jolt of energy. I’d forgotten how much I like this.

Kate Bush: 50 Words for Snow — This album came out when I lived in Edmonton and it immediately became a winter tradition. It’s an album I can only bear to listen to when there’s snow on the ground. I’ve been living in Vancouver for a few years now, and the opportunity to get a good, full listen to this in the proper surroundings hasn’t really surfaced. And Christmases at home in Fort McMurray don’t lend themselves to a lot of deep listening in general. I seem to listen to it most frequently on the train to the airport, weirdly. But I can’t make it through the whole thing on that ride. Even if the train were travelling very slow indeed, this is quite simply not the city for it. But this year — hark! — we have snow in Vancouver! Not much of it, mind, but enough to make this album feel at least vaguely à propos. It is certainly Kate Bush’s most underrated album, though I can understand why it wouldn’t hit home for some listeners. No other music in her catalogue is this spare and spacious. Songs stretch on two or three times longer than her average — more, in the case of the 13-minute “Misty.” But if you’re willing to put in the time, you’ll find that 50 Words for Snow’s slow pace is never without purpose. Take “Wild Man.” It’s probably the most accessible track on the album, with something resembling a rousing chorus. Still, it clocks in at over seven minutes and it stretches on for more than two minutes past its climax. But those final two minutes give Bush’s protagonist — a mountain explorer who has just helped the Yeti avoid detection by the locals — time to process what she’s just been through. A rare thing in pop music. That ability to use musical structure to express meaning is one of the biggest reasons why Kate Bush is my favourite songwriter. The album’s crown jewel, of course, is “Misty.” The basic idea of the song is so simple and so perfect that it seems truly strange that it hadn’t been done before. Maybe it had. But the premise “a woman has sex with a snowman then wakes up to find he’s gone, leaving only a puddle on the bed” was a new one for me. But the beauty of the song is that Bush makes the whole thing feel like a normal, slightly melancholy human interaction (“so cold next to me”). That, and the fact that it contains some of the most beautiful music she’s ever written. I’m thinking specifically of the piano line that first appears at 2:26, and only once more (with strings) in the song’s whole 13-minute duration. That’s nearly as perversely withholding as the Sibelius violin concerto, which uses its gorgeous melody only twice in about 17 minutes, give or take a couple depending on the performance. In both cases, the restrained use of such beautiful material gives the same effect of fleeting euphoria giving way to melancholy. It’s a glorious construction. There are less effective tracks here. “Snowed in at Wheeler Street” never quite makes me believe in the supposed eternal love of its two protagonists, even though both Bush and her esteemed duet partner Elton John both give deeply committed performances. And I’ve never really gotten “Among Angels,” which is a fairly austere way to end the album. Clearly Bush sees something in the song that I don’t, because she also used it as an encore at her Before the Dawn shows. I hope to get it eventually. But this album’s high points (“Misty,” “Wild Man,” “Snowflake”) are some of the best in Bush’s catalogue, and therefore quite simply among my very favourite music.

Podcasts

On the Media: “Power Trip” — Worth hearing for Brooke Gladstone’s forthright take on WNYC’s own struggle to deal with revelations of sexual abuse in its workplace culture and Bob Garfield’s attempt to have a frank conversation with a far-right lunatic without having said far-right lunatic hang up on him. (He fails.)

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2017,” “What Makes A Great Album Last” & “Poll Results: Listeners Pick The Best Albums Of 2017” — I haven’t been following this show all year, which means I haven’t really been following new music. There’s lots here that’s new to me, and I doubt I’ll actually check out very much of it. As great as the albums by SZA and Lorde sound, I just can’t keep on top of everything. Still, it’s nice to hear Bob Boilen, Robin Hilton and their associates summing up the year. It wasn’t a year full of stuff I connect with especially. It is what it is. Also, nice to be reminded of Reflection a year later. I should check out the seasonal editions as well.

The Heart: Five-episode catch up — Little did I know when I started this run of five episodes backed up in my feed that they’d be the last five episodes of this wonderful show as we know it. And they’re five episodes that demonstrate many facets of the show that make it great. “Signature Research” is a brief, gutting childhood story from a producer who hadn’t made a radio story prior to this one. The Heart has always been great about giving new voices a platform. “God + The Gays” is a deeply personal story from one of The Heart’s staffers about how her sexuality and her religious upbringing bounced off each other. The Heart has always been, quite simply, the best show about the intersection of sexuality and everything else in life. “Man Choubam (I Am Good)” is an expression of a very specific conflict in a very specific person’s life. The Heart has always known that the very personal and very specific are interesting and worthwhile, whether they intersect with broader concerns or not. “An Announcement” is a functional rather than complete episode, existing to inform us of the show’s coming hiatus. But it’s still full of personality and life. The Heart always is. And finally, “Dream” is the most adventurous and sonically beautiful thing I’ve heard in months. The Heart has always been the best sounding, subtlest and most technically masterful podcast in production. I’ve learned a lot from this show, about life, and other people’s experiences of the world, and also about how radio can sound when it’s made by someone with an open mind. Its whole catalogue, taken together, is one of the crown jewels of the medium. It’s a sad loss, but I’m looking forward to hearing what Kaitlin Prest, Mitra Kaboli and company will be up to in the next year. Pick of the week.

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Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 25, 2016)

And so, Omnireviewer limps improbably into its third calendar year. Speaking of traditions, for a couple of years now I’ve been compiling a list of my favourite things of the year at the end of January. Not December. I stubbornly insist on not dealing with such things until the year is actually over, and I’ve had a solid month to take stock, and also to fit in a couple more books or shows. (Though, I imagine a certain exceedingly long and strange novel will make the list regardless of the fact that I will be AT MOST halfway through it by the end of the month.) But for now, I have this week’s 15 reviews for you.

