Tag Archives: Undertale

Omnireviewer (week of Jul. 24, 2016)

I was underwhelmed by podcasts this week, so I’ve chosen two non-podcast picks of the week instead. And here they are at the top.

Movies

Swiss Army Man — You know this as “The Daniel Radcliffe Farting Corpse Movie.” What you don’t know is the extent to which that is exactly what it is for its entire 97-minute duration. But, in spite of And, because of its relentless devotion to its own ridiculous premise, Swiss Army Man is one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen all year. It is essentially a feature-length two-hander, with Paul Dano and Radcliffe together in almost every frame of the movie. The fact that the whole thing doesn’t come crashing down under the weight of its own childishness is largely due to the fact that Dano and Radcliffe both offer grounded, emotionally realistic performances within an absurd context. Even Radcliffe, who plays a talking (farting) corpse, gives his character a believable emotional arc. The movie’s dreamlike magical realist logic comes to life in the hands of directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who don’t get bogged down in the mechanics of what’s real and what isn’t. Instead, they turn the whole story into a visual fantasia, piling found objects one on top of the other in elaborate hallucinatory montages. It’s hard to say what, if anything, the themes of this movie are. But that seems almost beside the point. It is realistic character drama that takes place within a high-concept, gross-out, borderline trolling indie comedy that gets laughs out of subjecting a corpse to untold indignities. It almost seems like a deliberate response to assholes like me who complain ad nauseum about how there are no new ideas in the movies. But honest to god, I would take an endless stream of weird, unpredictable, probably bad movies with crazy premises like this one to another year of bland superhero blockbusters. Pick of the week.

Television

BoJack Horseman: Season 3, episodes 4-12 — This is now officially my favourite Netflix original. I loved the fourth season of OITNB, but if you take the past two seasons of both of these shows and average them out, BoJack wins by a mile. The fourth episode of this season does a thing that I wish cartoons would do more often and proceeds with almost no dialogue. It is completely virtuosic and manages to be dark and moving in the way that this show always is even while it’s doing silly sight gags for the entirety of its duration. Two episodes later, we get a wonderfully non-hand-wringy story about abortion. Episode eight is one of the most beautiful episodes of TV comedy I’ve seen since last season’s “Hank After Dark.” It addresses one of the strangest elements of storytelling, which is our tendency to root for the protagonist regardless of everything. It’s an episode where everything falls apart for all of the characters we’re supposed to care about, which results in a happy ending for a few characters we don’t. It’s brilliant. This show has everything, including one of the best casts on any current show. I may just be misremembering, but it seems to me that Alison Brie and Paul F. Tompkins have substantially upped their game this time around. Tompkins in particular is bringing out many subtler shades of Mr. Peanutbutter than existed in prior seasons. I think that this is currently my second-favourite scripted program of 2016 so far, next to Horace and Pete. Pending my capriciously changing opinions, it will beat Better Call Saul by a narrow margin. Pick of the week. 

Lost: “Solitary” — Ooh, I dunno about this. The love story segment of Sayid’s backstory is maybe the most contrived element of this show’s first season. Even Sawyer, while generally a shit character, has a better backstory than this. On the other hand, Hurley’s plot in this is one of the most beautiful moments of the season. A mixed bag.

Last Week Tonight: July 24, 2016 — This contains one of this show’s greatest moments ever and one of its most lacklustre. (Is it “most lacklustre?” Or just, “least lustrous?”) The good one is a moment where Oliver pulls a distressing if-then formulation from an interview with Newt Gingrich. In the interview — whether out of ignorance, malevolence or whatever arcane combination of the two is currently fueling the GOP — Gingrich asserts that feelings are facts. Or, at least, he fails to understand that this is not the case. Given this, Oliver provides this calculus: if candidates can create feelings, and feelings are facts, then candidates can create facts. “That is the closest thing to an actual magic spell I think I’ve ever seen,” says Oliver, and he is shudderingly correct. The least lustrous bit is the celebrity feature at the end where a bunch of major recording artists sing about how they don’t want candidates to make unauthorized use of their songs, which is a thing that happens constantly. It’s one of those things where the writers obviously just trusted that having a whole bunch of celebrities would be sufficient, so they didn’t write any jokes. (Sorry, they wrote one joke: about Spotify. And they gave it to Josh Groban to sing, because he was the only one who appeared to even care. Josh Groban loves being on TV.) This is fine. But I wish this show wouldn’t do that sort of “event” programming. They don’t need to: no matter what Oliver talks about, he’s going viral the next day.

Literature, etc.

Laurie Penny: Welcome to the Scream Room — No, this isn’t another of the Lovecraftian horror stories I’ve been so into this year. It’s a series of five posts on Medium about the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions. Penny is a spectacular writer, almost to the point of showing off, and her existential dread at the implications of both conventions is intensely relatable. She sees the same apocalypse in the Republican convention that every sane person in the world does, but she also decries the horror of the lesser-evilism that was the spirit of the day at the Democratic convention. “Outside,” she writes, “an epic summer storm is breaking over the Democratic Demilitarized Zone like the world’s laziest metaphor.” Nearly every paragraph has a sentence that good. But the cream of the crop, and the most enraging thing I’ve read in awhile is “I’m With the Banned,” a crazy piece of first-person journalism that tells the story of Penny’s experience at the Republican National Convention with the infamous Twitter hate speech geyser Milo Yiannopoulos. Throughout the evening, she also encounters Pamela Geller, Geert Wilders, and most disturbingly, Roosh V, whose relative lack of cynicism marks him as especially dangerous. This series is a quick, engrossing read, but have something calming nearby to serve as a chaser.

