And so, Omnireviewer limps improbably into its third calendar year. Speaking of traditions, for a couple of years now I’ve been compiling a list of my favourite things of the year at the end of January. Not December. I stubbornly insist on not dealing with such things until the year is actually over, and I’ve had a solid month to take stock, and also to fit in a couple more books or shows. (Though, I imagine a certain exceedingly long and strange novel will make the list regardless of the fact that I will be AT MOST halfway through it by the end of the month.) But for now, I have this week’s 15 reviews for you.
Star Wars: Rogue One — I feel like I was Jedi mind tricked into seeing this. I talked a big talk about how I wasn’t going to go to this, as a tiny protest against the notion of never-ending Star Wars movies. Like I’ve said before, when the Star Wars cinematic canon constituted two trilogies and that’s all, the batting average may have been low — but at least there wasn’t a saturation problem. That’s inevitable now. Perhaps I’m just nostalgic, but I like the idea of movies telling stories that end. It’s what makes them distinct from TV shows. I mean, really, you can even take a few movies to tell your story! That’s fine! But the notion of a cinematic “universe,” as opposed to just a “series” seems like it stems more from the studios’ impulse to make as much money as they can off of recognizable brands than from its value for storytelling. So, I had planned a tiny, personal boycott of the non-numbered Star Wars movies. Especially ones that were getting reviews as mixed as this. Still, I got pulled in by the inexorable force (hahahahahahahahaha) of this unavoidable franchise. I got pulled in by my general amenability towards seeing a movie, any movie, on a night when I wouldn’t be doing anything else. I got pulled in by my uncharacteristically non-antisocial wish to see a couple of friends after having spent a week away. I got pulled in by the fact that I’ve got Cineplex gift cards now, so at least it’s somebody else’s money that’s doing the talking. (Yeah, I know that’s really feeble. And yes, I do hate myself. Go away.) So basically, this movie had a nearly insurmountable task ahead of it if it was going to persuade me not to resent its very existence, and not to resent myself for caving in, and not to resent my friends for convincing me to abandon my principles. This movie did not rise to that challenge. My favourite thing about this movie is that it answered my burning question: “How does Darth Vader take a bath?” Aside from that, I did not enjoy myself. And at this point, we’ve reached the crucial question of the extent to which the movie is actually to blame for that, versus the extent to which my distaste is mine to own. And, without attempting to take the easy way out of that question, I can’t honestly answer it, because I don’t have access to a parallel universe in which I was more favourably predisposed towards Rogue One to use as a point of comparison. What I can say is that there’s nothing I can immediately point to in this movie that makes it the equal of other popcorn blockbusters from the last year, like Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War or Doctor Strange. Those movies have characters with immediately discernible personalities. Rogue One’s characters are blank slates, possessing only the most generically heroic of character traits: tenacity, bravery, etc. Captain America, on the other hand, is not generically heroic but rather follows a moral code that’s well-established enough for his behaviour to be internally consistent — and different from the other heroes in his movie. (Thus the Civil War, you see.) And even Doctor Strange is quippy and fun, which isn’t unique in itself. But his quips are good. The only character in Rogue One that rises above this standard is Donnie Yen’s eccentric blind martial artist, who is unfortunately also a bit of a racist caricature. And aside from that, the actors in this that you’d most expect extraordinary performances from are deeply underwhelming. Forest Whitaker gives his character a completely ridiculous hybrid accent that might work for one of the CGI aliens, but is extremely distracting in a live-action human character. And the brilliant Mads Mikkelsen is completely miscast as a man whose defining quality is supposed to be his inability to lie. We’re told in dialogue a number of times that Galen Erso is a terrible liar, but the fact of the matter is that Mikkelsen delivers his lines with such affectlessness that you can’t imagine how he could possibly fail to fool anybody, at any time. I’m all for seeing him in more heroic roles, but a role that comes down to this specific characteristic isn’t right for him, and moreover, he was pretty much the exact wrong choice for the role. For comparison’s sake, just think back to how much fun Rey, Finn and Poe were in The Force Awakens. That’s the bar. That’s how well you have to do in a new Star Wars movie. It’s a shame that the story features such bland characters and prosaic dialogue (even the funny robot is one of the franchise’s lesser funny robots), because Rogue One does present some unique ideas about what can happen in a Star Wars movie. It is the bleakest film in the franchise, save possibly for Revenge of the Sith, and I daresay it’s a touch more competently made than that. And it offers an intriguing focus on the notion that there are good people working for the Empire because they see it as their only option. That’s uncharacteristically nuanced for Star Wars. But those ideas are wasted in a movie that’s so aggressively unfun to watch. I’m getting tired of writing this review. Rogue One is pedestrian pap that exists only to leverage a recognizable brand so that dummies like me will buy a ticket. I imagine that the actual content of the movie was an afterthought.