Movies

Star Wars: Rogue One — I feel like I was Jedi mind tricked into seeing this. I talked a big talk about how I wasn’t going to go to this, as a tiny protest against the notion of never-ending Star Wars movies. Like I’ve said before, when the Star Wars cinematic canon constituted two trilogies and that’s all, the batting average may have been low — but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That’s inevitable now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic, but I like the idea of movies telling stories that end. It’s what makes them distinct from TV shows. I mean, really, you can even take a few movies to tell your story! That’s fine! But the notion of a cinematic “universe,” as opposed to just a “series” seems like it stems more from the studios’ impulse to make as much money as they can off of recognizable brands than from its value for storytelling. So, I had planned a tiny, personal boycott of the non-numbered Star Wars movies. Especially ones that were getting reviews as mixed as this. Still, I got pulled in by the inexorable force (hahahahahahahahaha) of this unavoidable franchise. I got pulled in by my general amenability towards seeing a movie, any movie, on a night when I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I got pulled in by my uncharacteristically non-antisocial wish to see a couple of friends after having spent a week away. I got pulled in by the fact that I’ve got Cineplex gift cards now, so at least it’s somebody else’s money that’s doing the talking. (Yeah, I know that’s really feeble. And yes, I do hate myself. Go away.) So basically, this movie had a nearly insurmountable task ahead of it if it was going to persuade me not to resent its very existence, and not to resent myself for caving in, and not to resent my friends for convincing me to abandon my principles. This movie did not rise to that challenge. My favourite thing about this movie is that it answered my burning question: “How does Darth Vader take a bath?” Aside from that, I did not enjoy myself. And at this point, we’ve reached the crucial question of the extent to which the movie is actually to blame for that, versus the extent to which my distaste is mine to own. And, without attempting to take the easy way out of that question, I can’t honestly answer it, because I don’t have access to a parallel universe in which I was more favourably predisposed towards Rogue One to use as a point of comparison. What I can say is that there’s nothing I can immediately point to in this movie that makes it the equal of other popcorn blockbusters from the last year, like Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Those movies have characters with immediately discernible personalities. Rogue One’s characters are blank slates, possessing only the most generically heroic of character traits: tenacity, bravery, etc. Captain America, on the other hand, is not generically heroic but rather follows a moral code that’s well-established enough for his behaviour to be internally consistent — and different from the other heroes in his movie. (Thus the Civil War, you see.) And even Doctor Strange is quippy and fun, which isn’t unique in itself. But his quips are good. The only character in Rogue One that rises above this standard is Donnie Yen’s eccentric blind martial artist, who is unfortunately also a bit of a racist caricature. And aside from that, the actors in this that you’d most expect extraordinary performances from are deeply underwhelming. Forest Whitaker gives his character a completely ridiculous hybrid accent that might work for one of the CGI aliens, but is extremely distracting in a live-action human character. And the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is completely miscast as a man whose defining quality is supposed to be his inability to lie. We’re told in dialogue a number of times that Galen Erso is a terrible liar, but the fact of the matter is that Mikkelsen delivers his lines with such affectlessness that you can’t imagine how he could possibly fail to fool anybody, at any time. I’m all for seeing him in more heroic roles, but a role that comes down to this specific characteristic isn’t right for him, and moreover, he was pretty much the exact wrong choice for the role. For comparison’s sake, just think back to how much fun Rey, Finn and Poe were in The Force Awakens. That’s the bar. That’s how well you have to do in a new Star Wars movie. It’s a shame that the story features such bland characters and prosaic dialogue (even the funny robot is one of the franchise’s lesser funny robots), because Rogue One does present some unique ideas about what can happen in a Star Wars movie. It is the bleakest film in the franchise, save possibly for Revenge of the Sith, and I daresay it’s a touch more competently made than that. And it offers an intriguing focus on the notion that there are good people working for the Empire because they see it as their only option. That’s uncharacteristically nuanced for Star Wars. But those ideas are wasted in a movie that’s so aggressively unfun to watch. I’m getting tired of writing this review. Rogue One is pedestrian pap that exists only to leverage a recognizable brand so that dummies like me will buy a ticket. I imagine that the actual content of the movie was an afterthought.

Television

Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 7 & 8 (plus Christmas Special) — I didn’t actually know that this was going to finish with a Christmas special, but it turned out to be a nice thing to watch at Christmas. This season has been really hit and miss. Julian Fellowes’ preference to cut away from any given scene when somebody’s about to say something we already know has the double consequence of ruthless efficiency in his storytelling and also that we never see people’s reactions to receiving news. This, and probably a few other things, results in certain characters’ plotlines taking what feel like extremely abrupt turns within the course of single episodes. Lord Grantham is served the worst by this, but it also finds its way into Mary and Matthew’s plotline. It’s hard to be too disappointed by this, however, since Downton Abbey never really rises above the level of “very, very fun but also extremely silly.” The occasional melodramatic turn is to be expected. I still love this. But I’m going to return to Battlestar Galactica for a while before I move on to season three.

All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace: “Love and Power” — I was entreated to watch this by a friend with whom I’m working on a podcast about what happens when we let the machines make the important decisions. Clearly, Adam Curtis got there first. This BBC documentary series focuses on how computers have failed to free humanity in the way that Californian techno-libertarians assured us they would. The opening episode traces that worldview from Ayn Rand through early Silicon Valley to its mainstreaming with Alan Greenspan — who, as chairman of the Fed under an embattled Bill Clinton, was possibly the most powerful person in the world. It is fascinating to watch, and I’ll for sure have more to say next week when I finish the other two episodes. But for now, I’ll just say it’s great. Pick of the week.

