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Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

Ken and Robin Consume Media: The Dig, Barb & Star, and The Killing House

February 23rd, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

Barb and Star Go to Vista Del Mar (Film, US, Josh Greenbaum, 2021) After the store they work in closes, lifelong besties Barb (Annie Mumolo) and Star (Kristen Wiig) head to a Florida tourist town, where they dally with the lovelorn henchman (Jamie Dornan) of a pallid supervillain (Wiig) intent on super-mosquito mass murder. Joyfully kooky comedy features musical numbers, eye-popping colors, a wisdom-dispensing crab, at least one tulpa, and culottes galore.—RDL

The Dig (Film, UK, Simon Stone, 2021) Hired by widowed landowner Edith Pretty (Carey Mulligan), who has a feeling about the mounds on her property, self-trained archaeologist Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) excavates the find of the century, the Sutton Hoo ship burial. Overlapping editing and a down-to-business script cut through period drama affectations for a story of buried relics, longing, and the suffocating weight of the class system. Pretty’s spiritualism gets the barest of hints.—RDL

Judex (Film, France, Georges Franju, 1963) Mysterious avenger (Channing Pollack) strikes against a corrupt banker, prompting a change of plans from a sinister governess with a penchant for catsuits (Francine Bergé.) Deadpan remake of the 1916 serial drapes its adventure hijinks in existential solitude. Yellow King GMs will want to scope its Art Nouveau production design.—RDL

The Killing House (Fiction, Gomery Kimber, 2020) Rickardo “The Big Shilling” Hanratty, a trickster-assassin whose motto “Believing is seeing” comes straight out of Gurdjieff, and his apprentice American Troy plan a hit on a Russian oligarch in Cyprus. This spy-and-crime novel of philosophy in the Colin Wilson tradition evokes the initiatory reality-horror aspects of Fowles’ The Magus to boot, always a scene or a paragraph away from spinning out of control but never quite crashing. –KH

King John and the Road to Magna Carta (Nonfiction, Stephen Church, 2015) Lucid biography of the Angevin king whose overreach led to to the signing of the Magna Carta brings clarity to a tangled sequence of alliances and betrayals, hewing to what is known without succumbing to pet theories or psychological projection.—RDL

The Outpost (Film, US, Rod Lurie, 2020) The U.S. 3-71 Cavalry Squadron (Scott Eastwood, et al.) of the 10th Mountain Division defends an ill-sited outpost in Afghanistan from the Taliban in 2009. A grunt’s-eye-view war film on the pattern of the “cavalry” Western, Lurie saves most of his cinematic ammunition for the hour-long, very effective recreation of the Battle of Kamdesh in the second act. –KH

Good

Terminator: Dark Fate (Film, US, Tim Miller, 2019) Human resistance sends bionic supersoldier Grace (Mackenzie Davis) back in time to stop a morphing killbot from erasing its future leader (Natalia Reyes). Essentially an adequate (if entirely unnecessary) remake of T2, this film also deploys Linda Hamilton (effective as an old, bitter Sarah) and Arnold Schwarzenegger (dialed down, mostly) without entirely wasting them. By far the most interesting thing about it is the way its Rev-9 Terminator literally embodies the U.S. military-surveillance state. –KH

Okay

Revenger (Film, South Korea, Lee Seung-won, 2018) Taciturn cop gets himself sentenced to a lawless prison island to kill the man who murdered his wife and daughter. Harsh martial arts flick whose premise is less about theme or social commentary than it is about inexpensive production values.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Lupin, King John, Son of a Trickster

February 16th, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock ‘n’ Roll  (Film, US, John Pirozzi, 2014) Documentary chronicles Cambodia’s vibrant, cross-pollinated pop music scene of the 60s, and its abrupt ending with the arrival of the Khmer Rouge regime, which murders all of its leading lights. Ably handles musicological exploration and the inexorable descent into political hell.—RDL [Haven’t seen the doc, but the soundtrack is a banger that I listened to on heavy shuffle while writing The Fall of DELTA GREEN. –KH]

