Tag Archives: Sunless Sea

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.

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Omnireviewer (week of March 26, 2017)

I listened to 35 podcast episodes this week. For interested parties, you can generally be sure that I’m living well when my podcast intake is especially high. This week I did a lot of running, a lot of cooking and a lot of cleaning. Thus, a lot of podcasts. That said, this week also marked the first time in several years that I’ve felt compelled to just sit down and listen to a podcast while doing nothing else. That is because seven of the 35 podcast episodes I listened to this week are among the best podcast episodes ever made. If you travel in these circles, you already know what I mean. If not, read on.

This was going to be a full post of nothing but podcasts and one album. I decided to do yet another review of a game I occasionally dip into just so I’d have something worthy to offer my second pick of the week. But it’s been an auditory sort of week, broadly speaking.

30 reviews. (Because a bunch are lumped together.)

Music

William Basinski: A Shadow in Time — The second Basinski piece I’ve heard, after The Disintegration Loops. This is entirely different and on the whole, less conceptual than The Disintegration Loops. This doesn’t entirely work in its favour, since a big part of The Disintegration Loops’ appeal comes from its premise. The fact that you’re listening to audiotape fading away is part of what makes it so sad. The closest thing A Shadow in Time has to a conceptual hook like that is its first track’s dedication to David Bowie. But it’s hard to relate the dedication to the content of that track, which is basically a less effective version of the kind of music on The Disintegration Loops. And regardless, it is by far the lesser of the two tracks on this album. The title track is monumental, producing vast waves of electronic sound that build and collapse in on themselves in succession. It reminds me of nothing more than John Luther Adams’ vast orchestral masterpiece Become Ocean. High praise, from me.

Games

Sunless Sea — For those who are following my gaming exploits, I have decided that Half-Life is not for me. That doesn’t necessarily mean I won’t finish it, but I’m putting it aside for now. Somebody once told me that my problem is I want games to be books. I can’t really contradict that. And Half-Life is nothing like a book. It has many positive attributes that I can objectively recognize, but it ultimately comes down to how good you are at firing pretend guns at pretend monsters whose presence is the result of the one genuine story event in the early game, which happens essentially at the very beginning. This is neither the kind of thing I tend to appreciate, nor the type of thing I am remotely good at. So, even on easy mode, Half-Life has been mostly a mixture of boredom and frustration. That was a realization from about two weeks ago. This week, I cleansed my palate with Sunless Sea, which is as much like a book as any game I’ve ever played. A very fancy book. Every time I revisit this, I’m astonished at how much I haven’t discovered. I know there are whole branches of lore, and whole organizing principles of the gameworld that I’m not familiar with because I’ve spent relatively little time playing the sister title Fallen London. I will eventually rectify this, because the world that these games take place in is one of my very favourite imaginary worlds. As far as I can tell, it is unique in its mode of expression, which I might characterize as unyielding, glib understatement in the face of abject terror. I’m constantly curious about the larger forces at play in this game’s byzantine geopolitics and theology, and I’ll probably take up Fallen London again in an effort to find some of that out. But for now, I’m going to focus on actually finishing Sunless Sea’s main quest. Because at my glacial rate of progress, the sequel will be out by the time I manage that. (Seriously, Sunless Skies is going to be awesome.) Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Shittown (S-Town) — If you have not heard S-Town, do not read this. It’s best to go in knowing nothing. My purpose here is not to convince you to listen to it, it’s just to process it for myself and others who already have. But you should definitely listen to it right now. S-Town is among the very, very best work ever done in the podcast medium. (I will henceforth call it Shittown, because I see no need to demure.) Shittown is the story of a man who lived his life as a character in a story, and who actually found somebody to tell the story. It is other things aside from that, but it is that more than it is anything else. A weird tic of mine is that I usually find myself more fascinated with the telling of a story and the person doing the telling than I am with the people the story is about. Not so with the story of John B. McLemore. Like Hamlet (yeah, I’m pulling out the big guns), McLemore exerts such a magnetic pull over his own narrative that he overtakes the role normally occupied by the storyteller. And even though McLemore answers Hamlet’s existential question with a definitive “not to be,” thus removing himself as an agent in Brian Reed’s radio story two-sevenths of the way through, he continues to exert the same pull in death as he had in life. It’s as if he constructed his own life like an elaborate clock, inserted Reed as the final cog, wound it and, by drinking cyanide, finally set it off. He was the author of his own demise, but also the author of his own characteristically secular afterlife. If my clock metaphor seems laboured or obvious, I can’t wholly take the blame. Shittown itself is full of obvious, overtly literary metaphors, a fact that Reed lampshades in the first episode, noting that McLemore knows he couldn’t resist the symbolic valences of his potentially unsolvable hedge maze. Shittown is full of obvious metaphors because McLemore filled his life with obvious metaphors. Reed’s job is basically to transcribe the ongoing novel that this extraordinary, complicated person fashioned out of his own life. In Shittown, Reed plays Nick Carraway to John’s Jay Gatsby. John even cultivates a Gatsbian isolation from the members of his community, and is rumoured to be fairly well off. And by leaving his affairs in disarray upon his death, by spreading rumours of buried treasure, and by leaving countless relationships in states of tension and irresolution, he ensured that the story of his death’s aftermath would be as complicated and compelling as everything that had come before. In emphasizing McLemore as the author of his own story, I don’t mean to take anything away from Brian Reed’s accomplishment, which is substantial. It may be a new high bar for audio nonfiction. I can’t think of another show that’s so willing to completely divorce itself from traditional journalistic methods of story organization. (What even is the story of Shittown? Nothing happens throughout its entire duration that is unusual enough to warrant reporting in itself.) Love and Radio is the closest thing I can think of, but even that show is frequently confined to the studio. It couldn’t hope to introduce us to somebody like Uncle Jimmy, the sunny-dispositioned relation whose communication is hampered by a bullet that’s been lodged in his brain for 20 years. But even this emphasizes the extent to which Shittown succeeds on the basis of its astonishingly good tape and the people on the other end of Reed’s microphone. Woodstock, Alabama is a stranger-than-fiction town with implicit metaphors baked in. John B. McLemore was a stranger-than-fiction man who saw the metaphors and cast himself as the tragic outcast protagonist of the story that he was clearly living in. Brian Reed knew to hit record. Pick of the week.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Reza Aslan” — This is aggravating. I love Aslan, but Maron’s habit of just saying things without questioning whether they’re right makes a fool of him multiple times here, and not in an endearing way. It has its moments, as even the weakest of Maron’s episodes do. But fundamentally, a Marc Maron interview with Reza Aslan isn’t a good idea. I should have known better.

Judge John Hodgman: “In-lawful Gathering” — My newfound love for this show continues. The highlight of this episode is a introverted husband who is clearly being tortured by his family’s tradition of eating with 20 extended family members five nights a week. This poor fellow’s basic nature is at odds with his goal, here. On one hand, he’d love to simply enumerate the evidence that this is a terrible and very strange practice that’s killing him slowly. On the other, he definitely does not want to say anything bad about anybody. That would be unthinkable. This is worth it just to hear this guy attempt to walk that impossibly fine line.

The Heart: “Bathroom Bill” — A heartbreaking, mutedly hopeful story about the effect of Washington state’s proposed bathroom bill on one young trans girl and her mother. The bill didn’t pass, but it came stupidly close and shocked this story’s pseudonymous narrator out of her blue state complacency. It’s a story from the podcast How To Be A Girl, which has also been featured on Love and Radio. It’s staggering stuff, and definitely unlike anything else being made adjacent to public radio. Listen to this, it’s really beautiful.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Memes, Fads, Advice, and Neil Gaiman” — I want more Guy Branam on this show. I don’t like Pop Rocket all that much, but he’s very funny and brings out the best in the three main panelists, who I don’t think are always necessarily operating at full funny capacity. Also, do they have an intern doing their packaging right now? There’s a retake left in an ad, and there’s no extro with credits and theme music. Not that I care, but what an odd thing. I only bring it up because it really points out how familiar the rhythms of these shows become. When it changes, it’s kind of like listening to a familiar album and for some reason the tracklist is backwards.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Beauty and the Beast & SXSW” — I’m sad that Katie Presley’s only ever on this show around SXSW. She should have her own show. Between her appreciation of “the erotic potential of the Beast,” the angry experimental music of Moor Mother, and her fellow panelists’ bemusement about Moor Mother, she is a welcome monkey wrench in this episode.

Love and Radio: “La Retirada, Part Three” — This is easily the best instalment of this fascinating series about a family that found themselves embroiled in a drug cartel. This part deals with the particulars of being in the witness protection program. That’s a story I’m not sure I’d heard before. This would have been a great episode of Love and Radio, even if this was all there was to it.