Games

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Parts 1 & 2 — Here beginneth the playing of the sixteen games I bought for thirty bucks during the Steam winter sale. Even as an avid fan of Inkle’s 80 Days (I would count it among my top five favourite games), I had planned to give their Sorcery! series a miss. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s not written by Meg Jayanth, whose incredible script is responsible for almost all of 80 Days’ appeal. Secondly, it’s an apparently straightforward adaptation of a gamebook, which is a lot less ambitious than, say, an interactive adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that expands the text by hundreds of thousands of words and also goes out of its way to correct that text’s misogyny and pro-colonialist stance. And finally, I have a limited tolerance for high fantasy bullshit. It’s just not an aesthetic that works for me. But after the fourth instalment of Sorcery! started to get raves, I figured that maybe this is the sort of series I might do well to pick up cheap. The beautifully designed opening sequence of Sorcery! part one can’t quite match 80 Days’s “It would seem… he is a gambling man.” (That moment gives me chills just to think about.) This continues to be the case: this Sorcery! two-parter can’t measure up to its esteemed successor. But it does what it does extremely well. Once you get past the relatively slight first episode, this expands into a pleasing (if not especially literary) adventure game. Inkle’s games have that quality about them that the best of the old parser-based interactive fiction titles did: they give the sense that there is a truly massive world set out before you, and that any course charted through it will be unique and will leave the vast bulk of the territory undiscovered. Also, it’s hard. There’s a mechanic baked into the second part that allows you to go back in time to a certain point on your journey and pick up crucial story elements that you missed. (This is in fact a necessity for finishing the game — unless, by some miracle, you get everything you need on your first pass through.) I had to use it twice to get ahold of some crucial clues, and I died a lot on all three of my journeys through the game. This in itself is not frustrating: the game’s difficulty never feels unfair, and the constant deaths made me feel more satisfied when I did eventually find my way out of a tight spot that had killed me numerous times already. What is frustrating, though, is the game’s almost-but-not-quite open world approach. (This is a problem I understand is solved in the third instalment, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works.) If the player were simply allowed to roam freely and backtrack at will, the time travel mechanic wouldn’t be necessary at all. And that would be preferable, because that mechanic causes some untoward bugs when coupled with the game’s other rewind mechanic, which allows you to actually rewind the gameplay itself, extra-diegetically. (Wow, that is a confusing sentence, even for me. But what are you gonna do? Writing about time travel is hard. Play the game and it’ll make sense.) Aside from those little nitpicky details, this is pretty extraordinary. By the end of it, I even managed to overcome my high fantasy allergy and look at the story on its own terms. Much of this takes place in Kharé, a city populated by thieves and tricksters, where traps lie everywhere and the city itself forms a massive trap for all those who live there. That is an absolutely delightful sort of environment to spend a bunch of time wandering around. I expect to enjoy the coming instalments more than this, but I’ll miss Kharé. Lovely stuff.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Favourite Podcasts of 2016” — I’m taking this as an opportunity to start listening to Judge John Hodgman. Most of the other podcasts mentioned here are either ones I don’t like very much, or ones I’m interested in checking out, but not interested enough to overcome the inertia.

StartUp: “MAGIC” — This isn’t one of the this season’s best episodes, and it isn’t a perfect ending, but this has been a pretty good season of StartUp overall. There’s nothing really wrong with not having a great ending to your nonfiction story. That’s part of what was weird about the way Serial season one was received: people didn’t accept that in journalism, you can just say “We’ve been at this for long enough. Now we stop.” Same goes for this.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future 2” — The unquestionable highlight of this is Breakmaster Cylinder’s update on how his beat harvesting is going. But this series of updates on the year’s stories is a lovely thing to have become an annual tradition. It’s like Reply All’s own miniature Undone. Could’ve done without Alex Goldman’s Gollum impression, though.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “2016 Favourites and Unfinished Business” — These wrap-up episodes are always good fun. There’s probably a lot of stuff that was mentioned here that I should check out, but who has the time. (hehehe) Glad that Stephen Thompson favourited O.J.: Made in America, even if he did frame it as “the welcome return of Marcia Clark!” which is a weird way to frame anything. Also, it’s nice to have Sam Sanders on here, partially because it’s always nice to hear him on this show, but also because he’s been around less often, so his favourites come as a bit more of a surprise than some of the more frequent fourth chairs.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Westworld” — Absolutely lost. This is one of those things that I listen to for the sake of completion alone. Can’t let this be the only PCHH of the year that I didn’t hear. But I haven’t seen Westworld, I’m not likely to ever watch Westworld, and I haven’t the slightest clue what Glen Weldon and Audie Cornish are on about here. Ah, well.

Homecoming: Episodes 3-6 — This is really good for the most part. I can’t say I’m completely overwhelmed by it the way I had hoped to be overwhelmed by a podcast with the budget to hire several movie stars. The biggest issue here is the plot twist about the true intentions of the shady corporation at the centre of the story. It’s not that I predicted the exact nature of the reveal, so much as I knew it would be something sort of like what it actually turned out to be. I could discern the general shape of it. And in a way, that’s worse than being outright predictable, because it betrays a certain lack of specificity in your premise. “Shady government contractor… is, in fact, bad!” There’s something about that that just sort of makes me go, “right, okay,” and then file this away under the heading of “things I liked, but won’t be thinking very hard about.” It’s great that Gimlet is big enough to do something like this, now. But it would have been nice for the first podcast featuring performances by movie stars to actually be obviously much better than other scripted podcasts, and I don’t think this is. I’m looking forward to season two of Limetown far more than I’m looking forward to season two of this. Still, I’m content to merely damn it with faint praise. And with the knowledge that this is what I’m doing here, I’ll happily backpedal and say it’s well worth a listen. It is, after all, a podcast. And therefore free.