King John (Filmed Stage Play, Canada, Tim Carroll & Barry Avrich, 2015) Scheming King John (Tom McCamus) fights off French efforts to reclaim his continental territory and replace him with their preferred heir, a sweet-natured child. Stratford Festival production keeps the pace rattling in Shakespeare’s ultra-telescoped chronicle of 13th century betrayal and counter-betrayal, juiced with touches of absurdist humor. McCamus plays John as a ruthless twit, a combination observers of current politics may find resonant.. Chances to see this live crop up rarely, and the televised play format works surprisingly well here.—RDL

Lupin Season 1 (Television, France, Netflix, George Kay, 2021) Master thief Assane Diop (Omar Sy) “in the shadow of Arsène” unravels the frame around his dead father, unjustly imprisoned 25 years ago for a theft he didn’t commit. Structurally more Count of Monte Cristo than Lupin, this show’s larcenous procedurals (and Sy’s effortless charisma) shine brightly enough to obscure the occasional idiot plot hook. Looking forward to the actual end of the season, which Netflix for some reason won’t air until summer. –KH

Lupin Season I (Television, France, Netflix, George Kay, 2021) Inspired by the fictional adventures of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, a master heister and disguise artist (Omar Sy) attempts to clear his late father of the jewel theft that sent him to prison 25 years ago. Glamourous crime procedural cleverly updates an iconic character. If I’d known that the storyline does not resolve in the current batch of episodes, I’d have waited until the next drop, later this year, to start binging.—RDL

Son of a Trickster (Fiction, Eden Robinson, 2017) A snarky high schooler from the Haisla First Nation of northern B.C. already has enough on his hands with his volatile mom, broke dad, troubled woke girlfriend and weed cookie side hustle, when he begins to attract the interest of powerful entities from the spirit world. Sets the stage for supernatural doings with kicky social observation. Part one of a trilogy.—RDL

Good

Cast a Dark Shadow (Film, UK, Lewis Gilbert, 1955) Suave, albeit working class, seducer (Dirk Bogarde) successfully bumps off his rich matronly wife (Mona Washbourne), but finds her replacement, an unsentimental former pub owner (Margaret Lockwood), a tougher nut to crack. Bogarde takes full advantage of a role he is perfectly cast in, from a British mystery stage play with better-drawn characters than that genre generally attempts.—RDL

The Revenge of Frankenstein (Film, UK, Terence Fisher, 1958) Skipping his appointment with the guillotine, Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) sets up shop in a new town, where he resolves to fix his past reanimation mistakes by putting the living brain of his half-paralyzed assistant (Oscar Quitak) into a perfect body (Michael Gwynn.) Underdeveloped ending aside, this is one of the better Hammer sequels, a caustic parable of the elite’s propensity for upward failure.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Haunted Housing, Tom Cruise Reaches, and the Gunslinger John Brown

February 9th, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

The Good Lord Bird (Television, US, Showtime, Ethan Hawke & Mark Richard, 2020) When John Brown (Ethan Hawke) precipitates a gunfight that kills his father, a boy (Joshua Caleb Johnson) flees slavery, dressed as a girl, for life on the run with the gun-slinging, hard-praying abolitionist. Adaptation of the James McBride novel stands as a miracle of tone, using comedic characterizations as a pathway into a troubling historical subject matter. Hawke modulates his performance from caricature of Kubrickian proportions to frailty and humanity. Daveed Diggs’ rock star take on Frederick Douglass offers another highlight.—RDL

Recommended

His House (Film, UK, Remi Weekes, 2020) Refugee applicants from South Sudan (Wunmi Mosaku, Sope Dirisu) discover something terrible inhabits the government-assigned housing they are not permitted to leave.  Brilliantly plays with the key theme of the contemporary ghost movie, assigning its underlying housing anxiety to characters who feel it with life-or-death urgency.—RDL

