Tag Archives: StartUp

Omnibus (week of July 2, 2017)

Greetings! Here’s the latest radio segment. I’m at 27:27. It didn’t occur to me until sometime after we’d taped it that a theme connecting the three things I talk about could be “uncharted territory” — both in the sense that all of these things come from media that I hadn’t covered on the show yet (movies, games and podcasts) and in the sense that each one of them deals with characters who are attempting the seemingly impossible. I dunno how I missed that. Anyway, it’s out there now.

29 reviews.

Live Events

The Winter’s Tale (Bard on the Beach) — Far and away the better of the two mainstage productions at Bard this year. This production has one big setpiece at the end of the first act, and aside from that they just do the play. Which is all I want out of life. The production itself doesn’t really have its own premise: it’s just sort of set in a pretty-looking, abstractly ahistorical Sicily and Bohemia. The story plays out of its own devices. The setpiece, by the way, is “exit, pursued by a bear.” Since this is the only Shakespeare play whose best-known quote is a stage direction, that moment has to pay off. We paid to see a bear, and a man exiting pursued by it. This production employs a wonderful and impressively large puppet for the bear. Aside from a couple of adorable, simpler, sheep puppets, that’s the only bit of complex stagecraft employed here. Lovely of director Dean Paul Gibson to just let the rest of the play exist. The Winter’s Tale is the first Shakespeare play I’ve seen on stage or film without having read the script first. Frankly, its unfamiliarity to all but the most enthusiastic Shakespeareans is probably part of what makes The Winter’s Tale easy to stage straightforwardly. Save for the bear, there are no memes in this play. No “to be or not to be,” or “double, double, toil and trouble,” or even “O, that way madness lies.” Nothing to emphasize or undercut, in anticipation of the audience’s familiarity. I feel like this was a good introduction to the play, and I enjoyed the story quite a lot in spite of certain structural oddities. Namely, the first half of this is straightforwardly a tragedy and the second half is straightforwardly a comedy. The comedic half took the edge in this production because Bard’s company has an excellent roster of clowns, with Ben Elliot especially standing out as Autolycus the pickpocket. But the first half packed enough clout that by the end of the play, I hadn’t forgotten the tragedies that befell the characters in the early story. So, when the story ends on the note of “a sad tale’s best for winter” — which a casual perusal of the script just now finds not to be the case in Shakespeare’s original — it feels like an earned moment. I totally enjoyed this. Now to read the play.

Movies

The Beguiled — So far, this is second only to Get Out in my personal 2017 movie sweepstakes. Sofia Coppola’s rethink of an evidently somewhat dated Clint Eastwood vehicle from the ‘70s is a brilliantly twisted exploration of what happens when toxic masculinity meets the more discreet consequences of patriarchy. But that makes it sound deathly boring, which it isn’t. Rather, it’s a tense and thrilling coiled snake of a movie with uniformly wonderful performances and some of the most beautifully composed shots outside of Wes Anderson’s filmography. The premise is simple: a seminary school full of women loyal to the south is shaken by the arrival of a rather dashing but grievously injured Union soldier at their doorstep. Nicole Kidman particularly stands out as the matriarch of the seminary: the decision maker who is wise enough to be slightly more resistant to the northerner’s charms than her younger charges, but who is nonetheless afflicted with the loneliness of war. But Colin Farrell is a match for her. He never allows his charming soldier character to seem like a deliberate temptor or sly devil. Rather, he behaves politely and graciously, and efficiently manipulates each of the women around him differently. Coppola’s best decision in the whole movie is to never have the camera cast suspicion on Farrell, nor to allow his performance to attract suspicion intentionally. Instead, a sceptical audience will come to distrust him simply because of the fraught nature of this setup. And then, about halfway through, when a cataclysmic event changes the movie drastically, we’re made to think differently of him once again. Never once does the movie lose sight of the fact that this man has just come from a brutal, traumatizing war. And never once does it lose sight of the fact that the women in it are deeply subject to social iniquity. The exploration of the resulting power dynamic in the film’s third act is totally riveting. And it contains maybe the single most jaw-dropping smash cut to black since The SopranosPick of the week.

Music

Fairport Convention: Liege & Lief — I’ve been really enjoying the tracks from the upcoming Olivia Chaney/Decemberists collaboration, which have been slowly coming out over the past months. (The record is due out this week.) So I figured I should finally get informed about the British folk revival that inspired it and the bulk of the Decemberists catalogue. I’ve been aware of Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, the Pentangle and all the rest of them for ages, largely because Jethro Tull flitted on the edges of that scene. And I’ve heard assorted songs of all of these bands. But never a full album, that I can remember. So, Liege & Lief, the most acclaimed of the bunch. I have to say I’m underwhelmed. There’s a lot of great stuff on this, but there’s nothing that reaches out and grabs me the way that the tracks from the Offa Rex record have, or even the way that the select tracks from the Pentangle have. This is a clear case where I need to hear more of this sort of thing before I can really appreciate this album specifically. So, I’ll do that, and report back then.

Literature, etc.

John Hermann: “Why the Far Right Wants to be the New ‘Alternative’ Culture” — A persuasive though fairly basic account of the appeal of the specious “alternative” label to Trump supporters and assorted Nazis, from my favourite analyst of the internet. Hermann has toned his voice down since moving from the Awl to the Times, but he’s still always worth reading.

Jorge Luis Borges: “A Survey of the Works of Herbert Quain” — Much like “The Approach to Al Mu’tasim,” this is a quite simple iteration of Borges’s central notion that a story can entail an essay about fictional books. One of the things that I love most about him is that he knows his strengths and he knows his voice. Borges is a genius for premises, but he knows that if he were to actually try and write any of the books he describes here, they would be subject to the same muted and occasionally negative criticisms that he levels on them. Far better to simply state the premises outright. If the central idea is the whole point, why belabour it?

James Errington: Centuries of Sound — Errington’s blog was featured on the A.V. Club this week, and I’m delighted by this. It feels like old school, pre-social internet fare, except with impressive professionalism. Basically, Errington is making a mixtape for every year of recorded sound. He’s in the nearly prehistoric phase of the project at the moment, dealing with Edison phonographs and all that. But he started out with a two-hour mix of music and sound from 2016 as a proof-of-concept, and boy what a thing it is. If you care to relive the trauma of that year, with a newfound awareness of just how inseparable from that context all of the music is, I highly recommend it. I’ll be making an effort to catch up on this so that I can follow Errington’s progress as he goes along.

Harold Bloom: Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human — I revisit this every time I partake in a new Shakespeare play. Or so I thought, but as it turns out I never read the entry on Cymbeline, which I rectified this week before turning to his chapter on The Winter’s Tale, which is genuinely new to me. Bloom’s take on modern literary criticism and theatre has its obvious problems, but I am an absolute sucker for his readings of the texts themselves, and particularly of the way he never fails to see the whole future of culture in Shakespeare. He even manages to hear a magnificent insight in the mouth of one of Cymbeline’s least memorable characters: “Through Posthumus, I hear Shakespeare observing that the action of our lives is lived for us, and that the desperate best we can do is to accept (“keep”) what happens as if we performed it, if but for ironic sympathy with ourselves. It is another of those uncanny recognitions in which Shakespeare is already beyond Nietzsche.” I’m also quite amused by Bloom’s suggestion that the openly comical second half of The Winter’s Tale was designed specifically to infuriate the trite moralizer Ben Johnson. Indeed Bloom, usually a deeply melancholy critic, never seems happier than when he’s writing about the great knave of The Winter’s Tale, Autolycus. I’ve now read enough Bloom that I’ve started to regard him as a literary character, and though he is a problematical one (to borrow his preferred form of that word), I seem to wish him happiness nonetheless. I continue to stubbornly find him essential reading on Shakespeare.

Alex Ross: “The Occult Roots of Modernism” — “As an orchestra plays Wagner, the women fall to worshipping a giant phallus.” Man oh man, there was something in the water in the late 19th century. This is a wonderful feature about Joséphin Péladan, the occult lunatic/charlatan who took Paris by storm and inspired and collaborated with artists from Eric Satie to Ferdinand Hodler. He also wrote novels, one of which contains the scenario quoted above. Ross’s feature is a great reminder that beneath the supposed rationality and distance of the modernists there lay an irreducible weirdness of a spiritual sort. I’m particularly gratified to see Ross contextualize Schoenberg in this light. People often characterize him as a chilly mathematician, at least after he abandoned his passionate atonal idiom for the twelve-tone method. But numbers meant something different to Schoenberg than they do to the rest of us: he was a devotee of Kabbalistic number symbolism. It’s that sort of thing that fascinates me so much about the art of this period.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — Okay, I’m done my first playthrough. It ended badly. And, more out of frustration than disappointment, I think I may not return to this. Given that the game is almost entirely text-based, I thought I could expect something substantially more story driven than this actually is. The truth is that it’s much more a simulation/resource management game than an interactive story. There is a story, of course, and there are even characters who behave consistently. But in general, the choices you make are not a matter of where you want the narrative to go, but rather what’s best to stay afloat. Contrast this with Sunless Sea, for which this is a clear forerunner. In Sunless Sea, there are storylines to pursue, and these are fully integrated with the resource management and stat boosting tasks that are that game’s form of “progress.” And it goes without saying that Sunless Sea has better writing and worldbuilding, but credit where it’s due: King of Dragon Pass does a more than passable pulp fantasy novel impression. I realize that I frequently make this same perverse complaint, where I play a game and get frustrated by the “game” elements. This is why I suspect I’ll always feel like a tourist in this medium. It is not where I live. But that’s fine. Also, I think I got this for a dollar. So, no harm done. I hear The Dream Machine’s finally finished. That sounds like it’ll suit my mood a bit better.

Podcasts

The Truth/Theory of Everything: “Influencers” — The issue I often have with The Truth’s stories is that they’re just so on the nose. But Benjamen Walker’s particular kind of on the nose is a kind that I like a lot. This is a really fun story that touches not just on the president’s acrimony towards the media, but also on the ludicrousness of the idea that social follower counts connote influence. It’s also about the fact that the most well-intentioned in our society are often the least able to ascertain what’s really going on. A worthy crossover.

It’s Been A Minute: “They’re Still Here” — Two things can be true: Sam Sanders and his panelists are wonderful, and this show is overproduced. I don’t tune into podcasts for a parade of segments. I’m entirely comfortable with conversations dragging on a bit, but I’m not fond of the whiplash that the format introduces into this show. This is the point where I’ll duck out of this for a while and wait for it to find its footing. Still, it’s promising.

Arts and Ideas: “Canada 150: Sydney Newman and British TV; Vahni Capildeo; Shubbak Festival 2017” — This is well worthwhile for the Sydney Newman segment alone. What I love about this is that without necessarily meaning to, the BBC has broadcast the perfect Canadian arts story here. They’re probably just trying to localize Canada’s 150th as something with relevance to British audiences, so they chose a Canadian figure with a huge influence on British television. But what they’ve actually done is tell an iconically British story about the BBC itself that’s all about how an exodus of Canadian talent to the U.K. helped define British television, while completely impoverishing Canada itself of similar talent. The story of Sydney Newman is the story of the rise of British television and the perpetual shittiness of Canadian television. Happy Canada Day.

Reply All: “Friends and Blasphemers” — P.J. Vogt tells the story of how Russia killed LiveJournal, and Alex Goldman is mortified to reveal the writings of his 21-year-old self on that platform. Good thing I don’t ever write anything on the internet to be embarrassed of later.

Imaginary Worlds: “World War EVE” — This is a fun story about a world I knew nothing about. It also manages to say what’s specifically extraordinary about EVE as a virtual world, distinct from others like World of Warcraft. (I love the idea that EVE has a whole in-universe news reporting infrastructure.) Which is all to say that there’s just enough explanation in this for a neophyte. I’m consistently impressed by Eric Molinsky’s ability to walk this fine line. One of the key things that makes this show work is the extent to which he’s a curious semi-outsider to the cultures he explores. He assumes a position that isn’t so far outside of the culture that he’s required to offer condescending explanations, but he also manages not to alienate me by assuming a higher calibre of specialized geek knowledge than I have.  

Homecoming: “Season Two: Coming Soon” — “Hum three ascending notes into your phone” is what the first season of this was missing. Just, some weirdness to detract from the portentousness of it all. Also, Chris Gethard’s in it now. Looking forward.

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “The Spending Clause” — One of the most consistently fascinating things about the history of law is how tiny, seemingly inane things have huge consequences later on. Like weak beer, for instance. This is good stuff.

On The Media: “The American people elected a fighter” — Sometimes the only thing that keeps me going through the news cycle of the Trump era is Bob Garfield’s essays about what a catastrophe it all is. This is a good one.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Pop Culture Summer Stories And ‘Playing House’” — The Playing House segment contains a frank discussion of these writers’ decision to deal with an illness that affected their lives in their show. That’s great, but the real reason to hear this is more live stuff. The summer stories segment features Glen Weldon at his most curmudgeonly and Stephen Thompson as his most adorable.

On The Media: “What Ails America” — This starts with a segment where Stephen Marche explains how Canada is better than the U.S. because we’re less patriotic up here. It’s a nice idea, and I’d certainly love to live in that version of Canada, but he’s wrong and we don’t. Canadian patriotism is a bit of a joke, sure. But it does exist. We don’t know what we’re celebrating, but we sure love to go through the motions. And since we’re so uncertain about what patriotism is supposed to look like, we look abroad (mostly south) for cues. And today, Canadian conservatives are gradually cottoning on to the Trump/UKIP/National Front model of patriotism, i.e. nativism. And yet we’re still getting this barrage of American stories about how this is not happening in Canada, when it is. Marche cites the gigantic defeat of Kellie Leitch in the Conservative leadership race as supporting evidence for his insufferable neoliberal smugness. But it’s not just Kellie Leitch up here. It’s Stephen Harper’s divisive campaign in the last election, it’s the clowns in Alberta’s Wildrose Party (and whatever they’re about to morph into), and it’s the Rebel: a Canadian version of Breitbart that has a small readership but that we should ignore at our peril. Canada is not a liberal paradise. It is slow-motion America. But it’s not Bob Garfield’s fault that he doesn’t know that; he doesn’t live here. I dunno what Marche’s excuse is.

StartUp: “Ask Alex” — This is most notable for featuring Alex Blumberg’s take on the upcoming ABC sitcom where he’ll be played by Zach Braff. Evidently, he and Gimlet have no input into this and will not see much money from it because they made a mistake that they’ll not be making again. Still, I can’t help but think he must be happy he can say he had no input. The trailer for Alex, Inc. looks absolutely dire. It looks like a gag gift somebody really rich made for Blumberg’s birthday.

Mogul: “Rice Pilaf” — The story of the signing of Warren G and the resulting confrontation between Chris Lighty and Suge Knight. Mogul is completely thrilling. I won’t describe this, I’ll just say go listen from the beginning. This is second only to S-Town in my 2017 podcast sweepstakes thus far. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “The Taking of Tom Sawyer’s Island” — Nate DiMeo tells the story of a left-wing youth protest at Disneyland, and manages not to undermine their correctness when he points out that they were also ridiculous and willfully misunderstanding the point of Disneyland. He’s especially good at evoking both the wonder and the extreme creepiness of Disneyland itself. Lovely stuff.

The Turnaround: “Ira Glass” — This is Jesse Thorn interviewing Ira Glass about interviewing. That’s obviously going to be worthwhile for those of us interested in that craft. But there’s one especially great moment in it that got me thinking. Thorn and Glass are talking about Terry Gross, when Thorn accidentally draws the interview to a momentary halt by starting to exposit about something Glass said about Gross and how it reflects on his own practice on This American Life. Glass’s whole project, Thorn says, is trying to get his guests to offer examples. They’ll want to answer in an intellectual, theoretical way, and Glass tries to pull examples out of them so that what they say can fit as part of a story. Thorn finishes his analysis, and Glass is simply left with nothing to say. He comments, jokingly, that he has no illustrative example to give, because Thorn has just analyzed the situation with total accuracy and tied it up with a nice little bow. Thorn’s solo trip is possibly the closest that this episode gets to defining what’s great about This American Life. The rest of it is brilliant at exposing elements of how it is made, but that is a completely different question. And that leads me to a conclusion that I’ve been threatening to reach for some time: interviewing creative people is not actually a very good way to try and understand creative products. (I will henceforth use the term “art,” though I suspect Ira Glass would be uncomfortable hearing This American Life referred to as such. However, his role in this interview, as an “artist” who is creating something is exactly analogous to any interview with a songwriter, filmmaker, etc.) I am an arts journalist myself. I don’t do a lot of interviewing these days, but when I did I always found myself wanting to do the thing that Thorn does in this interview that leaves Glass with nothing more to say. If you’ve heard or seen a lot of a given artist’s work and you’re a reasonably clever interpreter of art, as anybody who gets a job as a radio host should be (and Thorn is), then you already know what the artist wants to communicate. The most valuable thing you can do, in my view, is to unspool the meaning that you derive from the art itself. Art is condensed meaning. A journalist’s job should be to un-condense it. As an interviewer you can ask an artist what they mean by their art, but they’re not obligated to tell you, nor are they guaranteed to even know. You can also just offer up your analysis freely during the course of the interviewer, but the only question that could really be leading towards is “do you agree with that?” which is not really a question at all. You’re plunging headlong towards that exact same moment Thorn had with Glass. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been faced with putting together an interview piece where the format precluded me from offering any insight of my own, even though the artist I interviewed had nothing to say. Granted, this is at least partially a result of me not being a very good interviewer. But in my defence, what interests me above all else is what art means. And I don’t think that the fact I can’t get at that in an interview is entirely my fault, because I’ve never heard anybody else do it either. I’ve heard plenty of great interviews that get into the process by which art is produced or the human stories that lead artists to make it. These are both much more suitable ground to cover in interviews. Song Exploder is the gold standard for process stories about art. And a number of interviewers including Marc Maron, Terry Gross and, yes, Jesse Thorn are very skilled at getting artists to talk about the lives that led them to make what they make. But those stories don’t get me any closer to understanding art: they make me understand people. They’re not arts stories, really; they’re just normal human interest stories. And honestly, I’m not convinced that famous artists are actually more interesting or better storytellers than any other random people. I’m not sure that WTF would be any worse a show if Maron just interviewed whoever happened to be walking past his garage instead of comics and musicians and the president. It would definitely be less popular. And that, ultimately, is what I suspect the real motive is for most arts journalists to want to do interviews rather than focussing on analysis: this is an industry that places the ultimate premium on the “get.” If you can have a big name on your show, or get a big profile in your magazine — maybe shoot a bit of video that’ll autoplay as people scroll down their feeds and pull in those coveted attention economy eyeballs — people will take notice. This is fine, but it doesn’t really contribute to the discourse in my view. And those interviews are boring as often as they’re exciting. This is why I sometimes skip ahead to the ending of episodes of Bullseye, the “Outshot” segment where Thorn just takes a moment to exposit on something he likes. These are always great because Thorn is clever and funny and has great taste, and I’d rather hear him be that way without anybody else in the room to distract from it. So yeah, this is probably a really idiosyncratic take, but I genuinely think we should have fewer arts interviews in the world. I don’t mean to denigrate the entire practice, because as I’ve said I find some value in much of it. (And yes, I’m acutely aware that I’m currently a regular contributor to a regional radio show that mostly consists of interviews with artists. But I’m safe in that case, because I genuinely believe that show is brilliant — in large part because it isn’t about the “get,” it’s about the stories.) I think people who interview artists as their main bread and butter shouldn’t necessarily stop in their tracks, but they should have a long, hard think about why it’s a worthy use of their time. I realize this has not been a review of this episode. If anything, it’s a review of Jesse Thorn’s other show, Bullseye. So I’ll quickly say that I think The Turnaround is a fantastic idea, because it does focus on craft and process so much. And this was a great first episode that obviously got me thinking about some stuff.

Mogul: Cameos and exclusives — This week we got three tiny episodes of Mogul, which are all a lot of fun. One featuring Maseo is pretty straightforward, but it’s fun to hear him and Reggie Ossé talk about clothes. The Fat Joe exclusive has him telling a great story about getting shot. But the extra bit of Warren G’s interview is the highlight of the three, because it involves Chris Lighty locating Warren’s missing sister.

Arts and Ideas: “Thinking: Food” — This is virtuoso radio. By that, I mean Matthew Sweet makes a prawn cocktail while interviewing three writers. This is really what I love about the BBC. Sweet is a bubbly and approachable host who is nonetheless not afraid to assume a certain amount of familiarity on the listener’s part with the works of David Hume. This is the only interview about food that you’re likely to hear this week that contains the sentiment “we can talk about the moral element in a bit, but I do want to stick with aesthetics for now…”

99% Invisible: “The Pool and the Stream” — A globetrotting design story about the kidney-shaped swimming pool from Avery Trufelman. Very nice stuff. The script is really good in this one. I love the way it ties the opening back in at the end.

On the Media: “It’s the End of the World and We Know It” & “Apocalypse, Now” — Bob Garfield is away this week so we get to step away from the tornado for a while and let Brooke Gladstone do some big thinking for us. The main episode is about science fiction’s recent turn towards intense pessimism in the age of climate change. It’s depressing, but compelling. And there’s a great extra in the feed right before it featuring Gladstone’s interview with Ben Winters, whose books deal with a more sudden but less deniable threat to humanity. Both are worth your time.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Baby Driver and When Auteurs Meet Film Franchises” — This is as essential as this show gets. The live segment about auteurs and franchises features Glen Weldon at his very very best, and Stephen Thompson trying in a wonderful way to follow him. I’ve got to see Baby Driver stat.

Code Switch: “The Supreme Court Decides In Favor Of A Racial Slur… Now What?” — This is crazy. It’s the story of a guy who tried to register his band’s name as a trademark, but it was denied because it’s a racial slur. (It was a reclamation effort, but good god, why trademark it?) So he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court. And he won, so now people can trademark racial slurs. Because there is never any middle ground. Ugh.