The Memory Palace: “A Washington Monument” — One of the best episodes in a while. Nate DiMeo asks you to imagine an alternative to the Washington Monument that actually exists, and it is a truly outstanding alternative. Much better than the current one. Also, I love hearing DiMeo stumble and “um” his way through his promo copy. It makes this show feel more intimate than others.

Radiolab: “Shots Fired: Parts 1 & 2” — Best thing Radiolab’s done since “The Rhino Hunter.” This two-parter about police shootings in Florida contains some extremely disturbing tape of violence. But the most distressing moments all come in interviews with the surviving family members of the victims. Both episodes are essential, and they each demonstrate a different facet of the topic at hand. The first examines implicit bias as a motivator for police violence, and the second examines how good information can turn bad in a matter of minutes and lead to tragic results. Horrifying.

Crimetown: “The Network” — Thank god Buddy Cianci is back soon. This show has gone too far adrift. In the next season, they need to either aggressively tell one story, or just abandon their format altogether.

The Kitchen Sisters Present: “Sam Phillips, Sun Records, and the Acoustics of Life” — This is one of the podcasts on the Radiotopia network that I’ve unfairly neglected. The Kitchen Sisters Present (a more unwieldy but also more descriptive title than the original Fugitive Waves) feels on the one hand radical and singular and on the other like good-old fashioned public radio. The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is that it never allows itself to stay bolted to the studio. I really don’t mind podcasts that are largely studio based, with phoner interviews etc. But they’re definitely becoming the norm, even among podcasters with public radio backgrounds and approaches. The Kitchen Sisters’ work is a large monument to the dying art of going places while holding microphones. I owe it to myself and them to hear more of their catalogue. This episode about Sam Phillips resonates with their methods because Phillips was a guy who started off doing the very same thing: going out into the world with a tape recorder and capturing sound. The fact that he later became famous for his work in a studio is almost a moot point because the studio he opened operated on a philosophy of allowing the whole world to come inside. It’s a compelling and unusual look at a life’s work that’s normally thought about exclusively in terms of legacy: “the man who invented rock and roll,” etc. This isn’t that. It’s a lot more interesting than that.

Code Switch: “The 80-Year Mystery Around ‘Fred Douglas’ Park” — A tiny little thing about how an iconic abolitionist’s name has been misspelled in his namesake park for ages. I like these little podcast extras showing up in my feed. More shows should do six-minute or less mini episodes.

Homecoming: “Final Season One After Show: Season Two?” — Catherine Keener is charming and I am definitely looking forward to the return of this show.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Dave Chappelle and CHiPs” — Wow, these Chappelle specials sound like a disaster. But maybe I’ll go back and watch the old ones now. Stephen Thompson is a bit overzealous as a substitute host, I think. But I still like him.

99% Invisible: “The Falling of the Lenins” — I’m not sure what’s up with 99pi right now. I’ve enjoyed a number of their recent shows, but I miss the days when they had focussed design angles to every episode. This is a political story, and not only that, it’s one that doesn’t add much to what I learned about Ukraine’s history from the newspaper coverage after Putin annexed Crimea. I hesitate to suggest that 99pi should stay in its wheelhouse, because the sanctuary churches episodes were pretty good, I thought. But these sorts of stories just aren’t the sort of thing they can reliably do.

Code Switch: “A Bittersweet Persian New Year” — More than anything, this made me hungry. Also, Persian New Year is a thing I knew nothing about, so, two counts of time well spent.

On the Media: “It’s Just Business” — Come for the segment on coal miner photo-ops, stick around for the bit on ISPs selling your browsing data, and then maybe sit out the true crime thing. That’s less pressing.

Imaginary Worlds: “Beyond the Iron Curtain” — Russian science fiction sounds crazy. I will likely not read any of what’s mentioned here. But I love the story explaining socialist realism. That’s fun.

Reply All: “Favour Atender: The Return” — A repeat episode with a small extra segment. But it’s mostly worth it for the amazing extro by Breakmaster Cylinder, who I am at this point 90% sure is PJ Vogt.

All Songs Considered: “Sufjan Stevens, Gorillaz, Perfume Genius, More” — That Gorillaz song with Noel Gallagher is terrible. It’s one platitude after another. Dire. Don’t understand how anybody could like it. On the other hand, the tracks by Perfume Genius, the Family Crest and especially Hippo Campus are all fantastic. I’m on the fence about the Sufjan Stevens/Nico Muhly/Bryce Dessner/James McAlister collaboration. I’ll definitely listen to the album when it comes out, but I’m not sure I’ll like it. Much as I want to.

You Must Remember This: “Jayne Mansfield (Dead Blondes Part 9)” — What a weird liminal figure Jayne Mansfield was. This is basically the story of how an actress of the immediately post-Marilyn Monroe era found herself obsolete in the hippie era. Stories from this transitional period in time are always fascinating to me because it’s a reminder of how quickly the culture can do an about-face. That’s why I love Mad Men. It’s why I loved the Charles Manson season of You Must Remember This. And it’s why I’m looking forward to this horrible period in history that we’re living in being over so that we can at least begin to process it by way of similar narrative constructions.

Crimetown: “Bonus Episode: Cat and Mouse Part II” — I’m not sure I’m entirely comfortable with this show’s attitude towards murderers. It’s essentially the same as Martin Scorsese’s attitude in Goodfellas, which is basically that they’re terrible but also unspeakably glamorous. But Scorsese is dealing with actors who are only pretending to be murderers. This show features tape of interviews with actual murderers. It’s a genre-wide problem, mind you. But the glib, tough-guy approach to talking to mobsters sometimes strikes me as a bit tasteless.

The Gist: “Step Away From the Screen” — Leggings, Mike? You’re basking in the opportunity of a slow news day and you decide to talk about leggings? Even the interview isn’t especially compelling. Anyway.

99% Invisible: “Manzanar” — Well, there’s mention of a plaque, at least. The stories 99pi has been doing lately are important stories, but they’re important stories that should fall to news reporters to tell. Not 99% Invisible. The legacy of the Japanese internment camps is extremely important to remember in America’s current political climate. So, newspapers should definitely send reporters out there. But when this show is at its best, I find a different sort of value in it. It tells important stories that don’t necessarily have any resonance with the current news cycle at all. It tells important stories that are not matters of life and death, but just about how people can make life a little better by thinking a little harder. That’s a worthy task, and it gained this show a big following. I miss that.

Code Switch: “Sanctuary Churches: Who Controls the Story?” — A complex account of the balancing act that the new sanctuary movement faces: be public about your actions as an open protest of the government, or be quiet out of respect for the privacy of those who seek sanctuary?

The Memory Palace: “Roots and Branches and Wind-Borne Seeds” — This is proof that any story can be told well. Nate DiMeo foregrounds the fact that there is no drama in the story he has to tell, and by foregrounding it, he introduces a new thematic layer to the narrative. Nice.

Crimetown: “Renaissance Man” — This is what I’m talking about. If this season had laser focussed on Buddy Cianci and Raymond Patriarca, it could have been glorious. I cannot believe that Buddy Cianci was the mayor of a major city. I cannot believe he got reelected. There is much in the world to shake one’s faith in democracy. Add this to the list.

Criminal: “Rochester, 1991” — This is an absolutely horrifying story of a person who ended up, first, in an abusive relationship and second, on the wrong side of the law. What this woman has been through is unthinkable. It’s not easy to listen to, but it does have something of a happy ending, so that’s not nothing.

Omnireviewer (week of Oct. 23, 2016)

Ooh, some good stuff this week. Also a few pans. Pans! Imagine. 26 reviews.

Games

Thomas Was Alone — After watching Charlie Brooker’s video games special, I was reminded of the occasional joys of a game where you mostly just jump. But I need my jumping to be mediated through several layers of metacritique and accompanied by a cast of colourful characters with actual personalities, because I am me. I had deleted this from my iPad for space, but I downloaded it again, not intending to reply the full game, but then I remembered how the puzzle mechanics pull you in, and how the gradual, minimalistic storyline eventually ends in staggering, sad catharsis, and I just had to play to the end. It’s marvellous, obviously. It’s one of the most seamless integrations of mechanics and story that I’ve seen in a non-IF context. Braid comes to mind as another, but Thomas Was Alone didn’t inherit Braid’s smugness. This game’s masterstroke is how it uses basic platformer mechanics to enrich characterization. When you need to use two different characters’ unique abilities in tandem to help them both reach their destinations, it doesn’t just feel like solving a clever puzzle (though it is that), it feels like you’re watching relationships form. That’s remarkable. This second time through, I had some minor quibbles. Occasionally the narration can be a bit overbearing. The spoken text in this has a delicate balance to strike: it can’t be so twee that it’s annoying, yet it also needs to be whimsical enough to mark a contrast with the rather terse written text that appears at the beginnings of certain levels to tell the larger story of what’s going on outside the narrative we’re seeing. Usually, the narration strikes that balance pretty well. But occasionally it veers into too-twee territory. Most of the time, I felt like a slightly different read of the same script might have done the trick. It’s such a minor thing. The larger issue is that the emotional climax of the story happens quite some time before the end of the game. Without spoiling anything, there’s a story event about 80% of the way through that paves the way for a really cool new mechanic that defines the late stages of gameplay. But from that point on, the story can’t match up with what came before. It would have been an easy storytelling problem to overcome: just a couple of strategically-placed evocations of the characters from early in the game might well have done the trick. But I also think it would have been wise to minimize the narration in those late phases, so that the game can accelerate to a close rather than drift into one. Altogether, I still love this game, though. Any game that’s mostly jumping that can compel me to play through to the end, twice, is a very good game.