How About Never—Is Never Good for You? My Life in Cartoons (Nonfiction, Bob Mankoff, 2014) The New Yorker’s longtime cartoon editor describes his upbringing, his break into that most notoriously difficult of markets, the new generation of cartoonists he brought along, and the statistical secrets of winning that damnable caption contest. Heavily illustrated with Mankoff’s work, along with that of  cartoonists from the classic era to the mid-teens.—RDL

Straight Up (Film, US, James Sweeney, 2020) Neurotic coder Todd (James Sweeney) questions his gayness by dating a hyperverbal actress with intimacy issues, Rory (Katie Findlay). Sweeney’s dialogue plays like a screwball Whit Stillman (with touches of Tarantino) while his script compassionately addresses self, sexuality, and the social requirements of both. A remarkable first film by actor-director-writer Sweeney, with a dizzying performance by Findlay to boot. –KH

Good

Belle of the Nineties (Film, US, Leo McCarey, 1934) Sultry singer (Mae West) maintains her independence while a sleazy vaudeville impresario and a naive boxer vie for her affections. West, in one number appearing as a spider, a bat, and the Statue of Liberty, is an explosion in a semiotics factory in this occasionally lurid musical melodrama. An appearance by Duke Ellington and his band strikes a suitably anachronistic note.—RDL

Jack Reacher (Film, US, Christopher McQuarrie, 2012) Drifter Jack Reacher (Tom Cruise), a former MP, arrives in Pittsburgh where the lawyer (Rosamund Pike) for an accused sniper hires him to investigate. McQuarrie does a pretty fair job adapting the novel One Shot (one of the better, more mystery-ish, Reacher novels) and his economical directing (and a strong cast including retired sniper Robert Duvall and villain Werner Herzog) carries the film over the bumps. Cruise is completely wrong for the role, but gives it his all (except the smile) as only he can. –KH

Space Sweepers (Film, South Korea, Jo Sung-hee, 2021) The loose cannon crew of a space debris-clearing ship protects an adorable little girl from a eugenics-obsessed terraformer. Blockbuster-scaled sci-fi action epic clutches a bit delivering its extensive exposition.—RDL

Okay

Olympus Has Fallen (Film, US, Antoine Fuqua, 2013) Banished from the Presidential detail, Secret Service badass Mike Banning (Gerard Butler) must save the President (Aaron Eckhart) when North Korean terrorist Kang (Rick Yune) takes over the White House. Fuqua reliably drains any tension out of the “Die Hard in the White House” premise, leaving a result best described as “high-budget Golan-Globus” — but only the terrorist attack sequence conveys any of the energy that would normally imply. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Phoebe-Waller Bridge, The Night Stalker, and the Great American Speed-Reading Hoax

February 2nd, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

Crashing Season 1 (Television, UK, Netflix, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2016) Twee trainwreck (Waller-Bridge) goes to London to visit the longtime friend (Jonathan Bailey) she absolutely, definitely, 100% isn’t in love with, staying at the condemned hospital where his fiancee and other charming neurotics live as short-term tenants. Fits PWB’s sensibility, later seen to its fullest in Fleabag, into an accessible sitcom format.—RDL

The Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (Television, US, Netflix, Tiller Russell, 2021) Four-part docuseries follows the two LA County Sheriff’s detectives who hunted serial killer Richard Ramirez in the summer of 1985. The focus on the detectives makes a refreshing change from the more usual killer-centric framing of true crime, and the length of the series actually accommodates the victims’ perspective as well. Russell even approaches the city itself as a frame, albeit sketchily. Not immune from the occasional misplaced glam effect (especially the fetishistic recreation of elements of crime scene photos) but pretty much a best-of-breed example of the genre. –KH

Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked (Nonfiction, Marcia Biederman, 2019) LDS go-getter with a flair for showmanship builds a business empire, mostly to the benefit of others, from the bogus practice of speed-reading. Parallels to eliptony abound as this keenly observed biography places Reading Dynamics in the storied tradition of all-American hucksterism.—RDL

The Visitor (Film, Italy, Antonio Pietrangeli, 1963) Lonely agricultural agent (Sandra Milo) invites a pinched, insecure big-city suitor (François Périer) to spend a day with her in her bumpkin-plagued small town. Milo brings touching depth to her character in this bittersweet comedy/drama.—RDL