Omnibus (week of June 18, 2017)

Yeah, I changed the name. I never liked the old name. Onwards.

The second instalment of the NXNW segment aired yesterday on Radio 1, and it is a whole level weirder than the first. Basically, I tried to convince Sheryl MacKay that the central tenets of medieval alchemy are still alive and well and living in pop culture. Every so often I make something I’m really proud of. This second segment is for sure one of those. I’m at 1:22:34 in this podcast of the show.

Ran a 5K this morning. Boy oh boy were there a lot of people in that. You’ll see more podcasts here than there have been in weeks, because I figured even a 5K shouldn’t be approached with a totally cavalier attitude. Many kilometers were run, and many hours of audio accompanied them. If you’re new to this, this instalment is a bit closer to my usual approach than recent weeks have been: lots of podcasts, shorter reviews. 38 of them, to be precise.

Television

American Gods: “Come To Jesus” — After last time, I didn’t actually expect Jesus to be played for laughs. But there is honestly nothing funnier than seeing a whole herd of diverse Jesuses just milling about. Except for the bit where Wednesday refers to them collectively as “these assholes.” That’s funnier. This season finale is actually my least favourite episode of American Gods so far, but that’s a very relative thing to say. Mostly, I’m just mildly peeved that the story hasn’t gotten to a point where the supporting deities like Nancy and Czernobog are relevant to the story on a consistent basis. I’m as happy as I thought I’d be to see Nancy again, but it would have been nice to see him do more than offer exposition for another character. (I miss the story about tiger balls from the book.) Also, the somewhat overwrought segment where Wednesday reveals his real name to Shadow is the first sequence in the show that hasn’t worked for me. Partially it’s just the Michael-Bay-spinning-cameraness of it all, but mostly I just find it hard to accept that Shadow, or any portion of the audience, would be surprised to learn that a one-eyed god who goes by “Wednesday” would actually be Odin. (This is a problem the show inherits from the book.) On the other hand, this episode makes two substantial improvements on the book. One is in the relationship between Bilquis and the Technical Boy. I suppose it’s still possible that Technical will kill Bilquis at some point, but that moment was one of the most jarring parts of the book, and I’m very glad that she’s survived their first meeting. The other improvement is Kristin Chenoweth’s Easter, who is angrier, funnier and altogether more ruthless than her book analogue. I especially love the way she listens to her adorable messenger bunnies, only to invariably respond “oh, shit!” I realize that throughout these American Gods reviews, I’ve focussed an awful lot on the relationship between show and book. Probably that’ll subside next season, at which point I will have read the book substantially less recently. But I still think that American Gods is as compelling an act of adaptation as a show to be taken on its own merits. Between this and Hannibal, I think Bryan Fuller has confirmed himself as the master of the modern television adaptation. Benioff and Weiss wish they were this good. Season one of American Gods has been some of the best television of recent years. I can’t wait for the next season. Hope it’s longer.

Better Call Saul: “Lantern” — Sometimes I start to write these reviews before I’m finished watching the episode. Here is a brief passage from what I’d written before I watched through to the end. “Chuck. Is. Noxious. The writers of this show, and Michael McKean, should pat themselves on the back for creating such a convincing yet completely insufferable character. The thing that makes him so hard to take is a simple juxtaposition of two traits: he has no compassion at all, and he always perceives himself to have the moral high ground. This episode features one of the most painful scenes in the show so far, in which Chuck intentionally tries to hurt Jimmy, and feels entirely justified in doing so because Jimmy colours outside the lines. He feels no complicity in the rift between the two of them. This is the worst kind of person, and this is a kind of person who exists. I know these people and so do you. Chuck is scum. Chuck is irredeemable.” At the end of the episode, I softened my view rather dramatically. In his more loathsome moments, Chuck makes it easy to forget that he is not at the peak of mental wellness. In retrospect, he might be the highlight of this season, because of the way both McKean and the story emphasize his uncompromising cruelty and his struggle with mental illness at the same time. The show even gives us a handy yardstick by which to assess the reasonableness of our hatred for Chuck: Howard Hamlin. Since the season one reveal that he actually isn’t that bad, Howard has been one of the most sympathetic characters on Better Call Saul.  And even he would rather part with millions of his own hard-earned dollars than work with Chuck any longer. He has become genuinely impossible, and well and truly cruel. He was also in a lot of trouble. And he completely alienated his one-man support system, who to be fair, is a person with no small amount of flaws himself. I expected this episode to be all about Kim after last week’s cliffhanger. And while it is bittersweet to see her finally realizing that she needs to take time to breathe, her season arc basically ended with her car crash. This episode belongs to Chuck. But its subtext belongs to Jimmy. It’s easy to read Chuck’s suicide as a final “fuck you” to his brother. This is only a small part of an inevitably complex equation, but think about this: their last conversation consisted of Chuck telling Jimmy that he would always hurt people and he might as well embrace it. Then he kills himself. Meanwhile, Jimmy has alienated himself from the elder law practice that could have been his saving grace. (I’m delighted that Mrs. Landry is okay.) The path to Saul Goodman has never been clearer than it is now. Pick of the week.

Twin Peaks: The Return: Parts 3-7 — Okay, the internet was right. This Dougie Jones business needs to stop. At first, I was amused — not so much by Kyle McGlaughlin’s performance, which finds him working substantially below his pay grade, but by the constant way that everybody around him basically fails to acknowledge that there’s something really wrong. Particularly wonderful is Naomi Watts as his wife. The fact that she’s not more concerned really makes you wonder what kind of shit-for-brains asshole the real Dougie Jones was. I love the idea that this might not actually be that out of the ordinary. Suppose that’s what you get for marrying a homunculus. But after four episodes of this, I’m ready to have Coop back. I don’t even need to hear him talk about coffee and pie. I don’t even need a thumbs up. I just want him to be here so that the show has a central intelligence in it again who can start to put together the disparate threads that are remaining maddeningly allusive without him. In general though, I’ve really been enjoying this. I don’t have that much to say about it because it’s still got its cards super close to its chest. I’m definitely hoping that we’re not done with David Lynch’s modernized, expanded take on the Black Lodge. The sequences that take place there are truly terrifying, and among the most compelling television I’ve seen in recent times.

Doctor Who: “World Enough and Time” — Okay, now we’re cooking. This is classic Steven Moffat, operating in “hey here’s a fun idea” mode. In this case, the idea is that there’s a huge spaceship right by a black hole, so time works differently at one end of it and the other. The real storytelling masterstroke, though, is stranding the Doctor at the slow end of the ship, so that the situation seriously escalates before he’s able to formulate a plan. Aside from that, this is notable as a real return to Moffat’s signature horror. You could say that the monks constituted horror, as did the notion in “Extremis” that the entire universe is a projection and you cease to exist if you step outside of the beam. But nothing since “Listen” has really gone whole hog into horror territory the way that this does. The scene with the volume dials is one of the most disturbing things Moffat has ever written. And the patients in general, all on their way to becoming Cybermen, are terrifying in that existential way that the Cybermen manage to be when they’ve got a good writer behind them. (Unless that good writer is Neil Gaiman, in which case they still don’t work.) And all that good stuff happens even before we get the big reveal of John Simm. Which, I mean, we all knew he was going to be in this, but am I stupid for being INCREDIBLY FUCKING SURPRISED that character was him? Am I? Come on, be honest. This was an amazing episode: straightforwardly the best of the season. Can’t wait to see what comes next.

Games

King of Dragon Pass — So, the Steam summer sale is on, but I realized that I’m not actually even close to finishing the games I bought during the Steam winter sale. Because *some of us* like to go outside sometimes, amirite? At this point I think the Half-Life series is a lost cause for me. I was so terrible at the first one, and the story is so minimal, that I’m forced to conclude it is literally the opposite of what I appreciate in a video game. Moving on to King of Dragon Pass, then: another classic of an entirely different sort. This is dated, and its high fantasy aesthetic isn’t really my thing, but I’m compelled regardless. Basically, it’s a text-based resource management game with elements of choose-your-own-adventure. So, it’s kind of Sunless Sea before its time. Except that the writing isn’t anywhere close to that level. It has its moments, mind you. I quite like this: “Your men whooped with Orlanth and drank the Eight Known Drinks, so that your heads would hurt during the ceremony.” Also unlike Sunless Sea, its representation of women oscillates between fairly progressive and a bit, erm, medieval. But there’s enough in this to compel me. I’m particularly fond of the way that your progress is compiled into a document called “the Saga,” which actually reads a bit like an Icelandic saga, given that those stories basically are just lists of accomplishments. So far, this seems like the sort of thing I’ll probably play until I manage to beat it on the easiest setting and then I might put it aside. Still, it’ll probably grow on me.

Literature

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Lottery in Babylon” — A substantially simpler and more direct story than some of the others I’ve read recently. Still brilliant, and the way that Borges casually drops details into the framework of ideas that makes up the narrative reminds me once again of how much Neil Gaiman owes to him. Look at this bit: “A slave stole a crimson ticket; the drawing determined that the ticket entitled the bearer to have his tongue burned out.” This comes at a point in the story where it’s been established that owning tickets can result in terrible things happening to you as well as good things, but the specifics have been vague. Borges just drops this punishment into a sentence that’s actually a rumination on what’s supposed to happen in the case of the theft of a ticket. His narrator doesn’t make a big deal of it. That, more than anything in this story, gives the sense of a fully-formed world with defined parameters that are simply taken for granted. I continue to be astonished by this writer.

Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie: The Wicked and the Divine, Volume 4: “Imperial Phase, Part One” — I don’t know how anybody reads this issue-by-issue. When the trade collections come out, I wolf them down in one sitting and I still feel like I need more. This is probably the most exciting collection so far from this perpetually exciting comic. The real showstopper is the the first issue in the collection, formatted as a (beautifully designed) fan magazine in which members of the Pantheon are interviewed by actual journalists (with Gillen filling the role of each god at the other end of a chat window). The best of them is Laurie Penny’s piece on Woden, who is self-evidently the shittiest god. Having read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, it just felt right. My favourite part of the story in this issue is the way that the Pantheon is forced to reorganize and rally behind their logical leaders, Baal and Urdr, in the absence of Ananke. The dynamics between all of these characters just keep getting more interesting. Persephone in particular is the best thing going on in this book right now. Love it.

Kelefa Sanneh: “The Persistence of Prog Rock” — An excellent piece on the contemporary reception of 1970s prog, with reference to David Wiegel’s recent book on the subject. I’m reminded that I need to eventually finish the books cited by Edward Macan, Bill Martin and Will Romano, though I think all of them (especially Romano’s) are quite bad. The most interesting idea raised here is that progressive rock was parochial. This is something that I struggle with. It definitely was parochial — the most recognized bands in the genre were such idiomatically British eccentrics that albums like Selling England by the Pound almost seem a bit Brexity in retrospect. On the other hand, that means that prog largely avoided the garish spectacle of cultural appropriation that a lot of other British rock proffered. The Rolling Stones and John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers seem a hell of a lot more retrograde in retrospect than ELP does. And ELP, lest anybody forget, was the band whose use of classical music in their performances was meant to get the kids listening to “music that has more quality.” The mind reels. I sympathize with Lester Bangs’ distaste for this sentiment. But I’m not sure he ever really saw the other side of the coin. I’ll be reading Wiegel’s book very soon.

Music

Sufjan Stevens, Nico Muhly, Bryce Dessner & James McAlister: Planetarium — Well, it doesn’t make it easy for us. Planetarium is enormously ambitious and enormously long. Every song on this gave me the sense that I’d definitely like it a lot more next time I listen to it. Honestly, that’s one of my favourite reactions to have to a piece of music, but this does meander a bit. I’m curious to know more about the process of this: I’m familiar enough with Stevens, Muhly and Dessner’s work (the latter only as a composer, admittedly — I’ve never liked the National) that I feel like it should be easier than it is to isolate their particular contributions. They seem to have genuinely merged into a many-headed beast. My personal highlights here are “Jupiter” and especially “Mercury,” which has a melody worthy of Carrie & Lowell. But I’ve now heard “Saturn” a few times and it has grown on me from the point of initially leaving me cold to the point where now I actually bring up Apple Music to listen to it specifically. And the 15-minute “Earth” hits my prog rock structural pleasure centres, but there’s too much in it to take in for me to assess it yet. I think this is really good. I’ll probably check back in about it when I listen to it a bit more.

Neil Young: Live at the Riverboat 1969 — Like the Canterbury House instalment of Neil’s archives series, this is most notable for his amusingly awkward, stoned audience banter. I wish I’d been at one of these early acoustic shows, but I wasn’t born until 21 years later. Anyway, I’m actually pretty happy to be moving past the pre-Crazy Horse segment of my quest to hear the Complete Neil Young. Solo acoustic guitar music gets tiresome.

Neil Young: Live at Fillmore East 1970 — Ah, now we’re talking. What’s most notable about this is how much it sounds like Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Crazy Horse has always sounded really live in the studio. All the same, the presence of an audience makes “Cowgirl in the Sand” pop a bit more, with the band really trying to ratchet up the tension to keep them into it. I suspect 1970 is the year when things really get interesting. I’ve enjoyed my exploration of Buffalo Springfield and the late-60s limbo state from which the self-titled album emerged. But it’s with the foundation of Crazy Horse and Neil’s induction into CSNY that the phase of his career we know him for really began.

Podcasts

Ear Hustle: “Cellies” — This podcast is a beautiful idea. It’s also staggeringly ambitious. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare it must be to produce a podcast in prison. But these are stories that don’t get told. And when they do, they sure aren’t told by the inmates themselves. This premiere episode introduces some fun characters, including two brothers who ended up as cellmates and nearly drove each other out of their minds. I’m also rather endeared by Earlonne Woods’ resistance to his non-incarcerated co-host’s attempts to apply relationship metaphors to cellmates. He ought to know what metaphors are and aren’t apt. This is the most promising addition to Radiotopia since Song Exploder.

The Pitch: “Babyscripts” — Not for me. This has a solid premise that’s basically guaranteed to yield drama: it’s basically Dragons’ Den. But I’m just not interested enough in business to be interested in these kinds of conversations. Worth a shot if you are.

StartUp: “Life After Startup” — A catch-up session with some of the people in previous StartUp episodes. Most notably, we revisit Dating Ring, the company followed in the show’s underrated second season. I really found the ending of that season heartbreaking, so it’s good to know that even though the business didn’t pan out, the founders are living happy lives these days.

Imaginary Worlds: “Imagining the Internet” — It’s a common refrain among science fiction critics that the internet is the modern technology that the genre failed most egregiously to predict. But this provides a corollary to that view by, in part, bringing Mark Twain into the fold. One highlight of this is hearing the actor who does the readings adopt the personas of their respective authors. I’m especially struck by how similar his Twain is to the genius voice actor that I brought in to do Twain at the end of the last episode of the Syrup Trap Pod Cast. I guess he’s just a voice that people have a sense of.

In Our Time: “The American Populists” — A pleasingly contentious conversation about the short-lived party that briefly promised to offer a real alternative to the Democrats and the Republicans. So no, it’s not about Donald Trump. Trust In Our Time to remind you that history is worth knowing about, and it doesn’t always have to be covered with explicit reference to current events to be relevant.

Love and Radio: “Relevant Questions” — A middling episode of one of the best shows around, so quite good. It’s about the first polygraph operator to speak out against its use. But he’s not straightforwardly heroic, even if he sees himself that way. It’s got a twist that’s done cleverly, in a similar way to the twist in “A Girl of Ivory,” but that’s not a comparison that does this any favours because that episode was a classic. Still, pretty great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Wonder Woman And The Tony Awards” — Okay, I’ll see Wonder Woman. I was kind of going to anyway, in spite of my serious superhero fatigue. This is different. Man, the Tonys seem to have nothing for me this time around.

Radiolab: “The Gondolier” — This is a good story by the standards of recent Radiolab episodes, but I can’t help but hear the Love and Radio episode that could have been. It’s a story about a person who was touted internationally as “Venice’s first female gondolier,” which turned out to be super wrong because he’s a trans man. That last sentence is almost a spoiler, because this episode actually treats Alex, the main character, as a woman for a portion of its duration, in accordance with the reporters’ misunderstanding of his gender identity. The media has traditionally been Alex’s enemy, and this is supposed to provide an antidote to that. I’m not at all the person to judge how it succeeds at that, but I do feel like this is a case where the Love and Radio approach of cutting out the reporter’s voice altogether would be useful. I’d love to hear the version of this story that’s just Alex telling his own story. But Radiolab’s gonna Radiolab, so we have to have a certain amount of ponderous processing and deconstruction. It’s fine.

Home of the Brave: “The Continental Divide” — One of the things I really like about Home of the Brave is that Scott Carrier will sometimes release one of these brief missives in between proper radio projects. I sympathize with his inability to talk to people who disagree with him right now, but I admire his decision to give it another go.

Fresh Air: “Jay Z” — An old interview, from just after the release of Decoded. Terry Gross sounds slightly uncomfortable interviewing Jay Z because she kind of thinks he’s sexist. But Jay is charming and indulgent, even if he does get super defensive when Gross actually brings up sexism. Mostly a very good interview.

This American Life: “Say Anything” — The bulk of this is taken up by a tape that a guy made for his suicidal friend, without ever intending for it to end up on radio. It’s very affecting. But the real highlight is a list of fears written by a developmentally disabled man. It is both funny and insightful. A cameo from Jonathan Goldstein is always appreciated as well.

Fresh Air: “Roxane Gay” — A marvellous interview about Gay’s new book, which sounds like a deeply insightful, really rough read. She’s one of those articulate people you’ve just got to be thankful for.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin” — To some extent, this is shameless self-promotion for GLOW, the new show he’s in. But it sounds like a really great show, and I’m always in for an Alison Brie interview. She is completely charming. I didn’t realize that I knew Betty Gilpin, but her American Gods performance is really hilarious and the way she describes it as a wilful misunderstanding of the tone of the whole show is amazing. A good listen.

It’s Been A Minute: “Hey Y’all” — I’m reservedly excited about this. I love Sam Sanders. He’s always been one of my favourite guests on Pop Culture Happy Hour and I miss him on the NPR Politics Podcast. I just hope it doesn’t keep explaining ordinary idioms like “it’s been a minute” to me.

Sampler: “Introducing The Nod!” — Thank god Gimlet found something for Brittany Luse to do. She’s brilliant, and she was always above Sampler. Looking forward.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Sofia Coppola” — This has its moments, and Maron clearly admires and understands Coppola’s filmmaking. But did he have to talk about her dad so much? Surely she’s sick of that. In any case, Sofia Coppola is a genius and I can’t wait to see The Beguiled.

99% Invisible: “You Should Do A Story” — A roundup of miscellaneous stories that didn’t become full episodes. It’s worth hearing for a few simple descriptions of household design solutions from specific places.

The Heart: “Doing Time” — I heard an interview with Kaitlin Prest on a great podcast I don’t review called The Imposter where she said that the launch of Ear Hustle and the themed episodes Radiotopia did for its launch resulted in a hurried finish to the “No” season, which doesn’t actually come off in the last episode, but it sucks. In any case, this brushed-up episode from the back catalogue is perfectly fine.

Code Switch: “What To Make Of Philando Castile’s Death, One Year Later” — This won’t help you process the acquittal of Philando Castile’s killer, but it does feature an interview with a friend of Castile’s that is heartbreaking.  

What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: “Pardon Power” — Is this presidency really so unprecedented that we’re entertaining the notion that a sitting president could pardon himself? Guys this is not normal.

The Gist: “Scaachi Koul on Surviving the Trolls” — Scaachi Koul is one of the funniest and best writers about sexism and racism. If you don’t read her on Buzzfeed, what are you even doing. I’m really looking forward to reading her book. This interview isn’t one of Mike Pesca’s best moments, but it is plenty good on Koul’s part. He gets all tone policey and she doesn’t let him get away with it. Satisfying in a way.

StartUp: “How To Invent A New Sport” — This is about a guy who made a new version of basketball. The best part is the story of a pitch meeting in China. Listen for that alone.

The Gist: “Do Radicals Change the World?” — Jeremy McCarter is familiar to me from the Hamiltome, but this new book doesn’t sound like something I’ll especially enjoy. I’ll take China Mieville’s 1917 book, thanks. He’s got no doubts that radicals change the world.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “GLOW And Lena Waithe” — Hmm, here are two shows that make me wish there was more time in a day. I’m finding it hard to commit to the idea of watching GLOW and Master of None. The former has a bunch of people I love involved, but I’m not sold on the hype. And Master of None sounds like it’s got a slow first season and a killer second. That’s a stumbling block. You’d never think it from reading this blog sometimes, but I’ve got to be judicious in my choices. Even I only have so much time to allot to this stuff.

It’s Been A Minute: “Likes Don’t Matter” — I don’t know how to feel about this. Part of me wants to think that it’ll find its legs, but it’s also totally clear that this has been given dry run after dry run, so it’s already got a fair bit of mileage behind it. Sam Sanders is one of the cleverest, most magnetic people at NPR. But this feels kind of forcedly colloquial to me. I liked Sanders a lot on the NPR Politics Podcast, where they had a mandate to really get into the grains of it, because Sanders was the guy who could inject a bit of air into the proceedings. He was as good at talking politics as the rest of the panel, but also funnier. In a less explicitly focussed situation, I’m not sure what to make of him anymore. I’ll keep listening, because I really do think he’s great. But I have reservations.

Beef And Dairy Network: “Gareth Belge” — Ahh, I like this. I like this show a lot. This features a hilarious segment about how cows act as body doubles for actors more than you’d know. That’s this show in a nutshell. Beautiful.