Sunless Sea: Zubmariner — This arrived at just the right time. Sunless Sea is the only vast sandbox game that I’ve ever gotten into. I do like a game that lets me explore, but preferably in the service of a linear story. (Firewatch has kind of become my ideal in this sense.) This game is pretty much as close as I get to Skyrim. And while I haven’t actually played Skyrim, I’ll wager that Sunless Sea is even vaster, on account of the fact that it is so dominated by text: the densest medium. So, this is probably the only game that I’ve poured more than a half-dozen-or-so hours into since childhood. Clearly, it’s much too big and deep for me to have turned over every rock and scrutinized every crevice for searing enigmas and extraordinary implications (gosh, this game’s jargon is so infectious). But, I had put enough time into it that I’d seen the entire map and I had a general sense of what each locale is like. There’s still plenty to uncover after you’ve reached that point, but without the thrill of exploration the game does lose something. Zubmariner is a godsend because it not only introduces several new ports with new premises, characters and stories; it introduces an entirely new and mysterious map to explore. Sure, it’s an addition grafted onto the old map, but it still feels new. And the new ports that I’ve discovered so far (less than half of them, I think) are all among the most interesting in the game. I should specifically mention the underwater settlement of Scrimshander, my current favourite. Scrimshander is a settlement made of bones, where they are so obsessed with the recording, archiving and interpretation of history that they demand that nobody may leave Scrimshander without leaving something behind for posterity: a memory, a bit of your personality, a body part… It seems that the larger story in Scrimshander, which I’ve barely scratched the surface of, will turn out to be a purposeful interrogation of the Great Man model of history, in which you can choose to search the archives for either great heroes or telling patterns. That’s a whole level wonkier and more specific (and also more directly satirical) than anything on the surface of the Unterzee. (Well, except for Pigmote Isle, perhaps. That one was always a tad unsubtle.) One thing that’s great about this game being text-based is that it can actually go to places like this: where archiving and scholarship are as much part of your adventure as fighting and smuggling. And since it all happens in an imaginary world made of well-placed words, one type of adventure is just as vibrant and exciting as the next. This expansion is just what I needed to get pulled back into Sunless Sea’s warped magnificence.

Movies

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 & 2 — I honestly can’t even remember which Harry Potter movies I’ve seen and which I haven’t, but I was sure I hadn’t seen these two. And, thrown into a fit of nostalgia by The Cursed Child, I figured I’d check them out. After all, even if they sucked, at least there’s Alan Rickman. Part 1 is massively slow, and a bit superfluous. One of the most egregious downsides of massive franchises is that studios can make as many movies as they like and people will dutifully turn up. Still, Part 1 has some really excellent moments. The animated segment telling the parable of the three brothers is brilliant. Also, if there’s one good reason why the seventh book should have been split into two films, it’s to offer the three leads — all of whom, remember, were small children when the franchise began — a chance to do a proper three-hander, without being bolstered by the staggeringly prestigious supporting cast who has been there since the start. Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and especially Emma Watson all acquit themselves quite well, here. Plus, Rickman’s not the only late icon who makes an appearance: it’s nice to see Richard Griffiths as well, if only for a few frames. The second film is the better one by miles, obviously. There are still problems, like Professor McGonagall locking the entirety of Slytherin house in the dungeons. Seems like a civil liberties infraction. But then, Slytherin has always been one of the biggest problems with the Harry Potter canon. As has been frequently observed, it’s a house for evil children. That will tend to cause storytelling issues. There are moments of moviemaking nonsense, like Malfoy grabbing Harry’s hand as he flies above on a broomstick, to suddenly being on his back in the next shot. But all of this is more than compensated for by the magnificent handling of Snape’s memories in the pensieve, and Harry’s final encounter with Dumbledore, in the bright white King’s Cross Station in his head. I have only just realized that both here and in the book, Dumbledore is essentially Alan Moore in this scene. First off, there’s his famous quote (and also J.K. Rowling’s most powerful benediction at the end of the series) “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.” That’s pure Alan Moore. And then, when Harry asks him directly the question that the audience is already thinking (this sort of thing happens a lot in these movies), namely whether what’s happening is actually real or only in his head, Dumbledore rejects his premise: certainly, it’s in his head, but that doesn’t mean it’s not real. That’s also pure Alan Moore. I doubt somehow that Moore would have time for the Harry Potter books, but that’s his loss. The movies are certainly the lesser iteration of the story, but it’s nice they exist for a quick trip back into that world now and then. And they do boast the most staggering array of overqualified supporting actors this side of Game of Thrones.

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World — I expected more from this. First off, there are a couple of segments where I think Werner Herzog is labouring under a totally misguided premise. The whole bit about internet addiction has a slight tinge of daytime television about it. Herzog seems to be implying, by putting this chapter alongside other stories of how the internet has changed the world, that this is a new phenomenon, when it’s quite obvious from the interviews that it’s really no different from any other addiction. Gambling addiction in particular comes to mind. Addiction is age-old. Implying that this is a new human grievance brought on by the internet seems almost willfully ignorant. Plus, when Herzog talks about gamers wearing diapers so they can “avoid losing points by going to the bathroom,” it’s clear that he believes all video games are Pong. The other segment I thought was an odd choice is one about a family who were forced to confront disturbing images of their deceased daughter, who had been decapitated in a car accident, by emails from random malicious strangers. This is awful, certainly. But it’s a bizarre way to approach the cruelty of anonymous strangers on the internet. Saying “the internet can sometimes be bad, like in this one extreme example!” is not super effective when we’re constantly bombarded by horrifying stories of the online abuse suffered by women and people of colour as a matter of routine. What Herzog has put forth here isn’t the exception: it’s the sad, sad rule. But there’s much to love, here. The film opens with incredible panache. One plausible origin story of the internet is related to us by Computer-Science-Regis-Philbin (Leonard Kleinrock) accompanied by the Rheingold overture. Really, putting the Rheingold overture at the beginning of anything tends to make it feel momentous, but the combination of Kleinrock’s incredible charisma and Herzog’s sense of what details will pop out make it a really great opening scene. The segment featuring Ted Nelson is quite wonderful. He’s a computer scientist who conceived of a version of the internet before there was such a thing and is struggling even now to make it work, in spite of the World Wide Web’s indomitable presence. (Popular guy, lately. He cropped up in Kentucky Route Zero as well. Sort of.) But this scene is too short. Nelson gets to outline his vision in extremely broad strokes, and then we never hear from him again. I could have done with more of this kind of stuff — visions of internets past and future and possible and improbable — and less of the sort of stuff where Herzog asks people if the internet dreams of itself. That’s a question that sounds interesting until you think about it, and then it doesn’t sound that interesting. It definitely sounds very Herzog, which leads me to wonder if he’s just playing into the schtick at this point. Of the responses to that question that were included, exactly one of them is interesting, because it’s grounded in computer science, and offers a compelling argument that the World Wide Web is the internet dreaming of itself. But the fact that Herzog got that response seems like random good fortune considering that the rest of his interview subjects treat the question like the imprecise thought that it is. I think the biggest problem with this movie is that Herzog insists on looking at the internet as A Thing That’s Here Now, and it’s Doing Stuff To Us, as opposed to something that we made and continue to make. Herzog is good at thinking about the stuff that exists outside of us and in spite of us and that we can’t control. But the internet is not a grizzly bear. And as much as we probably can’t control it, we do shape it because we are it. “What is the internet doing to us” is a less interesting question than “what should the internet be?” And Herzog doesn’t seem plugged in enough to realize that this is a question that’s even possible to ask.