Good

Havana Motor Club (Film, Cuba/US, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, 2015) Cuban gearheads battle Party bureaucracy, and the fact that they only have a handful of vintage, heavily customized vehicles, in their bid to legalize car racing. Documentary covers a unique subculture at a point of transition with sympathy and humor.—RDL

Long Shot (Film, US, Jonathan Levine, 2019) Rabble-rousing journalist (Seth Rogen) signs on as speechwriter for his childhood crush (Charlize Theron), now the Secretary of State, as she lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Smart romcom offers a credible impediment to the leads’ coupledom. Gotta ding it a level for its stock climax, though.—RDL

Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (Film, US, William Conlin, 2019) Documentary tells the history of the Planet of the Apes franchise from the point of view of its innovative prosthetic makeup artists. Like a feature-length special feature, except that it’s produced by one of the principal subjects rather than the studio, and thus leaves the dirt in.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Technothriller, a Western and the State of Curmudgeonry

January 26th, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

The Bomb Maker (Fiction, Thomas Perry, 2018) When a genius demolitionist wipes out half the LA bomb squad, a calmly competent alumnus pauses his lucrative personal security business to take temporary command of the survivors. Tightly told technothriller keeps its people as plausible as its munitions.—RDL

Pretend it’s a City (Television, US, Netflix, Martin Scorsese, 2021) Once more Martin Scorsese talks to New York humorist Fran Lebowitz, this time in the form of a miniseries. Although it gives an enjoyable picture of Lebowitz’ current state of curmudgeonry, if you come to it cold you might slide off the staccato, sometimes facile structure: short episodes, very few long stories or observations, and (aside from a nearly beside-himself Spike Lee on the topic of sports) almost no pushback or even interplay by the occasional interviewers. Recommended for Lebowitz fans, Good for the Fran-curious. –KH

The Sisters Brothers (Film, France/US, Jacques Audiard, 2018) Notorious gunslinger brothers, one psychopathic (Joaquin Phoenix), the other increasingly reluctant (John C. Reilly), pursue a good-hearted chemist (Riz Ahmed) into gold country. Straightens out the picaresque plotting of the Patrick deWitt novel, swapping its cosmic irony for moody Manichaeism.—RDL

Good

Father of My Children (Film, France, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009) Charming, driven film producer  (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) careens toward bankruptcy and a decision that will leave his loving wife and daughters in the lurch. Fictionalized evocation of the final days of a well-known French film figure, told with impressionistic naturalism.—RDL

Sisters of the Gion (Film, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936) Geisha sisters, one sentimental, the other calculating, struggle for money and dignity, and against the folly of their self-deluding patrons. A sort of preparatory sketch for his later classic Street of Shame shows Mizoguchi’s unusually clear-eyed understanding of the sex trade.—RDL

Those Who Came Back (Film, Mexico, Alejandro Galindo, 1948) Passengers and crew of a plane downed in the Amazon rainforest establish a new community as hope of rescue dims. Sets up the template for aviation disaster movies before establishing itself as a moral fable.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Queen’s Gambit, Sabrina, and Fran & Marty Talk About Stuff

January 19th, 2021 | Robin

 

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

The Queen’s Gambit (Television Miniseries, US, Netflix, Scott Frank, 2020)  Child genius (Isla Johnston) Introduced to chess and substance abuse during her time in an orphanage grows up into a killer player (Anya Taylor-Joy) mowing down an array of male opponents on her way to an epic confrontation with her cold-eyed Soviet nemesis. From gorgeous production design to a star-making performance from Taylor-Joy, to the stunning achievement of making not just a few but many chess games cinematically riveting, this Walter Tevis adaptation excels on every level.—RDL

Recommended

Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother (Nonfiction, Barry Sonnenfeld, 2020) In a series of well-honed, often hilarious, always unsparing, anecdotes, the director of Men in Black and Get Shorty recounts his adventures in film and the upbringing that made him into the industry’s most notorious bundle of neuroses.—RDL