Mogul: Episodes 1 & 2 — I resisted this at first because it came out initially on Spotify, and I’m dead set against windowing in the podcast world. But I had to hear this story. It is magical. It is the story of Chris Lighty, the powerful hip hop executive: how he rose to prominence and how he died. Combat Jack hosts (going by his birth name here, Reggie Ossé), and he brings a level of expertise on this topic that probably nobody else in the world could top. The joy of listening to this is not just in the character-driven story of Lighty, nor is it even in the brilliantly rendered history of hip hop’s evolution. It’s in Ossé’s intense engagement with the material. I’ve always known somebody would make a podcast like this sometime — a show that deals with the history of music in a story-driven, audio rich way. Song Exploder isn’t quite it. This is it. I’ve been waiting for this. If you have any interest at all in hip hop or in knowing something about the music of the last forty years, check this out. It’s a beautiful thing. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of June 4, 2017)

Busy week! I seem to have gotten behind on my television watching. But never fear, next week will bring reviews of the most recent episodes of Doctor Who, American Gods and Better Call Saul. And maybe even some of the new Twin Peaks, because I finally finished my rewatch. Let’s start with that.

But first, some news! This dumb blog is now a substantially less dumb and more professional recurring segment on CBC Radio 1! Every so often, I’m going to be on B.C.’s weekend morning show, North by Northwest, to talk to Sheryl McKay about some things I like. This morning’s inaugural instalment was deliberately whiplash-inducing, very much in the spirit of this project. I brought in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings and clips from the new Maria Bamford special Old Baby and Ted Hearne’s glorious cantata Sound from the Bench. If you’d like to experience this blog, except 50% more dulcet, I highly recommend it. I’m at 1:43:27 in this podcast.

16 reviews.

Television

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 10 & 11 — What’s to say? These are terrible episodes. They’re far from the worst the series would produce, but by this point the show is in a full-on identity crisis and it doesn’t have any of the things that make the first season and a half good. Several plotlines I hate are now well underway — James’s road trip, the Lucy/Dick/Andy love triangle, and Ben Horne’s encroaching insanity. This is the point where I’m going to take the New York Times’s advice and skip straight to episode 21, which I recall also being terrible, but apparently important for keeping track of the finale. I’ve read a bunch of synopses of the next bunch of episodes, and I’m trusting that’ll be enough. Wish me luck.

Twin Peaks: Season 2, episodes 21 & 22 — These two episodes almost don’t bear reviewing together, because one is ghastly and the other is a thing of almost unmatched brilliance. So let’s breeze past episode 21 (“Miss Twin Peaks”), pausing only to say how glad I am to have skipped nearly everything involving Windom Earle: the most bog-standard melodrama villain they could have come up with. Moving on. The final episode of Twin Peaks before its cancellation is not perfect, but only because the spectre of a terrible preceding half-season looms large upon it. David Lynch is back in the director’s chair, and he makes short work of the dumber subplots his underlings introduced in his absence. Earle is presented here simply as a person who exists and is bad. He is mercifully not allowed to do any of his “master of disguise” schtick before being dispatched in rather stylish fashion by BOB, the show’s real villain. (A weirdly cathartic moment.) The teenage Nadine plotline is dutifully allotted one brief scene. And the Andrew Packard puzzle box plotline collides with Audrey Horne’s environmental campaign in a genuinely great scene. These are still bad plotlines, but Lynch deals with them in the exact opposite way that he does with Earle and Nadine: instead of drastically reducing their presence, he drastically elongates the one scene where they appear. He elongates it so much it’s hilarious. The actual things that are happening to the key characters in the bank scene isn’t what’s important. What’s important is the bank manager’s hilarious decrepitude (yes, we’ve seen this gag before with the room service waiter, but it never gets old) and the fact that Lynch is content to hold the camera on him while he takes a hysterically long time to do everything. David Lynch always has an idea. He’s got one up on everybody else involved in this show. But so far, we’ve only dealt with the bad stuff that he manages not to screw up. The legitimately brilliant part of this episode is the Black Lodge. I like Twin Peaks. I really do, for the most part. But its biggest flaw is an inevitable one: the Red Room/Black Lodge sequences are so brilliant, iconic and unsettling that they eclipse the entire rest of the series. Cooper’s dream, back in the third episode, will always be the definitive iteration because it came first. But Cooper’s journey through the Black Lodge in this final episode has so much more going on in it. I’d be lying if I said I had any idea what’s going on here — or at least, I’d be lying if I said I had any more of an idea about it than the broader fan community whose theories and decipherments I’ve relied upon in my viewing of Twin Peaks. But it is viscerally terrifying in a way that nothing else in the show ever was. Especially distressing are the Man From Another Place’s laughing doppelganger and Laura Palmer’s backwards scream. It all defies rational description. In spite of all of the loose ends it left (some of which are presumably no longer loose) the Twin Peaks season two finale is one of my very favourite episodes of the show — probably only topped by “Zen, Or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” I hope the new series is as much like this as possible. And with Coop trapped in the Black Lodge, I imagine it will be. Nobody tell me anything. Pick of the week.

Movies

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me — Ha, I forgot that this started with the image of a TV getting smashed. Chip on your shoulder, Mr. Lynch? Well, I’m glad you’re over it, and presumably so is Showtime. It’s a divisive film among Twin Peaks fans, I know. I have always been resolutely on the ‘pro’ side of the debate, since the David Lynch side of the show is what I really love. In general, that opinion held up after this viewing. But, there are problems. The simplest is just that the sexual violence need not have been so explicit. On television, there were useful limitations on what could be shown. So, Twin Peaks managed for the most part to be a story involving sexual violence without being creepily voyeuristic about it. Fire Walk With Me had no such limitations upon it, and I’m dubious about the way Lynch chose to use that freedom. The other problem is just that there are a few places in this where characters really don’t seem to match up with the versions of them we meet at the start of the series. Obviously, it’s a particular problem for Donna, who’s been recast. But the casting isn’t even the biggest problem. Mainly, I just don’t buy that Donna could have had these intense experiences with Laura and then have been so appalled by the darkness she uncovers in her life in her subsequent investigation. And are we seriously supposed to believe that the numbskull Bobby we meet in the pilot, who is a long way from realizing how far in over his head he is, has recently killed somebody? I guess you could easily retcon that by saying that Laura hallucinated it all, but I dunno. On the other hand, this does emphasize several of my favourite elements in Twin Peaks to the detriment of elements I hated. The primary pleasure of this movie is watching Sheryl Lee get to play Laura Palmer at greater, less interrupted length. Dead or not, she’s one of the most skilled actors in the cast of Twin Peaks. Scenes with her, Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are pure, chilling magic. Aside from Kyle McLaughlin, that trio emcompasses the best performances in the whole show. Have I mentioned the extent to which Ray Wise and Grace Zabriskie are national treasures? Because both of those actors are fucking geniuses. Wise in particular shows a different side of Leland here that I think is really interesting. Fire Walk With Me blurs the line between Leland’s possession by BOB and his own personal, non-supernatural darkness. Leland is not the sort of man who would rape his own daughter or commit murders for pleasure. But this movie opens up the possibility that he may at least be the sort of man who’d pay for sex. Also, for all the flak this movie takes for eliminating several of the show’s most pleasantly eccentric characters, it should get some credit for introducing new ones. Kiefer Sutherland’s nervous, bowtie-clad “toehead” is particularly loveable. In general, Fire Walk With Me is no more brilliant than an average episode of Twin Peaks, but it’s no less brilliant than that either. Alright. Done studying. Let’s get on with this new shit.

Music

Radiohead: Hail to the Thief — A friend started a thread on Facebook recently inviting us all to provide our top ten Radiohead songs. (Mine, in increasing order of preference: “Let Down,” “I Might Be Wrong,” “15 Step,” “Reckoner,” “Packt Like Sardines in a Crushd Tin Box,” “Paranoid Android,” “Kid A,” “Idioteque,” “Everything in its Right Place,” “Pyramid Song.”) Looking at the lists compiled on the thread, I realized that Hail to the Thief is the Radiohead album I’ve been neglecting. This, to me, was always the awkward odd record out in Radiohead’s imperial phase. It’s the one where they stepped back from the freaky electronica of Kid A and Amnesiac (my two favourites of theirs, in either order depending on my mood) and hadn’t yet arrived at the vibrancy and lushness of In Rainbows. And while another listen still has me questioning how it came to be that Radiohead made a fairly austere alt-rock album in the midst of a slew of electronic sensory overload records, I liked it a lot better this time. “There, There” is the clear highlight. One of the best things about Radiohead is Thom Yorke’s ability to isolate a particularly resonant lyrical fragment and make it the hook of a song. “Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s there” is one of his best, and it’s tied to one of his loveliest melodies. I adore the way it drops lower, resignedly, on the second time through. Also, from the “it’s in the details” files, I love the six snare drum hits that occur twice in the song: once after the first chorus and once at the very end. Both times, it seems like a setup to a crash on beat one, but the crash never happens. It just kind of subtly leaves you hanging. Among the album’s other tracks, the one that’s so good I can’t believe I forgot about it is “A Wolf at the Door.” It’s terrifying, and Yorke clearly means every word. Still, for the most part, Hail to the Thief continues to be an album I admire more than I like. It’ll probably grow on me. The King of Limbs did, and nobody seems to like that one.

Belle and Sebastian: The Life Pursuit — I haven’t listened to this since my other dumb blog went on hiatus. Looking back on what I said about it before, it seems like two years ago I was way worse at discovering new music, way less curious, and not quite as fatigued with my old standbys. I guess I do change. But I still like The Life Pursuit. I still haven’t checked out any other Belle and Sebastian albums. I may. But this one is working for me. My favourite tracks are probably “Another Sunny Day” and “The Blues Are Still Blue,” though “Dress Up In You” has the album’s best moment: a trumpet solo. It’s a song I’ve played on the piano occasionally, but I’m always a bit dissatisfied when that part happens and I’m physically unable to play the trumpet solo as well. It isn’t part of my regular rep.

Podcasts

Judge John Hodgman: “Vehicular Man-Squatter” — I think maybe this is the first one I’ve heard where the dispute is between two young adults. That makes for an interesting dynamic, because Hodgman has to factor in the extent to which they just don’t really have their lives figured out. Or, in this case, one of them doesn’t. This is about a guy in college who has made the conscious decision to live in his car. (“This is an almost acceptable bit of transitional weirdness,” says Hodgman, with admirable equanimity.) This fellow has a rationale for this that is both amazingly logical and completely crazy, which I won’t spoil, but look forward to Jesse Thorn exclaiming “It’s tax deferred!” a number of times.

Home of the Brave: “Trump’s Wall: Your Neighbor” — A simple interview with an undocumented farm worker. It says a lot in a short time.

In Our Time: “The Egyptian Book of the Dead” — A particularly amusing instalment, in which Melvyn Bragg’s self-professed literal mind keeps him from quite being able to get past the inconsistencies in the Book of the Dead. This is the farthest thing on the radio from a personality-driven show, but what personality it has is refreshingly unforced. Also, the Egyptian Book of the Dead is really interesting, as it turns out. The papyrus copies of the book were often sold with blank spaces for the buyer to copy their names in. Imagine. This is full of stuff like that. Love it.

Criminal: “Bully” — A story of a truly terrible person who actually intimidated his way to an “above-the-law” status. The ending is incredible. The way that the town where all of this happened responded to it is jaw-dropping.

In Our Time: “Purgatory” — More thoughts on death from Melvyn Bragg! The best part of this is an explanation of the actual function served by the idea of purgatory for the church, and the fact that they had an interest in making it seem horrible because otherwise they’d have a bunch of apathetic sinners running around hoping to pay the piper later.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “When To Break Up With Television And Pop Culture Advice With Mallory Ortberg” — Mallory Ortberg is so clever. Oh, to be that clever. Glen Weldon holds his own admirably in this live show as well.

WTF with Marc Maron — “Mark Lanegan/Mac DeMarco” — Brilliant stuff. Mac DeMarco is a surprisingly thoughtful fellow when he sits down for a civil conversation. My opinion of him is actually pretty similar to Maron’s: namely, I like his music a lot but I’m not sure why. I’m always surprised to find myself liking it. The interview with Mark Lanegan is intense. He’s an intense guy. Don’t let the fact that this is split in half fool you: Maron goes deep on this one. A great episode.

A Point of View: “In praise of the elite” — Eh, I dunno. Howard Jacobson is funny enough to not be really offensive, and there are elements of his argument that I buy. But I think this piece lacks class consciousness to a certain extent. He seems to be saying “if you want to be a member of the elite, be one.” Which isn’t really how it works.  

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Handmaid’s Tale and a New Comedy” — I need to watch The Handmaid’s Tale, but I need to read it first. Somehow I’ve read four Atwood novels and that isn’t one of them. I will not be watching Good News.

StartUp CatchUp — I listened to the last three episodes of this, including one where the famed “CEO Whisperer” counsels a entrepreneur who’s having trouble balancing work with family, one where a biotech researcher tries to develop a flu vaccine for pigs, and one where somebody’s trying to get people to eat bugs. I’m sort of starting to listen to this out of sheer inertia. At first, I listened because it was fun to hear Alex Blumberg tell his own startup story in real time. It was the most intimate radio I’d ever heard, and it’s still one of the most extraordinary things anybody’s done with the medium. I used to listen to each episode as soon as it came out, regardless of where I was or what I was doing. Unlike many, I stuck with the show through its second season, which I feel has a similar appeal. It’s not a personal story, but it is an intimate look inside of an interesting, high-stakes creative venture. But when StartUp isn’t serialized, I kind of wonder why I bother. (The American Apparel season was also absolutely outstanding.) I’m not interested in business stories. And, unlike other show focusses like, say, design, there is a certain extent to which every startup story is the same. In a serialized show, I can really get attached to the people this is happening to and their specific relationships and struggles. But in one-off episodes it’s harder. And these are good episodes. I enjoyed these episodes. But given how many goddamn podcasts I listen to, I find myself asking hard questions about what’s worth my time, these days. You’ll note that Invisibilia has already hit the chopping block. Might this be next?

99% Invisible binge — You know what I really needed to do? I really needed to take a break from 99pi. Because this show’s rhythms get in your head after a while and it becomes background noise. But that’s too bad, because it is genuinely a wonderful show, and deservedly the grand dame of the medium. The live story “This Is Chance,” featuring members of Black Prairie and the Decemberists playing a live score, is one of the best things I’ve heard in awhile. The story is amazing in itself: how a news anchor in Anchorage became a locus of communication during a catastrophic earthquake. But the other stories I listened to in my binge yesterday, more conventional though they were, were almost equally enjoyable. One, about the redesign of the Brazilian soccer shirt, proves that I can be interested in anything — even sports — when Roman Mars is telling me about it. Another, about squatters in the Lower East Side, is a whole element of New York history that I didn’t know about. But the really exciting thing is the preview of Mars’s new show about Donald Trump and constitutional law. With Roman Mars and Jad Abumrad both spinning off into legal shows, I feel I will soon be basically a lawyer. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of April 30, 2017)

Hey, remember last week when my post only had seven reviews in it and was super short? Prepare yourself. This one’s 6000 words. Also, I decided to allocate my two picks of the week to non-podcasts, because podcasts aren’t making up such a staggering preponderance of these reviews, these days. Never fear, this will likely be a temporary state of affairs. Incidentally, this was another week when I would gladly have given out more than two picks of the week, but I failed to exercise restraint last week and I’m not making it a trend. No sir.

29 reviews.

Games

Sunless Sea — It is with intense satisfaction that I would like to report that after 130 hours of playing this over the course of two years (and seven dead captains, to boot) I have completed the main story of Sunless Sea! By “main story,” I mean the ambition called “Your Father’s Bones,” which you can choose at the start of a game. (This ambition has a narrative hook: you’re looking for the final resting place of your departed father. Whereas the other starting ambitions are essentially opportunities to explore freely while amassing fictional money or items that will eventually allow you to end your game with a win if you choose. So, the Father’s Bones option seems like a “main story” to me.) I confess that playing through this ambition was very much a “journey not the destination” sort of experience. The ending of the story is entirely fine, and beautifully written. But the true appeal of this storyline is in the subplots you have to follow while collecting a series of rare items. True, a fair chunk of the quest falls under the category of that hoary old video game trope “find X things.” But seldom does a quest to find things result in such rich storytelling. I got to know my ship’s gunnery officer a bit, and realized he’d built munitions for some truly shady people. I aided in my chef’s training and watched as he prepared a meal for a retinue of the living drowned. I hunted a ship crewed entirely by spiders. And it was all expressed through, bar none, the best written prose in the industry. I say this every time I write about this game, but Sunless Sea and its sister title Fallen London are the only games I’ve played with a distinctive and sure-handed approach to language that rivals literature. The humour, terror, characterization and poignancy of the various stories contained within this game all arise from the writers’ ingenious and idiosyncratic use of English. It’s a thing to behold. I will likely put aside Sunless Sea for a while now (and perhaps take up Fallen London in a more serious way), but I’m sure I’ll return to it at some point. I still feel as though I’ve only made a cursory survey of many of its moving parts. I don’t understand the full significance of the island of mute exiles in the north. I don’t understand why the locals at Mutton Island, just off the coast of London, suddenly started acting so weird. And I definitely don’t understand where the terrifying artificial sun in the corner of the map came from. Plus, I haven’t really dove into (excuse the pun) the excellent Zubmariner expansion, which has a starting ambition of its own. I think I’ll make it my goal to finish at least one more ambition in Sunless Sea before the sequel, Sunless Skies comes out. I never tire of this game, and I increasingly love the parts of it that annoyed me at first — namely the long, slow trips from port to port — best of all. While these moments can become extremely stressful under certain circumstances, they are usually fairly placid. This lends a contemplative element to a game that otherwise serves up plot pretty swiftly. Like baseball, I suppose. For a game that is so concerned with (and so effective at simulating the experience of) abject terror, it can feel curiously therapeutic to play. Sunless Sea is for me the most magnificent escape into an alternate universe that gaming has ever offered. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Pick of the week.

Television

Bill Nye Saves the World: Season 1, episodes 1-3 — It was Bill Nye who first made me want to be a scientist. It is crucial to note at this juncture that I am not a scientist, and in fact have a tenuous understanding at best of many very basic scientific concepts. However, when I was about eight or nine, when Bill Nye the Science Guy was nearing the end of its run, I wanted nothing more than to be a madly gesticulating, eccentric, bowtied fellow in a lab full of Tesla coils and beakers of colourful fluid. It was only partially the whimsical aesthetic of the show that pulled me in: it was just as much the spirit of joyful curiosity about the way the world works. The Nye Labs point-and-click adventure Stop the Rock! likely had an even more formative influence. That game let you actually explore Nye Labs. The wonder! The part of me that got sucked into early Radiolab is a part that was probably put there by Bill Nye. So I feel a tremendous amount of goodwill towards this guy. And basically, I think his new show is good. Certainly it’s noble. But by focussing specifically on the controversial global issues that require us all to have a better understanding of science that we do, he gives up something really crucial about the science communication work he’s done in the past: he loses sight of the sheer mad joy of understanding as an end in itself. Yes, it’s true that science is crucial to helping us navigate the biggest challenges we face. But that’s only one side of it, as far as I’m concerned. The other is that it’s just better by definition to know more about the world than you do. And that experience of joy in knowledge is essential to winning people over onto the side of science. I’d like to see Nye do a show that is similarly aimed at adults, but which balances topics of substantial-to-massive contemporary importance (alternative medicine, climate change) with scientific topics that are complex but maybe not quite so tied into the nightly news. When I was a kid, Bill Nye taught me about things I’d never heard of before, from underwater life to plate tectonics. I kind of still want him to do that. And also talk about climate change! We should never shut up about climate change. But… also fun new science facts. And the celebrity guest appearances can go. The not-famously-charismatic Steve Aoki’s guest spot is so arbitrary I kind of enjoyed it in spite of myself. But why Zach Braff is in the first episode, I’ll never understand.

American Gods: “The Bone Orchard” — Hugely, enormously promising. Like, “maybe this will be better than the book” promising. There are so many blazingly good sequences in this first episode that it almost seems ostentatious. The casting is flawless, with Ian McShane being a particularly obvious but magnificent choice for Mr. Wednesday and Ricky Whittle offering a harder, colder Shadow than the one in the book. A good choice, since it gives him a direction to move in. The look of the show is much more similar to Hannibal than I’d expected. Clearly Bryan Fuller is in the habit of bringing his own aesthetic to stories originated by others. Shadow’s dreamworld is rich and hallucinatory. I’m particularly fond of the way the ceiling of his cell breaks open to reveal Laura. And the entire ending sequence with the Technical Boy is brilliantly creepy in a way that only tech-based horror can be. The way that the Technical Boy forms out of weird claymation is the sort of bizarre, entrancing choice that is making me feel like this might actually kick the book up a notch. It’s really trying to be its own thing. But there are standout segments straight from the book as well. Shadow’s first conversation with Wednesday on the plane is a delight, and gives McShane the opportunity to be as gruff as we Deadwood fans are used to seeing him, but with an unfamiliar note of whimsy. Likewise, the bar fight with Mad Sweeney plays out almost exactly as in the book, and the gradual escalation from coin tricks to full-on brawling is as satisfying in this medium as that one. But the appeal of this so far is definitely not the basic joy of seeing a familiar work of fiction play out onscreen. It’s the much more complicated thing of seeing a familiar work of fiction get filtered through another auteur’s sensibility. I didn’t expect so much stylized gore, nor so many scenes with the dialogue almost entirely re-written. These are indications that Bryan Fuller (and, I suppose Michael Green, who is ostensibly an equal partner in this) will be making this his own. This is going to be so great.