Downton Abbey: Season 2, episodes 7 & 8 (plus Christmas Special) — I didn’t actually know that this was going to finish with a Christmas special, but it turned out to be a nice thing to watch at Christmas. This season has been really hit and miss. Julian Fellowes’ preference to cut away from any given scene when somebody’s about to say something we already know has the double consequence of ruthless efficiency in his storytelling and also that we never see people’s reactions to receiving news. This, and probably a few other things, results in certain characters’ plotlines taking what feel like extremely abrupt turns within the course of single episodes. Lord Grantham is served the worst by this, but it also finds its way into Mary and Matthew’s plotline. It’s hard to be too disappointed by this, however, since Downton Abbey never really rises above the level of “very, very fun but also extremely silly.” The occasional melodramatic turn is to be expected. I still love this. But I’m going to return to Battlestar Galactica for a while before I move on to season three.
All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace: “Love and Power” — I was entreated to watch this by a friend with whom I’m working on a podcast about what happens when we let the machines make the important decisions. Clearly, Adam Curtis got there first. This BBC documentary series focuses on how computers have failed to free humanity in the way that Californian techno-libertarians assured us they would. The opening episode traces that worldview from Ayn Rand through early Silicon Valley to its mainstreaming with Alan Greenspan — who, as chairman of the Fed under an embattled Bill Clinton, was possibly the most powerful person in the world. It is fascinating to watch, and I’ll for sure have more to say next week when I finish the other two episodes. But for now, I’ll just say it’s great. Pick of the week.
Steve Jackson’s Sorcery!: Parts 1 & 2 — Here beginneth the playing of the sixteen games I bought for thirty bucks during the Steam winter sale. Even as an avid fan of Inkle’s 80 Days (I would count it among my top five favourite games), I had planned to give their Sorcery! series a miss. There are a few reasons for that. Firstly, it’s not written by Meg Jayanth, whose incredible script is responsible for almost all of 80 Days’ appeal. Secondly, it’s an apparently straightforward adaptation of a gamebook, which is a lot less ambitious than, say, an interactive adaptation of a Jules Verne novel that expands the text by hundreds of thousands of words and also goes out of its way to correct that text’s misogyny and pro-colonialist stance. And finally, I have a limited tolerance for high fantasy bullshit. It’s just not an aesthetic that works for me. But after the fourth instalment of Sorcery! started to get raves, I figured that maybe this is the sort of series I might do well to pick up cheap. The beautifully designed opening sequence of Sorcery! part one can’t quite match 80 Days’s “It would seem… he is a gambling man.” (That moment gives me chills just to think about.) This continues to be the case: this Sorcery! two-parter can’t measure up to its esteemed successor. But it does what it does extremely well. Once you get past the relatively slight first episode, this expands into a pleasing (if not especially literary) adventure game. Inkle’s games have that quality about them that the best of the old parser-based interactive fiction titles did: they give the sense that there is a truly massive world set out before you, and that any course charted through it will be unique and will leave the vast bulk of the territory undiscovered. Also, it’s hard. There’s a mechanic baked into the second part that allows you to go back in time to a certain point on your journey and pick up crucial story elements that you missed. (This is in fact a necessity for finishing the game — unless, by some miracle, you get everything you need on your first pass through.) I had to use it twice to get ahold of some crucial clues, and I died a lot on all three of my journeys through the game. This in itself is not frustrating: the game’s difficulty never feels unfair, and the constant deaths made me feel more satisfied when I did eventually find my way out of a tight spot that had killed me numerous times already. What is frustrating, though, is the game’s almost-but-not-quite open world approach. (This is a problem I understand is solved in the third instalment, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how it works.) If the player were simply allowed to roam freely and backtrack