Pretend It’s a City (Television Miniseries, US, Netflix, Martin Scorsese, 2021) Following a train of thought not unlike the one that led to a certain podcast, Scorsese turns his enjoyment of hanging out with acerbic writer and speaker Fran Lebowitz into seven episodes of delightful snark on such erudite topics as book ownership, talent, transit, and the then-and-now of New York City.—RDL

Good

Mank (Film, US, David Fincher, 2020) While bedridden, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) looks back on his drunken, cynical career and attempts to justify it by writing Citizen Kane. A movie about the evils of the Big Lie committing a Big Lie itself, a movie about idiosyncratic lefty genius that tries to hollow out Orson Welles (a downright elderly Tom Burke) while riding his coattails — the flaws of this film don’t stop with the stagy, tell-don’t-show, talky screenplay (by Fincher’s dad). But Fincher loves shooting in black and white, and Amanda Seyfried (as Marion Davies) like Oldman often overcomes the material. The period-style score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross swings along, too. –KH

Okay

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season (Television, US, Netflix, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, 2021) Sabrina and gang take on a succession of eldritch horrors intent on cosmic destruction, including one of deeply familiar octopoid aspect. Idiot plotting and time-killing musical numbers foretell a structural waywardness leading to a classic instance of series finale letdown.—RDL

The Cotton Club Encore (Film, US, Francis Ford Coppola, 1984 / 2017) Stardom-bound cornet player (Richard Gere) becomes an unwilling errand boy for Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and falls for his girl (Diane Lane) as ambitious hoofer (Gregory Hines) woos a singer at the eponymous, mob-run nightclub. Coppola again shows his interest in scenes over narrative, in a film with a way longer run time than any of the 30s movies it homages.—RDL

Sylvie’s Love (Film, US, Eugene Ashe, 2020) Amid the cool glamour of 50s New York, an aspiring TV producer (Tessa Thompson) catches feelings for the stardom-bound sax player (Nnamdi Asomugha) who takes a day job in her dad’s record store. Lush romantic drama switches throughlines for its final act, a feat more readily accomplished in prose fiction than within the unforgiving confines of the screenplay format.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Discovery, WW84, and Korean Time Phone Horror

January 12th, 2021 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

The Call (Film, South Korea, Lee Chung-hyun, 2020) Returning to her mom’s house while she’s in the hospital, a young woman receives a series of landline calls from inside the house—and from 20 years in the past. Tense timey-wimey horror thriller keeps the twists coming and the tension ratcheting.—RDL

Death Takes a Holiday (Film, US, Mitchell Leisen, 1934) To experience life as a mortal, the grim reaper (Fredric March) takes on mortal form for a long weekend as an aristocrat’s guest, falling for a restless ingenue (Evelyn Venable.) Stagy but atmospheric adaptation of an interwar Italian play that marries Symbolist and Romantic motifs.—RDL

Valdez is Coming (Fiction, Elmore Leonard, 1970) Mild-seeming town constable reveals the killer inside him when a cattle baron maneuvers him into gunning down an innocent man and then refuses to compensate his widow. Laconic western fable of racism and gun-handling expertise.—RDL

The Widow Couderc (Film, France, Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1974) Escaped convict (Alain Delon) hides out as farmhand to a lonely widow (Simone Signoret) whose former in-laws hope to push her out of her home. Naturalistic rural noir set against a background of rising fascim, based on a Simenon novel.—RDL

Good

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (Television, US, CBS All Access, Alex Kurtzman & Michelle Paradise, 2020-2021) The Discovery crew signs up to fix a gritty far future where an interstellar catastrophe has reduced the Federation to a vestige of its former glory. Every season of Discovery becomes a markedly different show, finding new ways to get Trek right, while also embracing another narrative bête noire—this time, relentless cheerleading for its heroes. Star Sonequa Martin-Green dares to escalate her performance to Shatnerian heights.—RDL