John Hermann: The Content Wars — I am finally finished reading this and I am too anxious and confused to have any feelings. I will say that I highly recommend Hermann’s writing. He has a wonderful way of clearly stating what’s happening in cases where most writers would find it hard to even quantify, and rather than directly editorializing, he’ll just lapse into an intentionally glib, irony-laden voice. So, he never comes off as a prophet of doom, in spite of his considerable scepticism about the future of platforms. The sheer imperiousness of his writing makes him much harder to ignore than even highly-regarded but slightly frantic tech-sceptics like Benjamen Walker. One last lengthy quote before I leave this be forever: “Maybe at some point pundits look back at access-based journalism and think, wow, that never made sense, how rude of those weird “publications” to hold readers hostage and blackmail their subjects. The triumphalist pundits will explain this, and why it matters, but also doesn’t, and why basically everything is good and getting better, anyway. Maybe, at the same time, other pundits will lament the media’s lack of interest in certain Important things. This will be dealt with by people who will explain what is actually Important, and what does that even mean, and who, actually, you’re talking about when you accuse the media of doing or not doing something you want them to do (yourself) and why that matters, or doesn’t, and whose fault it all is. (It’s yours.)”

Music

Nils Frahm: Solo — I listened to this while I read Penny’s piece on Milo Yiannopoulos, which is probably why I didn’t claw my eyes out during the course of that. It is immensely calming without feeling cheap. Think Brian Eno and Harold Budd. It is worth hearing simply for the sound of the piano itself, which is an unconventional thing about ten feet tall. It is marvellously sonorous, and well recorded here.

Strawbs: Ghosts — This is far better than I expected this band could be after a few listens of their apparent masterpiece, Hero and Heroine, many years ago. I dare say that this is much better than that album, with even the middling tracks reaching the heights of Hero and Heroine’s best ones (“Autumn,” the title track). Both albums find them a ways from their folk origins, playing a unique sort of laid-back symphonic prog. But this one is lower on treacle. Perhaps the album doesn’t quite belong on the prog 101 syllabus, but anybody who likes that genre ought to hear its best two tracks: “Ghosts” and “The Life Auction.” My favourite ‘70s prog discovery I’ve made in a while.

The Decemberists: Picaresque — Ah, memories. I first heard this album around the time when I first became amenable to music that was made after 1975. It was an easy sell, because Colin Meloy’s theatrical story-songs smacked of Genesis. That’s not the end of their prog connection: it would only be a few years before the Decemberists would go full neo-Tull on The Hazards of Love, which I like far more than most critics did. But Picaresque is their masterpiece. Every song is good, most are excellent. This album hits that perfect mark several times, where both the melody and the lyrics have a hook simultaneously. “16 Military Wives” may be the definitive song of the George W. Bush administration, and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song” is as funny and haunting as ever 11 years later. A classic.

Games

Undertale — I sunk a bunch of free hours into a second playthrough of this, and thank god. Without spoiling anything, all of this game’s endings require you to take drastically different approaches throughout. So, it actually didn’t feel like a second playthrough so much as a totally different game taking place in the same overworld. I saw completely different sides to several of the characters I encountered on my first time through. These new characterizations in no way contradict the old ones; rather they suggest that these pixelated video game characters contain multitudes and respond in drastically different ways to drastically different circumstances. But the real genius of Undertale, I’m realizing, is its capacity for staggering narrative rug-pulls. The one in my first ending was earthshaking; this one less so. But still, the fact that playing the game through once will only yield a third of the story at most is properly impressive. My initial assessment of this game as being overrated is entirely due to how tightly it holds its cards to its chest. It is in fact a marvel. And I’ve still got one ending to go.

Podcasts

Imaginary Worlds: “Ghost in the Shell” — This kind of slipped past me, honestly. I will say this: there is no defence for casting Scarlett Johansson as an Asian woman. None. I won’t see that movie. I’ll just watch the original anime. (Maybe. But probably not.)

99% Invisible: “The Mind of an Architect” — This features never-before-heard tape of several renowned architects participating in a study about human creativity. That alone should make you want to listen.

Code Switch: “Black and Blue” — This is a more structured and thoughtful extension of last week’s extra episode about the most recent spate of violence between police and black people. I’m sure the Code Switch blog always did this kind of thing, but I’m really glad that it comes directly into my podcast feed now, because there’s no way I’m going to ignore it.

Reply All: “Stolen Valor” — The main segment is a really interesting story about people who attempt to shame people who falsely wear military uniforms in public. It’s great, and does a great job of demonstrating why there are people who find this very offensive and others who are taking it way over the line. The attempt to do something, anything, on the police violence of the previous week is as good a take as you can ask for from a show that focusses on how our experiences of the world are mediated by the internet. It’s an angle I hadn’t heard before, even if it is a bit of a paltry response.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “On Endings And Road Trips” — This is a rerun, and awww, they all sound so young! It’s a fun show, and if anything it ought to clear away any notion that they’re treading water these days, because the panel is actually less engaged-sounding here than they are on 2016 episodes.

On The Media: “The Country of the Future” — A bit of appealingly self-conscious parachute journalism from Bob Garfield and Alana Casanova-Burgess. This will be really edifying for anybody who doesn’t know anything about the Brazilian media. Considering that Brazil has a controversial publicly-funded broadcaster, I’d actually like to see more Canadian journalists take these topics on. The implications for our audience would be dramatically different from those for Garfield’s presumed American one.

All Songs Considered: “My Cell Phone Rights At Shows Vs. Yours” — This isn’t a reasoned debate so much as it’s just Boilen’s platitudes vs. Hilton’s curmudgeonliness. Maybe this would connect with me if I went to more concerts.

More Perfect: “Object Anyway” — This is only tangentially related to the Supreme Court, but the history of racism in jury selection, and the ineffective rules put in place to prevent it, is a really interesting story.