at will, the time travel mechanic wouldn’t be necessary at all. And that would be preferable, because that mechanic causes some untoward bugs when coupled with the game’s other rewind mechanic, which allows you to actually rewind the gameplay itself, extra-diegetically. (Wow, that is a confusing sentence, even for me. But what are you gonna do? Writing about time travel is hard. Play the game and it’ll make sense.) Aside from those little nitpicky details, this is pretty extraordinary. By the end of it, I even managed to overcome my high fantasy allergy and look at the story on its own terms. Much of this takes place in Kharé, a city populated by thieves and tricksters, where traps lie everywhere and the city itself forms a massive trap for all those who live there. That is an absolutely delightful sort of environment to spend a bunch of time wandering around. I expect to enjoy the coming instalments more than this, but I’ll miss Kharé. Lovely stuff.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Favourite Podcasts of 2016” — I’m taking this as an opportunity to start listening to Judge John Hodgman. Most of the other podcasts mentioned here are either ones I don’t like very much, or ones I’m interested in checking out, but not interested enough to overcome the inertia.
StartUp: “MAGIC” — This isn’t one of the this season’s best episodes, and it isn’t a perfect ending, but this has been a pretty good season of StartUp overall. There’s nothing really wrong with not having a great ending to your nonfiction story. That’s part of what was weird about the way Serial season one was received: people didn’t accept that in journalism, you can just say “We’ve been at this for long enough. Now we stop.” Same goes for this.
Reply All: “Past, Present, Future 2” — The unquestionable highlight of this is Breakmaster Cylinder’s update on how his beat harvesting is going. But this series of updates on the year’s stories is a lovely thing to have become an annual tradition. It’s like Reply All’s own miniature Undone. Could’ve done without Alex Goldman’s Gollum impression, though.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “2016 Favourites and Unfinished Business” — These wrap-up episodes are always good fun. There’s probably a lot of stuff that was mentioned here that I should check out, but who has the time. (hehehe) Glad that Stephen Thompson favourited O.J.: Made in America, even if he did frame it as “the welcome return of Marcia Clark!” which is a weird way to frame anything. Also, it’s nice to have Sam Sanders on here, partially because it’s always nice to hear him on this show, but also because he’s been around less often, so his favourites come as a bit more of a surprise than some of the more frequent fourth chairs.
Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Small Batch: Westworld” — Absolutely lost. This is one of those things that I listen to for the sake of completion alone. Can’t let this be the only PCHH of the year that I didn’t hear. But I haven’t seen Westworld, I’m not likely to ever watch Westworld, and I haven’t the slightest clue what Glen Weldon and Audie Cornish are on about here. Ah, well.
Homecoming: Episodes 3-6 — This is really good for the most part. I can’t say I’m completely overwhelmed by it the way I had hoped to be overwhelmed by a podcast with the budget to hire several movie stars. The biggest issue here is the plot twist about the true intentions of the shady corporation at the centre of the story. It’s not that I predicted the exact nature of the reveal, so much as I knew it would be something sort of like what it actually turned out to be. I could discern the general shape of it. And in a way, that’s worse than being outright predictable, because it betrays a certain lack of specificity in your premise. “Shady government contractor… is, in fact, bad!” There’s something about that that just sort of makes me go, “right, okay,” and then file this away under the heading of “things I liked, but won’t be thinking very hard about.” It’s great that Gimlet is big enough to do something like this, now. But it would have been nice for the first podcast featuring performances by movie stars to actually be obviously much better than other scripted podcasts, and I don’t think this is. I’m looking forward to season two of Limetown far more than I’m looking forward to season two of this. Still, I’m content to merely damn it with faint praise. And with the knowledge that this is what I’m doing here, I’ll happily backpedal and say it’s well worth a listen. It is, after all, a podcast. And therefore free.