Doctor Who: “Knock Knock” — Again, the best thing about this episode is the riffing on Doctor Who as a cultural force. “Oh, you’re the Doctor?” “Yes.” “Cool!” So, that’s a theme that’s continuing. But man, this was pretty blah. I enjoyed it in the sense that it was good performers filmed well while saying witty lines. But as horror stories rooted in the confused dynamic between a parent and child go, it’s sure not “The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances.” I like seeing Bill just go about her life outside the TARDIS, but we don’t get much of that before the generic haunted house story starts up. Competent. Not great. The weakest of the season so far, by a substantial distance.

Better Call Saul: “Sabrosito” — I should have mentioned last week how satisfying it is to see Patrick Fabian’s Howard Hamlin gradually transition into a really wonderful comic performance. His fence-climbing antics last time around were a highlight, but this week all he has to do to get a laugh is say “well that is a shame” in the most transparently ingratiating tone of voice possible. I really like this character. Fring’s plotline in this is notable mostly for his final speech to his employees at Los Pollos, which is a terrible speech. Intentionally so, obviously. It really drives home the point that Fring is intensely cynical: he knows he can anticipate a certain amount of critical thinking on the part of the people he associates with in the drug business. And certainly on the part of the cops. But employees at a fast food restaurant? Nah, they’ll buy anything. I’m not sure we’ve seen this from him before. It’s the only time he’s been less than completely convincing in his cover, but he knows he only has to be convincing enough. And he is. Jimmy’s plotline only surfaces halfway through the episode, once we’re through with Fring and Hector Salamanca. (Mark Margolis is continuing to add depth to this character, which both makes him fun to watch in this show, and deepens the tragedy of his barnstorming mute, wheelchair-bound performance in Breaking Bad.) I do wish that this story would move a little faster. I’m enjoying the Mike/Gus side of this season, but I feel as though the emphasis on that is slowing down progress on the story that has always fascinated me the most, which is anything involving Jimmy and Kim. Still, this is great.

Comedy

Maria Bamford: Old Baby — This is the best comedy special I’ve seen since about three Louis C.K. specials ago. I will repeat none of the bits, because the trailer for this proves that they are not funny out of context. I will say that Bamford has the perfect mix of three characteristics I like in a comic: jokes that frame the familiar in a new way, a delivery that complicates and deepens the writing itself, and uncommon life experiences to draw on. Regarding the second-last one of those, Bamford’s characters are hilarious, particularly when they’re her parents. And regarding the last, Bamford’s experience with mental illness is (silver linings) a fruitful source of material for her. I’m underselling this by making it tediously abstract. But I’m not about to explain comedy, here. This is on Netflix. Go watch it now. Pick of the week.

Movies

The Road Forward — The opening film of this year’s DOXA festival, this is a musical semi-documentary by Marie Clements, one of our local visionaries. It uses a gigantic storytelling toolbox including songwriting, music video, interviewing, visual symbolism and archival footage to tell a vast, nuanced story. The story is about the untold history of First Nations activism on the West coast of Canada. And it would be a hell of a story, even told straightforwardly. There are stories here, like the origins of the Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood and the Indian Constitution Express movement, that are the sorts of incredible tales that inevitably prompt white people such as myself to say things like “how was I never taught this?” (Which is a sentiment that the film pokes fun at once or twice.) It’s moving, important and enormously ambitious. Its flaws are flaws it shares with virtually all movie musicals and some music videos: a certain ostentatious theatricality keeps it slightly at arm’s length (this started life as a theatre piece). But it’s still something I think every Canadian should see, not out of a sense of duty, but because it features contributions from a huge number of really great artists, with Clements at the top of the pile.

Literature, etc.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Ibn-Hakam al-Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth” — I’ve decided not to read this Borges collection in order, but rather to skim through and read the ones whose titles or first sentences jump out at me. The first sentence of this story is as follows: “‘This,’ said Dunraven with a vast gesture that did not blench at the cloudy stars, and that took in the black moors, the sea, and a majestic, tumbledown edifice that looked much like a stable fallen upon hard times, ‘is my ancestral land.’” I’m in. This is a fairly restrained application of Borges’s genius, but it’s definitely Borges. (One thing I recall from my long-ago reading of “The Garden of Forking Paths” is that it’s about a labyrinth. Sounds like this will be a theme.) Again I’m curiously reminded of Neil Gaiman. A cursory Google (and the slightest bit of common sense) reveals that Gaiman is a fan of Borges. And this story about stories feels like the sort of thing that wouldn’t be out of place in Sandman. Basically, one man tells a friend a story about a man who hid away in a labyrinth. And another man ponders the story, finds it insufficient and tells another version that’s more convincing based on the same facts. Simple, direct, ingenious. And also fable-like. Borges’s recurring motifs of labyrinths and libraries appeal to me on an aesthetic level as well as a thematic one. This is going well.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Borges and I” — An extremely short, vaguely troubling autobiographical sketch that finds Borges negotiating the difference between his public and private personas. This is part of The Maker (AKA Dreamtigers), and I think I’ll probably hold off on reading any more of that until I get a copy of the complete text. (My complete fictions collection dogmatically refuses to include the poems in The Maker, which are apparently crucial to its flow.) But this is a lovely little observation. If it’s any indication of what The Maker is like in general, it seems like the sort of thing I’ll enjoy more once I’ve got a better sense of what made Borges into the public figure he describes here. Perhaps I’ll focus on the earlier stories.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Garden of Forking Paths” — You know, it’s possible that I hadn’t actually read this like I’ve been saying I have this whole time. Having read it now, it’s clear to me that the reason I was familiar with it is primarily because of the extraordinary way that Borges poses a thought experiment that prefigures hypertext literature decades before its actual invention. This is definitely something I’d read about this story. But the story itself seems unfamiliar to me. Maybe I just read it in a different translation? I dunno. I can’t imagine it would have made such a weak impression. This is deservedly a classic. Not as mindbending as “The Library of Babel,” but it’s also spinning more plates. It’s got a narrator with a motivation, a framing device, and an espionage plot all surrounding the main event, which is clearly the conversation about the labyrinthine novel that is effectively hypertext. One of the things I love most about the Borges stories I’ve read so far is they’re very short, and thus make rereading a completely non-daunting proposition. Future rereads of this will likely find me trying to decide why Borges decided to place this idea in this particular story. What difference does it make that the narrator learned the secret of his ancestor’s novel during the course of an act of espionage? How does the detective story connect with the metafiction? I’m sure somebody could explain this to me, but I’m just as happy to figure it out at my own damn pace.

Jorge Luis Borges: “The Circular Ruins” — This is the one Neil Gaiman cited as a favourite. It’s a good one, with a fantastic premise and a twist ending that renders this much better upon re-reading, or at least re-considering. The premise is that there’s a place with gods who will allow you to imagine a person into existence. The detail with which Borges describes this process makes this a good read on the first time through. But really it’s about the ending.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” — This is second only to “The Library of Babel” in my survey of Borges thus far. This is ingenious for so many reasons: 1) Its form, which is a sort of academic memorandum complete with all of the resentfulness and spite for one’s rivals that those can often contain. 2) Its premise, which is that a 20th-century author made it his life’s goal to write Don Quixote (i.e. writing the exact same novel as Cervantes, word for word, but arriving at it independently and centuries after Cervantes already wrote it). This is wonderfully absurd and highlights a side of Borges that I don’t hear talked about that much, namely that he’s really funny. 3) The way that Borges chases this premise down several compelling rabbit holes. (This is a similar approach to the one he takes in “The Library of Babel,” which is perhaps why I like it so much.) Borges’s narrator analyses the content of Menard’s Quixote alongside the content of Cervantes’ original (which, remember, is exactly the same) and finds them to be entirely different works by virtue of their authors’ differing contexts and intents. Borges manages to be both instructive on how context is crucial to criticism (and the nature of criticism is explicitly discussed in the text) and he also satirizes this very same approach by way of reductio ad absurdum. This is outstanding. So far, reading Borges has felt like coming home.

Jorge Luis Borges: “Deutsches Requiem” — A slightly less effective Borges story, though that might be an unfair judgement on my part, because it just doesn’t have the specific things I’ve loved about the few Borges stories I’ve read so far. It’s not a premise-driven story, it’s a character-driven story. And the character is, apparently, the ultimate Nazi. I’m not going to lie, I picked this one out because I love the Brahms piece it’s named after. Not a highlight of my Borges reading thus far. But here’s a miscellaneous note I haven’t been able to work into any of my previous Borges reviews: I’m really reminded of China Miéville in a few of these stories. Neil Gaiman has been the modern reference point I’ve gone back to again and again when discussing Borges, but Miéville shares Borges’s gift for the mindblowing premise. Some of the stories from Three Moments of an Explosion could practically be Borges stories. I’m thinking particularly of “A Second Slice Manifesto,” in which Miéville describes an art movement that exposes new sides to classic works of representational painting by imagining a “slice” down a certain point in the image, revealing cross-sections of people and buildings that were whole in the original picture. That’s damn close to Borges in “Pierre Menard” mode.

Farhad Manjoo: “Can Facebook Fix Its Own Worst Bug?” — This piece about how Facebook is handling its post-election flail is not encouraging. A couple of choice excerpts: “For the typical user, Cox explained when I met him on a morning in October at MPK20, News Feed is computing the relative merits of about 2,000 potential posts in your network every time you open the app. In sorting these posts, Facebook does not optimize for any single metric: not clicks or reading time or likes. Instead, he said, ‘what you really want to get to is whether somebody, at the end of the day, would say, ‘Hey, my experience today was meaningful.’’” This is notable because I have never once felt this way on Facebook. The lack of meaningful interactions with people or content is the basis of my entire objection to the news feed. It promotes (and thus encourages the production of) the content equivalent of marshmallows: you consume them because they’re there and they have a sort of outward appeal. But you never actually enjoy yourself and eventually you start feeling shitty and resenting all the marshmallows you ate and the source where you got them. (This is Facebook’s shit to take responsibility for, but it’s also on every news organization and producer of web content to not fall into the trap and reject what value they have.) The piece then goes on to detail Facebook’s moderately successful efforts to combat clickbait — efforts that were predicated on a logic that I cannot imagine applying universally: “Facebook’s entire project, when it comes to news, rests on the assumption that people’s individual preferences ultimately coincide with the public good, and that if it doesn’t appear that way at first, you’re not delving deeply enough into the data.” Evidently, Facebook’s internal method for fixing problems is as pig-headedly metrics-focussed as it has forced the entire rest of the world to be. This piece is fascinating, and leaves me with more of a sense of Mark Zuckerberg’s good intentions than I had before, but absolutely zero faith in his (and his company’s) ability to fix the problems they’ve caused, let alone the ones they set out to remedy from the beginning.

Music

Neil Young: Neil Young — So I thought to myself, how deep should this deep dive go? Shall I make a detailed survey of the early material from Neil’s time in Buffalo Springfield — or rarer still, the Squires? Shall I finally listen to those other two CSNY albums? No, I decided. This will be a survey of Neil’s solo career, with that defined as any album that has his first and last name on it as a principal artist. Crazy Horse albums count, as does anything he released with ad-hoc bands like the Stray Gators and the Shocking Pinks. And Pearl Jam. I won’t obligate myself to listen to every live and archival release, though I’ll likely check out some, because the ones I’ve heard are among Neil’s best work, and albums like Rust Never Sleeps and Time Fades Away make the secondary designation normally afforded to live albums sort of inapplicable in Neil’s case. By my count, these guidelines will still find me listening to at least forty albums. So, we begin a fair ways from the beginning, actually, with the self-titled album. At this point, he’s already written and recorded classics like “I Am A Child” and “Mr. Soul.” He was five years past his earliest recordings. But this marks the start of Neil Young as “Neil Young” as opposed to “guy in band.” And it’s… well, it’s an anomaly, but it’s a compelling one. This is one of those albums like Jethro Tull’s This Was that feels like the start of an alternate history that forked a different way in our reality. (Maybe I’ve been reading too much Borges.) It’s the album that finds the now-anointed godfather of grunge sounding like a well-heeled young folkie with aspirations towards glossy marketability. The arrangements on this have a similar feel to the ones on Nick Drake’s Bryter Layter in the way that they never just leave the singer alone. This isn’t bad by definition. Far be it from me to criticize polish while being a huge prog fan. But Neil is an artist who feels more radical by far when he’s being noisy and sloppy and spontaneous. With this much fuss applied, he sounds a bit MOR. (To use his own nomenclature, I prefer Neil in the ditch.) “The Old Laughing Lady” suffers particularly from its arrangement, which almost works — until the midsection with the wordless backing vocals comes around. I could live with the little electric piano riff in 5/4 that breaks up the verses, but I don’t understand what that wordless midsection has to do with the rest of the song. It’s empty bloat, and it would be profitably excised on the Unplugged album years later. “The Loner” fares better, if only because it’s familiar enough that it seems unfathomable without its arrangement. The less familiar tracks range from hidden gems (“Here We Are in the Years”) to unmemorable instrumentals (“The Emperor of Wyoming”) to “The Last Trip to Tulsa,” which is the one truly unvarnished performance on the album but isn’t necessarily one of Neil’s best lyrics. Neil Young has its undeniable pleasures, but it’s best heard as a piece of Neil’s history. This polished side of him wouldn’t vanish outright after this: it would continue to marvellous effect in his work with CSNY and to blockbuster effect on Harvest. But immediately afterwards, the radically unvarnished side of Neil would come to the fore and mark the point where it’s clear that he’s a real creative force.

Neil Young & Crazy Horse: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere — If Neil’s self-titled debut represented his introduction to us as something other than “guy in band,” Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is where Neil Young arrives as a legend. This is a hell of an album, and though I’d heard the majority of it before (because more than half of it is on the Decade compilation), this was my first time through the whole thing. Crazy Horse is the kind of band I ought to hate, being who I am. But their committed sloppiness feels less like the result of laziness than like a progressive musical experiment. This is the point where noise becomes a major part of Neil Young’s sound. This is the album that starts the thread of Neil’s career that will climax on Rust Never Sleeps and go gloriously over the top on Weld. “Down by the River” and “Cowgirl in the Sand,” both feature sprawling jams where Neil strains at the very edges of his extremely limited technique as a lead guitarist and they set the template for all great Crazy Horse jams to come. The shorter songs are all excellent, especially “Cinnamon Girl,” obviously. And the title track is maybe the most Canadian song ever recorded. This is also the album that makes it clear we can never know what to expect from Neil Young. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere is as unlike the debut as it is possible to be. And within a year of this album, Neil would join CSNY and go back to making radically structured music, albeit of an entirely different persuasion from on his first solo record. This is already an exciting ride. But Neil’s next solo album is his first proper masterpiece.

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree — We interrupt this Neil Young binge for yet more erudite early-2000s indie rock. (Because the full Decemberists catalogue wasn’t enough.) I’ve meant to properly get into the Mountain Goats since I heard “Heel Turn 2” on Welcome to Night Vale. (I understand they’re working on a podcast together now? I’m curious.) This was apparently something of a breakthrough for them, though they have more acclaimed albums that predate this than postdate it. Still, The Sunset Tree served its purpose. I’m hooked. “This Year,” which I’m told is a very famous song in certain circles, is exactly what I needed right now. “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me” is one of those lyrics that seems obvious in retrospect, except that nobody wrote it before. Other highlights include “Dance Music,” which belongs to a niche subgenre I’m particularly fond of, namely songs with really chipper music and really dark lyrics. I’m also a big fan of “Dilaudid,” with its string arrangement and escalating vocal performance from John Darnielle. I need a few more listens for this to sink in, but this is definitely a band I’m going to listen to now.

Shugo Tokumaru: Toss — I’ve gotta say, it doesn’t live up to the promise of “Lita Ruta,” which is still my favourite song of the year so far. (Provided we don’t count cantatas based on Supreme Court decisions as “songs.”) Unlike In Focus? which is the other full Tokumaru album I’ve heard, this is really uneven. It is also sparser and simpler on balance than In Focus? is, and I’m not sure simplicity suits Tokumaru. Naturally, the best parts of the album are almost dizzyingly complex, with “Lita Ruta” being the clear winner but the first track, “Lift,” is glorious as well, as is the magnificently-titled “Cheese Eye.” This album is apparently the first time Tokumaru has gone out of his way to work with a variety of other instrumentalists, which makes for an album which is at times extremely timbrally diverse, but I would have preferred if it stayed that way for its whole duration. If I’m going to listen to this guy, I want total sensory overload. Honestly, there’s still enough great stuff on it that I’m confident in calling it one of my favourite albums of the year so far, but I suspect that has more to do with how badly I’ve fallen off the music discovery wagon than anything.

Podcasts

Crimetown: Episodes 16 & 17 — Good episodes. The problem with this season has just been lack of focus. If they’d just found a way to really hone in on two narrative threads: Buddy Cianci and the Patriarca crime family, this would have been great. And I suppose everything does tie back to that to a certain extent, but this feels like it’s really gone everywhere. But this focusses on Cianci, which makes it feel of a piece with the season’s arc as I’d originally perceived it. Still, I have other problems. In their promo for the big party they’re holding to celebrate the end of the season, the hosts of this say something to the effect of “by the end you won’t be sure who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.” Except yes I will. The ones who committed or were implicated in murders for business reasons are the bad guys. That’s pretty clear to me. I wish it were clearer to the people who make this show. (To be fair, cops and government officials are often also the bad guys. But my point is that Crimetown sometimes can’t resist saying “look how great these criminals are!” And I wish they wouldn’t.)

All Songs Considered: “Todd Rundgren On Technology, Creativity And His New Song With Trent Reznor” — Rundgren’s a good interview. You can tell somebody’s a good interview when they’re even interesting on All Songs Considered. Can’t say the song does anything for me. But I’ve always meant to check out Rundgren’s catalogue, especially A Wizard, A True Star. So maybe it’s time.

StartUp: Season 5, episodes 1-3 — I wish they’d stick to serialized seasons. The Dov Charney season was one of the undersung wonders of last year’s podcasts, and probably journalism in general. The first episode of this is a story of one businessman’s foray through “the surprisingly cutthroat world of toys.” I’m honestly kind of sick of journalism that starts from the premise of “look how interesting this seemingly mundane thing is!” So that didn’t work for me. But the two-parter on Friendster is really solid. What a catastrophe. It concludes with a comparison of the way Friendster was managed with the way Facebook was managed, and that really drives home the point that Friendster was the biggest idea of the early millennium, deployed by the wrong people.

You Must Remember This: “Barbara Loden (Dead Blondes Part 12)” — I’m starting to feel similarly about this as I am to Crimetown, though to a much lesser degree. The beginning of this season promised a point would be made about “blondeness” in Hollywood, and it hasn’t really come to that. This is still a good story about a compelling historical person, and how she was misrepresented by her powerful husband, Elia Kazan. But I’m hoping that Karina Longworth finds a way to tie everything together in the last episode of this series the way she almost did in the Barbara Payton episode several weeks ago.

Judge John Hodgman: “Live From the London Podcast Festival” — Nice stuff, but the highlight by far is a moment where the hosts of No Such Thing As A Fish argue over whether the existence of a conspiracy theory counts as a fact. The conspiracy theory in question? That the Titanic was sunk by time travellers who all wanted to see the last moments of the Titanic and thus all arrived at the same time, causing it to sink. This is bonkers in itself, but I won’t spoil the best moment of this exchange. I’ll just say that somebody definitely doesn’t understand the concept of a bootstrap paradox.

All Songs Considered: “The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy & Olivia Chaney Talk About New Collaboration, Reimagining British Folk” — ALERT ALERT NEW DECEMBERISTS sort of. Offa Rex is a side project where the Decemberists cover old British folk tunes (the sort of ones that inspired the band’s trilogy of bona fide classics: Picaresque, The Crane Wife and The Hazards of Love) with the brilliant Olivia Chaney on vocals. God, can she ever sing. And the arrangements are so ‘60s I can barely contain myself. I will be listening to this album in full as soon as I can, and I am overjoyed to see that Chaney will be joining the Decemberists at the August tour date I’m seeing here in Van. Also, I feel like I’ve been a right dickwad about Bob Boilen’s interviewing, lately. This is a really fun conversation and Bob really keeps it frothy, pointing out Meloy’s mispronunciations of things and everything. Nice stuff.

Reply All: “The Secret Life of Alex Goldman” — The payoff to the “P.J. hacks Alex’s phone” arc. This is actually really fantastic in spite of Alex Goldman having a really boring life, because 1) Goldman and Vogt have a compelling enough dynamic that they can talk about nothing and still be fun and 2) there turn out to be broader implications. Reply All can spin gold out of very thin material.

Imaginary Worlds: “Healing Through Horror” — I’d like to hear more episodes of this show that deal with horror, especially modern horror, but this isn’t really a highlight. This features two people who have both used horror as a means of escaping trauma, but their reasoning for why this is helpful to them is more obvious and less compelling than the episode that deals with this same thing with respect to Harry Potter. Seriously, that Harry Potter series was really great.

On The Media: “Rewriting the Right” — Nice to see OTM explaining the American right. Because god knows I would never understand it otherwise. I’m only half snarking. This trip through the horrible odyssey of right-wing think tanks and their campaigns to influence academia and policy is truly horrifying and I feel bad now.

Imaginary Worlds: “Designing BoJack’s World” — This features an interview with the cartoonist who was hand-picked (with no animation experience) by the creator of BoJack Horseman to design the show’s aesthetic. Given that this show’s host is a former animator himself, this is really interesting. BoJack is the adult cartoon that I feel gets the most out of its choice of idiom. All of the character drama would play out fine in a live-action dramedy, but the animation allows not only for great sight gags, but also for the sense that this is a bizarre and alienating world — a great mood to strike in a narrative about show business.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Summer Movie Preview 2017” — I, too, am looking forward to Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.