Invisibilia: “Flip the Script” — Another pair of stories without distinction. The first finds some Danish cops choosing to treat radicalized young Muslims with respect and discovering that this is an effective way to fight radicalization. Well, who’d have thought. I could have told you that. The second is about a guy with a really dumb idea about how to fix online dating. StartUp did a whole season on people with a good idea about how to fix online dating. I don’t need this story.

NPR Politics Podcast: Democratic National Convention coverage — This podcast was posting daily during both conventions, which is a great thing for a show like this to do. It’s good conversation. Being a politics show, it’s not as appealingly frothy as Pop Culture Happy Hour, but it’s as close as you can come to that show for politics. This was my media of choice throughout the convention because I hate TV (and don’t have one) and Facebook is worse. It was a great way to keep up without feeling like you’re being beaten over the head with messaging. I’ll certainly return to this when the convention’s over and they’re back to regularly scheduled programming. I bet the episodes on the Republican convention would have driven me insane, though.

Fresh Air: “The Rise And Fall Of Fox News CEO Roger Ailes” — This is a somewhat airless discussion, but the topic is fascinating. Roger Ailes is, of course, the scum of the earth. And now it turns out that creating Fox News isn’t even the worst thing he’s done in his life. Check this out for some horrifying context about this mess.

The Heart: “The Understudy” — A lovely piece by Sophie Townsend that was first produced for Love Me, the CBC podcast from the producers of WireTap that I somehow haven’t checked out yet (but which I won’t review for obvious reasons). The premise of having an actor portray her ex, and then using mostly the parts of the sessions where he talks about how he can’t get the lines right is brilliant. It’s a perfect metaphor for the fact that the ex in question wasn’t quite able to play the part of Townsend’s dead husband. Really nice.

99% Invisible: “America’s Last Top Model” — “Knowledge creates wonder.” If there was ever a credo for this show, it’s that. The rest of the episode, about a gigantic ridiculously accurate model of the Mississippi River floodplain that could predict levee failures more accurately than modern computers, is vintage 99pi.

Fresh Air: “Comic Mike Birbiglia” — A fun interview, but it touches on a lot of the same topics that are in Birbigila’s well-known specials and his first movie. It would have been nice to hear more about the new movie.

Code Switch: “46 Stops: The Driving Life and Death of Philando Castile” — This gets far into the weeds of Castile’s driving record. That’s a worthwhile thing to do. It’s not just discrimination in policing that’s the issue, although it’s the main one. It’s also housing discrimination and segregation.

Theory of Everything: “Something will happen, eventually” — Benjamen Walker is the only person who can do a reported piece based on an interview and make it sound like a prose poem. This show begins with the premise that coincidences aren’t as unlikely as they seem and weaves a tight 14 minutes around that idea without ever defaulting to the standard formats and techniques of public radio. If I were giving a podcast pick of the week it would go to this, but I’m not, so consider it a technical victory.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Ghostbusters and Mr. Robot” — I think they’re pretty much spot on about Ghostbusters. It’s a perfectly fine movie, but definitely lesser work from all those involved. Mr. Robot has never particularly drawn me.

WTF with Marc Maron: “Chuck Klosterman” — I think Klosterman slows down for Maron’s benefit here. But a fun chat that offers some insight into culture criticism’s most accomplished dilettante.

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Things I loved in 2015: The rest of them

Well that’s that, then.

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

Movies

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

Television

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

Music

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

Podcasts

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

Books/Comics

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

Games

  1. Sunless Sea
  2. Undertale

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

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

 

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 27)

My best of 2015 list will be ready by, oh let’s say the end of January. That’ll give me time to finish Three Moments of an Explosion and see Star Wars. In the meantime, I took advantage of the holidays to take in all sorts of fun stuff. And since podcasts make up a comparatively small amount of it, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding my picks of the week to two non-podcasts. Here are this week’s 27 reviews.

Television

Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” — Well. In two consecutive episodes, my two favourite supporting characters in Doctor Who get marvellous sendoffs. The comedy in this plays wonderfully, but it’s the character drama between the Doctor and River that really sells this. That scene at the dinner table midway through really got me, though I’m not sure if it was the script and performances or just Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll playing in the background. Even if the resolution is a bit of a deus ex meteors and everybody ends up a bit in meteors res, it’s still a delightful romp. My only regret is that this is the first and last time we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston in these roles together. Because they are every bit the pair that Kingston and Matt Smith were. Lovely.

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 11-12 — Firstly, I’ve really been enjoying Todd VanDerWerff’s essays on Deadwood from his days at the AV Club. In spite of being bundled up into sets of three episodes, they’re among his best writing: up there with his Sopranos reviews and the few seasons of Mad Men that he covered. Anyway, these last two episodes of Deadwood’s first season are outstanding. If the second season keeps the pace of these last three episodes, I’ll be a happy viewer. But I’m going to take a break from this before diving into that season, to watch Mildred Pierce as part of an ongoing Todd Haynes pilgrimage. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how the second season manages to be more acclaimed than the first.

QI: “Merriment” — Bill Bailey is dressed like Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover!

The Graham Norton Show: “David Beckham, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega & Kylie Minogue” — I could not love Carrie Fisher more. Also, why don’t more late night talk shows have multiple guests at once? Not many shows could give us David Beckham and John Boyega fighting with toy lightsabers and narrowly missing Kylie Minogue’s head.

Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “President Barack Obama” — Certain parts of this are a bit stagey, as you’d expect. But I’m always quite impressed by Obama’s ability to play himself in stuff. Really, though, you should watch this to see a president in a frame of mind where he doesn’t feel the need to pitch messages all the time. It’s not the Marc Maron interview, but it’s in the same vein and it’s got some funny moments.

Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” — This was the first piece of media I consumed in 2016. It’s a great start, really. To my year, and to the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. By the end of this episode, any attentive viewer has Moffat’s game pegged, at least on a metafictional level: Amy is introduced as a diegetic insert of a Doctor Who fan, so we can assume even at this point that her story will be about what it means to love Doctor Who. As fresh starts go, this is one of the greats.

Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” — And so would this be, if it hadn’t turned out to be something else entirely. I shall say no more, because spoilers. I will say this: I love that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a substantially different Sherlock in Victorian garb than he does in the modern stories. The other characters in Sherlock have always been fairly consistent with their portrayals in Conan Doyle. But the moody sociopathy of Cumberbatch’s modern Holmes is straight out of contemporary anti-hero television. It was a canny choice by Cumberbatch (and by Moffat and Gatiss) to strip back that element of his character and allow this Holmes to be the dour Victorian eccentric that he started off as. I had as much fun watching this as I’ve ever had watching Sherlock, no doubt partially because Moffat and Gatiss write Victorian witticisms with spectacular aplomb. But somehow, I’m left wondering if the fun that I had actually reflects the quality of the episode. There’s a sort of messy gratuitousness to this that almost matches that insane wedding episode from the last season. Still, there are enough bon mots and meta-critiques in this that I remain quite positively disposed to it.

Music

Frank Sinatra: Nothing But The Best — This is a compilation of Sinatra’s best singles for Reprise, which is not where he did his best work. His earlier Capitol recordings are the real reason he’s a legend. But still, there something about this more relaxed version of Sinatra that’s just better for putting on and pottering about doing other things. You can’t do that with In The Wee Small Hours, because it’ll make you cry all over your laundry.

Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill — I’ve never actually gotten around to listening to a full Hawkwind album, but the recent death of Lemmy seemed like it necessitated a spin of this. It took me back to a time when I was discovering music like this regularly. In spite of never having heard it, this fits right into the established grooves in my brain. “You’d Better Believe It” is a serious jam. More Hawkwind to follow, probably.

Caroline Shaw/Roomful of Teeth: Partita for 8 Voices — There’s something about vocal music that has the capacity to inspire sheer, giddy joy more easily than other idioms. I’d heard the Passacaglia from this spectacular piece many times, but I figured it was time I checked out the other three movements. They’re playful and emotive and hold the hell out of your attention. Roomful of Teeth is a vocal ensemble unlike any other and Shaw, being a member, knows what they’re capable of. She takes full advantage of the group’s technical capacities to the point where listening to the music becomes both an emotional experience and something like watching a really impressive high-wire act. A Pulitzer is not praise enough. Pick of the week.

Lou Harrison/Dennis Russell Davies et al: Symphony No. 3 & Grand Duo for Violin and Piano — Why Lou Harrison’s music isn’t at the centre of the repertory by this point is a mystery to me. His third symphony is one of the loveliest and most accessible pieces from late 20th-century America. If the classical music world made sense, conductors would be scrambling to put out full Harrison cycles rather than more goddamned Mozart.

Rush: Grace Under Pressure — I tend to make a lot of the first music I listen to in a given year. This time, I finished 2015 off with what was once the first side of this (with “Headlong Flight” thrown in for good measure — the perfect song to end a great year). On the walk home after midnight, side two rang in 2016. Given that this is one of the darkest Rush albums, I’m choosing to interpret my choice as a cautionary tale: I’d best not initiate any nuclear wars this year.

Rush: Permanent Waves — A perennial favourite. I love Permanent Waves so much that I have trouble listening to any other Rush album without immediately following it up with this.

The Chemical Brothers: Surrender — This really feels like Daft Punk in places. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but given the choice between psychedelia throwbacks (more prominent on both Dig Your Own Hole and Further) and French house, I’ll go with the former every time. “The Sunshine Underground” is a jam, though.

Literature, etc.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Finished! God, I loved this. Maybe it ended a little abruptly, but it’s such a minor problem in the face of everything that comes before that I don’t actually care at all. More shall be said about this in my year-end list, I’m sure. (Fated to be more of a “year-beginning list,” it would seem.)

China Miéville: “The Dusty Hat” — Do you ever read something, or see something that you don’t understand and that makes you like it more? It sort of pulls you in by its sheer incomprehensibility? That doesn’t happen to me all that much, but when it does, the thing in question often becomes an all-time favourite. It happened with Mulholland Drive, At Swim-Two-Birds, Trout Mask Replica, and a bunch more I’m forgetting. On first read, “The Dusty Hat” is very much like those things were. It has far and away the most adventurous and best prose of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion so far and is immensely imaginative in its details. (A particular favourite: “I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him.”) Overall, I kind of don’t know what even happened in this story. But I definitely enjoyed it more than any of the others in this collection, with the possible exception of “The Buzzard’s Egg” — which was immediately comprehensible and thus in a strange way less promising. If I remember, I plan to read this again right when I finish the book. Pick of the week.

China Miéville: “Escapee” — One of the pleasures of Three Moments of an Explosion is these little tiny stories of fewer than five pages, which often follow the larger stories like “The Dusty Hat.” This one’s an outline for a movie trailer — the second one of those in the book — for a movie about a man with a large hook embedded in his back. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, provided it were written by Miéville and directed by Robert Rodriguez.

Movies

Captain Phillips — My impression from the reviews was that this was only okay and mostly notable for being super Oscary and having a great performance by Barkhad Abdi. Both of those things are true, but I thought this was terrific overall. Paul Greengrass is a meat and potatoes director, who just gets out of the way of the story. That approach makes this totally gripping. The screenplay flags in scenes that aren’t ruthlessly procedural and full of people making decisions, i.e. the very beginning of the movie, where we meet Phillips’s family, and the quick pep talk he gives to his crew about a half-hour in. It would have been a better film with those two scenes removed altogether. But once the action starts, there are no weak points. Near the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’s performance is so good that I almost understand why he’s so esteemed.