Judge John Hodgman: “In Moto Parentis” — I dunno. For one of the supposed crown jewels of comedy podcasts, this episode (a recommended starting point from no less an authority than Linda Holmes) left me cold. Hodgman is a great presence because he comes off as crusty and cold, but when pressed reveals warmth and humanity. The human drama of whether or not a teenage boy should be allowed to have a motorcycle was actually pretty fascinating. But the laugh count was low. So, I think I’ll leave this for a while and maybe come back when somebody else recommends me another possible way in.
Twice Removed: “Dan Savage” — This is such manipulative treacle. Good god, I haven’t heard a host try to make somebody cry this hard outside of the reality television shows that are occasionally on as ambient noise in my mom’s house. The stories that are presented, all based around members of Dan Savage’s extremely extended family, are fine in themselves. But the structure is so contrived, and so specifically manufactured to wrest emotion out of the guest that I almost didn’t make it through this episode. The strings were obscuring my view of the puppets. I’m unlikely to listen again, and if I do, it will only be to cement my opinion that this is the worst show Gimlet has produced thus far.
Theory of Everything: “The Fairest of Them All?” — Benjamen Walker goes to a surveillance museum! Well, not quite. It’s an art exhibit about modern surveillance. It sounds like a great exhibit, which is a good thing, because this episode lives and dies based on the descriptions of the premises and objects that come into play as you walk through it. And it’s great. I’ve loved every instalment in this surveillance mini-season, and while this may not be quite as earth-shaking as the last one, it’s keeping pace nicely, and I’m continuing to get more and more scared of the future. 😀 😀 😀 😀
Love and Radio: “Blink Once for Yes” — There’s a review to be written about this episode where I use it as a stick with which to beat the episode of Twice Removed I just reviewed. The argument of that review would be that this is how to actually elicit emotion: by simply asking people about things that make them unavoidably emotional, and playing the resulting tape. No fancy footwork required. But I’m not going to write any more of that review, because Love and Radio always deserves to be taken on its own terms. One of the things that I love about this show is its willingness to just be incredibly sad. Three of the four saddest podcast episodes I’ve ever heard have been on this show, “The Living Room” being the obvious number one, but also “Welcome to Coney Island,” and now this one. (The non-Love and Radio one is Radiolab’s “Gray’s Donation,” if you were wondering.) In this documentary, producer John Facile interviews his whole family about the debilitating brain injury and subsequent death of his brother. I won’t say any more about the story, because you really should just listen to it and hear how it unfolds for yourself. But the thing I love most about it is how it demonstrates how a large number of people (there were five kids in the family, plus the parents and a couple of devoted caretakers) react in their own specific, different, yet inevitably human ways when presented with an absolute horror. Facile is confrontational in his interviews at times, but never for the sake of narrative conflict: he is always actively trying to come to terms with difficult emotions and differences of opinion with his family. I listened to this while doing laundry, and there was a stretch of four or five minutes where I was just standing by the dryer, about to put the load in the basket, but I was too involved in this podcast to do anything but stand there blankly. My building has a public laundromat, so I imagine it looked seriously weird. That’s how good this is. Pick of the week.
Code Switch: “A Chitlins Christmas: Bah Humbug!” — This is worth the time just to hear Kevin Young’s reading of his “Ode to Chitlins.” This is a worthwhile Christmas postscript to a year of great podcasts about food and race — mostly from The Sporkful, honestly. But it’s good that Code Switch has waded in. I hope they do more on food, because I don’t think there’s a single social concern that can’t be addressed through that lens.