The Girl on the Train — I didn’t hate it. But it’s not very good. For a thriller, it’s pretty dull for the bulk of its running time. It really only picks up once the penny drops and the events that the movie has been obscuring become clear. That’s an odd thing: to be more engaged once you know everything. The acting’s hit and miss. Emily Blunt alone is hit and miss. She’s made to look extremely rough, like you’d expect such an extreme alcoholic to, but the performance feels mannered, and the moments where she really cuts loose don’t hit home like they should. They’re more pathetic than sad. Haley Bennett ranges from quite good to “Did Jennifer Lawrence forget how to act??” And Justin Theroux gives a reasonable performance, only to throw it away at the end with some deeply unconvincing, erm, twitching. I don’t think that’s a spoiler. Honestly, the best part of this movie is watching consummate professional Allison Janney do marvellous things with extremely limited material. She plays the detective. You know, the detective. That role. And she can make implications and cast aspersions without even saying anything. I’m always happy when she shows up in stuff. I wish somebody would give her a lead role in something I want to watch. (Though, after this I may go and watch Tallulah, just for the acting.)

Literature, etc.

Karen Page & Andrew Dornenburg: The Flavor Bible — Yeah, I bought the meaty one. And I immediately made a delicious meal of ginger-glazed salmon with fresh tarragon and broiled grapefruit. Both Flavor Bibles have proven themselves to be spectacular reference books that make cooking more fun, and in a few cases easier. I’ve never felt this confident in just selecting a couple of vegetables and a few spices and serving them together, uncomplicatedly. I haven’t looked at the intro yet. I’ll do that when I finish slogging through the one in the vegetarian edition, which is useful but quite dull — unlike the vegetarian meals I’ve made using that book, which were not dull at all. For vegetable-inclined omnivores such as myself, it really is worth having both.

Natalia Ginzburg: “He and I” — An essay anthologized in Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay, a book that I love very much and would recommend to literally everybody. Ginzburg’s essay is a fascinating glimpse into a marriage — her marriage, to a man who seems like a bit of a condescending shit, but who must have something going for him, because Ginzberg seems to mostly like him. Basically, it’s about how people in relationships can be different from each other, which is both extremely obvious and an extremely huge concept to take on in a short essay. But Ginzberg manages, because she’s able to describe the differences between her and her husband with great specificity. I really enjoyed this. Go buy The Art of the Personal Essay. It’s got everything.

Wole Soyinka: “Why Do I Fast?” — Soyinka is a fascinating figure: a literary pioneer whose experiments took place while he was in solitary confinement during the Nigerian Civil War. This essay about a practice he would occasionally undertake during that period — fasting in protest — is staggeringly visceral. This is not the last of his work I’ll read.

Television

Last Week Tonight: October 23, 2016 — Another good week, with only a couple of jokes that didn’t land. The segment on the third debate is particularly good, which is a remarkable thing to say given how completely worn out I am from hearing the same horrible sound bites from that debate again and again. Also, I think this might be the first time that Oliver doesn’t introduce an interstitial with “And now, this.” Don’t know why I felt compelled to make that observation. But here we are.

Full Frontal with Samantha Bee: “United Nations” — Incredible. Bee’s segment on Catholic-run hospitals is as revealing as John Oliver’s best semi-investigative segments, but with the added touch of actually featuring original interview footage with women who have been denied medically necessary late-term abortions by Catholic hospitals. It’s harrowing. And then there’s an interview with Madeleine Albright. This is great.

Nathan Barley — I really wanted to like this. I would really love for it to be an ahead-of-its-time critique of vapid internet personalities and proto-tech bros (this is the concept of the show that was pitched to me in an excellent episode of Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything called “The Future,” which you should check out because it’s better than the actual show), but it’s actually really obvious, and doesn’t have much to say except that sometimes people who are seen as fashionable are also stupid. Big news. I’m having second thoughts about watching more Black Mirror, if this is what Charlie Brooker thinks constitutes satire. I think this show would have been better if it made the sceptic Dan Ashcroft (a wonderful, pre-Boosh Julian Barratt) a stronger, more present protagonist, and made the show’s titular fashion-conscious scenester idiot more of a thing that happens to him. Like with Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby. The story of a well-meaning sceptic who becomes embroiled in the very world he’s trying to stave off in spite of his best efforts is a better story than the one told here. On the other hand, you do get to see a bunch of future stars in small roles, which is cool. Noel Fielding shows up to do the Noel Fielding thing. Ben Whishaw is hilarious in a role with almost no lines. And Benedict Cumberbatch himself shows up as a fully-formed, wonderful actor with obvious leading man potential, and he’s in two scenes. So that’s fun.

Music

Ghost: Meliora — This was exactly what I hoped for it to be: totally over-the-top, gothic, theatrical metal with an underlying pop sensibility. It has essentially hit the perfect formula to lure me back to a genre that I thought I was done with. It’s fun, trope-aware, and definitely taking the piss. But it’s also a really solid metal album with great riffs and good playing from the band of masked persons who stand alongside the face paint-wearing, self-styled Satanic pope who sings lead vocals. “Cirice” is the obvious highlight on first listen, with its suspenseful acoustic opening, and its well-deployed vocal hooks (yes, hooks), but I’m also already quite taken with “Majesty” and the final track, “Deus in Absentia.” Admittedly, that last one works better as a finale to the album than it does on its own. This is one of those cases where the band knew it was okay to go (even more) over the top at the very end, because what came before seems to call for it. (See also: Supertramp’s Crime of the Century, the Chemical Brothers’ Further, Mahler’s third symphony.) Maybe it’s just because it seems seasonal, but I’ve been really getting a charge out of Meliora this week. At this rate, it’s likely to end up one of my favourite albums of the year. Didn’t see that coming. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

WTF with Marc Maron: “Margo Price” — This is instantly classic WTF. Right at the start of the conversation, Maron says it directly: “I like you.” And Margo Price says it back: “I like you too.” That’s the key, on this show. And here are two people with some common hardships to talk about and a similar sense of the world. Price is a lot of fun, and she’s got great stories. Plus, listening to this made it clear that there really isn’t anything on Midwest Farmer’s Daughter that’s not based on Price’s own life experiences. Which is distressing. But at least she could channel it all into great songs. This is an engrossing conversation that could also act as proof-of-concept for WTF if you haven’t gotten into it. Listen to this. It’s super. Pick of the week.

In the Dark: “The Truth” — As a conclusion to In the Dark, this doesn’t hit quite as hard as last week’s episode, but it does manage to sink a few more nails into the coffin of the Stearns County sheriff’s office’s reputation. Which is all you can ask. This has been a pretty good podcast, based on a truly extraordinary investigation. I’m pretty excited about the future of APM Reports.

You Must Remember This: “The Blacklist,” parts 15 & 16, plus Sinatra rerun — It’s a really good thing that Longworth employs somebody to mix the audio now. Because, even if it is still just music playing underneath talking, at least the music isn’t edited in such a distracting, ostentatious way, like it is in the older episodes that have been replayed in this series. There’s a moment in the Sinatra rerun where the same brief segment of a very recognizable Gershwin piano piece plays again and again, and it is infuriating. This series has been incredible on average. At its best, and the final two episodes are among its best (along with the episodes on Dorothy Parker and Lena Horne), it is staggering. I’m undecided whether I prefer it to the Charles Manson season or not, but I did really love it. 

Theory of Everything: “Honeypot” — This series on surveillance is already one of my favourite things that Benjamen Walker has done. It’ll be nice when he manages to get out in the world a bit more, for a bit of sonic variety. But I’m always on board for the episodes where Walker turns a critical eye towards the emerging future of the internet. His sharing economy series is the reigning champion, but considering how terrified I am about online surveillance, this could easily surpass it. And I’m really wondering what he’s working up to with that fake midroll ad spot. Funny that Andrew Calloway from the “Instaserfs” series showed up in this one: he’s got a new podcast out, and DMed me on Twitter to listen to it. I haven’t. I will. I wonder if it’s part of an elaborate fiction devised by Benjamen Walker…? Nah, that’s just paranoid.

In Our Time: “Plasma” — I think maybe I should steer clear of science on this show. Science researchers talking on the radio like they talk to each other has limited appeal compared to the same thing done by historians or English professors.

The Memory Palace: “In Line” — A short one, but affecting. It’s about the circumstances that led to the Voting Rights Act, and how familiar they still seem today. More interestingly, isn’t it notable how Radiotopia is putting its funding model front and centre in this pledge drive (nearly over, go support it) just when the wheels look like they’re coming off of Gimlet? (I don’t think they actually are, mind you, but they’ve had their trials front-and-centre, lately.) DiMeo even comments specifically on the lack of venture capital backing Radiotopia. Hmm.

The Bugle: “Buglemas Eve – a final preview” — The relaunch had already happened by the time I listened to this, but I’m glad I did, because these snippets make me more confident that it’ll go on being funny with these guest hosts. And Wyatt Cenac! Seriously, this is going to be an embarrassment of comedic riches.

This American Life: “Seriously?” — I had no idea that “patriotic correctness” was a thing. Also, this is most notable for its first act, produced by Ira himself, where he talks to his Republican uncle about the things he believes that are factually untrue. It is frustrating beyond compare, no doubt moreso for Ira himself, because it didn’t used to be like this. There was a time when the two sides of the political spectrum merely had a conflict of values. Now, there’s an entire side of the discourse (and it really is mostly just that one side) that contests even the demonstrable facts. This is one of those things that you can basically only listen to and despair.