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 Dec. 11)

 

In case you’re one of the people who I don’t actually know who wanders through here from time to time, here is a link to my new, other, much more specific blog that you might like to check out. It is about Pink Floyd, progressive rock, and the way that societies make collective decisions about art.

For everybody else: 23 reviews.

Literature

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — I think this may be Vonnegut’s most misunderstood book. This isn’t a broad satire of anything specific, though Vonnegut does snipe at his favourite targets from time to time: war, American exceptionalism, etc. This begs to be read not as a story but as a sort of self-therapy on Vonnegut’s part. It’s a way for him to express his grief about his sister’s death and his despair at the resulting loneliness. When you read it semi-psychoanalytically, it’s maybe the saddest book of Vonnegut’s career. If you try and read it only for its content, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. (Though, considering how direct Vonnegut is about the autobiographical nature of the story in the prologue, I’m not sure how anybody reads this any other way.) This is exceptionally companionable book during a sleepless night, and the most underappreciated thing that Vonnegut ever wrote.

Eric Lipton, David E. Sanger & Scott Shane: “The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower invaded the U.S.” — I don’t usually include news pieces in this thing, but this New York Times feature is magnificent journalism. Its content is extremely disquieting, especially where the D.N.C.’s response to the initial discovery of its security vulnerabilities is concerned. But the construction of the piece is a thing to be marvelled at. Without sacrificing fairness or veering out of the somewhat austere voice that news should be presented in, the authors make careful note of the quiet poetry in certain elements of this story: the fact that the infamous filing cabinet from the Watergate burglary is sitting in the D.N.C.’s basement, or that the Russians sent a phishing email in which the bad link was to a fake Harvard paper called “Why American Elections Are Flawed.” The investigation is thorough, and the story is presented in a way that makes linear sense in spite of the many moving parts and their various aliases. I would likely not have taken the time to read this if I hadn’t subscribed to the Times. I am already glad that I did. This is top shelf.

Shirley Wu: “An Interactive Visualization of Every Line in Hamilton” — I confess that I find Wu’s actual analysis a little bit obvious throughout this feature, but having the data broken down in this interactive format is endlessly fascinating, and maybe my new favourite piece of Hamilton’s fan-made paratext. This allows you not only to look at visualizations of characters’ lines throughout the musical, but also to see where they are addressing each other directly, and when they make use of particular lyrical leitmotifs like “that would be enough” or “who lives, who dies, who tells your story.” It makes certain observations simple, like the fact that Aaron Burr’s role is actually not much smaller than Hamilton’s, and also that Lin-Manuel Miranda almost never makes two characters sing together in duets. This is the lord’s work.

Gideon Lewis-Kraus: “The Great A.I. Awakening” — This is the best magazine feature I’ve read in a long time. It is impressive mostly because it has so much business to attend to throughout its length. It has to juggle a huge cast of characters, mostly computer scientists at Google. It has to touch on decades of history that are relevant to its story. It has to deal with the complexities of institutions, such that a relatively small service (Google Translate) can be at the forefront of innovation for a company. And, perhaps most dauntingly it has to explain complicated computer science concepts to a lay audience. Lewis-Kraus pulls it all off while also being funny. He is also neither alarmist nor boosterist where Silicon Valley is concerned, though he’s closer to the latter than the former. Also interesting is that I read this on the same day I started watching Battlestar Galactica. And in spite of Lewis-Kraus’s reassurances that A.I. in its current state is only here to help, there were many moments here where I found myself interjecting: “But Cylons.” Nonetheless, a fascinating read. Provided that Google doesn’t bring about the apocalypse in the next few years, I’d suggest that Lin-Manuel Miranda should learn to rap in about 100 more languages and consider this as the subject for his next musical. Look back at that list of all the business that Lewis-Kraus has to deal with in this feature and tell me it doesn’t play to LMM’s strengths.

Television

Planet Earth II: “Cities” — I had not expected this somewhat tangential finale to be the highlight of the series, but it absolutely was. The opening sequence features monkeys fighting over turf on rooftops, and it’s like something out of a Jackie Chan movie. Throw in adorable Torontonian raccoons and catfish who have learned to hunt pigeons, and you’ve got an incredible episode of television that also makes a compelling argument: the natural world is powerful enough to coexist with us in our modern environments if we only allow it to. This whole series has been some of the year’s best television, and this single episode is the one that makes this new instalment of Planet Earth the most distinct from its esteemed predecessor. Pick of the week.

QI: “Kinetic” & “Knowledge” — The “Knowledge” episode is one of the funniest of all, partially on account of its premise, which is that most facts turn out not to be true — and that therefore QI’s history is packed with falsehoods. Makes it disquieting to watch back episodes on YouTube. But what am I going to do, stop?

Battlestar Galactica: The Miniseries — Ooh, this is exciting. It’s been a long time since I binged a show, and I can feel a bender coming on with this one. This two-part backdoor pilot for the show that followed is mostly stunning television. Specifically, part one is outstanding throughout. The efficiency with which it introduces its world, setting and characters (that long take!) is really impressive, and the opening exposition sequence is genius. Let’s think about that for a second. If you haven’t seen it, just go watch the first five minutes of this. And note how much labour is done simply through the set design. The détante between the humans and the Cylons is explained through onscreen captions, but the interior set for the armistice station tells you exactly how the meetings between the two factions are supposed to work. There’s a long hallway with a big metal door on each side. The hallway widens a bit in the middle, and there’s a desk there, with a chair on each side. When a man walks through one of the doors and sits down at the chair on his side of the hallway, we know that the same thing is supposed to happen on the other side because of the symmetry of the set. This is brilliant. And the entire first episode, jumping as it does from character to character, is buoyant and propulsive, even when it turns into a war movie. The second part doesn’t fare quite as well. The first half hour introduces a moppetty child whose only function is to make a standard trolley problem a bit more emotionally wrenching, but it doesn’t work because the strings are so visible. It also introduces a sort of ostentatious philosophizing that I would like to go away, please. Mind you, the character most responsible for that becomes more interesting very quickly. So, a fabulous bit of television that flies off the rails halfway through. Sure hope this isn’t foreshadowing of anything.

Music

Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment: Surf — This is just pure joy. I’ve never quite heard this particular genre fusion: rap meets jazz and gospel in a mix that would rather relax then be aggressive. It’s super fun, and “Sunday Candy” is a masterclass in why everybody should love Chance the Rapper.

John Cale: Paris 1919 — I guess it was about time to give John Cale another shot. Years and years ago, I bought the set called The Island Years, which collected his albums Fear, Slow Dazzle, and Helen of Troy, plus some bonus material. I had high expectations for Fear, at least, given that it was one of his most acclaimed albums and featured notable contributions from Brian Eno. But I was thoroughly underwhelmed by all three records. They seemed to me like songwriter records, except that they were made by somebody who is definitely more of an experimental musician than a pop songwriter. Based on my recollection, the songs aren’t that interesting, either in their lyrics or their structures. So, I was never particularly inclined to check out the one John Cale album that most fans would recommend. How much better could it be? Well, as it turns out, a lot better. This is still not quite my thing, but it’s drastically different from the albums that came after in that it is a huge symphonic record rather than a stripped back art pop record. And that broader sonic palette (reminiscent of Procol Harum, but with a sense of irony) makes Cale’s pedestrian lyrics and taste for extremely basic chord progressions and song structures less important. If that seems like faint praise, it is. I don’t love this album. I think it’s fine. But by and large, John Cale’s solo career is one of those bodies of work that music nerds love for reasons I will never understand.

The Velvet Underground: The Velvet Underground — The first time I reviewed this album, I said this: “I’ve loved the first two Velvet Underground albums for years, but never got around to checking out this or Loaded. Apparently, Eno loves this album so much that he’s never owned a copy for fear of becoming overfamiliar. I do see the appeal, though I definitely prefer the debut. I love the first album as much for its noisy sonic adventures as for its songwriting, and that element sort of left the band with John Cale. Still good.” Reading that now, I’m reminded of the value of repeat listening. There was a time when listening obsessively to full albums was my default, but that gradually fell away as I stopped buying physical CDs. These days, the temptation is huge to just listen again and again to the one or two tracks on a given album that capture me initially. And the temptation is even bigger to dismiss albums like this one, that don’t make an immediate strong impression. But I’m glad I took it in mind to hear this again, because the second listen was astronomically more meaningful than the first. Now, I think that “I’m Set Free” might be Lou Reed’s most beautiful song, “The Murder Mystery” might be their most compelling extended experimental track, and the entire album is full of subtle gems. It’s an introverted record, unlike its two predecessors. Nothing here has the epic sweep of “All Tomorrow’s Parties” or “Venus in Furs.” But it’s the kind of thing that’s designed to sink in gradually. I think I need to consider whether writing this ridiculous blog encourages me to listen more broadly and less deeply. I like writing this blog, so occasionally I find myself listening to new stuff and things I haven’t heard before just to have something to write about. That takes away from the time I spend getting to really know an album. In any case, I’ll be listening to much more of this.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “This Is Us and Speechless” — Maybe it’s just because my personal pop culture experience of 2016 has revolved around music a lot more than around TV and movies, which remain the primary focus of this show, but I’m not getting as much out of PCHH as I used to. I have no intention of stopping, obviously. But I wouldn’t mind if this panel did tackle music once in awhile. Because All Songs Considered isn’t ultimately about discussion. It’s about playing music, usually. Anyway, this is fine.

A Point of View: “Holes in Clothes” — Presumably, right now Adam Gopnik is thinking “I was clearly so insightful about Trump… I wonder if I can get people to listen to me talk about jeans with holes in them?” And the answer is obviously yes. And his take is neither stodgy or vapid. This is a slight thing, but proof that Gopnik is a worthwhile voice, even when he’s tackling current affairs from an oblique angle.

Homecoming: “PINEAPPLE” — This continues to be dark and beautiful, but I’m not feeling myself pulled in by the suspense in the same way that I did with, for instance, Limetown. Possibly it’s in part because the story comes in such small bits, and possibly it has something to do with the MANDATORY documentary segments at the ends of the episodes. But this feels slight to me. I imagine it’ll grow on me. Maybe I’ll try a few episodes at a time, next I listen. I am behind, after all.

On the Media: “Imagine That” — OTM’s public existential crisis continues apace, but they’re still doing great work on topics like digital security. If the segment on Pizzagate is somewhat underwhelming, that’s only because OTM’s former reporter Alex Goldman has already covered the hell out of it elsewhere.

Too Much Information: “On Four Lions, Comedy, Radio and Idiots” — Firstly, it’s weird to hear Benjamen Walker do a straight interview. He’s in a strangely good mood here, grunting affirmatively at most of what Chris Morris says. But then, Benjamen Walker is clearly a huge fan of Chris Morris. And with good reason: Chris Morris is the comedian equivalent of Benjamen Walker. Everything is tediously researched. Nothing is sacred. Most of what’s called “progress” isn’t. They’re two peas in a pod. Interesting.

Theory of Everything: “Useful Idiots” — Holy bonkers. The final segment of this episode connects Jeremy Bentham to Putin’s key advisor by way of Grigory Potemkin. And after some cursory verification, I don’t think I’m being fucked with. This show is valuable as much for its tendency to breed scepticism as anything. I have often felt compelled to make sure that something on this show that seems fake is actually fake, and vice versa, because I fear being made a credulous fool. But that final interview here (starts at 16:50) seems like the real thing. And it is earthshaking. Pick of the week.

Bullseye: “John Cale & TJ and Dave” — This is really why I listened to Paris 1919 this week: the live version of the title track that Jesse Thorn plays a snippet from here is infectious. The interview is great, though it does hue rather closely to the best-known elements of Cale’s career: meeting Lou Reed, getting kicked out of the Velvet Underground, producing the Stooges, etc. The TJ and Dave segment isn’t as funny as you’d like, but it’s vulnerable. Bullseye is a pop culture interview show done mostly right, in that the focus never really moves too far away from the sensibility of its host. It’s not trying to be for everyone. But also, it’s just so cool, sometimes. And I find that offputting, frankly. That’s why I listen so seldom. On the other hand, I can wholeheartedly recommend the one segment from the episode after this one that I did listen to: Jesse Thorn’s love letter to 19th-century paintings of cows. Magnificent.

Code Switch: “Audie and the Not-So-Magic School Bus” — Nice to hear Audie Cornish on Code Switch finally. This is a bit odd in the sense that it’s a behind-the-scenes look at a story that Cornish did on All Things Considered, but they don’t play the actual story. I suppose I could go find it, but it would have been nice if they could have played at least a little bit more than the one tiny clip that they used. Still, this is a really interesting trip through the history of busing and school segregation.

99% Invisible: “Plat of Zion” — The best 99pi in ages. (I think I probably say that a lot. But I honestly don’t remember another episode this year that’s as good as this one.) This is a discussion of the urban planning of Salt Lake City, Utah, which is seen by Mormons as having been divinely revealed. This is maybe the single greatest urban planning story in American history, on account of simply being so crazy. I love it.

Crimetown: Episodes 4-5 — This turned out to be really bingeable. This show is built around incredible interviews with charismatic mobsters, of various degrees of regretfulness. It is so fun to listen to these complicated people talk. Gimlet doesn’t hit it out of the part every time, these days. But this one is destined to be one of the crown jewels in their stable.

Imaginary Worlds: “Working On the Death Star” — I guess now this podcast is also doing Star Wars every year? Whatever. This is fun. Hearing serious people talk about non-serious things is always fun. And in this episode, a prosecutor and a judge argue about the legality of the Galactic Empire’s labour practices, and an economist argues that the Rebel Alliance might have been wrong to blow up the Death Star, because it would throw the galaxy into economic disarray, which would have dire consequences even for those with no enthusiasm for the Empire itself.

StartUp: “Anger” — This is a fairly elegant solution to the problem that Dov Charney won’t talk on the record about the shit he did that got him fired. Lots of other people will. This is a details-heavy episode with lots of contractual talk, but the drama never flags. I’ve actually really warmed to this season of StartUp since I started hating Charney. Lisa Chow has always been more of a reporter and less of a personality than some of her fellow Gimlet hosts, which is greatly to her credit. Even when she’s stretched to her limit by an extremely complicated subject such as Charney, who is occasionally openly hostile to her, she doesn’t make the story about her for more than a couple of minutes. It’s kind of amazing. This season is a real return to form for this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and La La Land” — I think I’ll actually sit Rogue One out. Maybe I’ll watch it when it’s on Netflix. But I’m not giving money to Disney for a bad Star Wars movie. I’ll give them money for the good ones. I was more enthusiastic about La La Land before I listened to this, but the panel kind of threw cold water on that as well. What can you do. 

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 4, 2016)

Okay, I’ve given up on links, by and large. If you want the multimedia experience, go to the Tumblr. I’ve beefed that up a bit in terms of embedding things. These posts, on the other hand, will remain austere walls of text. Because there needs to be a place for austere walls of text.

Literature, etc.

Alex Ross: “The Frankfurt School Knew Trump Was Coming” — How amazing a magazine do you have to be when your classical music columnist writes this piece? That is, of course, almost cruelly reductive: Ross is as much an expert on Theodor Adorno and Thomas Mann as he is on Gustav Mahler and Alban Berg — at least partially because you can’t be that much of an expert on Mahler and Berg without being an expert on Adorno and Mann (he says, and slumps shamefully in his chair). Ross gets closer to a key element of Trump’s election than any other commentator I’ve read: how our contemporary media (social and otherwise) is essentially designed to make Trump happen. Adorno saw this coming from more than half a century away. Fascinating.

Anne Midgette: “Martha Argerich is a legend of the classical music world. But she doesn’t act like one.” — This WashPo profile of Argerich reveals her to be exactly the sort of person you’d expect to play like that. She’s always been one of my favourite pianists, with her debut recording being a particular classic. (Check out that Prokofiev. Seriously.) Her ferocious, spontaneous style of playing is more exciting than anybody else in the classical piano world, and it seems that she has led her life in the same way. It’s strangely gratifying to learn that. So many classical musicians today are dull careerists whose playing you couldn’t pick out of a crowd. This is the real thing.

Kurt Vonnegut: Slapstick — Yeah, I was planning on devoting my fiction time for the rest of the year to Jerusalem, but I occasionally get a hankering for Vonnegut. It’s best to heed these hankerings, or I spend the rest of my reading time wishing I was reading Vonnegut. I only started this a couple hours ago, so I’m only about a quarter through (one thing I love about Vonnegut is how quickly I can get through his books) but I’m already sinking into the familiar rhythms. It’s similar to Hocus Pocus, and Galápagos, the last two Vonnegut novels I read, in that it’s narrated in first person from the aftermath of a disaster of some kind. Already, the strange details about how the world is now, in this aftermath, are starting to be explained. I imagine the penny will continue to drop slowly. I know how this game works. The thing that is intriguing me more than anything is Vonnegut’s promise in the (extraordinary) introduction that this is the closest thing he’ll ever write to an autobiography. And considering that this comes right after Breakfast of Champions (my favourite) in his corpus, maybe he’s got a few unexpected tricks in store for the final act of this one.

Music

Steve Hackett: Voyage of the Acolyte — This album didn’t connect with me during my most prog-obsessed phase, so it’s a bit odd that it’s hitting me now. It’s a subtle thing, to be fair. (Except for the bits where it’s not.) But it is as typical a prog album as you’re likely to find. The comparative focus on Hackett’s virtuosity as a guitarist makes it almost proggier than the later Peter Gabriel-fronted Genesis albums. It isn’t entirely consistent, but “Ace of Wands” is a classic prog instrumental and “Shadow of the Hierophant” is actually beautiful, and I don’t use that word lightly. The melody is sublime, Sally Oldfield’s voice is perfect for the material, the way the flute comes in and restates the secondary melody of “Ace of Wands” ties everything up in a nice bow, and the album ends with a huge crescendo. Everything you could want. It’s amazing that Tony Banks doesn’t like this album. It’s also amazing that Banks tried to keep Hackett’s “After the Ordeal” off of Selling England. It’s appalling that Banks would slag either of those things off in interviews. No wonder Hackett left the band.

Solange: A Seat at the Table — A subtle, righteous album that I won’t pretend I didn’t constantly compare with her sister’s record from earlier this year. Which is a terrible thing to do. Asking A Seat at the Table to be Lemonade is like asking Led Zeppelin IV to be Madvillainy. But truth be told, I’m not dying to hear this a bunch more times the way that I have been with certain other albums. Still, very very good.

Television

Last Chance To See: Episodes 5 & 6 — This is a magnificent series. Mark Carwardine’s genuine excitement and affection for the endangered animals that he and Stephen Fry go looking for is absolutely contagious. And if Fry in his voiceover is a less profound and slightly less witty companion than his predecessor Douglas Adams, he’s nonetheless an extremely companionable screen presence. This show does as much to convey the wonders of the animal kingdom as Planet Earth or Life from the BBC Natural History Unit, but with a more elegiac tone and a focus on human threats and conservation efforts. I completely enjoyed it, and it has inspired me to add the BBC Radio version of the Adams/Carwardine original to my list of things to check out. This is on Netflix, at least in Canada. Watch it. It’s wonderful.

Planet Earth II: Episodes 1-5 — It’s got all the stuff that became familiar by the end of the first Planet Earth. Same storytelling, same incredible footage. David Attenborough still does that thing where he figures if his sentences are pretty enough I won’t notice he’s doing an awkward transition. Attenborough still hilariously talks about the film crew in the behind the scenes segments the exact same way he talks about animals. Glibness aside: this is outstanding, and it’s making me slightly regret writing so effusively about Last Chance to See. That series is truly excellent and worth your time, but Planet Earth — both instalments of it — is among the most virtuosic filmmaking ever done. There are events captured here that are so momentary, so hidden, and so infrequent that it’s astonishing it even makes sense. There’s a sequence in the grasslands episode where a mouse climbs to the top of a blade of tall grass, has to dodge an approaching barn owl, and falls off of the blade of grass, into the frame of another shot. The whole thing is seen from several different angles. Surely there’s a certain amount of fakery at play here, but the amount of (quality, beautiful) footage that they must have had to shoot to tell complete, engaging stories must be gigantic. Will wonders never cease? No. No they won’t. That’s why people still make nature documentaries. It’s still got one more chance to be pick of the week. It would be, this week. But…

Movies

Manchester by the Sea — This made me have every feeling I am capable of. I’m not sure that I have ever in my life been so pulled in by a movie with so little artifice. This is very much one of those movies that feels like dropping in on a period in somebody’s actual life. There’s nothing stylized about it. The framing of every shot is beautiful, but understated. The music is ever-present, but never ostentatious. Casey Affleck gives an Oscar-worthy performance as the protagonist, Lee, yet it’s the very opposite of the “big” performances that have seized the Academy’s attention in recent years. Even the jokes (which exist) are timed in the way that real people with good timing time their jokes in conversation, rather than like actors who have studied the script. It is, in other words, the opposite of nearly every movie I like. So why did it make me respond like this? I think it’s because it tells a story that is genuinely gutting without a smidgen of what we’d often call “emotional manipulation.” (Okay, maybe the Albinoni is a bit manipulative, but it’s in the saddest scene, so…) It’s the story of a naturally aloof person who has had something so horrifying happen to him that his only response is to completely cut himself off from the world he’s known. The movie itself takes a hint from its protagonist and declines to be openly expressive, opting instead to just be sad. It’s telling, I think, that a movie so focussed on its main character should be titled after its setting instead: you might think that a film called Manchester by the Sea would focus more on the community around him. But aside from Lee’s nephew and a short but shattering performance from Michelle Williams as his wife, it really doesn’t. As far as I can tell, it’s called that because Manchester-by-the-Sea is the place from which Lee can’t escape. Why is Lee miserable? Manchester-by-the-Sea. The name of the town is as much a metonym for Lee’s personal tragedy as Wall Street is for high finance. There’s an alternate universe where Manchester by the Sea is a horror movie: a haunted house story about what happens when you force a person to live in a place that’s full of ghosts. And to make matters worse, he’s saddled with the care of a nephew who is just in the process of becoming the person that Lee wishes he could still be. This is a profound film. It’s a paradigm-shifting dissertation on what hides behind the facades of difficult, impenetrable people. And while half of me will be rooting against it come Oscar season in favour of Moonlight, which is the nobler picture and the one whose victory has the greater potential to cause positive change in the film industry, I really think this is one of the best movies in recent years. Looking back briefly through my favourite movies of 2014 and 2015, only Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, and The Grand Budapest Hotel can compete. I would have watched five more hours of this. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

In The Dark: “Update: A Sentencing, A Demand, No Closure” — This epilogue to In The Dark doesn’t especially further the investigation’s key findings so much as put a final button on the personal side of the story, which is that many people’s lives were ruined by Jacob Wetterling’s murderer, and that said murderer is as much of a cold monster as you would expect him to be. It’s not especially enlightening, but it is compassionate, and that’s just as important in investigative journalism.