Okay

Vampires vs. the Bronx (Film, US, Oz Rodriguez, 2020) Area tweens (Jaden Michael, Gerald W. Jones III, Gregory Diaz IV) notice vampires behind the gentrification of their Bronx neighborhood and fight back. “What if Lost Boys, but just about the Frog Brothers and in the Bronx” could still have worked, but not with the tiny budget and un-terrifying vampires available. It’s hard to blame the child actors for not doing better with the metronomic script, but they’re no Stranger Things kids. Points given for Method Man as a priest and for actually going there and using the Eucharist wafer as a plot coupon. –KH

Wonder Woman 1984 (Film, US, Patty Jenkins, 2020) When the Dreamstone resurfaces in 1984 Washington DC, Diana (Gal Gadot) wishing for the return of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is only the first thing that goes wrong. Random clumps of ill-thought-out scenes (including literally handwaving the invisible plane) capped by whatever the opposite of sticking the landing is may authentically recall Bronze Age comics, but it’s not always good movie making. Although Gadot and Pine remain great, Jenkins whiffs badly on the villains: Kristen Wiig twitches endlessly as proto-Cheetah, and Pedro Pascal (possibly overcompensating for his Mando minimalism) somehow hits every wrong note as Maxwell Lord. Jenkins’ fight and action scenes also suffer by comparison with the first film, regressing to the mean with a vengeance. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Wonder Woman, Palm Springs, Midnight Sky

January 5th, 2021 | Robin

 

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

The Book of Lamps and Banners (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2020) Increasingly strung-out punk photographer Cass Neary tries to leverage the hunt for a rare occult manuscript into a payout for her and her lover, but of course murderous complications intervene. Hand presents all four books in the series as rapid frames in Neary’s dramatic dissolution rather than episodes in an iconic hero’s career; this one, therefore, has to manage the trick of shifting Neary into her final stage without derailing its momentum. Fortunately, the titular Book (and the weird tech implications Hand gives it) have enough power to drive the novel around the turn. –KH

Joe Gould’s Teeth (Nonfiction, Jill Lepore, 2015) As a demonstration of the biographical researcher’s art, Lepore delves into a great unanswered question of New York literary lore—whether portions of the allegedly massive oral history of everything by literary eccentric Joe Gould, as made famous in two iconic Joseph Mitchell New Yorker articles, survive or ever existed. What she discovers deromanticizes Gould’s madness, revealing him as both a victim of institutional psychiatry and a harasser and stalker.—RDL

The Night Comes For Us (Film, Indonesia, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018) Triad enforcer (Joe Taslim) goes rogue to protect a girl he’s orphaned, endangering his friends and setting up a showdown with his former running buddy (Iko Uwais.) Artfully shot grand guignol martial arts action from alumni of The Raid showcases top-notch prop/improvised weapon use.—RDL

Palm Springs (Film, US, Max Barbacow, 2020) Checked-out wedding guest (Adam Sandberg) fails to prevent the sister of the bride (Cristin Miliotti) from entering the infinite time loop he’s trapped in. Charming, funny romcom assumes you’ve seen a time loop movie before and makes clever hay with those expectations.—RDL

Good

The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers (Nonfiction, Michael Goss, 1984) This short treatise applies the standards of parapsychology, rather than the usual standards of folklore studies, to three specific incident groups in the UK. An interesting exercise, which would be Recommended had Goss expanded the scope of his treatise to any of the main American incidents or to more complete coverage of the myth-pattern he scants in his last chapter. –KH

The Manifestations of Sherlock Holmes (Fiction, James Lovegrove, 2020) Twelve short stories of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, half of them “normal” pastiches, two told by minor Holmesian figures (Toby the dog and rival detective Clarence Barker), and four nerdtroped in some way: Lovecraft, Stevenson, Doyle again (Prof. Challenger and a murderous pterodactyl), and supers. “The Adventure of the Botanist’s Glove” is by far the best in the collection, and “The Adventure of the Yithian Stone” while too full of exposition does offer a nicely cruel glancing view of the Mythos. None of them are overtly bad (two Recommended, three Okay), but Lovegrove’s Doyle-voice quavers a bit even at the best of times. –KH