Judge John Hodgman: “In Moto Parentis” — I dunno. For one of the supposed crown jewels of comedy podcasts, this episode (a recommended starting point from no less an authority than Linda Holmes) left me cold. Hodgman is a great presence because he comes off as crusty and cold, but when pressed reveals warmth and humanity. The human drama of whether or not a teenage boy should be allowed to have a motorcycle was actually pretty fascinating. But the laugh count was low. So, I think I’ll leave this for a while and maybe come back when somebody else recommends me another possible way in.

Twice Removed: “Dan Savage” — This is such manipulative treacle. Good god, I haven’t heard a host try to make somebody cry this hard outside of the reality television shows that are occasionally on as ambient noise in my mom’s house. The stories that are presented, all based around members of Dan Savage’s extremely extended family, are fine in themselves. But the structure is so contrived, and so specifically manufactured to wrest emotion out of the guest that I almost didn’t make it through this episode. The strings were obscuring my view of the puppets. I’m unlikely to listen again, and if I do, it will only be to cement my opinion that this is the worst show Gimlet has produced thus far.

Theory of Everything: “The Fairest of Them All?” — Benjamen Walker goes to a surveillance museum! Well, not quite. It’s an art exhibit about modern surveillance. It sounds like a great exhibit, which is a good thing, because this episode lives and dies based on the descriptions of the premises and objects that come into play as you walk through it. And it’s great. I’ve loved every instalment in this surveillance mini-season, and while this may not be quite as earth-shaking as the last one, it’s keeping pace nicely, and I’m continuing to get more and more scared of the future. 😀 😀 😀 😀

Love and Radio: “Blink Once for Yes” — There’s a review to be written about this episode where I use it as a stick with which to beat the episode of Twice Removed I just reviewed. The argument of that review would be that this is how to actually elicit emotion: by simply asking people about things that make them unavoidably emotional, and playing the resulting tape. No fancy footwork required. But I’m not going to write any more of that review, because Love and Radio always deserves to be taken on its own terms. One of the things that I love about this show is its willingness to just be incredibly sad. Three of the four saddest podcast episodes I’ve ever heard have been on this show, “The Living Room” being the obvious number one, but also “Welcome to Coney Island,” and now this one. (The non-Love and Radio one is Radiolab’s “Gray’s Donation,” if you were wondering.) In this documentary, producer John Facile interviews his whole family about the debilitating brain injury and subsequent death of his brother. I won’t say any more about the story, because you really should just listen to it and hear how it unfolds for yourself. But the thing I love most about it is how it demonstrates how a large number of people (there were five kids in the family, plus the parents and a couple of devoted caretakers) react in their own specific, different, yet inevitably human ways when presented with an absolute horror. Facile is confrontational in his interviews at times, but never for the sake of narrative conflict: he is always actively trying to come to terms with difficult emotions and differences of opinion with his family. I listened to this while doing laundry, and there was a stretch of four or five minutes where I was just standing by the dryer, about to put the load in the basket, but I was too involved in this podcast to do anything but stand there blankly. My building has a public laundromat, so I imagine it looked seriously weird. That’s how good this is. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “A Chitlins Christmas: Bah Humbug!” — This is worth the time just to hear Kevin Young’s reading of his “Ode to Chitlins.” This is a worthwhile Christmas postscript to a year of great podcasts about food and race — mostly from The Sporkful, honestly. But it’s good that Code Switch has waded in. I hope they do more on food, because I don’t think there’s a single social concern that can’t be addressed through that lens.

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 31, 2016)

It’s been quite the week. I MCed a wedding and then climbed a mountain. Stay tuned for more on that. In the meantime, it’s been a week of mostly doing stuff that people around me were doing. And also listening to podcasts. A rather slight 20 reviews.

Movies

Meru — This is a deeply nerve-wracking documentary about three guys trying to make the first ascent of Mount Meru, a treacherous and technical climb. I watched it with my mountain geek friend with whom I had just done a teeny-tiny (yet quite eventful) climb in Canmore. It’s got some beautiful photography by Jimmy Chin, one of the climbers in the party. And it has been shaped into a narrative with stakes by introducing backstories for all three climbers. What these guys went through on the mountain is extraordinary. And the movie manages to make them seem merely compulsive and not actually insane. It seems for climbers, there’s no glamour in recklessness. These are smart people who want the world to know that they’re not just risk-seekers; they do this sort of thing because they are hyper-competent. I’d love to see this in a theatre.

Games

Mario Kart 64/Star Wars Episode I: Racer/F-1 World Grand Prix — A couple of friends and I spent a relaxing evening playing racing games for the Nintendo 64, a side of that platform that I never really explored when I used to play it. Of these three, Mario Kart 64 is the clear winner, of course. And not only that, but it also handily excels over its more modern iterations. In my limited experience of Mario Kart 8, there’s so much crap all over the screen, and such complicated tracks, that it detracts from the experience. The simpler, the better. And as for the Star Wars podracer, it is certainly better as a racing game than it was as a scene in a movie. It’s still a tad complicated. As hovercraft racing games for N64 go, it’s no F-Zero X. I never really got the hang of F-1 World Grand Prix. It’s obviously the only one of the three that makes any motion towards realism. But that feels strangely beside the point, to me. Give me homing turtle shells and Chain Chomps any day.

Television

Last Week Tonight: July 31, 2016 — This is actually better than his episode on the Republican convention. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Oliver more genuinely angry than when he refutes Trump’s response to Khizr Khan’s speech. It’s the first time he’s stepped away from glib amusement and occasional pathos and veered towards Jon Stewart’s old territory of righteous indignation. Beautiful stuff.