The Memory Palace: “Peregrinar” — The hundredth episode of The Memory Palace! It’s hard to imagine how much work could go into a show like this: the time spent researching so that there can be details to colour the story, and the time spent finessing the prose so it sticks in your head. And all for a show that’s much shorter on average than most podcasts. But it’s a counterintuitive process that results in a profoundly worthwhile product. This episode is a firmly middle-of-the-pack instalment about Cesar Chavez’s campaign for worker’s rights. Which means it’s still going to be one of the best things I hear this week.  

Radiolab: “Alpha Gal” — Welcome back to ye olde Radiolab. It’s been awhile since I felt like all of the old gears were working this well in tandem: This is a personal story about a person who loves food. (The interview that most of this is drawn from was done by Dan Pashman, which is a good start.) But it’s also a science story about how an extremely unlikely instigator started making people allergic to red meat. Everything you want from this show. Except for a multi-story format, which I still miss.

All Songs Considered: “Run the Jewels, Flaming Lips, John Prine, More” — This is an old as balls episode of All Songs but I still hadn’t heard this RTJ single, so I’ve kept it in my feed while I catch up. This is one of the good ones, and not just because of the three eminent artists in the title. There’s also a great track by Laura Burhenn.

Love and Radio: “Upper Left” — Like so many stories on this show, this starts off seeming like it’s going in one direction and then abruptly goes in another. It’s the story of a woman who tries to explore her sexuality and ends up a member of a Scientology-like organization that tries to silence dissent and bilk women out of their money. Only on Love and Radio would that be a “lighthearted” episode.

Love and Radio: “Doing the No No” — This is one of the best episodes of Love and Radio. It’s not the emotional rollercoaster of “The Living Room” or “Greetings From Coney Island.” And it’s not the intensely controversial sort of thing that they did with “A Red Dot.” But it features a character who is dealing with something that will horrify people at least until they hear him talk: making transgenic organisms as art. He is wilfully transgressive, but also extremely thoughtful and not entirely unsympathetic. Which makes it all the more compelling when the story takes a typically Love and Radio-style turn more than halfway through its duration.

Census: “talking about sex on facebook” — This guy contacted me on Twitter to listen to his podcast, and months later when I finally get to it, he seems to still have only made one episode. Well, anyway, it’s fine. It’s alternately funny and intense and it’s frank. But it doesn’t seem to fill much of a gap in my podcast feed. There’s nothing here that some combination of The Heart and Love and Radio doesn’t do better.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Younger” — Linda Holmes talks to a millennial! I have no interest in Younger. But I am always happy to hear people talk about why the tropes associated with millennials are dumb.

The Gist: “It’s Much Bigger Than O.J.” — The whole reason to listen to The Gist is that Mike Pesca almost never has the same angle on a story or interview as anybody else. I’ve heard a couple of interviews with Ezra Edelman about his masterful O.J. Simpson documentary series, but none of them were recorded after the election and focussed on the parallels between O.J. supporters and Trump voters. Super interesting.

99% Invisible: “Guano Island” — This is one of those episodes of 99pi that really makes me think about how it relates to the show’s design-oriented premise. But it’s a great story about how the United States gradually stuck its toe into the murky swamp of imperialism (the European kind, where you claim new territories, as opposed to the kind that the actual foundation of America was based on). Who knew it had anything to do with bird shit?

Homecoming: “MANDATORY” — An intriguing start to a series that promises to be at least one of the best produced fiction podcasts ever. And certainly the most ostentatiously prestigious. I mean, Catherine Keener. David Cross. Amy Sedaris. Ross from Friends. Tadd Dameron. The story hasn’t really got rolling yet, so it’s most interesting to focus on the format, which relies heavily on scenarios that diegetically justify the presence of microphones — though not exclusively. Eli Horowitz is careful to point out in the interview after the show that they didn’t tie themselves in knots to justify the very existence of the story in this format. Which is wise. But about that aftershow. I get that it’s a big advertising opportunity to partner with Apple. But I fear that eventually putting an interview segment after every episode — in the actual episode, mind you; packaged together with it — will feel like too many peeks behind the curtain for a show that is trying to be suspenseful. I may turn out to be wrong. Anyway, this is really promising. I’ve got the next few episodes cued up in my feed for pretty soon.

Crimetown: Episodes 1-3 — If Homecoming demonstrated instant promise, then its Gimlet stablemate Crimetown forced me to start binging immediately. This is my favourite of the new slate of Gimlet shows that came out in the last month, by miles. And that’s in spite of it being part of the slightly overcrowded genre of true crime. I’ve read comparisons to The Wire already, and those are indeed more apt comparisons than that more obvious Serial ones would be. This is a story about a corrupt mayor, sure. But it’s also a story about how crime becomes a defining element of a city’s culture. And with a promise to cover a different city in every season, it’s got an endlessly renewable premise that makes it one of the most exciting new podcasts of the year.

Undone: “Disco Demolition Night” — The clear underdog of Gimlet’s fall season. This story in itself is quite good, and would be a highlight in any given episode of This American Life. But the premise of the show seems to lack focus, and I can’t muster up the enthusiasm to listen to more of this until there’s another topic I’m especially interested in. Not one of those podcasts that sells itself by simply existing.

Reply All: “Voyage Into Pizzagate” — Is it possible that this is the most ludicrous of all of the lunatic fringe’s conspiracy theories? The fact that it’s not a question I can immediately answer is distressing in itself. This is Alex Goldman in On the Media mode, trying to figure out how the internet, and specifically Reddit, made it possible for a shockingly large number of people to believe something patently ridiculous in the absence of any evidence at all. Really, really good. Angry-making, but good.

Fresh Air: “NYT Exec. Editor On The New Terrain Of Covering Trump” — A fantastic interview with the editor of the paper that Donald Trump has essentially declared his mortal enemy. I like him. He clearly thinks a lot about what words mean. I’ve recently gotten myself a digital subscription to the Times and it was a very very good decision, and you should do that too. Or whatever other newspaper. But the Times, though.

All Songs Considered: “The Year In Music 2016” — First off, I’d halfway like to hear Stephen Thompson and Ann Powers take over as hosts on this show. It’s not that I don’t love the dynamic between Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton, but these two just have more to say. They represent the really insightful side of NPR Music, as opposed to just having their ear to the ground and having great taste, which is what makes Boilen and Hilton effective on this show, at least in terms of selecting music to feature. Secondly, there is a lot of great music in this episode, and it is as good a wrap-up for the painful, confusing year that was 2016 as you’re likely to find. It really does exemplify my feeling that music, more than maybe any other art form, is the means by which we take our own temperature. The music of 2016 is going to be super meaningful in the future, just like the music of 1967 or ‘77 is now. I’m really happy that Boilen closed it all out with Let’s Eat Grandma. They’re one of the most promising new acts of the year, and they are one of relatively few who managed to be brilliant in a way that doesn’t constantly remind you of the shitty historical context in which the art was made. Which, I mean, is definitely a thing that art should do. But it’s nice that there’s at least something out there that’s weird and awesome and totally from its own world. I love Let’s Eat Grandma. And I wouldn’t have heard them if not for this show, which is one of my favourite personal discoveries of the year. Pick of the week.

StartUp: “Suits” — Yeah, I have no sympathy left for Dov Charney. I mean, I hope that somebody learns from his better decisions and incorporates certain of his ethical principles into their own businesses. But I couldn’t care less if Charney gets back on his feet at the end of this story.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 27)

I’ve decided to start adding links to things. I apologize for how stupid and distracting it looks. But some things deserve to be clicked. Most don’t. But many do. If I link to it, it means I think you should check it out.

22 reviews.

Live events

Joyce DiDonato: In War And Peace, live at the Orpheum — I’d like to be charitable on account of being so fond of Joyce DiDonato in general, but this was an only okay performance from possibly my favourite singer. There were moments of brilliance scattered throughout, particularly in the more lyrical moments. I’ve never heard “Lascia ch’io pianga” from Handel’s Rinaldo sung better. And the finale, Strauss’s “Morgen,” was basically perfect. But the thing I’ve always loved most about listening to DiDonato’s recordings (including recordings of her singing live) is just marvelling at her technical wizardry. I like listening to her sing runs, basically. And all of that stuff went kind of badly last night, which is a shame given that this was the first time I’d heard her sing in person. Coloratura passages were messy. She missed a lot of the middle notes in arpeggios. Her voice didn’t fill the hall like I was expecting. On that note, I really think the Orpheum was the wrong venue for this show. Il Pomo d’Oro is an astonishing baroque chamber orchestra, but their sound doesn’t carry in a big room. I strained to hear the details all night. If these musical problems had been less present, I would likely have been more indulgent of the production as a whole, which was a little inscrutable. Rather than presenting a straightforward recital for this tour about war and peace, DiDonato elected to bring a dancer onboard, use some fancy lighting, and wear Ziggy Stardust makeup. Actually, I think the Ziggy makeup was a rather nice touch. But I found the lighting and the dancer distracting, and couldn’t quite figure out what the point was. Not spectacle, certainly. This is the sort of thing I’m loathe to criticize too harshly, because I’d rather musicians try it than just stick to the safe route and not take creative risks. But for me, it took away more than it added, and completely failed to make up for the musical shortcomings. I don’t want to make this sound like a complete waste of time — the best musical moments were truly stunning, and the impression overall was of a great singer and a great orchestra performing in a lukewarm production and having a bad night. Ah, well.

Television

Fleabag: Episodes 4-6 — This latter half-season of Fleabag is extraordinary. Not because of the huge plot reveals or the inventive editing and unreliable narrator stuff. That’s fine, but it’s not completely unique. It is extraordinary because all of the revelations about its protagonist’s life seem to stem logically from the character we’ve gotten to know — and not the other way around. In life, your character exerts as much sway on your life story as your life story exerts on your character. This is rarely true in fiction. Fiction tends to frame stories primarily as sequences of events, and characters are just the people they happen to. Their specific traits are engineered to reflect the story that they’ve been planted in. Fleabag, on the other hand, starts by showing you a unique character that you can completely understand, just on the basis of her actions. Then then it builds a backstory that makes perfect sense for that character. It introduces the character first, and then it asks, “What would happen if this character existed in the world? What sorts of things would she cause to happen?” It isn’t characterization in the traditional sense, because the character arrives fully formed. It is story emerging from character as opposed to the other way around. And the fact that the characters are so clearly-drawn, and possess such agency over their stories (not their lives, mind you, but their stories) means that the show sparkles on a scene-by-scene basis, because all you have to do is put them in the right combinations and situations, and poetry happens. Phoebe Waller-Bridge is a genius. I’d love to see more of this, but I’d be just as happy to see her do something completely different. Brilliant. Pick of the week.

Last Chance to See: Episodes 1-4 — I’ve been meaning to watch this for ages. It’s Stephen Fry’s televised sequel to his late friend Douglas Adams’s radio/prose masterpiece of the same title. The book, co-authored with naturalist Mark Carwardine (who rejoins as Fry’s guide), is one of the most profound works of nonfiction ever — humourous or not. It contains some of the greatest prose ever written in the English language: more beautiful even than the most cathartic moments in the Hitchhiker series. So, it’s probably wise for Fry to attempt a follow-up only in an entirely different medium. I am enjoying it enormously. It has all of the requisite gorgeous nature footage that you’d expect from the BBC, but it’s also brilliantly conceived and presented. A huge part of the joy in this series is just watching Fry and Carwardine talk to each other. They take an instant liking to one another, in spite of their drastically different temperaments, and a double act is born. So far, there’s been one slightly jarring segment in the episode on Madagascar where Fry and Carwardine visit a local village of indigenous people. There’s a certain amount of hand wringing done over the fact that the superstitious locals kill lemurs because they think them to be bad omens. But by this point, they’ve already established that the real threat to the lemurs’ survival is rampant forestry. So why bother? Surely if not for forestry, the lemurs could withstand the beliefs of the island’s first people. Seems a bit unnecessary, and certainly condescending. But it’s a bum note in what is otherwise proving to be an immensely satisfying documentary series.

Movies

Moonlight — This movie might have been too subtle for me. After watching it Friday night, I racked my brains for a way to frame its observations on race, class and sexuality in a couple of tidy sentences, and it’s just not possible. This should make me like it more. And it definitely does make me admire it more. I like movies that refuse to just put their cards on the table. It puts the onus on the audience to make connections for themselves. But with this movie, I’m not sure I’m up to the task. I appreciate it as a beautifully shot character study with universally fantastic acting. I enjoyed it enormously on a scene-by-scene basis, particularly towards the end of the movie where the tension of things left unspoken between the two key characters grows more and more unbearable. And of course, it’s extremely gratifying to even see a movie like this get made: one about a poor, black, gay kid living in a part of Miami that never gets shown in the movies. But I still feel as though there’s something I’m not getting. Also, there are jarring bits of dialogue here and there, especially in the film’s second act, in which teenagers occasionally talk the way that adults think teenagers talk. But that’s not what’s bothering me. What’s bothering me is that, like many similarly austere movies (those of Yasujirō Ozu, for instance), it doesn’t offer up a loose corner for me to peel back and see what it’s actually saying. Presumably, other viewers will find that loose corner and be in awe. Power to them.

Doctor Strange — I saw this with a couple of friends immediately after watching Moonlight, which may seem a slightly perverse double feature, but it was actually kind of perfect. See the big serious, austere movie that will take up residency in your brain for a while, then wash it down with a helping of amazing froth. I have railed against the Marvel Cinematic Universe (and the very concept of cinematic universes) on a couple of occasions, but I have to admit that between this and Civil War, it has provided the four-and-a-half funnest hours I’ve spent in movie theatres this year. There are big problems with Doctor Strange, including whitewashing and cultural appropriation, and those problems do legitimately put it out of the running for the year’s best movies, and also for the MCU’s best movies. But there are moments here that remind me what I love about going to movies the same way that Mad Max: Fury Road did last year. In an odd sense, both this and Moonlight serve as reminders of why cinema is an art form that stands alone in its aptitudes. Cinema makes us look at things. Moonlight’s story plays out on its actors’ faces in close-up more so than in the words they speak. Doctor Strange shows us impossible, kaleidoscopic, psychedelic, Escher-esque deformations of modern cityscapes that would be impossible to convey by any means but modern filmmaking. The visual inventiveness of this movie owes something to Inception, whose story and structure it can’t hope to equal, but it is infinitely more thrilling in its aesthetic. The chase and fight sequences that take place in magically elongated hallways and city streets turned on their sides are so far removed from the usual dull boilerplate fare in these movies that it reminds you of the initial promise of CGI, rather than its increasingly lazy modern applications. When you throw in a snarky protagonist who can tell you specifically when Chuck Mangione’s anomalously flugelhorn-centric “Feels So Good” charted, a few measures of Pink Floyd’s very apropos “Interstellar Overdrive” during a car crash sequence, and an incomprehensible Lovecraftian god, you’ve made a movie that I was always going to love.

Literature, etc.

Emily Bazelon: “Billionaires Vs. the Press in the Era of Trump” — This deeply disquieting New York Times Magazine piece doesn’t just go through the recent, high-profile cases of wealth silencing speech in America, but also contextualizes it within legal precedent and makes note of how things could change (i.e. by what mechanisms) under a media-hostile Trump administration.

Scott Shane: “Combative, Populist Steve Bannon Found His Man in Donald Trump” — The biggest takeaway from this piece is that Steve Bannon is more an extremist than he is a conservative. There’s an alternate universe not far from this one where he’s attempting to foment an American communist revolution. Alas, we all live in the Trumpiverse.

Music

The Pogues: Rum Sodomy & the Lash — Figured I’d best get to know the rest of their oeuvre before “Fairytale of New York” gets stuck in my head for a month. I really enjoyed this. Maybe it connects to something in my Newfoundland heritage. But there’s something in the combination of pipes, accordion and liquored-up story-songs that just hits me where I live. The bookends strike me as the strongest points. “The Sick Bed of Cúchulainn” is pure drunken euphoria, and the Pogues’ rendition of “And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda” gives it exactly what the song needs: a complete lack of sentimentality. In its brutal straightforwardness, it is profoundly moving. I’ll be obsessing over this for a while.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Arrival and Pop Culture Serotonin” — Arrival sounds very much like my kind of thing. And the second segment was wonderful, because it basically just allowed the panel to spend half the episode on “what’s making us happy this week.” Nice.

StartUp: “Introducing Gimlet’s Fall Slate” — I am enormously excited for all of these shows. Initially, Homecoming was the one that seemed most exciting, but after hearing this preview of all three, I’m now most looking forward to Crimetown. Undone is still the clear runt of the litter.

A Point of View: “A Liberal Credo” — Adam Gopnik makes a convincing argument for centrist liberalism as something more than just a compromising middle ground. This is the sort of thing it does me good to hear occasionally, so I don’t go full communist and cease to be welcome at Thanksgiving dinner.

The Memory Palace: “under our feet” — God, I feel like it’s been ages since I listened to The Memory Palace. This is a completely wonderful story of the guy who was responsible for capturing the public imagination with dinosaurs for the first time. One of Nate DiMeo’s strengths as a writer is capturing the sensation of wonder, even when it is directed at something that’s less wondrous to us now than it was to the characters in his stories.

The Memory Palace: “Met Residency #3 (Full Circle)” — This is the most self-supporting of DiMeo’s Met residency stories. The tale of a painter who never quite made it, it works as a standalone radio piece, even if it does make you really want to see the panorama in question.

All Songs Considered: “How David Bowie’s Songs Became The Musical ‘Lazarus’” — I’d be interested in seeing Lazarus, if only to see what sort of musical David Bowie would attach his name to in his last years. But this interview and these music clips really make it seem like a garden variety jukebox musical. And that version of “Life On Mars?” is borderline sacrilege. And not the kind I like.

Love and Radio: “Wood Fighting with Steel” — Nick Van Der Kolk’s brief existential crisis at the start of this episode is fascinating, if only because he seems not to realize that the show he’s making is literally the most relevant podcast it’s possible for anybody to make in a world where Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. It seems likely that we could be entering an era that’s even more defined by fear and hatred of the ‘other’ than the present one. Here’s a podcast that starts from the contention that it’s better to listen to people than not to. I can’t imagine anything more powerful. This particular story sits somewhere in the middle of the pack, honestly. But like every episode of this show, it’s an opportunity to get to know somebody on their own terms. That’s quietly amazing. Love and Radio is more essential than ever.

This American Life: “Duty Calls” — A punishingly sad story about a man who can’t quite help his mother get over her addiction. A cameo by Starlee Kine helps leaven the heft.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Man In the High Castle” — The latest I’ve heard in the emerging subgenre of “things that are obviously about Trump but don’t actually mention his name.” The Man in the High Castle sounds like the show for our times. And learning about the ways that it expands on the Philip K. Dick story helps to sell me on it. I still don’t know if I’ll commit to watching it, though. Could be a bit heavy-handed. I may yet be convinced.

Fresh Air: “‘Manchester By The Sea’ Director Kenneth Lonergan” — This mostly just reassured me that a movie I am already excited about will be worth my time. And also that there are moments of humour in it instead of it just being punishing from start to finish.

A Point of View: “Bob Dylan and the Bobolators” — Nice to hear Adam Gopnik talk about something relatively light and unimportant. I’m not totally convinced that he understands the extent to which Bob Dylan is a troll. One of the best things about Dylan is how utterly scornful he is of the very people who seek to raise him up. Every modern critique of the baby boomer cultural hegemony that made Dylan a legend was basically anticipated by Dylan himself, in his pathological antipathy for his audience. I love that. But I also love Gopnik’s defence of people like Paul McCartney, who are scorned because the want to be loved. This is a great essay. I intend to make a point of tuning into this whenever Gopnik’s on. He’s a worthwhile tonic for the ailments caused by listening to Roger Scruton.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Gilmore Girls and Moana” — The discussion of Gilmore Girls went way the hell over my head. Moana sounds fine. Basically, this is most worthwhile for the “what’s making us happy” segment, which features five panelists instead of the usual four. Glen Weldon is funny. My dishes got done.

StartUp: “Boundaries” — Okay, Dov Charney is a sleazebag. Any tolerance I’d built up for him in the first three episodes of this series is now gone. But the series itself is quickly winning me over.

On The Media: “Normalize This!” — It’s nice to see that, in the short period that I haven’t been listening, OTM has gotten past it’s post-election primal screaming phase and gotten on with the important work of thinking about how to cover a president who is indifferent to truth. This is an episode that is concerned with concrete strategies, right down to the most granular level of what specific words to use and to avoid using. I’ll say it again: thank god for this show. Pick of the week.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 20, 2016)

Do you ever listen to podcasts at 1.5X speed? Pro-tip: do that. You can listen to more podcasts that way.

27 reviews.