The Hunting Ground — I watched this at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Yeah, I say “gathering” advisedly, because this is not a documentary you watch at a “party.” It is appalling, and not especially surprising to anybody who pays attention to these things. It is worth seeing. There are moments in this where a simple fact will appear onscreen as an intertitle, with seven or eight studies cited as sources for that fact. Those moments are surprisingly powerful, and bolster the personal narratives related by survivors of campus sexual assault, which are really difficult to take.

Vertigo — Yeah, I’d never seen Vertigo. It’s great, obviously. Maybe a little dated. It has a particular sort of expository writing that you don’t see much of anymore. Plus, Jimmy Stewart is definitely an actor from the 50s. And his character is probably the most conspicuous private eye in cinema history. Seriously dude, there’s no way she doesn’t see you there behind that pillar. It’s stuff like that that kept me at arm’s length, a bit. I suppose you’ve got to approach these old masterpieces on their own terms, but there are plenty of movies older than this that I find completely fresh and immediate even today: The General, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset, tons more. On first viewing, the fact that this has now surpassed Kane in the estimation of the world’s critics (as per the last Sight and Sound poll) seems totally ridiculous to me. But I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who claims that Bernard Hermann’s score is the best in film history. Favourite line: “I’ve been right here all the time putting olive oil on my rubber plant leaves.”

Games

Undertale — Okay. So, if my last note on this made it seem like I’d finished the game… I hadn’t. I assumed I was close enough that I could basically offer a final assessment, but at the very last minute, Undertale turns into something dramatically different from and stranger that what it sets you up to think it is. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending of Undertale is a complex metafiction of the sort that never fails to pull me in. I’ve seen these themes explored more effectively in other games (to say which ones would almost be a spoiler), but this is going to stick with me for a bit. Last week, I had this pegged as “worthwhile.” Now, I daresay it’s closer to essential. I had it pegged for a pick of the week until I got blown away by “The Dusty Hat.” Interestingly, they’re both things I don’t entirely understand.

Kairo — There are basically two things I’m looking for in a video game: a great story, and/or an interesting world that I can explore freely. If a game doesn’t have at least one of those things, I’m unlikely to be that interested. Steam has been recommending Kairo to me for ages, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed like a game with no discernable story and a very minimal sort of environment with lots of puzzles. (I’m queasy about puzzles.) But it was on sale for a dollar this week, so why not. Turns out, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a game. By that, I don’t mean that I’m blown away. More “pleasantly satisfied,” really. But you could easily point to Kairo to demonstrate what’s valuable about video games, and why they’re unique from every other medium. Kairo has nothing in it that could be done in a movie or a novel or a radio play. It’s purely the experience of “play” that makes up the content of Kairo. You explore and interact with your surroundings, and if you see something that suggests a story might have taken place here at some point (and you do) you can certainly surmise about it, but you’re not actually part of it. Kairo doesn’t require narrative conventions to make you feel stuff. Instead, it keeps a firm hold on its pacing and mood to make you feel by turns placid, proud and creeped out. Considering that it’s the most abstract game I’ve ever played aside from possibly Tetris (or SPL-T, I guess), it’s enormously effective. If you like this sort of thing, grab it while it’s still a dollar and spend a pleasant afternoon.

Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — Yeah, there’ll be more games than usual in the near future, since I can’t control myself during the Steam holiday sale. I’ve been meaning to play this for ages, but I’ve been waiting for the much-delayed Acts 4 and 5 to come out so I can down it in one big gulp. But then, you know, Steam sale. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that I’m obviously going to like, in exactly the way that Kairo wasn’t that. It’s text-based to the point that it’s basically a Twine story with graphics — gorgeous, moody graphics. It’s mysterious and uncanny without being outright scary (which will almost certainly make it more preoccupyingly frightening to me in the end). And it wears its structural gimmicks on its sleeve. This was made for me. My favourite moment so far was something I stumbled upon by accident: an area where you can’t actually do anything except watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. It’s like something out of Beckett. Seems to bear no relation to anything, but it’s been sticking with me. I can tell already that this is going to be one of those games where the actual gameplay is only half of the interactive experience and the other half is trying to work out what the hell it all means. To be fair, we shouldn’t hold a game in higher esteem for being this way: this is a kind of interaction that comes attached to every medium. There’s a quote I heard once but can’t quite place — I think it might be Hitchcock — something like “the most important act in a movie is the fourth one, where you’re talking about it on the drive home from the cinema.” In that sense, all fiction is interactive fiction, Kentucky Route Zero is not significantly more interactive than Vertigo, and is thus fundamentally different from Kairo. I don’t know where this game is going. But I’m super excited about it.

Podcasts

Mortified: “Boys DO Cry (w/ special guest CHVRCHES)” — It was the “special guest CHVRCHES” bit that sold me, but the two stories of sensitive teenage boyhood are worth the price of admission. (What a strange expression to use about a free podcast. Never mind, I’m done with this.)

99% Invisible: “Bone Music” — In the Soviet Union, western pop records were bootlegged on exposed x-rays. They sound ghostly and ethereal. This podcast tells the story (which includes an interview with Nikita Khrushchev’s son) and also plays sound from some of the records. It’s produced in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. So basically, everything about this makes it worth a listen.

Serial: “Escaping” — The first really interesting episode of this season. And, it’s interesting because of the tape of Beau telling his own story. Looks like we’ll have less of Koenig explaining stuff from here on out, which in general is a good thing.