The Heart: “Helen Breger’s Last Kiss” — A charming story about an elderly woman’s love and sex life. What better ode could there be to a recently-departed grandparent?

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “The Great Halloween Candy Debate with Mallory Ortberg” — PCHH live episodes are always great. They’re funnier in front of an audience. I have to say, I laughed harder at the segment on Halloween candy than I have at some actual comedy podcasts in recent weeks. The three core members are especially on their respective A-games here, with Glen Weldon providing some classic Weldonisms, including a description of Tootsie Rolls as Madame Tussauds’ elegant turds. I generally agree with their assessments, though I think I’m less enthusiastic about candy in general. There’s just something about listening to people talk about food, though. This honestly rivals The Sporkful at it’s most gleefully frivolous. Really fun.

Imaginary Worlds: “The Sorting Hat” — It’s possible that this hit me at exactly the right time, considering my current wave of Cursed Child-induced Potter nostalgia. But I think this is one of the best episodes of Imaginary Worlds. Hogwarts’ four houses are one of the most compelling elements of J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world, partially for the problems they pose. I’ve always felt that Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff were the only houses with properly specific, house-like identities, because Gryffindor and Slytherin are essentially narrative constructs: one is for protagonists, one is for antagonists. And that opens up the oft-stated issue of Slytherin being a house for evil people. However, listening to this, it was interesting to hear other fans’ take on this: people who self-identify as Slytherins, for instance. That demonstrates to me that I must be at least slightly wrong. Besides, Snape’s a Slytherin. (Sidenote: Slytherin and Gryffindor make up the same approximate yin-yang as Snape and Dumbledore, don’t they? The good within the bad; the bad within the good.) Plus, there’s a fan’s in-universe theory about why the Sorting Hat chooses to put Harry, Hermione and Ron in Gryffindor as opposed to Slytherin, Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff respectively. And that theory gets at a much deeper notion of the value of education than I expected to come into this at the beginning. Really nice.

New Yorker: Out Loud: “Beyond Citizen Kane” — Somehow, I came to the New Yorker’s defunct short-form podcast before I ever listened to their much-beloved New Yorker Radio Hour. I’ll get there. But this is about Orson Welles and it has Alex Ross on it, so how was I not going to listen? I’ve made a note to watch F for Fake. My Welles experience is too limited, it seems.

This American Life: “Will I Know Anyone at This Party?” — One of the most rage-inducing things I’ve heard during this rage-inducing election. The main attraction is a great story by Zoe Chace about St. Cloud, Minnesota, where conservative America’s racist panic over immigration (which, as Ira points out, doesn’t even make sense given the falling immigration rate) has been bubbling over for a few extra years. There’s tape in this of people saying things that are… hard to forgive. It’s not even the racism itself that’s so galling; it’s the fact that many of the people saying these things believe wholeheartedly that they aren’t racist. Even an elected representative who outspokenly opposed his own constituents’ call for a moratorium on Somali immigrants (honest to god) says things like “I know these people! They’re good people! They’re not racist, they’re just…” and then he tries to defend them. But they’re obviously, totally racist. They may be good people in many other respects, but they do not understand what constitutes racism, and why it’s wrong. That’s what’s really great about this story: it demonstrates specifically how these kinds of views made it into the mainstream of the Republican party from out of the fringes. I know plenty of people like this myself, coming from a conservative part of Canada (relatively speaking). Some of the most thoughtful, generous and kind-hearted people that I know are also pretty racist. And it doesn’t come out in their interactions with specific individuals of other races; but it does come out in the policies they support because they’ve been made to perceive a larger problem. One that doesn’t exist. This episode gets into all of this, and also has Neil Patrick Harris singing in character as Paul Ryan. It is great, important radio, but it is not my pick of the week because right now I feel like I don’t need this as much as I need Marc Maron shooting the shit with Margo Price. It’s November in the year of an American election. We’ve got to stay sane somehow.

99% Invisible: “McMansion Hell” — Primo 99pi. If you didn’t support the Radiotopia fundraiser, feel bad. Then listen to this hilarious episode about tacky, tasteless gigantic homes and feel worse. Then go to the blog that it was inspired by and laugh more.

Omnireviewer (week of Aug. 7, 2016)

23 reviews. That seems to be my upper limit, these days. But I’m slowly and surely catching up with my podcast backlog. Relatedly, my average running pace is getting gradually quicker.

Television

Last Week Tonight: August 7, 2016 — Jason Sudeikis’s role in the final kicker of Oliver’s journalism segment is the villain of our times. He is shiny and dumb, utterly clueless and convinced of his own rightness, and he values the new more than the good. I have met this person a number of times and so have you. Individually, they are an embuggerance. Collectively, they are an intellectual apocalypse lying in wait. Thank you, John Oliver, for leading the charge against the shiny dummies.

Deadwood: Season three, episodes 1-6 — Thus far, season three of Deadwood is scarcely less excellent than season two. Its reputation and my knowledge of its hasty cancellation leads me to expect disappointment within the next six episodes, but so far I’m just enjoying being back in this richly-drawn setting with these characters and their gutter-Shakespearean dialogue. Brian Cox is a very welcome addition to the cast, even if his character isn’t involved in anything much resembling a story at this point. George Hearst is proving a more fearsome monster even than Francis Wolcott was last season. On that note, the most interesting thing about this season so far is the vastly different power dynamic that takes hold when Al Swearengen and Cy Tolliver are no longer vying for dominance under the watchful eye of Sheriff Bullock. Such trifling matters must be put aside when an individual as powerful and ruthless as Hearst threatens this entire civilization that’s been so miraculously built from nothing. (It may not be “civil,” but Deadwood represents a civilization nonetheless.) The AV Club’s Todd VanDerWerff had a great line of argument about the first season of the show: you can tell who Deadwood’s “gods” are because they assay their domain from on high. Al and Cy have their respective verandas, and the very wealthy (if comparatively retiring) Alma Garrett has her high window. Telling, then, that the first thing Hearst does when he gets into town is roughly tear a hole in the second-story outer wall of his newly-purchased hotel to fashion a crude veranda. I have no idea how the town is going to get out of Hearst’s grasp. Given the slapdash end of Deadwood’s production, I suspect they may not.

Literature, etc.

Michael Lind: “Intellectuals are Freaks” — A very valuable essay about how the life experiences of the chattering set tend to blind them (us?) to certain realities. I know many people whose life experiences have placed them in an intellectual bubble wherein there are no ideologically-opposed people to them. And look, I’m as horrified about Trump and Brexit as anybody. But I think that a certain amount of exposure to a variety of viewpoints within my own family has made me slightly less incredulous about how these things can happen. I’m still massively blinkered, I’m sure. But I know lots of people who could do to read this. I will say that Lind’s conclusion that all opinion writers and professors should spend a year working in a shopping mall or warehouse seems a bit facile to me. Surely, that’s hardly enough to counter the rest of their lives?

Bernd Brunner: “Encyclopedia Blue” — Lind’s article appeared on a site called The Smart Set, which I hadn’t heard of and decided to give a shot. I went with the article most prominently displayed on their homepage, which was this disappointingly brief article on the colour blue. It cites two full books on the topic that sound like they would be interesting. But if you’re going to do the whole “thinkpiece about a colour” thing, I think I deserve at least a couple thousand words in return for the click. Come on, now.

Music

Simon Rattle & Berlin Philharmonic: Schoenberg Orchestral Works — This is perhaps an atypical recording to be in my most listened-to classical discs ever. But, according to my iTunes play count, so it appears to be. To be fair, that stems mostly from the recording of Schoenberg’s brilliant orchestration of Brahms’ G minor piano quintet that starts the disc off. Being Brahms, it’s a long way off from the dissonant, bizarre music that Schoenberg is best known for. But it’s also got more than a little of Schoenberg’s taste for the grotesque in it. The rapid string passages and loud percussion of the first movement conjure similarly nightmarish images to Schoenberg’s own early works, Erwartung in particular. Given that this is the only recording of this orchestration that I’ve heard, it’s hard to say how much of this is there in the score and how much of it is Simon Rattle leaning hard into the Schoenberg side of the Brahms-Schoenberg collaboration. But it’s exciting music, marvellously played. I listen to it more than any recording of an actual Brahms symphony. The Schoenberg originals that follow it keep the pace admirably, though I find myself listening to them less. Accompanying Music to a Film Scene is the one piece here that casual listeners might find distressing. In the absence of memorable melodic material, Schoenberg’s virtuosic orchestrations hold the attention. He really doesn’t get enough credit for his talents in that area. This recording of the Chamber Symphony No. 1 isn’t my preferred one — I do tend to like it it best in its original chamber orchestra scoring. The Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s recording is the real classic, I think. This music calls out for a one-per-part approach. There’s something about that feeling that you’re dealing with individuals rather than sections that makes the music easier to keep track of, somehow. But it’s hard to complain when it’s played as well as the Berlin Phil plays it here. An idiosyncratic favourite, I suppose. But I’d recommend it unreservedly to anybody who’s interested at all in classical music.