Television

QI: “Keys,” “Jumpers” & “Jobs” — If I am not mistaken, I have watched three episodes (in a random batch of six) of QI in the past two weeks that all reference bungee jumping.

Fleabag: Episodes 1-3 — Watched on the recommendation of the panel on Pop Culture Happy Hour. I’m really enjoying this, even if my snootiest, least charitable self wants to believe that I had it pegged as a Louie-esque-difficult-person-dramedy-with-an-occasionally-cloying-indie-sensibility right from the start. The important thing is not that it happens to fall into an increasingly identifiable box, but that it’s brilliantly executed and succeeds at being both sensitive and hilarious at the same time. Also, it’s always nice to see a show that succeeds without having a big, pitchable marquee concept (“women’s prison show” or “washed-up cartoon horse”). How would you summarize Fleabag? “A young woman deals with grief?” Yawn. Yet, I’d love to see more of this sort of thing. Television producers take note: “show with ordinary, real-life story, interesting characters, and good jokes” might actually be an elevator pitch worth paying attention to.

Movies

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them — Well, I went to a movie theatre and was pleasantly diverted for a couple of hours, so I guess that’s a win. But this is not a very good movie. Aside from just being sort of superfluous in general (also, five movies!?!? that’s far too many movies), it has some problems even when taken entirely on its own terms. The plotline suffers from the sense that groundwork is constantly being laid for later things. Jon Voight shows up pointlessly about three times, and will presumably be important later. Also, in the end, the focus turns to a thing called the Obscurus, which is a big evil repression monster, but the bulk of the movie is just people running around chasing other, unrelated escaped monsters. Those plotlines don’t sit easily together, and I think Rowling should have just picked a thing. Story concerns aside, there are also character concerns. Namely, the two main characters are both ill-conceived ciphers. Eddie Redmayne’s Newt Scamander is fun to watch in the way that Eddie Redmayne is usually fun to watch, but he has to state outright that he has the tendency to annoy people because he is never seen to do that thing. Anyway, this is genuinely weak in most respects, but also strangely hard to dislike. It’s nice to be back in the wizarding world, even though the absence of Great British Character Actors A through Z makes this feel like a drastically different thing, tonally. (The cast here is fine, but the thing that makes the Harry Potter movies occasionally more than workmanlike is that particular species of British acting proffered by Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Richard Harris, Michael Gambon, Robbie Coltrane, Helena-Bonham Carter, and tons more. Nothing of the sort here — by design, clearly. But I do miss that.) If there’s one silver lining to an American-set wizarding world franchise, it’s that modern fantasy’s least subtle left-wing allegorist has been unleashed on a country that just elected Donald Trump. This is not necessarily a winning formula, but I’ll hold out hope that future instalments could be interesting. Also thievery platypus.

I Am The Pretty Thing That Lives In The House — This is my kind of horror. The premise is classic pulp fodder: a young hospice nurse moves into a house to care for a senile author who used to write horror novels, and the house turns out to be haunted. But this film takes a dramatically more ambitious approach to this material than you might expect. It is slow and contemplative, with deliberately artificial performances and artfully framed static shots. The bulk of the script is delivered in voiceover, pairing enigmatic images with obtuse, circuitous discussions of themes rather than exposition. It’s a movie that actively challenges you to figure out what it’s really about, given that its story is so basic and told at such a slow, deliberate pace. I’m not entirely sure what the answer to that is. There’s lots in there about the act of looking, but I’m not quite sure what to make of that. Seems like something I might be able to parse on a second viewing, when I’m not preoccupied with the curry I’m eating. And there will be a second viewing. This is that kind of movie.

Literature

Dan Fox: Pretentiousness: Why It Matters — I can’t remember the last time I read a book that felt this much like it was written specifically to connect with me. This monograph by Dan Fox is a stunning defense of thinking and behaving in ways that contravene convention. It is by no means a refutation of populism, but rather a love letter to broad-mindedness. Fox notes the obvious point that the word “pretentious” is generally used in a derogatory fashion: to put somebody back in their place when they’re perceived to have overstepped a social boundary. But he argues persuasively that the act of overstepping social boundaries — which necessitates a certain amount of pretense or pretending (to the throne, even) — is inherently praiseworthy. And he has some choice words for those who prefer the epithet “elitist,” too. He cites a Guardian columnist who literally professed hatred — hatred — for a pair of flashily-dressed young people he saw randomly at a contemporary art exhibit. And he tears that columnist apart for what he rightly calls “cheap, them-versus-us populism.” He continues: “It speaks to an ugly intolerance for difference, to an expectation that people must share the same aesthetic tastes and appearances and that if they don’t they must be complicit members of an elitist racket hell-bent on excluding ‘ordinary’ people from its world. Those ‘ordinary’ people, it is assumed, could not possibly be interested in complex ideas and conversant in different forms of visual literacy.” Boom. That quote alone is reason enough for everybody in the media to read this book. There’s a personal anecdote in the postscript about how Fox grew up in a time and place when a young person could be introduced to the films of Kenneth Anger and the music of John Cage by way of the public broadcaster. Makes one wistful, frankly. There’s a quote near the end of the book that I consider words to live by: “To fear being accused of pretension is to police oneself out of curiosity about the world.” Open-mindedness is an ideal among ideals. Fox doesn’t quite go there in his book but I think if more people were devoted to the cultivation of a broad base of knowledge, as opposed to fearing or resenting the same in others, societies would be stronger, less divided, and make better decisions as an electorate. Pretentiousness is not the enemy. Quite the opposite. Pick of the week.

Alanna Bennett: “The Harry Potter Fandom Is At A Crossroads” — This is a fascinating portrait of a fandom growing up. The really interesting thing about the Harry Potter fandom right now is that they (we? I would include myself, if I weren’t so obviously less invested than the superfans referred to here) learned about social justice in part from Harry Potter, and now they find themselves butting heads with J.K. Rowling herself when she does boneheaded, offensive things like trying to fictionalize Native American culture. This is fascinating. About halfway through, I stopped to reread the first chapter of The Philosopher’s Stone. (It’s all I could get on iBooks; my own copies have been packed away in boxes in my hometown for years.) And I suddenly understood the fans in this story even more. It sort of all came rushing back: even at that early stage, writing for young children and nowhere close to the height of her powers, J.K. Rowling wrote the most compelling characters in modern children’s literature and was brilliant at conveying a sense of place. As soon as Albus Dumbledore appears for the first time, sucking the light from the streetlamps of Privet Drive, you’re forced to think of modern Britain as a hiding place for another whole, glorious world. It’s a magical book. With that in mind, it’s easy to see how so many fans have had more trouble than I have accepting the mediocrity of Rowling’s post-Deathly Hallows Potter projects. I’ll reread these books just as soon as I can get into those boxes.  

Music

Kate Bush: The Dreaming — I think I’ve returned to considering this my favourite Kate Bush album. I gave it a listen this week in anticipation of her new live album, which has nothing from this on it. And holy smokes, this is the most intricate songwriting, maybe ever. There’s a tempting narrative about Kate Bush that suggests that the directness she embraced on Hounds of Love was the result of lessons learned from the critical and commercial failure of The Dreaming. But that’s ridiculous — why on earth would she care? I think that a better reading is simply that The Dreaming represented the furthest possible extension of this kind of songwriting. There’s no out-dreaming The Dreaming, so Bush took a different approach. Both albums are masterpieces. But this is the more virtuosic by far.

Pink Floyd: Cre/Ation: The Early Years 1967-1972 — God, I want that 27-disc box set so bad I could curl up in a ball. This paltry two-disc sampler only makes me lust after it more, because so much of it is exactly what I’ve been wishing for from Pink Floyd for ages. It is only the very nerdy among us who are interested in hearing an early version of “Echoes” that consists almost entirely of the triple-time bit that comes right before the final reprise on the album version, but I am extremely nerdy. I want to hear every miniscule step in the evolution of this band. I suppose I’ll have to wait for it to gradually find its way onto streaming services. Because I do not have the wealth to indulge this obsession. Still though, for a two-disc sampler, this is really a lot of fun.

Podcasts

All Songs Considered: “Guest DJ: The Politics and Passions of Roger Waters” — “I know I sound like a crazy person, but I’m not. I’m actually a wise man.” He’s not wrong, on either count. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton are simply not the people to interview Roger Waters. He is far too given to extraordinary statements and long rants for a pair of music broadcasters to handle. Marc Maron managed, somehow. But this is a mess.

Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything: “Targeted” — I can’t quite tell if Walker’s story about giving his son a stuffed Pepe is true. If so, that was a dumb move. The segment about facial recognition software is as disquieting as anything in this series so far.

All Songs Considered: “What Was It Like To See Pink Floyd In 1966? Joe Boyd Knows” — This is the highlight of the three parts of this show’s Pink Floyd week. Joe Boyd has a unique perspective on the band, given that he was right there in the early days, but his recollections aren’t necessarily coloured by having been involved beyond that. I will say that I think he gives Rob Chapman’s argument in the book A Very Irregular Head a bit too much credence. Chapman is probably right to argue that the narrative about Barrett declining because he took too much acid is too simple. But considering the extremity of his post-Floyd condition, Chapman’s assertion that his behaviour was part of a grand conceptual art project is patently ridiculous, and clearly born from an impulse towards hagiography. That aside, this is a nice interview. I do wish that Boilen had chosen to play some of the previously unreleased stuff from the box set instead of just returning to the iconic songs. That’s what the box is for, after all. Ah, well.

99% Invisible: “Space Trash, Space Treasure” — A fascinating look at the necessity of cleaning up the junk we keep leaving in space. But the really fascinating part is an interview with a professor who responds to the moniker “Dr. Space Junk” about why we should also consider leaving some of it there for anthropological reasons.

Code Switch: “Everyone Is Talking To Barry Jenkins But Our Interview Is The Best” — I need to see Midnight so bad. This is one of Gene Demby’s best interviews, partially because of how much he obviously loves the movie, but also because of how much he openly identifies with elements of the story and the filmmaker’s perspective. I think this show is really successfully walking a tonal tightrope where it acknowledges some of the tropes of thinkpiece journalism — but still does it, because the alternative is being dumb.

Reply All: “Flash!” — One of the most lacklustre episodes of Reply All in a while. The Yes Yes No segment is as funny as usual, but the story of a lost tortoise ad on Craigslist ends up being exactly as boring as it sounds.

Science Vs: “Antidepressants” — The subject matter of this is fascinating, but there is a recurring Hamilton reference that defines what I find grating about this show. There’s a thing in mental health research called the Hamilton scale, and every time but one that it is referenced here, a sample from Hamilton is used. A reference. Is not. A joke. And I know it may be a little much to expect top-notch humour from a science podcast, but this kind of thing is so much a part of its aesthetic that I think I’m out at this point. That was the last straw. Never thought it would be Hamilton.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Prophets of Doom” — A wonderfully curmudgeonly defence of dissatisfaction from Howard Jacobson. I tend to be a rather optimistic sort, though I have my particular doomy moments. It’s vindicating to hear something like this in a world that often feels full of mindless boosters for things that aren’t making our lives better.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Musicals and Politics” — This almost made me feel better about politics. What’s most incredible about this rundown of political musicals (aside from the regrettable absence of any Kander and Ebb) is not so much that there’s such a preponderance of them, long before Hamilton. It’s that Hamilton still stands head and shoulders above them all. It’s not just that there are no other musicals that have engaged so thoroughly in the political process, it’s that there are barely any other works of art that have done that. Save a few by Aaron Sorkin.

99% Invisible: “The Shift” — I’ll listen to sports stories when they’re on 99pi. That said, this is really the same story as the earlier one about basketball: innovations in the game make it less exciting and provoke a backlash. Still, fun.

On the Media: “Debunking the AIDS ‘Patient Zero’ Myth” — A quick story about how horribly Gaëtan Dugas was treated by the media: he did not give the world AIDS. That’s the Coles Notes version.

StartUp: Season 4, episodes 4-6 — Dov Charney is a compelling character, but this isn’t popping out of the headphones for me. I appreciate the return to serialized storytelling (I remain one of the few staunch defenders of StartUp season two) but I can’t help but think that this show is now suffering by comparison to its more consistent Gimlet stablemates. (I have not been reviewing Heavyweight because of an upcoming thing I’m doing, but informally: it is one of my favourite new shows of the year.) We’ll see how this ends.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Doctor Strange and Moonlight” — I wish the rest of the panel had given Kat Chow a bit more space to say her piece on Doctor Strange. It does sound like a fun movie that I’d like to see, but the whitewashing is some serious bullshit. Moonlight on the other hand sounds like something I am going to love unreservedly. Can’t wait.

99% Invisible: “Reverb” — Ooh, this is some great 99pi. I was aware of Wallace Sabine before, because the story of his minuscule acoustic measurements is incredible, but I was unaware that his formula has become obsolete in our increasingly quiet world. There’s also apparently a technology that simulates different reverbs in the same sized room using microphones and speakers distributed around the walls and ceiling. I would love to experience that.

Reply All: “Hello?” — The premise “P.J. and Alex open their phone lines to anybody for 48 hours” was bound to result in something bonkers, but this is far longer and more bonkers than you could possibly expect. A meandering, borderline pointless, destined classic of this amazing podcast. Pick of the week.

Code Switch: “Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?” — The Code Switch team plays phone messages from people who are dreading Thanksgiving dinner because they have family members who voted for Trump. It is what it is.

Theory of Everything: “Nolite te bastardes carborundorum” — Benjamen Walker’s speculative story behind the appalling image (which I missed on election day) of Trump spying on Melania’s vote is a brilliant way of working Trump into his surveillance season. I mean, there are other more obvious ways. But why go the obvious route? I love the approach Walker is taking right now, of just continuing to do his show and respond to current events, but through the lens of surveillance. This series is going to get awesome eventually. It’s already great.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “ Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani” — Nanjiani and Linda Holmes talking about rom coms is great. Throw in a markedly less enthusiastic Steven Thompson and a MUCH less enthusiastic Glen Weldon, and you’ve got… almost gold. Yellow-tinged silver.

99% Invisible — “Dollar Store Town” — Audibly a shorter version of a longer, more visual documentary. Still, the fact that there is a town in China where they manufacture  nearly all of the worthless tchotchkes sold in American dollar stores is amazing.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 16)

Dear me. Verbose, this week. Well, I’ve had some spare time, which will be mercifully less spare fairly soon. 32 reviews.

Games

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 3 — My favourite of the first three acts by miles. The sequence with the Xanadu computer is one of my all-time favourite scenes in a video game. The fact that Donald built this thing as a bitter memorial to his relationship with Lula and friendship with Joseph is even sadder when you know that the first adventure game ever was inspired by heartbreak as well. Xanadu is clearly based on Adventure, which was made by William Crowther (another Kentucky-based computer scientist and cave explorer) as an attempt to reconnect with his young daughter after he and his wife divorced. On this playthrough, I came across a section of the Xanadu scene that I hadn’t before, where Lula explains why cave paintings are so sad: somebody wanted to memorialize something — a person or relationship, maybe — and we can barely make out any detail. How like the ruined Xanadu computer, and the primitive parser interface of Adventure. There are other highlights, here. I’d love to see the full text of Donald’s Kentucky-set version of “Kubla Khan.” And, as the party of player characters grows, so does the range of responses to any given situation. Conway is reflective, Shannon practical, Ezra whimsical, and Junebug totally off-topic. Their responses represent different types of gaming. I’m the sort of player who likes to linger and mull things over, so I tend towards Conway’s dialogue options. But it’s nice to have Shannon around to progress the plot, and the other two to throw occasional monkey wrenches into conversations. Also, the moment in the final scene where the game momentarily takes over the mouse to express the inevitability of Conway’s return to drinking is absolutely chilling. I am actually a bit scared to see how that develops in the next episode. I’ve come to love all of these characters, but if things work out badly for Conway, it’s going to be crushing.

Kentucky Route Zero: “Here and There Along The Echo” — I take back what I said about “The Entertainment” being my favourite of the KRZ mini-episodes. It’s a dead heat between that and this one. The notion of formatting a game as a telephone hotline menu is not only novel: it opens up a world of possibilities for interactive audio. (The only other example I’ve seen is Papa Sangre, which is essentially hide and seek in the dark, and I really don’t have much time for it.) Like so many other moments in this second playthrough of the pre-2016 portions of Kentucky Route Zero, I had intended for this to be a quick perusal, and then straight on to Act 4, which is new to me and super exciting. But, I ended up spending two hours going through the options, and listening to this fascinating character talk. It was worthwhile for the devs to briefly abandon the text-based aesthetic of this world to introduce spoken audio, if only because it allows a voice actor to give a convincing performance of what people might sound like in this universe. As a side note, anybody else who enjoyed his list of the different types of water as much as I did would do well to check out James Joyce’s list of water’s admirable attributes from Ulysses.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 4 — Well, it didn’t let me down. This is a quieter, slower, more deliberate Kentucky Route Zero than we’ve seen before. And it is the first one to be more concerned with the characters and their respective arcs than it is with exploring themes. Rather than presenting simulations within simulations, or posing high-minded questions about whether we’re inside or out, this act presents us with Shannon’s abiding anger over her parents’ death in the mine, Johnny’s yearning for a third person to ride with him and Junebug (he wants a child, essentially) and most devastatingly, the effects of Conway’s return to drinking. The subtlety with which Conway becomes a different character in this act is both masterful and sad. And the moment when he appears to literally become a different character is the most destabilizing thing in the game so far: the loss of that character and of his particular way of moving through the world seems likely to be more of a paradigm shift than the introduction of the Zero. In general, Act 4 encourages us to take a time-out from our obsessiveness about what everything means and how it connects, and just spend some time empathizing with these characters. But I’m still left with lots of thoughts about the various thematic moving parts and conspiracies at play, here. We know that the power company is evil. We know that they’re engaged in debt buying, because they acquired the pharmaceutical company that Conway owes. We also know that the distillery is evil. (How lovely to see a thriving business like the Rum Colony not pouring Hard Times, hey?) We know that the distillery is also involved in debt buying, since they bought the outstanding bar tabs from Harry at the Lower Depths pub. So, how are they connected? Are they connected? We know, at least, that Conway’s medical bills (owed, indirectly, to the power company) will be paid off by the distillery in exchange for work (though his labour was already an exchange for having drunk the top-shelf whiskey at the end of Act 3… I smell duplicity). And there’s definitely some significance to the fact that Conway’s descent into more and more abject debt is represented by his gradually turning into a creepy electricity skeleton. So, what are we going to find out about the connection between those two companies in the grand finale? It’s possible that the answer is nothing. I would be surprised if Conway doesn’t appear in some capacity in Act 5, but we probably won’t learn any specifics. Kentucky Route Zero has never been the type of game to do anything so vulgar as explain itself. It is working on the same level as the conceptual artworks it is so fond of displaying within itself. I’ve read some muted complaints about this act that criticize it for being less exploratory and interactive than its predecessors. And it’s true that you’re not allowed the agency to explore the Echo River at your leisure in the same way that you were with the Zero or overground Kentucky. But video game people sometimes need to be reminded of the fact that all art is interactive. The most important act of the movie is the one that happens in the car on the way home, when you talk about what it all meant. Paintings don’t live in galleries; they live in your brain. So, even if Act 4 of Kentucky Route Zero puts you on tracks in a way that previous acts didn’t, there still ought to be plenty for you to do as a player. End of review. But here are a few stray observations, A.V. Club-style. (And still, I refuse to employ a paragraph break. The nerve.) One. The airplane is back! When I first played Act 1, the thing that really stuck with me is a scene where you can’t do anything except for watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. I didn’t know what to make of it, and I still don’t quite, but that image of struggle left a big impact. And there’s a moment in this act, in the gas station scene, where the two men drift past on a barge with their airplane. You could almost miss it, and it’s never mentioned in the dialogue, nor is it witnessed by Conway, who was the only character to have seen it in the first place. It’s the little things. Two. This act really feels like it comes from 2016. The increasing preoccupation with oil in this reflects the same development in the real world during the two years since the last act of Kentucky Route Zero came out. Also, online dating is a thing in the KRZ world now, just as it’s been mainstreamed. Three. One of the small pleasures of this act is actually visiting the locales that were referred to in “Here and There Along the Echo.” I’m glad I spent as much time with that as I did, now, because I had a bit of advance knowledge of Sam and Ida’s, the Rum Colony, the Iron Pariah (what the hell is up with that!?) and the memorial to something that we can’t remember what it is, among other things. In spite of what I said above, if I could request a single expansion to this game, it would be a more open-world model of the Echo so I could actually be the drifter/pilgrim that the Bureau of Secret Tourism was courting. But then, I suppose that would more or less be Sunless Sea. Four. The flashiest, most formalist moment in this act is the one where the narrators are watching security footage of the events after the fact, but you’re controlling the characters on that security footage in real time. It’s pure Andrew Plotkin. It constitutes the most satisfying cognitive dissonance I’ve felt since I cheated my way through Spider and Web. Five. Again, it’s the little things: Sam and Ida remember their origin story a bit differently. She remembers that he was drinking malt liquor and doing a sudoku. He remembers coffee and a crossword. Six. I can only imagine that Shannon’s reunion with Weaver is going to be a bit awkward once she realizes that Weaver used her genius to (I think) invent a new kind of debt, as it was put in “The Entertainment.” Maybe she’s the missing link between the distillery and the power company. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait to find out? I’ve got to say, though, I honestly don’t mind because if it’s a long wait, it’ll give me an excuse to play through the whole game a third time. As it stands, I think I’ll do a second playthrough of Act 4 fairly soon, because it’s definitely more than two playthroughs worth of game. I shall report back. Pick of the week.