Music

The Decemberists: The Crane Wife — My Decemberists journey essentially ended with loving Picaresque as much as everybody and checking out The Hazards of Love to see if it’s as bad as they say. (It’s not; it’s brilliant.) It’s time I checked out the rest of the catalogue, I think. This seemed to have been the most egregious gap in my experience, since it’s about equal to Picaresque in terms of fan acclaim. And while on first listen I think that there are a few more middling tracks on this than there are on Picaresque (“Yankee Bayonet” and “Summersong” evaporated upon finishing), it also has some of the most beautiful music I’ve heard from this band. All three parts of the title track, “O Valencia!,” “When the War Came” and “After the Bombs” are all lovely story-songs in the vein of the best tracks on Picaresque. Colin Meloy’s lyrics are more traditionally “lyrical” here than on that album, wherein he wrote almost exclusively “ballads” — not in the sense of slow songs, but in the romantic sense of rhyming stanzas that relate whimsical narratives. Rather than focusing on what happens to a character, as is the case on “The Mariner’s Revenge Song,” for instance, the songs on The Crane Wife make more of an attempt to tell the emotional, interior story: especially on the title suite. But the real surprise on this is “The Island,” a prog epic that sounds more like Thick as a Brick than anything from The Hazards of Love. While I’d hesitate to call it a lyrical highlight, the band’s playing on this track is absolutely top-notch, and it’s got some fabulous riffs and a wonderful arrangement. In fact, on this album the band has upped their instrumental performances substantially. To keep our comparisons in the progressive story-song milieu, it’s like the sound transition from Foxtrot to Selling England by the Pound. A beautiful, cathartic album that I will revisit frequently. Pick of the week.

Kyle Craft: Live on KEXP — He’s a little pitchy in “Pentecost,” but altogether, holy smokes he’s great live, too. Plus, he’s got that slightly nervous manner that you want from a rootsy singer who claims to have been living under a pool table. Who can I drag to a Kyle Craft concert?

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Stranger Things and Weddings” — Having listened to this the morning after MCing a wedding (highly recommended experience), the second part of this discussion had extra resonance. I can confirm that weddings are definitely not always boring and shitty, even if the panel is right to point out that they are very much a lazy trope much of pop culture. Stranger Things is very much on my to-do list, though I’ll need to decide whether I’m going to get back to Deadwood first.

Love and Radio: “On The Shore Dimly Seen” — Alright, this is what I’m talking about. Love and Radio has been doing solid public service during its off season by programming inventive features by other producers. Nick van der Kolk introduces this semi-documentary by producer Gregory Whitehead by saying that you can’t find this guy’s work online all that easily. Ironic that some of the most experimental audio productions are still coming out of terrestrial radio operations like the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. I really want there to be more of this kind of experimental radio available in the podcast world. Although there’s a whiff of art school self-seriousness around this piece about torture in Guantanamo, I appreciate it for taking a risk in presenting information in a new way. This is very nearly an oratorio (much of it is sung), taking its text from interview transcripts and government documents. More than any radio I’ve heard, it reminds me of Ted Hearne’s The Source, which is explicitly labelled as an oratorio. Self-seriousness aside, I want to hear more like this. If radio/podcast producers accepted the premise that you can tell stories in a way that has nothing to do with This American Life, there would likely be more noble failures out there, but there would also be more like this.

Invisibilia: “The Secret Emotional Life of Clothes” — There are six stories in this episode and I’d say one of them is great: the very last one, about a Jewish concentration camp prisoner who was able to keep his head down by wearing a Nazi shirt. He went on to become one of the great tailors in America, having dressed three presidents and a vast range of celebrities. The rest of this is forgettable.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Comic-Con Dispatches” — It’s always interesting to hear the work that these panelists do elsewhere at NPR. Glen Weldon’s piece on hard SF offers no new perspective, but Petra Mayer’s Wonder Woman celebration is lovely. It’s especially great that she talks only to women.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Jason Bourne and Suicide Squad” — I’m behind on this, and every other podcast. But I couldn’t resist jumping ahead to hear what they had to say about these two apparently pretty bad movies. Jason Bourne sounds more superfluous than anything, and I think I’ll just stick with the original trilogy, thanks. But Suicide Squad sounds like a complete disaster, and this conversation between Glen Weldon and Chris Klimek about why that is may be the best thing to come out of it. On that note, let us momentarily travel back in time…

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Swiss Army Man” — Weldon is absolutely correct that Klimek is dead wrong about this movie. Swiss Army Man is one of the best films I’ve seen in awhile, and Klimek’s assertion that it’s a short that got wrongly extended to feature length is completely ridiculous. The fact that there is this much of the Daniel Radcliffe farting corpse movie is definitely part of the joke. But that aside, I also agree with Weldon that it absolutely builds as it goes. Still, you’d be best off to heed both Weldon’s advice to see this movie and Klimek’s advice to throw a few bucks at The Nice Guys, because that’s really great too.

The Memory Palace: “Local Channels” — This story of the great swimmer Florence Chadwick is at its best when it gets elegiac near the end. I suppose The Memory Palace is seldom not elegiac. But, when DiMeo really gets to sink into a narrative of diminishment, he’s at his best. I don’t know what it says about me that I think that.

99% Invisible: “Combat Hearing Loss” — Boring and slightly markety. Hearing loss among soldiers is obviously a problem, but the design solution isn’t that clever or interesting.

Code Switch: “A Letter From Young Asian Americans, To Their Parents, About Black Lives Matter” — Kat Chow remains a secret weapon of this podcast. This episode is another of those that sheds light on something that isn’t necessarily hitting the big headlines, but is massively consequential to communities that I don’t belong to. This is why I listen to this show.