Radiolab: “The Fix” — Stories about addiction can get a bit heavy, and Radiolab can sometimes take heavy stories and make them oppressively bleak. But this isn’t like that. It’s interested in the personal stories of addicts, but it’s more interested in the story of how our perception of addiction has prevented us from taking known medical steps that can help some addicts recover.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 20)

Merry Christmas! I’ve been compiling my favourite things of the year for a list that I’ll have up soon. But as usual, a lot of the stuff I spent my time on this year wasn’t from this year. I sometimes wonder what the major year-end top music lists would look like if they included everything that the critics were actually listening to, regardless of release date. It wouldn’t be an effective way to assess the year’s music, obviously. But it would make for a sort of index of continuing relevance. That could be fun.

Anyway, a couple of the major things I discovered this year that weren’t new are discussed here. Here are your 24 reviews for the week.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 9-10 — “Mister Wu” is probably my favourite episode so far, which is inevitable, given that it focusses more on Al Swearengen’s machinations than any other episode, and when it comes down to it that’s sort of what I’m in it for. But it also has a great plotline for the increasingly ill and increasingly interesting Reverend Nickelback.

QI: “Middle Muddle” — Much ado about unfair medieval sports.

South Park: “Margaritaville” — I have trouble with South Park because of its tendency to pay too much respect to both sides of any given issue. But this is pretty brilliant, because for the most part it’s too caught up in the inherent bafflement of the crashing economy to take a side other than “how does this make sense?” It even manages to juggle two separate, unrelated ongoing analogies side-by-side without getting bogged down. I see why this is regarded as a classic, even if I don’t generally like this show.

Music

Björk: Vulnicura — I’ve already nailed my colours to the mast by putting this in my top five albums of the year. But I don’t think there’s any understating this: Vulnicura is not just a return to form for Björk, it’s as good an album as she’s ever made. I’d take this over Homogenic, and it would be a legitimately difficult choice between this and Vespertine. It’s less immediate than either of those. There’s no “Jöga” or “Pagan Poetry” to offer respite from the album’s more out-there moments. (“Stonemilker” comes close, but it’s the first track of the album, so…) But in all of its lugubriousness, Vulnicura still manages to be an impressively kaleidoscopic musical response to the end of a relationship. As breakup albums go, this is as good as In The Wee Small Hours and within shouting distance of Blood on the Tracks. Though naturally, it sounds no more like either of those than they sound like each other.

Brian Eno: Taking Tiger Mountain (By Strategy) — Before 2015, I knew and loved Another Green World, and to a lesser extent (No Pussyfooting), and much of Eno’s work as a producer. But this was the year when I listened to the rest of his gigantic discography. All of it is interesting, most of it is good; but the albums I keep coming back to are the four rock records he made before dedicating himself to ambient music. Of those, Another Green World is still my favourite, and one of the best albums of the ‘70s. But there’s a sense in which that album’s flawlessness keeps it at arm’s length. Think about this: what would be the point of hearing Another Green World performed live? It’s a bespoke object: those songs aren’t things that can or should exist elsewhere in the world. They are the recordings that were made of them. (In a sense, literally: Eno wrote almost nothing ahead of time for the Another Green World sessions. It’s all just what happened in the studio.) Everything that is good about “Spirits Drifting” is good because of the way it turned out on the album. Performing it would be beside the point. The two records that precede Another Green World, on the other hand, are totally different. (So is Before And After Science, but it just isn’t quite as good.) When I listen to Taking Tiger Mountain or Here Come the Warm Jets, I can imagine myself playing that music, which sometimes makes those albums more enjoyable. I tend to prefer whichever of the two I’ve listened to most recently, but they really are totally different albums. Here Come the Warm Jets is a record like Robert Fripp’s Exposure or the first Peter Gabriel album: a rotating drum of disparate sounds and personalities, guided into some semblance of cohesiveness by a strong central creative sensibility. Taking Tiger Mountain is a band record. It’s mostly the same people playing on each track, so cohesiveness arises naturally (as on the second Peter Gabriel album). This is not my pick of the week, but along with the rest of Eno’s catalogue, it’s probably my discovery of the year.

Literature, etc.

China Miéville: “After the Festival” — Well, that was gross. This is a story about a person whose best friend starts acting strangely. The interesting part is that rather than being confident that she’s the one person who can get through to him, as would often be the case in a narrative like this, she knows him well enough and sees the situation clearly enough to realize how unlikely that actually is. It’s a really good story, and also totally disgusting.

David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Picked this up again. I’m into the early ‘90s now, at which point Peel was playing Nirvana in England over a year before they broke into mainstream American success and recognizing the brilliance of Aphex Twin well into his 50s. This guy.

Games

Undertale — I warmed to this immensely. About halfway into the game, the fight sequences start getting esoteric and character-driven and start telling stories in themselves. The writing is patchy, but there are great moments, and the whole thing has a lot of heart. No masterpiece, but I’m certainly glad I played this.

80 Days — This, on the other hand is a masterpiece. I’ve played it about six times through, and I’ve seldom seen any of the same stories twice. This would have been my favourite game (and probably my single favourite thing) of last year, if I’d actually played it that year. There’s so much to admire, but the real clincher is that it takes on the task of adapting Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days as a game and ends up being a far superior work than its source. Meg Jayanth’s prose is superior to Verne’s in translation, and she even goes out of her way to challenge the notions of colonialism that Verne’s original novel propped up. She pushes the fantastical elements of the original even further, so that there are armies of automata to contend with, and cities atop giant walking machines. This offers what’s probably a more emotionally true perception of what the 19th century’s technological marvels must have felt like at the time than Verne’s novel would to contemporary readers. And, of course, there’s the fact that Jayanth’s rendition is a gigantic branching narrative with a 750,000 word script that you see about three percent of on any given playthrough. So, there’s just more of it. I’m actually struggling to be adequately effusive about this truly magnificent marvel of modern storytelling, so here’s this: 80 Days is easily in my top three games ever, and it is the only game that I would comfortably recommend to anybody, regardless of their interests. It is magic and wonder incarnated as an iOS app. I just dipped in for a quick jaunt this time, so this isn’t my pick of the week. But, as with Eno, you may rest assured that it is one of my most treasured discoveries of the year.