Shazam! (Film, US, David F. Sandberg, 2019) Resistant foster kid (Asher Angel) gains the ability to transform into an adult-shaped superhero (Zachary Levi.) Fun, cape-wearing riff on Big bookended by the usual over-elaborated exposition and CGI final fight sequence of superhero origin movies.—RDL

WW84 (Film, US, Patty Jenkins, 2020) In the era of pastel shades and high-cut leotards, a lonely Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) deals with the fallout when a wishing stone falls into the hands of an awkward pal (Kristen Wiig) and a wannabe tycoon (Pedro Pascal). Jenkins takes DC movies full circle to the lighthearted tone of the Donner/Lester Superman flicks—bringing with it their disjointed storytelling. Over time WW84 may come to be appreciated for its sincere dedication to weirdness, which is two thirds attributable to picking scenes and set pieces and trying to shoehorn them into a narrative, and one third from the freaky ghost of William Moulton Marston manifesting into the material.—RDL

Not Recommended

The Midnight Sky (Film, US, George Clooney, 2020) Terminally ill researcher (Clooney) remains behind on an Antarctic base to warn a returning spaceship crew to turn around, avoiding the devastation that has destroyed the world during their journey. An unrelieved series of down beats substitute dourness for profundity, with the entire proceedings wrapped around a leaden, cheap reveal.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Hand, le Carre, and, once more, The Mandalorian

December 29th, 2020 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

Curious Toys (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2019) Living in Chicago’s Riverview amusement park in 1915, gamine Pin stumbles onto a serial killer of young girls. Featuring cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Ben Hecht, Hand’s assured thriller prods and pokes (and gazes) at femininity and the images thereof. Story elements such as Chicago’s film industry and especially Pin’s erratic confidant Henry Darger bring those themes effortlessly into focus. –KH

Hard Light (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2016) Pill-popping punk photographer Cass Neary gets dragooned into a series of murders with roots in the 1970s groupie scene and in an experimental occult film shot in Cornwall. Hand’s almost-occult crime series again satisfyingly walks several high-wires: broken but appealing protagonist, forgotten past and collapsing present, crime and horror. Hand’s Cass Neary series by now withstands comparison to William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy. –KH

Hunter with Harpoon (Fiction, Markoosie Patsauq, 1970) Inuit hunters embark on a deadly journey to find and kill a rogue polar bear. Harrowing novella of life and death in an unforgiving environment, packed with incident and told with startling, straightforward authority.—RDL

Lord of Light (Fiction, Roger Zelazny, 1967) The Buddha attempts to destroy the rule of the Hindu gods; alternately, an immortal culture-jamming spaceship crewman named Sam sabotages his fellow immortals’ attempt to keep their descendants’ planet culturally static. Zelazny deliberately wrote this SF novel in a fantasy register, or vice versa, in a critical test of Clarke’s Third Law. Cosmic scope packed into 250-odd pages makes for a heady read, as does Zelazny at the height of control over his own style. –KH

The Mandalorian Season 2 (Television, US, Jon Favreau, Disney+, 2020) Mandalorian fundamentalist (Pedro Pascal) quests to fulfill his geas and return Grogu (Baby Yoda) to the Jedi for further training. Punchy, minimalist episodes (again inspired by 1960s serial TV such as The Rifleman and Kung Fu) let the production design and interstitial dialogue build upon (and build out) the Star Wars universe while the themes (and Ludwig Göransson’s theme) carry the emotional weight. All this, plus the return of Space Bill Burr! –KH

A Perfect Spy (Fiction, John le Carré, 1986) When his con man father dies, the M16 Head of Station in Vienna drops out of sight with the embassy burnbox, to write a memoir addressed to his son and his mentor. Literary fiction techniques come to the fore in this quasi-autobiographical novel from the tail end of le Carré’s Cold War phase.—RDL

La tête d’un homme [A Man’s Head] (Film, France, Julien Duvivier, 1933) Chief Inspector Maigret (Harry Baur) suspects that the bumpkinish delivery man arrested for the murder of a wealthy American matron is merely a patsy. Simenon adaptation builds from clipped police procedural to a crescendo of expressionist dread and melancholy.—RDL