Imaginary Worlds: “Legacy of Octavia Butler” — I’m finding that when Molinsky focuses on a specific text or artist in a single episode, he can get a little dull. It’s easy to just explore abstractly in this format, whereas when you take a specific concept that could apply meaningfully to a number of texts, like the relationship of economics to genre fiction, you’ve got to do some real thinking. So, this one’s mixed.

Reply All: “The Picture Taker” — The Super Tech Support that anchors this episode is firmly in the middle of the pack as they go, but P.J. Vogt’s constant interjections make it worthwhile. He has a real knack for taking serious, grown-up problems and phrasing them in terms of man babies living in fantasy worlds. Also, the half-episode of Science Vs that’s tacked on her is very, very promising. About which more promptly.

StartUp: “Introducing Science Vs” — This whole “only put half the episode in the established podcasts’ feeds” strategy is a good one, because now I’m subscribed to Science Vs. And I don’t even feel like I’ve been suckered. This show is great. I’d say it’s starting off strong, but of course it’s been on in Australia for a full year already. The only real reason to listen to this episode of StartUp instead of just heading straight for the new show’s own feed is that you get to hear a bit about the acquisition, which is interesting to those of us who like geeking out about the insider world of podcasting. (Do you subscribe to the Hot Pod newsletter? You should.)

Science Vs: “Attachment Parenting” — There’s a fine line between reasonably assessing problematic assertions based on science and doing whatever Richard Dawkins is up to on Twitter these days. This show is firmly on the right side of that line. It is deeply satisfying to see snake oil salesmen getting debunked, especially when the host is as funny and engaging as Wendy Zukerman. I am going to enjoy this.

Science Vs: “Fracking” — I immediately knew I was going to like this show when Wendy Zukerman and P.J. Vogt were talking in the Reply All preview of this and Vogt said he didn’t like talking about fracking because he didn’t like talking about politics — to which Zukerman immediately replied that it shouldn’t even be about politics. There are facts to be considered, and that’s that. We need this show in a time when we are so inundated by political talking points and marketing that facts are seemingly ignorable. Pick of the week.

Radiolab: “From Tree to Shining Tree” — This is amazing: trees don’t actually absorb the bulk of their own nutrients with their roots: it’s done for them by near-microscopic tube-shaped fungus. This will completely change the way you think about your primary school science classes.

Things I loved in 2015: The rest of them

Well that’s that, then.

Except, I have a whole bunch of genre-specific lists of things I loved sitting in a Google doc, and I can’t resist posting them here, so the honourable mentions get their honourable mention. These are “top x” lists: just however many entries I could think of that I liked, ranked. The ones that made the top 25 are in bold.

Movies

  1. Mad Max: Fury Road
  2. Carol
  3. Inside Out
  4. The Hateful Eight
  5. Spotlight
  6. The Revenant
  7. It Follows
  8. What Happened, Miss Simone?
  9. The Lobster (saw it at VIFF; look out for the upcoming wide release)
  10. The Martian
  11. Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  12. Amy
  13. A Most Violent Year

Television

  1. Mad Men
  2. Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
  3. Better Call Saul
  4. BoJack Horseman
  5. Doctor Who
  6. Last Week Tonight
  7. Hannibal
  8. The Jinx
  9. Parks and Recreation
  10. Louie

Music

  1. Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical
  2. Vulfpeck: Thrill of the Arts
  3. Björk: Vulnicura
  4. Africa Express: In C Mali
  5. CHVRCHES: Every Open Eye
  6. Kendrick Lamar: To Pimp a Butterfly
  7. Roomful of Teeth: Render
  8. Afiara Quartet and Skratch Bastid: Spin Cycle
  9. Max Richter: From Sleep
  10. Bryce Dessner: Music for Wood and Strings

Podcasts

  1. The Memory Palace
  2. Reply All
  3. Mystery Show
  4. Love and Radio
  5. Pop Culture Happy Hour
  6. Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything
  7. StartUp
  8. Radiolab

Books/Comics

  1. David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped Shape Modern Life
  2. China Miéville: Three Moments of an Explosion
  3. Kieron Gillen/Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, vol. 2
  4. Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, vol. 1
  5. Matt Fraction/Chip Zdarsky: Sex Criminals, vol. 2

Games

  1. Sunless Sea
  2. Undertale

(I played a couple of others but did not enjoy them.)

There you go. 48 wonderful things. A good year, by any standard.

 

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 Nov. 22)

Only 20 reviews, this time. A slow week. To be fair, I’ve got a brand new digital piano and that seems to be taking up a lot of my time. Also, down below the podcasts you’ll find a review of thing that required more words than usual. So, look forward to that.

Movies

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 — This oscillated wildly. At its best, I thought it was pretty brilliant and lived up to the rest of the franchise, which I generally like. At its worst, it was slow, laboured, and a considerable waste of Julianne Moore. But the fantastic cast sees this through. Seriously, it’s like the casting director for these movies just raided my brain for the kind of actors I like: Donald Sutherland, Natalie Dormer, Jeffrey Wright (also underutilized, but twas ever thus), Stanley Tucci, Philip Seymour Hoffman (nice to see him, one last time), Elizabeth Banks… I could go on. Even Gwendoline Christie shows up for a scene. (Somebody needs to make a movie starring Gwendoline Christie and Jeffrey Wright.) Jennifer Lawrence continues to be wonderful. And, honestly, even Moore is so amazing that she manages to elevate her somewhat bungled character into the realm of watchability. With a cast like this, it’s easier to forgive weaknesses.