Kyle Craft: “Before the Wall” — A beautifully-timed old-school folky protest song about Trump’s wall. Given that you can record and release songs so easily now, I don’t know why social isn’t being constantly flooded with latter-day Woody Guthries and Pete Seegers, having their say about The Big Thing, and following in step with the news cycle. The kinds of contemporary, time-hooked songs you could write in a day and perform at a club that evening in the ‘60s are now the kinds of songs that you can write and record in one, two days and throw online to a potentially much bigger audience. Is this happening? Am I just in an echo chamber? Are we all? In any case, this song is tremendously moving at this specific moment in time. It will inevitably mean less next year, but that’s not the point. Kyle Craft now has his album — his big statement of arrival that I’ll probably be listening to for years — and this single, which in an equitable world would introduce him to a much larger audience, if only for a short time. “If the wall it goes up and your Jesus comes back/And he knocks on the door will you stand to attack/If he don’t have his papers and he don’t have much cash/Would you take him in, jail him, or just send him back?” Pick of the week.

Games

Sunless Sea — This remains my favourite game to return to. I played a fair bit this week, and I actually chose to end the story of my longtime character, when he finished a particular matter that led him through a vast gate to the far north of the game’s world, and onward to his poetic death. That is the sort of thing that can happen in Sunless Sea. I confess to being slightly disappointed with the sendoff that Captain Webern got. (Yes, I name my video game characters after avant-garde composers. Are you really surprised?) But my new character, Captain Alban (yeah, I know, Alban Berg died before Anton Webern; but who’s counting?) will certainly find his way to the corners of the game that Webern never managed to survey. If it seems like I’m strangely invested in this, I am. Sunless Sea is one of the great works of fiction of our time. I urge anybody with any inclination towards games at all to check it out.

Podcasts

Invisibilia: “Outside In” — Hanna Rosin has been a good addition to this team, but this season has still been weaker, all-in-all, than the first. It’s unfortunate that this final episode of the season is one of its strongest, with two major segments produced by outsiders. I’ll likely switch this over to an occasional listen, rather than a commitment next season.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: MTV Classic” — I’m so glad that Stephen Thompson works at NPR. His Onion roots show through frequently, and that’s a nice thing to have on current affairs radio.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Match Game” — This is seven minutes of Glen Weldon being extremely funny and Stephen Thompson delighting in how funny Glen Weldon’s being. You’ll notice that my responses to this show are as much about the people on it as the things they talk about. That’s the mark of a good panel show, I think. The people who actually make this show may disagree, who knows.

The Heart: “BFF” — This diary series is going to be great. This opening episode is everything you want from The Heart: it’s intimate, irreverent, beautifully produced, and yeah, kind of hot. Also, it’s got great music. I feel like I never have anything substantive to say about The Heart, but it really is one of my favourite podcasts.

99% Invisible: “The Magic Bureaucrat” — Welfare is a sticky topic, and I do not personally have any time for arguments against it. But this story about how the Bill Clinton-era welfare reforms (which I think were a travesty) were designed is really interesting because it folds a policy-making process story into the rhetoric that’s spouted by some of the sources here. It also contains horrific anti-welfare propaganda music. Worth a listen.

Reply All: “Dead is Paul” — This entire episode is devoted to a recurring segment, which is kind of the journalism equivalent of a bottle episode. But I have never been disinterested in P.J. Vogt and Alexes Goldman and Blumberg together in a studio. This is good fun, and very much the sort of thing that I look to podcasts to contribute to my life.

Code Switch: “What Does ‘Objectivity’ Mean to Journalists of Color?” — It’s great to hear some journalists of colour talking specifically about how they deal with reporting on Trump, given that he has been so outspoken in his racism. Pilar Marrero from La Opinion is particularly trenchant: her paper has no problem calling Donald Trump racist, because there is a preponderance of evidence that this is the case. There’s a bit of debate about this point in this episode, and it’s interesting, but nobody ever really quite eclipses Marrero’s analysis.

Theory of Everything: “The art of the deal” — This is just a flat-out conspiracy theory, which is exactly the sort of thing I want from this show. It starts off reasonably enough, but it ends with Donald Trump’s sons fighting ISIS on reality TV. Lovely.

All Songs Considered: “A Conversation With Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood” — Greenwood is a reticent fellow, and not a very good interview. But there are gems littered throughout this, like the fact that “Burn the Witch” is the first Radiohead song that’s been built on strings, rather than having strings added after the fact. I should probably listen to A Moon Shaped Pool again. The cuts Bob Boilen plays here are better than I remember.

99% Invisible: A Sea Worth its Salt” — This story about the fraught preservation efforts being put towards the Salton Sea in California is not quite as compelling somehow as the earlier story about the ruins of California’s public baths. It may seem a strange comparison, but they’re both stories about things that have dubious cases for preservation, though the Salton Sea’s dubiousness seems less dubious.

The Memory Palace: “Dreamland” — Another lovely, elegiac prose poem. This one comes from the back catalogue, but I haven’t been listening long enough to have heard it. It hones in on a specific element of Dreamland — a Coney Island theme park that burned down in 1911 — that’s really poignant: at this time, when travel was prohibitively expensive or inconvenient, this was a way for people living nearby to feel like they’d escaped their surroundings. That makes its destruction more tragic.

Code Switch: “Say My Name, Say My Name (Correctly, Please)” — A deep, funny discussion of why it sucks when people say your name wrong. I have never dealt with this, so it’s probably good for me to hear other people’s experiences with it.

All Songs Considered: “Blood Orange, NAO, Joyce Manor, Factory Floor, More” — Daoud Tyler-Ameen and Saidah Blount are always great to hear from, and they play some good tracks here. I was particularly taken by Swet Shop Boys “T5,” which makes me suspect I should probably check out more that Heems has been involved with.

Planet Money: “Oil,” episodes 1 & 2  — Oh, yes. This is what I want to listen to for the next few weeks. The team at Planet Money are learning about the oil business from the inside. By which I mean, they actually bought a hundred barrels of crude oil with cash and they are planning to transport, refine and sell it. Perhaps the gonzo spirit of Alex Blumberg survived his departure from this show. Pick of the week.

The Gist: “Mike Birbiglia and Ira Glass Followed the Fear Here” — Interviewing Birbiglia and Glass together is something you can just expect from Mike Pesca, I suppose. It’s more interesting than the other Birbiglia interviews I’ve heard surrounding Don’t Think Twice. This episode also contains an amusing riff on podcast tropes as pertaining to Hillary Clinton’s new (real) podcast. Also, this contains the second seemingly unmotivated Yes reference I’ve heard in this podcast in the relatively short time I’ve been listening to it — and I’ve only been listening occasionally. I’m impressed.

Imaginary Worlds: “Finding My Voice” — Maybe it’s a bit narcissistic of Molinsky to just bring in his old editor to talk about his development as a producer. But the actual stories here are interesting. And for those of us trying to figure out radio, it’s actually interesting all the way through. 

Things I loved in 2015: Nos. 5-1

After much suspense, here are my top five things of 2015, including what I recognize is a hopelessly idiosyncratic number one that nobody who reads this will ever check out. But I’ve tried to be honest with myself about what I got the most enjoyment out of this year, and there’s really nothing that compares. Here are five incredible things:

No. 5 — Mad Max: Fury Road

Here is how fight scenes in movies generally work: there are two sides, the two sides fight, and one of them wins.

In Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a scene where Max and Furiosa fight over a truck. They don’t know each other, and neither one necessarily wants to kill the other, but they both need the truck and they’ll do what they have to do.

There are a few complications. Firstly, Max is chained to Nux: an unconscious man who wants both combatants dead. There are five women standing by, who have nothing against Max, and who Max is not attempting to harm. Nonetheless, they need Furiosa to win. They aren’t trained fighters, so if they’re going to contribute they need to work together and be crafty. Also, Furiosa has one arm, though it’s doubtful whether this is actually an encumbrance for her.

Midway through the fight, the hostile unconscious man wakes up.

There are so many moving parts, here. Eight people, two gradations of combat expertise (Max, Furiosa and Nux as opposed to the other five), three separate allegiances (Max to himself, Furiosa and the five women to their own cause, and Nux against them all), and a chain holding two key combatants together.

The entire movie’s like that. Plots and motivations occur in miniature over the course of the extended chase scene that the whole movie basically is. I’ve never seen anything like it.