Good

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Nonfiction, John Le Carré, 2016) The celebrated spy novelist presents his finest anecdotes about his encounters with heads of state, warlords, movie people, and other shady characters. With the possible exception of his piece on his con man father, the real David Cornwell remains as staunchly in the background as George Smiley ever could.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Mandalorian, Ma Rainey and Streep/Soderbergh

December 22nd, 2020 | Robin

Ken and Robin Consume Media is brought to you by the discriminating and good-looking backers of the Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff Patreon. Each week we provide capsule reviews of the books, movies, TV seasons and more we cram into our hyper-analytical sensoriums. Join the Patreon to help pick the items we’ll talk about in greater depth on a little podcast segment we like to call Tell Me More.

Recommended

Let Them All Talk (Film, US, Steven Soderbergh, 2020) Superstar literary author (Meryl Streep) invites formerly close friends, the centered Susan (Dianne Wiest) and desperate, embittered Roberta (Candice Bergen) on a transatlantic cruise. Multiple unanswered questions lend narrative suspense to deceptively light drama driven by improvised dialogue. Soderbergh makes canny use of Streep’s star persona.—RDL

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Film, US, George C. Wolfe, 2020) At a Chicago recording date for indomitable blues performer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) an ambitious young trumpeter (Chadwick Boseman) makes his grab for stardom. Wolfe’s darting camera bridges the cinematic and the theatrical to give this contemporary stage classic a filmed treatment in accordance with its stature. This difficult feat requires electric performances, which Davis and Boseman unsurprisingly deliver.—RDL

The Mandalorian Season 2 (Television, US, Jon Favreau, Disney+, 2020) Aided along the way by a rotating roster of bad-asses, the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) seeks a Jedi to take custody of the Kid. Lives up to the brilliance of the first season by keeping its arc the simplest of strings to connect independently satisfying episodes. Also of note: the way it leans into the cruelty of the setting, which the franchise has been fleeing since the Ewoks showed up. Where do I fall on the thing that happens at the end? I had both reactions!—RDL

The Two-Penny Bar (Fiction, Georges Simenon, 1932) Acting on a tip from a condemned prisoner regarding an old murder, Inspector Maigret infiltrates a community of Sunday revelers. The Maigret books don’t need to be read in order, making this structurally straight ahead entry, as usual favoring social observation over a puzzling mystery, an excellent starting point.—RDL

Good

The Flight Attendant Season 1 (Television, US, Steve Yockey, HBOMax, 2020) After a night of sex with millionaire passenger Alex (Michiel Huisman), alcoholic mess/flight attendant Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) wakes up next to his murdered corpse. This series wants so badly to channel Hitchcock’s mid-period neo-screwball man-on-the-run films that you kind of root for it. (It’s far from easy — even Stanley Donen just barely did it once!) Cuoco’s comedy experience gives her the needed timing in the role, and Cassie’s traumatic mental collapse (illustrated among other things by Alex reappearing to her throughout) mostly plays well. Zosia Mamet as her lawyer/best friend is a treat, too. But four hours (tops) of story across eight episodes means some arbitrary choices, second-tier dialogue, and (of course) divagating subplots. –KH

Okay

Autumn Leaves (Film, US, Robert Aldrich, 1956) Lonely typist (Joan Crawford) discovers the pathological side of her quick-talking young suitor (Cliff Robertson) only after she marries him. Aldrich, a specialist in caustic portrayals of tormented people, undercuts the therapeutic message of the script’s final act with every fiber of his noirish being.—RDL

Mannequin (Film, US, Frank Borzage, 1937) Anxious to escape poverty, a hard-working seamstress (Joan Crawford) marries a no-good fight promoter (Alan Curtis) who pushes her into the arms of a besotted shipping magnate (Spencer Tracy.) The antagonist never offers a credible threat to the happiness of the leads in this well-directed romantic melodrama.—RDL

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Flying Clock
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