Literature

Magnus Hildebrandt: Kentucky Fried Zero — This is an indispensable primer on the sources for Kentucky Route Zero, ranging from dustbowl photography to Buckminster Fuller and on to the more expected reference points like computer science and Samuel Beckett. The three parts of this are quite short, and you get the sense that Hildebrandt could easily track down and elucidate many more references and influences. (He even says as much in the second-last paragraph of part three.) I hope that he will go back and expand these once the final act of the game is out and we know what we’re working with.  

William Blake: Jerusalem the Emanation of the Giant Albion — Look, I didn’t enjoy this. I just didn’t. I have very limited patience for this kind of inscrutable literature. I mean this kind as distinct from, say, Ulysses. At least Joyce’s obscurity seems to be motivated at least partially by a sense of fun: he’s laying out a trail of breadcrumbs, and trusts that you’ll arrive at some kind of understanding eventually. Blake doesn’t seem to know he’s being obscurantist. It appears to me, a deeply undereducated reader in these sorts of texts, that Blake isn’t trying to be obscure; he’s failing to be direct. And so, the proliferation of characters without fixed identities and the religious commentaries so idiosyncratic that I can barely relate them to what I know of a given religion are not endearing at all — they are massively frustrating. Blake’s canon, unexplained as it is, is like jargon. It’s like hearing Scientologists talk about thetans and SPs. I did enjoy doing a bit of reading about Blake, and what he’s apparently on about in this. But my actual time spent reading the poem, with its brilliant illuminated plates, was not fun. I suppose I have to accept that now that I’m a couple years out of grad school, I am effectively “the everyday reader” and so these kinds of texts that are not meant to be understood without rigorous study are simply no longer the kinds of things I’ll take pleasure in. And I’m totally okay with that. Anyway, now I feel prepared to tackle Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. I’ll get to it soon.

Karen Page: The Vegetarian Flavor Bible — I am not a vegetarian, nor am I likely to become one in the near future. But, as part of my ongoing mission to be more creative in the kitchen while eating a bit less meat, I have gone ahead and purchased this tome. It is basically an encyclopedia of flavour combinations, specifically for plant-based diets. I am well aware of the existence of the original Flavor Bible, with its lamb and its bacon, and I will almost surely purchase that as well if this one proves to be useful. But my first priority is getting a handle on creative cooking without meat. I confess that the introduction to this volume is a little bit depressing compared to the one in its meaty predecessor (I read the Kindle free sample) because it focusses almost entirely on nutrition. Maybe that’s predictable. I’m interested in nutrition, insofar as I want to be healthy. But my god, is it ever a boring topic to read about. Still, that’s hardly the point. I have already prepared some middling-to-good, but at least interesting vegetarian meals using this as my guide. One, with wilted spinach and nutmeg served on a grilled portabello mushroom with crumbled ricotta was actually pretty excellent. I shall keep you apprised.

J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany & Jack Thorne: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — I was never not going to read it, and I liked it a lot more than the fan consensus. It’s flawed, but it’s a decent afternoon’s-worth of nostalgia. And it is openly nostalgic for the first seven books, in the way that Jason Segal’s Muppet movies are for the original Muppet Show, or that certain modern Doctor Who stories are for the classic series. The story of Harry Potter’s time at Hogwarts is as important and formative a narrative for the characters in this story as it is for the people who grew up reading Harry Potter books, and thus the younger characters are effectively surrogates for us. Or at least, Scorpius Malfoy is. Albus Potter is a touch too resentful. It’s fitting, then, that the key plotline should involve time travel, and specifically time travel back to the days of the beloved Goblet of Fire. Because, The Cursed Child is more of a time capsule than it is a modern Harry Potter story. It’s a way to go back, and see familiar things from a slightly different vantage point. (This happens literally in the play’s final act, which takes place largely [spoiler] in Godric’s Hollow.) Its canonicity, as much as such things matter, will always be slightly compromised by the fact that it’s a play and not a novel, and that it mostly wasn’t written by J.K. Rowling. But that’s not the real issue: the real issue is that reading a script is a very incomplete experience. Without actors to bring the characters to life, their emotional arcs seem a bit rushed. Think of it as the opposite of the languidly-paced Order of the Phoenix. The biggest flaws really do come down to the difficulty of representing a stage play on the page — which isn’t even what this purports to do; it’s a script from which staged productions are meant to be extrapolated. I think most of the extremely negative critiques fail to take this into account. Jack Thorne comports himself fairly well, even if his dialogue never made me laugh. (Rowling doesn’t get enough credit for her wit.) Still, I’m left somewhat unsure of whether my beloved His Dark Materials is in good hands or not when Thorne adapts it for the BBC. Because that’s happening. There are really only two substantial problems with this in terms of story. One involves the play’s breakout character, Scorpius Malfoy, who is by a series of machinations briefly transformed from a school outcast to an immensely popular teenager. We’re meant to believe that, under a certain set of circumstances, there’s a part of Scorpius that could allow this to happen. And yet, he immediately casts off his good fortune for the greater good, with virtually no inner conflict at all. I found that a bit of a let down, and it certainly wouldn’t have played out that way in a novel, where the narrative need not be so collapsed. And the other issue is time travel. You have to completely ignore the time travel mechanics if you want to have a good time reading this. It’s not so much the divergence from the mechanic in The Prisoner of Azkaban that chafes: it’s a scene in which people in the present talk about a person who has gone to the past and tried to change it as if that hasn’t already happened — which, by definition, it has. And even this contradicts the way the time turner was seen to work earlier in the play. But the authors don’t let a thing like that get in the way of a good story. And the positives outweigh the negatives, even if the most satisfying moments are basically fan service. It’s immensely gratifying to see Hermione as the Minister for Magic (ergo, Harry’s boss). Too bad she got saddled with such a schlub of a husband. Ron seems to have shed what little charisma he had with age. But he wears his schlubbiness well. Possibly the deftest touch of all is the way that the acrimony between Harry and Malfoy is maintained into adulthood without Malfoy seeming like an overgrown schoolyard bully. They’re just two adults, living adult lives, who don’t get along. And, as star moments for fan favourites go, the sweepstakes are easily taken by Severus Snape, who gets to make his heroic sacrifice a second time. But there’s an impressive showing from Professor McGonagall as well, who offers a stirring rebuke to basically all of the other characters in the play for treating a peaceful world recklessly in spite of all that’s been sacrificed to bring it to bear. This is well worth reading. If you’re a fan and you’re on the fence, just do it now. You know you will eventually, anyhow.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 16, 2016 — A strong episode containing very little of what I don’t like about this show. Oliver’s segment on Gary Johnson and Jill Stein will likely be the most widely seen piece on either of them during this election, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it actually affected their polling numbers.

Charlie Brooker’s 2015 Wipe — I’ve decided to go down a Charlie Brooker wormhole. It starts here, with him speaking direct to camera about what he thinks, and it will continue with Nathan Barley and the first two seasons of Black Mirror, in preparation for the new one. I’ve seen Brass Eye, but it was a long time ago, and that’s mostly Chris Morris anyway. This is worthwhile for Philomena Cunk alone, but Brooker himself gets some great lines as well. It’s also actually a good New Years’ program, which is as far as I know, unique on television.

How Videogames Changed the World — I like Charlie Brooker. I kind of want to be him. This special on video games (in my world, it’s two words) is limited, as an under two-hour documentary has to be. And, it focusses on the really gamey kinds of games that kind of don’t do much for me. (The history of the kind of games I like starts with Adventure, not Pong.) But it still has time to bring up stuff like Papers, Please, which remains one of the most powerful interactive experiences I’ve ever had. And this show’s real virtue is that it manages to cover the major moments and conflicts that video games stirred up in real life: moral panics, feminist critiques, the staggeringly gradual mainstreaming of the medium, etc. Brooker’s list of the most important games is self-evidently selected for ease of narrative rather than actual quality or influence, but that’s the only way to make a show like this, and it would have been profoundly boring if it were just a bunch of people talking about why a bunch of games that I probably mostly don’t care about are really good. (And that sight gag with the Braid mechanic is really clever.)

Black Mirror: “The National Anthem” — First, the shit. Naturally, the one female reporter in this episode with lines sends a nude pic to a government staffer for a scoop. This is a trope so depressingly common that it has the air of tragic inevitability whenever a female journalist is introduced into a show. The rest of the episode is astonishing. It doesn’t even matter if you already know the premise and the ending, which you inevitably do given this episode’s renewed relevance after David Cameron’s alleged porcine indiscretions. The remarkable thing is how straight it’s played. It’s wrenching human drama on a national scale. Everybody is cheapened by having watched what they watched. If it weren’t for that one lazy and harmful bit of misogyny, it would be a masterpiece.

Movies

Requiem for the American Dream — Chomsky is somebody who I’ve been aware of for years, but he falls just far enough outside the scope of my education that I never actually read him. This documentary, which is built entirely on original interviews with Chomsky, seems like a good primer for the most germane points of his philosophy. It focusses specifically on the process by which wealth and power are acquired by a smaller and smaller segment of the population: namely, the reduction of democracy. It’s brilliantly argued, and makes modern America make a sad sort of sense.

Music

Isabelle Faust, Claudio Abbado & Orchestra Mozart: Berg & Beethoven Violin Concertos — I realized after recommending this recording in last week’s VSO review that, firstly, I haven’t heard it in a really long time, and secondly, I have in fact never listened to the Beethoven that fills the disc. First the Berg, though. It’s flat-out one of my favourite recordings. I love this piece. I love its expressiveness and the way that it develops its melodic material. I love the way that it throws torrents at you, only to back away gradually and leave you breathless at the end. I love the Bach quotation in the winds in the second movement, and how the violin solo line plays against it. It’s a masterpiece. And of the handful of recordings I’ve heard, this is definitely my favourite. Faust plays with elegance, even when the melodies start to take on the rougher topography of Berg’s Second Viennese School compatriots. And Abbado will probably always be my favourite conductor of Berg, because he realizes that Berg is the true heir to Mahler. His approach to the orchestra in this concerto has the same lushness that he applies to Mahler 9 (a work that he absolutely owns, for me), and it is just as much of a study in contrasts. Everybody should hear this. Now, the Beethoven. The violin concerto is not one of my favourite pieces by Beethoven. The first movement has a nasty habit of going into a minor key right when I want to hear a triumphant reiteration of the theme in major. The third is one of those mid-tempo dance finales that usually doesn’t work for me. I do like the second movement, but compared to some of the slow movements from Beethoven’s middle period symphonies, even that falls a bit short. So, this recording has more labour to do with the Beethoven than with the Berg, because it has to sell a piece I like a lot less. And it doesn’t really. That’s about all there is to say.

Vulfpeck: The Beautiful Game — Difficult second album. On one hand, it’s got “Animal Spirits” (and heartfelt lyrics) which is one of their best and catchiest ever. Very much this album’s “Christmas in L.A.” Also, The Beautiful Game expands the palate to include house-reminiscent beats, which as far as I can remember, is new for Vulfpeck. But it certainly doesn’t have as many jump-out-of-the-headphones moments as Thrill of the Arts did. I might pick “Animal Spirits,” “1 for 1, Dimaggio” and “Dean Town” as highlights here. (And I do love that Klezmer clarinet intro, but it’s basically not a song.) And it’s notable that the former two are both transparent Jackson 5 pastiches (“Animal Spirits” is “I Want You Back” and “1 for 1” is clearly “ABC”) Think back to how many great tracks there were on Thrill, though: “Welcome to Vulf Records,” “Back Pocket,” “Funky Duck,” “Rango II,” “Christmas in L.A”… I will almost certainly warm to this, but there’s no way I will come to love that many of its tracks.

Tangerine Dream: Phaedra — I don’t know what possessed me to listen to this just now. I’d never heard it, and the only other Tangerine Dream I knew was Force Majeure. This is far more abstract than that, and it strikes me as an album that has more historical importance than modern-day interest. It’s like the electronic music equivalent of plainchant. Mostly it just made me wish I were listening to Tim Hecker, which I think I will now do. (And I did. My feelings about Love Streams are the same as when I reviewed it before. It’s some of the best music of the year.)

A Winged Victory for the Sullen: Atomos — That is a very overwrought band name, sure. But this is decent ambient music. I’ve been listening to stuff as I read, this week, and this is great for that. I’m not so sure it would stand on its own. That’s a key distinction in this milieu of modern classical music. John Luther Adams’ Become Ocean, for instance, is profound and beautiful, and in spite of some superficial similarities to Atomos, it can sustain attention. Same goes for Max Richter — and he wrote music for sleeping. Still, this did the trick. I dunno if I’ll listen again.

Brian Eno: Another Green World — This is in my all-time top five, and as with all things that I love passionately, I try not to overexpose myself to it. But I was on a long bus commute recently, and it just seemed like the right thing. Incredibly, I had been listening to this semi-regularly for years before it struck me that it’s more than merely excellent and is in fact perfect. I can’t think rationally about this album anymore. Listening to some of these songs I feel like I could walk into traffic and it would pass right through me. Eno is strangely averse to the idea of love songs, but there are several ravishing ones on here, most notably “St. Elmo’s Fire”: the finest song with lyrics that Eno ever made. Without ever using the word “love,” Eno perfectly conjures that feeling of ecstasy that so many songwriters fail to describe. He does it by allowing the music to do the bulk of the heavy lifting, and especially Robert Fripp’s guitar solo which is the most beautiful guitar solo ever recorded. In spite of being fast and technical, it also feels human and brittle — the way it cracks and stammers at the ends of phrases just kills me. And the other ninja move that this album employs is the most ingenious track sequencing maybe ever. Rather than trying to balance out the energy throughout the record, it allows itself to gradually sink into a reverie at the end. The way that “Zawinul/Lava” builds and falls, and ejects us into “Everything Merges With The Night” (more ravishing guitar from Fripp), and then finally into the comparative uncertainty of “Spirits Drifting” is one of the greatest closing sequences on any record ever. At this point, you’d expect me to make it my pick of the week, but I feel a strange pressure to play against type, this time. Everybody who’s ever read anything I’ve written or been in the same room with me knows how much I love Brian Eno. KRZ takes it.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Lupita Nyong’o, Cameron Esposito & Rhea Butcher, and the Best of TV” — Nice that PCHH  can manage so often to cobble together a show even when they have no panelists. These interviews are great, specifically the one with Cameron Esposito and Rhea Butcher, because they are very funny people. But it’s also nice to hear Linda Holmes’ much-discussed friend Alan Sepinwall make his PCHH debut. TV: The Book sounds like something that would frustrate me immensely in its format: ranking the top 100 shows? Really? But I expect that these two authors would have something interesting to say, at least. Given that they’re basically already advertizing the second edition, I may sit this one out and wait for it to be updated. (But I’ll probably flip through it in the bookstore next time I’m browsing.)

Fresh Air: “How Free Web Content Traps Us In An Abyss Of Ads & Clickbait” — Nothing like a good bit of #content-related #content. Tim Wu’s new book, The Attention Merchants, sounds incredible and depressing. He talks about how advertising on major web platforms has cheapened web publishing and made the internet worse. I think I’m going to have to read this.

Love and Radio: “The Enemy Within” — Part of the appeal of Love and Radio is just purely listening to someone tell you a story with no interruptions. So, when Glenn Loury tells his story of womanizing and drug abuse while teaching economics at Harvard, you want to listen. But, being Love and Radio, it’s also more complicated than that and addresses not only the discrepancy between his own conduct and his socially conservative politics, but it also problematizes the very notion that a person’s actions can invalidate their arguments.

In The Dark: “What’s Going On Down There?” — This has become a truly excellent podcast in the late phase of its run. And I’m only partially saying that because this features an actual police investigation where a man was told by (clearly awful) police officers that his missing son may have been eaten by turtles. I laughed out loud at that and subsequently felt a little bad. Anyway, last week’s survey of wide-ranging police incompetence in the town where Jacob Wetterling was abducted started the train towards this episode’s staggering finish, which posits that the way America handles policing is deeply and inherently flawed. Local police departments are not held to any kind of standard by the federal government, which just seems wrong. If I were the Stearns County sheriff, I’d be huddling in a corner right about now. This would have been a powerful finale, but I’m looking forward to the one episode that they’ve decided to add to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “Previewing The Final Debate” — I’M NOT WATCHING THIS DEBATE! LA LA LA LA LA! Because they’re not going to talk about policy, they’re just going to talk about Clinton’s leaked emails (actually worth talking about, if only it wasn’t an orangutan doing the talking) and Trump’s temperamental unfitness to be president (EMINENTLY CLEAR). The fact that the panelists on this show are willing to entertain the fact that policy may enter into this is frankly adorable. I do love them.

99% Invisible: “Half a House” — A lovely complement to the previous episode about Chile. 99pi can lapse into design boosterism at times, but really it’s just boosterism for human ingenuity. Like, you have a problem: an earthquake levelled a city and there’s not enough public money for the necessary subsidized housing. And, you have a solution: build people half a house. It sounds ridiculous, but people can build the other half for themselves when they’re back on their feet. It seems to be working. There’s a moment in this where Roman Mars confirms that the reason this sort of thing doesn’t happen in the U.S. isn’t lack of money or lack of necessity, but simply a difference of values. Which is why I have very little respect for American values. This is 99pi doing what it does best. I haven’t enjoyed it this much in a long time.

All Songs Considered: “Pusha T and Rivers Cuomo Join Zeds Dead, Amber Coffman, TOY, More” — Whole lotta meh. I liked the Agnes Obel track well enough, but I haven’t heard much on this show that I want to check out for a while. Not their fault. I’m probably just not in music discovery mode.

Radiolab: “Seneca, Nebraska” — This story is just begging to be told in a not public radio way. The Radiolab crew obviously knows that in the story of a small town that voted to unincorporate because their 20 residents couldn’t get along, they have a parable. So, why not tell it that way? Where’s Nate DiMeo when you need him? Hell, even Scott Carrier would suffice.

On the Media: “Race to the Bottom” — Gladstone’s poverty myths series has moved from debunking myths about impoverished people to debunking the myths that America tells itself about how it approaches poverty. In this one, it’s the bootstrap myth. That is a sad narrative to turn out to be a myth, because it means that there isn’t actually much of a chance that a person can better their lot — not without an astronomical amount of luck. It’s also interesting to hear about the origins of the phrase “pulling oneself up by their bootstraps,” which actually started off as a metaphor for impossibility before it started representing the American Dream. And then, in a demonstration of the profound power of metaphors and ideas to shape society, the American Dream became impossible to attain.

The Gist: “Rapid Response: Cirque du Debate” — Okay, so I did end up watching the debate. And I’m happy I did, if only to have context for Mike Pesca’s latest round of spin room misadventures. It is so obvious listening to Trump’s surrogates talk that they just do not have anything under control. Ben Carson straight up brushing Pesca off is the highlight, but the whole thing is chaos. The best that a non-American such as myself can hope for in this election, given that I am not one of the millions of unauthorized voters that Trump predicts will swarm the polls in November, is to be nearly as entertained as you are bewildered, and I confess to having been that while listening to this.

NPR Politics Podcast: “The Third Presidential Debate” — The fact that this debate is being praised as the most substantive of the three is both accurate and still really depressing. The panel is right to assert that the most notable thing about this phase of Trump’s campaign is his insistence that whenever he doesn’t win something, it’s rigged. I’ve known people like this. People who believe that “unfairness” is coextensive with “bad things happening to them, specifically.” I think that it’s a kind of logic that underpins much of what’s wrong with the world. The notion of having a president of the U.S.A. that thinks like this without a shred of self-awareness is void-screamingly, cliff-jumpingly frightening. Fortunately, it won’t happen because he’s also too dumb to know when he’s shooting himself in the foot.

A Point of View: “In Praise of Difficulty” — Why must every critic who has the bravery to stick up for difficult art and educated audiences also have a stick up their ass about pop culture? This is a pretty good vindication from Howard Jacobson of the kind of art that gets the shaft from the shitty kind of populists — but then it nosedives into jabbing at the kind of art that appeals to the good kind of populists. There is an emerging kind of intellectual for whom the phenomena and iconography associated with boy bands and thrillers (Jacobson’s examples, not mine) are fodder for a rather exciting sort of criticism, in much the same way that Shakespeare was for many prior generations. Can’t we acknowledge that fact while also shitting on people who don’t understand Shakespeare? I really think it ought to be easy to have it both ways. Additional thoughts: I would generally stick up for the rights of the reader over the rights of the writer, in opposition to Jacobson, but I’ll provide here that the reader has to earn that right by being an interesting reader. (Read as: critic.) That is why, in my review for the staggeringly difficult work by William Blake that I’ve just slogged through, I blamed myself for having nothing to say.

Fresh Air: “‘Black Mirror’ Creator Dramatizes Our Nightmares About Technology” — Charlie Brooker is a less-than-scintillating interview, and I’m not totally convinced that Black Mirror is as smart as all these old people think it is. I’m one episode in, and I did like that episode, but it seems like the more explicitly it engages with modern media, the more vapid its critiques become. That’s sad to see, because I’m also watching Nathan Barley right now (review to come when it’s done; it’s useless to critique in part) and that is remarkably prescient for having been made in 2005.

StartUp: “Shadowed Qualities” — This is such enrapturing radio. The bulk of it is taken from a single conversation — virtually a therapy session — between Alex Blumberg (holy moly is he having a rough month) and an executive coach who we heard from in season two. And while I am usually quick to dismiss such people as snake oil salesmen, this fellow gets to the heart of Blumberg’s reluctance to step up and command his company as opposed to focussing on story edits really, really efficiently. And hearing Blumberg work through that in real time is fascinating. Traditional radio has moments that they call “driveway moments,” where you stay in your car to hear the end of the story even when you’ve already gotten home. Podcasts don’t have that, obviously. But at several moments during this episode, I forgot that I was eating breakfast. That seems like a logical equivalent. Pick of the week.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 12-13 — Elia Kazan is one of my new favourite characters in this series. Looks like he’ll be back soon, too.