When I started writing this, I told myself I wouldn’t use this movie as a stick to beat other action movies with, but screw it. The reason Mad Max: Fury Road is the first proper action movie to get nominated for Best Picture in my lifetime is that it’s the only one that’s remotely deserved it. The entire genre seems lazy and vapid by comparison.

Self-evidently the best movie of the year.

No. 4 — Sunless Sea

Since this is the only game on the list, indulge me in a few extra words.

If 2014 was the year when I rediscovered video games, 2015 was the year when I realized the limits of my own tastes. Of 2015’s most notable games, there were many that I either had no interest in, didn’t love, or couldn’t runFortunately, the one game that I really adored this year is so vast that you can (and I did) spend a tremendous amount of time with it and be consistently enthralled. Sunless Sea, for the unfamiliar, is a game that’s approximately equal parts text adventure and roguelike. (I am now the kind of person who knows what that sentence means.)

In the game, you’re the captain of a vessel on a vast underground ocean. You’re living in a version of the 19th century where London was sold to a consortium of devils, fell far beneath Earth’s surface, and became a hilarious Lovecraftian parody of itself. As a captain hailing from this Fallen London, you spend the game making journeys of various lengths from home to a huge number of other creepy, surreal ports, and back. Your journeys from place to place allow you to freely explore the “Unterzee” in your craft, in a beautifully designed top-down view. But when you make port, the story is told entirely through text, aside from a few very expressive illustrations.

This ingenious design choice means that the game’s many stories can take some incredible turns. In Sunless Sea, it’s possible for the writers to include an island where time collapses: they just need to write all of their sentences in different tenses.

Sunless Sea has gotten a lot of well-deserved attention for its inclusiveness: there are characters of all races, genders and sexualities, and the game makes no impositions on your own character’s particular traits or background, or with whom you seek out relationships. (I play as a genderfluid poet, though I am neither of those things.)

It’s also gotten well-deserved attention for the superlative quality of its writing. Oftentimes, when we say that a game’s well-written, we’re grading on a very steep curve. Not here. Sunless Sea boasts top-flight comedic prose, and when the story turns dark or frightening, the writing shifts to adapt. The game speaks in a consistent, stylized voice, right down to the format of the names of characters: the Alarming Scholar; the Irrepressible Cannoneer; the Tireless Mechanic. It’s that attention to detail that makes Sunless Sea so convincing.

But, its real genius is that, rather than allowing itself to be governed by a single narrative throughline, Sunless Sea sets up hundreds of intertwined story threads for you to pull on depending on what interests you at any given time. I can see myself returning to this game for years to come. In a year where there was almost nothing in this medium of interest to me, Sunless Sea made me glad to live in a time when people can make a thing like this.

(If you’re considering shelling out for this, try the browser-based game Fallen London first. It’s not as immersive, but it’s free and features the same style of storytelling.)

No. 3 — Lin-Manuel Miranda: Hamilton: An American Musical

I once made the mistake of trying to sell a friend on Hamilton by calling it “a hip hop musical about America’s first treasury secretary.”

To be fair, that is how Hamilton tends to be sold. They hook you with the novelty of “history through rap.” But that one-liner does Hamilton a tremendous disservice. This isn’t a novelty; it’s the greatest work of musical theatre since Sondheim was at his peak.

There’s a point to telling the story of Alexander Hamilton by way of hip hop — I mean, as opposed to choosing some other story. First off, Lin-Manuel Miranda (the MacArthur genius who built this thing from the ground up) saw a classic hip hop narrative in the story of Hamilton: an immigrant who made it to George Washington’s inner circle through sheer grit and ingenuity.

But also, by telling this story by these means — and, crucially, with a multi-racial cast — Miranda is able to drive home one of the most important ideas in modern America: that the content of history depends entirely on who gets to tell the story.

Hamilton isn’t just a great musical. It’s also a more insightful historical narrative than the film and television industries have been able to muster for some time.

No. 2 — The Memory Palace

memory-palace

My favourite song of the year isn’t even a song; it’s an episode of The Memory Palace.

I can listen to “Craning” over and over, and it never loses its impact. It has specific turns of phrase that get lodged in my head for days. I take notice of a new detail every time. I can’t listen to it when there are people around because I can’t be sure I won’t cry.

“Craning” is about the launch of Apollo 11, but that doesn’t begin to cover what it does. No summary of any episode of this show can actually reflect the experience of listening to it. Nate DiMeo, the guy who made this podcast with no assistance until a couple of weeks ago, is the best writer in podcasting. Nobody can match his ear for an effective phrase, or his ability to imagine details in tiny moments in history. At the launch of Apollo 11, L.B.J. isn’t just there; he’s there in a blue suit and no sunglasses, “just that Hill Country squint.”

I’m going on about this one episode, but that’s just the one that hit me specifically. Nearly all of them are brilliant. You might enjoy the story about the first American woman to file a patent. Or, the one about the turbulent relationship between an ornithologist and his aristocratic wife. Or, the one about men who went mad from inhaling toxic gasses in the factories where they worked.

Something from The Memory Palace will hit you, and it won’t stop spinning around in your head for a while.

No. 1 — David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance: How Thirty-Five Years of John Peel Helped to Shape Modern Life

good night good riddance

My favourite kind of non-fiction tells a huge story through a narrow lens. David Cavanagh’s second book is the best example of that I’ve ever seen.

The story he’s telling is the story of counterculture in England between the late ’60s and the early ’00s. Hippies, punks, indie kids, goths, rappers. It’s a story of political radicalism and incremental social change. It’s the story of how modern Britain came to be a place whose margins are strangely intertwined with its mainstream.

The lens that he tells it through is the BBC Radio 1 DJ John Peel.

It is impossible to communicate what a masterstroke this approach is without throwing up your hands and saying “just read it.” The various incarnations of Peel’s radio show were all kaleidoscopic showrooms for the deepest, strangest music from out of England and elsewhere. So, Cavanagh just picked 265 of Peel’s shows from across more than three decades, and used them as a map to trace the path of British culture.

Cavanagh is as compelling a tour guide as you could hope for, tying each show in with the day’s news, the politics of the BBC, Peel’s personal life, and the state of the music industry.

I’m not selling this. I couldn’t possibly. Go to Amazon and read the free excerpt right now. They give you the whole introduction. No music geek — no person interested in culture in any capacity — will not love this.

Nothing else I consumed this year inspired, informed and entertained me like Good Night and Good Riddance. I feel like I need to find something else like this immediately, but I also know that it doesn’t exist.

Omnireviewer (week of Nov. 15)

Only 23 reviews, this week. Dear me, what could I have been up to? No, I’m seriously asking. I don’t remember anything I did in the past seven days that I didn’t write down.

Games

It’ll surely be a rare week that I write about four games. But hey, I had a free Sunday.

Stasis — Finished, at long last. This was not at all worth the time or money. It’s laden down with bad writing, bad acting, one-dimensional characters, a hackneyed “science gone wrong” plot, needless brutality, an uninteresting atmosphere, and the most predictable last-minute twist imaginable. The bulk of the story is told through diaries lying scattered haphazardly around the ship, each of them containing secrets that these characters would never have dared to write down, let alone just leave out in the open for anybody to find. I would have been willing to suspend my disbelief in this, if only the story told by the diaries were compelling, the characters were believable, or — at the very least — the prose were written competently. Maybe it’s petty to pick on an indie title that was apparently made by, like fifteen people. But that’s exactly the kind of game out of which I would expect something unique. Instead, this is a stew of familiar genre tropes out of which nothing new or interesting emerges. The fact that this is accruing significant acclaim demonstrates the extent to which I don’t understand video games. Fine. I’m happy to remain a dilettante in this particular field.

Sunless Sea — Oh, but then there’s this. I’ve been playing Sunless Sea on and off for the better part of a year. It’s the sort of game where you can do that, because it’s not linear; it’s a giant web of stories that you can explore as you like. And it is so vast and fascinating and nuanced and beautifully written that I never tire of it and it makes me thankful to live in a time when things like this can exist. If you somehow don’t know about this, read up on it, play its free cousin Fallen London, and then if you’re still not convinced, just buy it anyway because it’s that good. A lovely palate cleanser after a sub-par gaming experience.