Star Wars — I watched a fan edit of Episode IV that aims to reconstruct as much of the original movie as possible — without special editionification — in high def. It was great. Star Wars remains a movie that I don’t especially admire, but I sure love putting it on when there are other people around, and talking through it. And I also learned that my childhood role model, C-3PO, remains my favourite character in the Star Wars universe.

The Empire Strikes Back — I also watched this in the despecialized edition, and it really is something. These edits are really worth checking out. And this movie is wonderful, in a way that the first one sort of isn’t. From Hoth to Cloud City, it’s enthralling. But this time through, it was especially clear that the best part of the movie (and the franchise) by a mile is the sequence of Luke training with Yoda on Dagobah. That senile little weirdo is the best thing in Star Wars (aside from C-3PO, obviously). Frank Oz is a wonder, and the Yoda puppet is more expressive than any of his Muppet characters. But more than that, Yoda is a plausible representation of what it might be like if the sharpest mind in the galaxy were forced into isolation for decades. He might be the most believable character in the series.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 22 — If the first half of this episode were all that John Oliver had ever done in his career, he’d still be awesome. Not only is this segment — on the needlessly thorny topic of Syrian refugees — amusing somehow, it is also beautifully argued. It is a thing you can send to people who think differently to you and say “This! Look! Reasoning!” The other segment, on pennies, is fantastic because we Canadians have been through this. Pick of the week.

BoJack Horseman: Christmas Special + Season 2, episodes 1-6 — “Hoo-ray! Begrudging acquiescence!” Okay, I’m properly loving this now. It’s sad, and dark, and the humour is incredibly writerly — full of wordplay and incredibly structured exchanges of dialogue. And the voice acting is universally wonderful. This must be one of the best things Netflix has produced.

Doctor Who: “Heaven Sent” — The best episode of the season, and possibly of Capaldi’s tenure as the Doctor. It’s really fantastic to see the Doctor get to be the main character in his own story, which surprisingly isn’t the default for this show, considering that it’s named after him. It takes considerable guts to do an hour of TV with basically only one character, but Capaldi carries it easily. The reveal towards the end (re: where all of the skulls came from) is something that only Steven Moffat could have come up with, and it’s why I love his version of Doctor Who in a nutshell. All that said, I’m going to try to avoid making the same show pick of the week twice in a row. So, it goes to another televisual Brit, this time around.

Literature, etc.

I dove back into No God But God this week. There will be remarks to be written on that very soon.

China Miéville: “Säcken” — Certainly the most frightening story in Three Moments so far. Apparently there are people who think that Miéville’s characterization is weak? No. The entire reason this story is terrifying is because we’re able to see through the protagonist’s eyes so easily. And because Miéville is very good at grotesque descriptions. The story doubles as an acute examination of the impact of loss.

China Miéville: “Syllabus” — Not so much a story as a whimsical joke. But it’s a whimsical joke that makes my brain hurt. Typical Miéville.

Music

The Smiths: Strangeways, Here We Come — This is about on par with the debut, to me. So, a magnificent album, better than Meat is Murder, but not quite as good as The Queen is Dead. Morrissey’s voice is remarkable on this. In fact, all four members of the band give their best performances on record here. It’s nice to hear Johnny Marr take a proper guitar solo on “Paint a Vulgar Picture.” Lately, I’ve been thinking about how one of my old favourite bands (but no longer), Marillion, are basically what the Smiths would sound like if they’d been huge Genesis fans. In addition to that, the Smiths’ four studio albums map neatly onto the first four Marillion albums, prior to their first breakup: there’s the promising debut, the problematic sophomore effort, the masterpiece third album, and the ever-so-slightly compromised final album. Strangeways is very much the Smiths’ Clutching at Straws, insofar as it’s remotely useful to compare one of the most esteemed bands of the ‘80s to a niche interest neo-prog band who weren’t even very good.

The Smiths: Hatful of Hollow — There’s a reason this singles/odds-and-sods collection is considered as essential as the studio albums. This is incredible. That guitar on “How Soon Is Now!”

Comedy

Chelsea Peretti: One of the Greats — Just as funny the second time. The bit about how to eat a banana in public is one of my favourite bits of stand-up. The gimmicky audience cutaways, on the other hand, are less effective. Would have been better if this were a straight-ahead film of her show.

Podcasts

The Heart: “Desiree+Aaron” — This is a story about a woman who is deeply invested in Aaron Carter fandom. As you might expect, it’s an awkward listen. It lacks the humour and the slight remove of Mystery Show’s Britney episode, and you kind of don’t know whether to be sad or not. I do like the premise of this season of The Heart, though: following unusual relationships through their make or break moments. I intend to keep listening.

Reply All: “Yik Yak Returns” — One of Reply All’s best episodes gets an update. Alex Goldman’s story about how campus racism went especially bonkers on one particular mobile app, on one particular campus was fantastic journalism when it came out months ago. This expanded version covers a spate of similar violence on campuses across the USA. Pretty much essential. Pick of the week.

Fresh Air: “ Music Writer Peter Guralnick on ‘The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll’” — This and Good Night And Good Riddance are apparently part of my recent obsession with the people behind the success of iconic musicians. Sam Phillips — the founder of Sun Records, and discoverer of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, Howlin’ Wolf, and countless others — was fascinating. I’m sure Guralnick’s book is also fascinating, and I’d love to read it. But I’ll have to space it out from Good Night and Good Riddance, because that might be a bit too much rock and roll reading material in too little time. But you can count on Terry Gross to curate a fascinating conversation, so this podcast will hold me over until I’ve actually got an appetite to read this book.