Movies

The Danish Girl — I’m mixed on this. Both lead performances are good, though Alicia Vikander manages to steal the movie from Eddie Redmayne’s stunt performance. The story is worth knowing, but it’s badly served by the movie’s script, which is laden with obvious metaphors and clunky dialogue. It’s got some nicely composed shots, but Tom Hooper is still basically a purveyor of blandness, to me. At least The King’s Speech had a great screenplay.

Inside Llewyn Davis — Not one of the Coens’ best, but it’s got lots of those wonderful understated comedic moments like they’re so good at. Plus, excellent performances by Oscar Isaac, John Goodman and Carey Mulligan.

Carol — This is as obsessive a throwback to an earlier style of cinema as The Artist was. But, like The Artist, it is very much a contemporary film dressed in the trappings of the era in which it is set: everything from the beautifully grainy 16mm filmstock to Cate Blanchett’s exceptionally mannered performance is from another era, but the narrative sensibility is from our own. I adored this as much as I knew I would, Todd Haynes being probably one of my top three directors. (Now that I’ve written that, I really ought to go watch all the stuff he’s done that I haven’t seen.) There’s a line near the beginning of this that rings especially true, something like: “I have a friend who says I should take more of an interest in humans.” Haynes’s movies have always been as much about the film conventions that they employ as they are about the stories they tell and the people in them. Velvet Goldmine is about glam rock and David Bowie, but it’s just as much about what happens when you nick the frame narrative of Citizen Kane in the service of a totally different story. Carol is about an affair between two interesting women, but it’s just as much about those flawlessly decorated period-accurate sets, and about how you can’t quite make out the details behind a fogged-up car window when it’s shot on 16mm. Haynes is a stylist. You can imagine that his brain is basically a movie camera, and that movies work as his interface with the real world around him. He’s a filmmaker for people who marinate themselves in pop culture and assay their own lives primarily in relation to what they consume. Pick of the week.

Podcasts

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Frank Sinatra with Sonari Glinton” — 14 minutes really isn’t long enough for a Sinatra primer, and as engaging as Glinton is, Stephen Thompson doesn’t sound that convinced. Eminently skippable.

StartUp: “Diversity Report” — The white boss of a super white company talks to the few employees he has who aren’t white about what he’s doing wrong. This is a great listen.

Slate’s Culture Gabfest: “The Room Where it Happens Edition” — This is to me a lesser podcast than NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour because it sounds so distinctly like a bunch of people who are in the same room together because it’s their job to say smart things into microphones, rather than a group of people who would and probably do have those conversations anyway. But this was about Hamilton, so I just had to. Stephen Metcalf’s analysis of why the musical is great is basically the same as my own. But, I do wish somebody had dove in a little more when the point “I’m 40 and white and don’t like hip hop and even I loved this hip hop musical” came up. On the face of it, that sounds like a way into a legitimate critique of Hamilton, which is otherwise being rightly marvelled at by all and sundry. On the other hand, I do appreciate that this podcast will discuss people like Judith Butler, who wouldn’t necessarily fit with the general tone of PCHH.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Movie Merchandise” — OKAY FOR GOD’S SAKE I’LL GO SEE STAR WARS. (I was always going to see Star Wars.) My opinion about Star Wars is roughly coextensive with Stephen Thompson’s, so this may be instructive to those of you who are curious about my opinions on things. (…) Also, this is 100% worth a (spoiler-free) listen JUST to hear about Thompson’s insane collection of whimsical movie merchandise.

This American Life: “Sinatra’s 100th Birthday” — You wouldn’t especially expect This American Life to dedicate a full hour to the Chairman of the Board, but who better to assess what he means as part of American culture? The critique of “My Way” as Sinatra’s funeral song in act two is genuinely brilliant music criticism.

The Moth: “Eve Plumb and the Pittsburgh StorySLAM” — Eve Plumb is a former child actress known for her role on The Brady Bunch. The story she tells here is barely a story at all, actually. It’s basically a summary of her whole relationship with her mother. This is uncharacteristically unfocused for The Moth. Maybe it’s like Celebrity Jeopardy: expectations are just lower for famous people.

On The Media: “Politically Correct” — Gladstone and Garfield tackle a bunch of rage-making topics, from the GOP’s war on political correctness to the (lack of) reporting on the Paris climate summit. This podcast keeps me sane.

Radiolab: “The Cold War” — Two ice cream vendors go to war and the joy returns to Radiolab. Pick of the week.

The Heart: “Mr. Claus+Mrs. Claus” — Nope.

All Songs Considered: “Holiday Spectacular, 2015” — Apparently, every year All Songs breaks from their roundtable format and makes a grandiose radio drama with musical guests for Christmas. I can hardly believe I made it through this. You’d think that no amount of Amy Mann can make me stomach a half-hour of Christmas music. But it’s a wonderful production, and more than anything I just love that they do this. Bob Boilen is a totally convincing Scrooge, and the amount of sheer joy that Stephen Thompson brings to his cameo makes this worthwhile in itself. (Two out of three for Thompson, this week. Not bad.)

WTF with Marc Maron: “Gloria Steinem/Kliph Nesteroff” — Maron talks too much in the conversation with Gloria Steinem. It had good moments, but Terry Gross is the place to go to hear Steinem on this particular book. On the other hand, the segment with Nesteroff is gold. He knows every story in the history of showbiz and his book sounds amazing and I will probably read it.

Welcome to Night Vale: “The University Of What It Is” — This has a couple of familiar-seeming jokes, but also a really good story and some interesting background on Carlos, who is my favourite non-Cecil character. Lovely.