SPL-T — This is the sort of thing I normally wouldn’t even bother reviewing. It’s not a game like the above-listed entries here are games. It’s a game like Angry Birds is a game. Or, more relevantly, Tetris. It’s not a discrete unit of cultural experience. It’s a pastime. Which is just fine, but that makes it the sort of thing I’m not usually into. But, the reason I’m interested is that it was made by the Swedish game developers Simogo. And, since we’re in a games-heavy week, I may as well take this opportunity to nail my colours to the mast — Simogo are the best game developers in the world. They do interesting, outside-the-box things with mobile devices, such that three of my favourite mobile games ever (favourite games, period, really) are made by Simogo: Year Walk, The Sailor’s Dream, and especially Device 6. SPL-T has nothing to do with any of those narrative-rich, immersive experiences. It has more in common with their early, casual games like Bumpy Road, except that it’s far more minimalistic. Like, Space Invaders minimalistic. It’s fun. But I’m not sure what they’re driving at here. I used to think that Device 6 was Simogo’s Sgt. Pepper, and The Sailor’s Dream was their White Album. But maybe this is their White Album. Maybe this is the inscrutable piece of concept art that will keep people talking about Simogo for decades to come. Or maybe I’m overthinking this, as ever, and it’s just a fun, retro little puzzle game. Either way, lovely.

Papa Sangre — What with me being a radio geek who sometimes plays games, I was inevitably going to play Papa Sangre at some point. This is a game with no graphics — only sound. Given what I like sound to do, I would certainly prefer there to be more story in this. But I must say, that game where you try to find something while blindfolded as somebody says “warmer… colder” is a lot more tense when there’s a carnivorous hog sleeping fitfully in the room. And that is unlikely to happen in real life.

Television

Last Week Tonight: November 8 and 15 — The thing that stands out most to me in either of these episodes (aside from John Oliver’s bizarrely cathartic profanity-laden response to the Paris attacks) is Mike Birbiglia playing a guy who’s strangely proud of having lost all his money playing fantasy football.

Doctor Who: “Face the Raven” — Oh, god, I just. Okay. Let’s just make a simple comment, because if I talk about my feelings I’ll make an ass of myself. Over the course of the past two seasons, Steven Moffat has brought in two writers that I wouldn’t mind seeing as showrunner when he departs: Peter Harness (still my frontrunner) and now Sarah Dollard. This is outstanding. Pick of the week.

Music

Musically, it was a week of work-related classical listening. So, I’m either not reviewing those or will subsequently be writing them up elsewhere. Here is what remains:

Kid Koala: Carpal Tunnel Syndrome: Kid Koala is astonishing. Listening to this, I can hardly quite understand how it was made. He’s a virtuoso turntablist, no doubt. But I still feel an echo of an old complaint: this feels like “a very attractive coat that nobody’s wearing.”

NoMeansNo: Wrong — Another revisitation of a Two Matts assignment. This is one of those albums where my favourite songs keep changing. That’s a good sign. At first, I liked “The End of All Things” and “It’s Catching Up” best. These days, I seem to prefer “Rags and Bones” and “All Lies.” It occurred to me listening to this recently that the verse in “All Lies” is nearly an Indian classical pastiche — minus the obligatory sitar and tablas. There’s a clever juxtaposition: a key trope of Flower Power music — which even today is conceived as a plausible moment zero for “pop as art” — keeps getting interrupted by Rob Wright shouting “all lies!”

The Smiths: The Smiths — I love The Queen is Dead so much that I can’t believe I’ve never heard any other Smiths albums. It was time that changed. This isn’t as good as that that album, but it’s only a hair’s breadth behind it. I do wish Morrissey would just never ever sing in falsetto, though. Not a good look on him.

The Smiths: The Queen is Dead — This was bound to happen. When I hear a new thing by an artist I like, I always end up going back to the old favourites. There are very few albums I’ve discovered in the years since, oh, let’s say my 22nd birthday, that really matter to me. This is one.

The Smiths: Meat is Murder — Okay, if we’re going to do this, let’s do this. Can’t say this one quite works for me as well as the debut or The Queen is Dead, but the Smiths are a band that I can listen to almost regardless of what songs they’re playing because I just love the noise they make. Though I do prefer Morrissey once he’s learned to sing more-or-less in tune. He’s getting there on this, but there’s a ways to go. We will continue our survey of the discography (including relevant ephemera) in the coming week.

Comedy

John Mulaney: The Comeback Kid — It’s amazing that anybody could still have funny things to say about marriage. Or kids. Or pets. Or minivans. Or Bill Clinton. But this made me laugh out loud about all of those topics. I never laugh out loud watching stand-up. This is really, really funny.

Literature, etc.

Jonas Tarestad/Simon Flesser: Year Walk: Bedtime Stories for Awful Children — The other thing I love about Simogo is that they have versatile enough talents at their disposal to just take a break from video games and put out an illustrated e-book instead. Or a podcast the caliber of professional radio drama. Or whatever The Sensational December Machine is. And it all turns out good. I’m sure this was basically intended as an ad for the new(ish) Wii version of Year Walk. But, a collection of horrifying Swedish folktales told similarly to the Grimm fairy tales constitutes a pretty fantastic ad. The last one in particular is spectacularly, arbitrarily brutal.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Apparently the Smiths owe their early success to Peel and his producer John Walters. Imagine. Also, there’s so much music covered in this book that sounds interesting, and I don’t have remotely enough time to investigate all of it. One day, I’ll just skim through the chapters covering the years after 1977 and listen to as much of what Peel played as I can.

Kelly Sue DeConnick/Valentine De Landro: Bitch Planet, Volume 1 “Extraordinary Machine” — This is mighty powerful stuff that I would force everybody in my life to read if I could. It’s a rare and wonderful thing when fiction has the power to incite righteous anger even in people who aren’t specifically afflicted by the injustices it illustrates. This might have been pick of the week, but it was last week’s, so Doctor Who takes it.

Podcasts

I rolled my ankle a while back and haven’t been running much, lately. That’s put me behind on my podcasts, of which there are only eight this week. Shocking, I know. How will I ever catch up?

Love and Radio: “Points Unknown” — The approach of this podcast makes each episode essential almost by default. Love and Radio finds people with stories and perspectives that fall outside most people’s experience and then says, “we’re just going to listen to this person for a while.” The interviewers are present, but off-mic, which gives the impression that every time out, the show belongs to a different person — a monthly guest host. It totally changes the power dynamic of the radio interview. Sometimes, people say horrifying things on this podcast, which can be troubling given that atypical power dynamic, where the interviewer’s voice is secondary. But the underlying philosophy is that it’s better to listen to people than not to, and I agree. There’s nothing objectionable in this episode, but there’s plenty that’s shocking. It isn’t a standout episode of Love and Radio, but it’s still outstanding.

The Moth: “Wedding Dress, Prison Choir, and a Hotdog” — The first story is by a producer on Amy Schumer’s show and is predictably hilarious. It dives from there. The second story in particular is rough listening, and not in the good way that The Moth sometimes is. It’s trite. There are clichés o’plenty. And maybe I just wasn’t in the mood, but I didn’t find the show ever recovered after that.

99% Invisible: “The Landlord’s Game” — The board game Monopoly originated as an interactive parable on the ills of capitalism. I will be bringing this up in conversation at my own earliest convenience.

The Truth: “Where Have You Been?” — I love the sound of this podcast, every time. But there’s often something in the writing that doesn’t click for me. Sometimes it’s jokes that fall flat. But usually, it’s a sort of furrowed brow seriousness that’s just totally unrelenting. It can get a bit like that scene in Life’s Too Short where Liam Neeson is just too serious to function. Except not played for laughs. This story is clever and well acted, but there’s a bit of brow-furrowiness in there. The Song Exploder episode tacked onto this is great, though. It breaks apart the Radiotopia station ID, which was made by the producer of The Truth. It’s amazing how much can go into a couple seconds of audio.

The Allusionist: “Toki Pona” — Okay, this justified all of the cross promotion. Nate DiMeo and Helen Zaltzman learn the smallest language in the world. It’s wonderful, and at some point Zaltzman expresses perfectly what I fear and despise about learning new languages: “I’m just going to be a nothing in other languages. Everything that I consider to be myself will just be nullified by my inability to speak properly.”

All Songs Considered: “Music for Healing” — An elegiac instalment of All Songs, with the Paris attacks in mind. Bob Boilen and Robin Hilton’s choices of “comfort music” are heavy on spare, drifting post-Eno instrumental music, with a bit of pensive indie rock thrown in as colour. Actually, it’s a spectacular playlist for any day — not just the day after an international tragedy. I’ll be checking out more music from Nils Frahm and Goldmund, for sure. Pick of the week.

The Memory Palace: “Shore Leave” — An average episode of The Memory Palace, which still makes it one of the best podcasts of the week. It uses music more playfully than usual, which is nice. I’m almost glad that this show is on hiatus until January, because it’ll give me time to listen through the entire list of back episodes. There must be about 60 that I haven’t heard.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Master of None and Neal Shusterman’s Challenger Deep” — If this podcast has a weakness, it’s that there’s seldom very much dissent among the ranks. This time around, Glen Weldon disagrees with the rest of the panel on Master of None, which is refreshing. Having not seen the show, it doesn’t seem like his critique is especially worthwhile — it seems like just another instance of Weldon being allergic to anything that vaguely flirts with earnestness. But it’s nice to hear the others debate him.