StartUp: “Words About Words From Our Sponsors” — As an episode of StartUp this is as good as usual. As a status update on Gimlet Media, it’s perplexing. Apparently, the plan is to introduce a new revenue stream by making branded podcasts in collaboration with companies. It seems clear that Gimlet will handle that without treading into any ethical murky areas, but I just don’t understand the idea of branded podcasts. I mean, you can listen to anything you want. So who’s going to listen to half-hour ads? I fully expect to be proven wrong in short order, but I don’t think I could ever enjoy a branded podcast. It’s not a matter of principle — I just think that when there are so many great podcasts out there, I’m always going to choose the ones that are passion projects, not ads.

Radiolab: “Birthstory” — Radiolab is always at its best when covering really complex stories. When stories are simple, they always end up trying too hard to imbue them with universal themes. This story is massively complex and has hundreds of moving parts. It starts off dealing with the circumstances that convene to prevent gay couples in Israel from having children via surrogacy, and it ends up detailing the circumstances that lead women in Nepal to become surrogates for pay. This episode, produced by Molly Webster, is extraordinary not just for its fascinating and important story, but also for its clarity and organization. Most shows would make a total hash of this. I was all set to make this pick of the week, until the end music faded down and Jad Abumrad came roaring back in with one of his superfluous thinky closing monologues. “In a way, this story is about dreams.” Oh, give me a break. If you stop listening to this when the actual produced story ends, it is 100% awesome.

99% Invisible: “Fixing the Hobo Suit” — Once again, Roman Mars introduces me to another podcast that I feel compelled to add to my rotation. Eric Molinsky’s Imaginary Worlds seems right up my street. This story about how and why superhero costumes have gotten so much less cringeworthy is fantastic, and apparently he does similarly nerdy things on a bi-weekly basis. We’ll see if I can fit it in.

On The Media: “The Language of Terror” — After international tragedies, the media people I most want to hear from are Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield. You can trust them and their producers to keep their heads and present clear lines of reasoning while TV gets totally histrionic and people start shouting tirades of bigotry at each other on Facebook. This show is really, really not just for news junkies and media types. It’s useful to anybody who wants to be able to parse news coverage in a way that keeps them more informed.

Fugitive Waves: “Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake” — This is a decent way to passively spend 20 minutes. There’s nothing here that provides more insight into Nick Drake than even the most casual fan would already have. But there are some nice remembrances of him, and a few (scrappily recorded) extracts from a live covers project that sounds like it might have been good. Anyway, this vapourized upon impact.

Live events

King Crimson: Live at the Vogue — *breathes deeply*

I nearly didn’t go to this concert. It was a matter of principle. The whole idea of a version of King Crimson that exists specifically to play the back catalogue is anathema to the basic concept of King Crimson, to me. I’m all for playing the old favourites, but every version of King Crimson should focus on developing its own music, and until now all of them have. Still, when it came down to crunch time, I just couldn’t not buy a ticket. It’s King Crimson.

Here’s how that went down.

When I entered the Vogue, I was told very sternly by the bouncer not to take any photos whatsoever — before, during or after the show. Which is a shame, because the setup — with three drum kits across the front of the stage and a Long & McQuade’s worth of guitars, basses, pedals, reed instruments and miscellany on a riser across the back — was the most #prog thing I’ve seen in my life.

On either side of the stage were giant white signs again entreating the audience to take absolutely no photographs at all from this point forward. I sat in the hall for nearly an hour before the show, because I’m like that. A soundtrack of placid Frippertronics burbled along as dudes in Magma t-shirts name-dropped Kevin Ayers and Robert Wyatt. This is a room full of older versions of me.

Just as the show was about to start, Fripp’s familiar voice rang out over the PA, with just one more reminder: no photography. Ah, Fripp, you curmudgeonly so-and-so. Never change.

Never change. What an odd thing to say to the most volatile and restless rock musician this side of David Bowie. But is he still? What shall we make of this new, seven-person King Crimson repertory company?

The most compelling new feature of this lineup is not actually the three drummers (though that’s certainly novel), it’s the absence of Adrian Belew. I adore Belew, lest anybody misunderstand. I saw his trio play in Edmonton a few years back and it’s still one of the best gigs I’ve ever been to (much better than this one, as it turns out). But Belew had been a major creative force in King Crimson for longer than anybody who isn’t Robert Fripp deserves to be, and it was threatening to force the band into stagnation.

Still, even with Belew gone, the only members of this lineup who haven’t been in at least one previous lineup of King Crimson are Bill Rieflin and Jakko Jakszyk — the latter of whom has been involved in Crimson side-projects (and projeKcts) for so long that he may as well have been. There is no way around it: for the first time ever, King Crimson is touring as a nostalgia act.

This isn’t in itself a bad thing. I’ve seen legacy tours that have knocked me flat. But this version of King Crimson has some issues. Firstly, you can’t hear anything through the drums. Fripp’s playing in particular was so obscured that there were times when I caught myself wondering “is he playing a solo right now?” Same goes for Tony Levin.

But the larger problem is that this band plays like consummate professionals who don’t give a shit. (Except for Pat Mastelotto. He gives all the shits, and was by far the most interesting musician onstage to listen to.) There’s no commitment to the big moments in songs like “Epitaph,” and “Level Five.” This King Crimson sounds bored, a lot of the time. I’m tempted to blame the mix, but there were moments that came off gorgeously: I’m thinking mainly of “Starless” and “21st Century Schizoid Man.” So, it seems like the problem is just that they were on autopilot for most of the show.

A lot of the time, I found myself missing Belew in spite of myself. His real value to the band was his ability to play the wild card. He’s a disciplined musician, but he also knew how to keep the band on their toes: keep them from becoming complacent.

Complacent. What an unfortunate word to resort to when describing the most volatile and restless rock band this side of Radiohead. But there you go.

On the other hand, Mel Collins was actually wearing crimson suspenders. Well played, Mel Collins.