Omnireviewer (week of Dec. 13)

It’s been the kind of week where I spend a lot of time with a small amount of things — most of which I’ve reviewed already in recent weeks. (Yeah, I’ve still got Hamilton on repeat.) So, only 16 reviews this time, and only one pick of the week since they’re mostly podcasts.

Television

Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 4-8 — Well, now I’m hooked, aren’t I? There’s been so much to love in these five episodes. The end of episode four is a hell of a bait-and-switch for those like me, who know absolutely nothing about the actual history of the real town of Deadwood, from which that twist is 100% taken. Al Swearengen continues to steal scenes, but the rest of the characters in the town are getting fleshed out nicely, from Seth Bullock and Alma Garrett, to E.B. Farnum and right on down to Reverend Nickelback. Still though, even most of the way through the first season, I feel like the show is still clearing its throat before it really says what it means.

QI: “Miscellany” — Noel Fielding is still alive!

Games

Undertale: Once again, I’m underwhelmed by a critically acclaimed indie game from 2015. I haven’t gotten very far, so perhaps that’s a premature judgement. But the default tone for this is self-aware bad jokes, which I find very trying. I get that it’s a genre pastiche, but can’t a game have something to say about a subject other that “what games are like?” I could see this growing on me as it progresses. But then, I said that about Stasis, too.

Podcasts

Theory of Everything: “New York After Rent (post prop f director’s cut)” — This is a one-part compilation/update of a three-part series that I’ve already heard, but I honestly relished a second listen. If you want to jump on board with ToE, this is the way. It demonstrates everything that Benjamen Walker is great at: clever turns of phrase, a Jonathan Goldstein-esque ability to weave together fact and (probable) fiction, and backing up giant intellectual pronouncements with great storytelling. In this case, the giant intellectual pronouncement is that Airbnb has resulted in the total commodification of New York City — not just its housing, but its art and the very thoughts of its citizens as well. It’s one of the most ambitious pieces of radio I’ve heard this year, and one of the funniest. Pick of the week.  

Criminal: “It Looked Like Fire” — This is one of those “two people with intertwined destinies” kinds of stories. The two people are a protester in Ferguson and a newspaper photographer, neither of whom could have quite grasped the future effects of their actions. Fascinating, and elegantly told.

This American Life: “Status Update” — A guy who knows Ta-nehisi Coates gets jealous, debt collectors keep suing entire neighborhoods, and Ira Glass tries to understand teenage girls. Sometimes you can just summarize something and that sells it.

Planet Money: “Frank Sinatra’s Mug” — Sometimes in radio, it really sounds like people are reading a script. I’m fine with that — except when they try and make it seem like candid conversation. Planet Money is worse for that than any other popular podcast. This is a fun story, though.

The Heart: “Idiot+Dummy” — A simple, well-told, bittersweet little love story that’s not sentimental or cloying. The Heart does radio drama better than The Truth, here.

Imaginary Worlds: “Han Shot Solo” — Maybe it’s just because I’ve already seen The People vs. George Lucas, but this seems like the least interesting episode of Molinsky’s Star Wars series. But if you’re not familiar with the slogan “Han shot first,” and the nerd debate nerdraging nerdily around it, definitely listen to this.

99% Invisible: “Tube Benders” — Neon! How has 99pi not done an episode about neon already? This is one of the “fine” episodes of 99pi.

Serial: “The Golden Chicken” — Okay, now my head’s starting to hurt. So many details! I’m not complaining. Still, if I have one gripe about this season of Serial so far, it’s that there seems to be less tape than I remember in the first. There’s an awful lot of Sarah Koenig explaining things. Maybe that’ll change as we get further into the thick of things?

The Memory Palace: “Gallery 742” — My idea to listen to the whole back catalogue before the next new episode went precisely nowhere, but I’ll get through them one of these days. At the beginning of this episode, DiMeo tells you to consider not listening to it. Apparently, it was made to accompany a walk through a new exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and he claims it only kind of makes sense without that context. Don’t listen to him. In fact, I’m fairly certain that the richness of his storytelling would only cause the actual exhibit to disappoint me if I saw it. I’ll stop before my fawning embarrases me further.

All Songs Considered: “Poll Results: Listeners Pick Their Favourite Albums of 2015” — Inevitably, the episode featuring the critics’ picks was more interesting that the one with the listeners’ picks. But there’s still a heck of a lot of variety here, and it’s good listening. I really need to sit down with that Sufjan Stevens record. I’ve heard “Blue Bucket of Gold” on this podcast a couple of times now, and god what a gorgeous track.

Song Exploder: “Björk – Stonemilker” — As episodes of Song Exploder go, this one doesn’t offer a huge amount of insight into the track. But you get to listen to an isolated Björk vocal from one of her best songs, so that makes this essential.

All Songs Considered: “David Bowie Fulfils His Jazz Dream” — A preview of the upcoming Bowie album, guided by the bandleader, Donny McCaslin, and the Most Legendary Producer In All The Land: Tony Visconti. How can you go wrong? Bob Boilen isn’t the greatest interviewer, but he doesn’t really have to be. And the new music sounds fantastic.

Reply All: “Past, Present, Future” — This is a bunch of updates on what happened after the end of several Reply All stories from the past year. So, it’s basically an episode of Reply All that would make no sense to anybody who hasn’t heard pretty much every prior episode of Reply All. Which is fine, because who listens to one episode of Reply All and doesn’t go back and listen to the whole back catalogue? I was particularly taken by the update to the story where the P.J. and Alex broke into an abandoned building and found a goat. Mostly, because when I heard that the first time I kind of didn’t believe it. That’s the thing about radio. You can say you see something and nobody’s any the wiser. But this update has an interview with a listener who has a plausible explanation for why there was a goat in that building. Good enough for me.