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Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Space Vampire in the Mumbai Disco

February 14th, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

Blindsight (Fiction, Peter Watts, 2006) A spaceship crewed by near-transhumans and commanded by a vampire makes first contact in the Oort Cloud while parrying the aliens’ incursion. The genetic reconstruction of an extinct human subspecies of vampires is only about the fifth-wildest concept herein, but it should get you through the door of this classic-style ideas-and-aliens hard SF novel. –KH

Disco Dancer (Film, India, Babbar Subhash, 1982) Now that he’s a rising star as a disco singer/guitarist, a former street musician returns to Mumbai to avenge the false imprisonment of his mother. Simultaneously an exuberant backstage musical and a bloody revenge actioner, in no way contaminated by subtlety. Kooky costumes! Blazing Bollywood funk! Star-crossed romance!  Class consciousness! Unremitting melodrama! Jarring transitions! Separate musical numbers in praise of Krishna and Jesus! A quasi-cover of “Video Killed the Radio Star!” Bump down a notch if you don’t think this is the sort of thing that ought to be 135 minutes long.—RDL

The Locket (Film, US, John Brahm, 1946) A traumatic childhood incident leaves an outwardly poised and charming woman (Laraine Day) with a penchant for jewelry theft and murder, bringing woe to a string of men. Delightfully outre neo-Freudian noir melodrama told in flashbacks within flashbacks.—RDL

Loving (Film, US, Jeff Nichols, 2016) Interracial husband and wife Richard and Mildred Loving (Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga) struggle to lead ordinary, quiet lives together, which in their home state of Virginia in 1958 is a criminal offense. Subtly engaging biopic succeeds at the tough task of centering a film narrative around undemonstrative protagonists whose goal is to simply be left alone.—RDL

Good

Monsieur Lecoq (Fiction, France, Émile Gaboriau, 1868) Brilliant yet unseasoned policeman investigates the mysterious prisoner behind a wine-shop triple murder, aided by a determined magistrate and an admiring older sidekick. I guess if you invent the police precinct crime novel 90 years before Ed McBain it’s churlish of us to expect you to figure out endings, too. Until then, redolent with then-contemporary Parisian grit and detail.—RDL

Okay

The Accountant (Film, US, Gavin O’Connor, 2016) “High-functioning autistic” accountant (Ben Affleck) built into a killing machine for some reason by his protective father obsessively-compulsively solves a tricky corporate embezzlement problem by murdering his way to the embezzler, who is protected by his own murder team headed by a delightful Jon Bernthal. Also a Treasury agent is hunting Affleck because he works for organized crime and terrorists, but he’s the good guy because he saves Anna Kendrick. Even without the iffy “autism as superpower” thing this movie would be a mess, and only Affleck’s war-against-himself performance (and the suspicion that a real-life Batman would look way more like this guy) holds it together at all. –KH

Phoenix (Film, Germany, Christian Petzold, 2014) After reconstructive surgery to repair injuries suffered in a death camp renders her unrecognizable, a woman who refuses to believe that her husband denounced her to the Nazis seeks him out in Berlin. Twisty melodramatic premise belied by in an overly austere, emotionally withholding directing style.—RDL

Not Recommended

Fury (Film, US, David Ayer, 2014) Traumatized tank crew consisting of gruff sergeant (Brad Pitt), raw recruit (Logan Lerman), preacher man (Shia LaBeouf), meathead (Jon Bernthal), and ethnic guy (Michael Peña) push into Germany during the final desperate days of WWII. The first two acts of war horror would be quite something if they were more than just stake-setting for a third-act shift into ridiculous heroics.—RDL

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back (Film, US, Edward Zwick, 2016) Reacher (Tom Cruise) takes a break from walking the land righting wrongs when his contact in the Army’s Military Police (Cobie Smulders) is arrested on trumped-up treason charges. You’ll never guess why: corrupt military contractors! Do they start killing everyone around the case while ineptly threatening Reacher? You bet! Also he needlessly endangers his possible daughter (Danika Yarosh) who then needlessly endangers herself some more. Also there is running and some dull fights. Cruise intentionally mutes his charisma as Reacher, leaving nothing here to surprise or interest anyone who has seen more than three thrillers in their life. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Crime, Guilt and Troglodytes

February 7th, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

Manchester By the Sea (Film, US, Kenneth Lonergan, 2016) After his brother dies, a closed-off custodian (Casey Affleck) discovers he’s been appointed guardian of his teenage nephew, which would require him to move back to the town that suffocates him with the guilt of his tragic past. Powerfully rendered drama without a frame of sentimental fakery.—RDL

Recommended

3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man (Comics, Matt Kindt, 2009) The stories of the “World’s Tallest Man” told (in Kindt’s loose watercolor) by his mother, wife, and daughter — including his brief career with the CIA. The result is a weird cross between Roald Dahl and Graham Greene. –KH

Black Dahlia (Comics, Rick Geary, 2016) The latest in Geary’s precise, controlled evocations of famous crimes reconstructs Elizabeth Short’s life and the investigation of her death. While the words give “just the facts,” Geary’s art bursts with life and emotion. –KH

Bone Tomahawk (Film, US, S. Craig Zahler, 2015) When troglodytes abduct a woman (Lili Simmons) and a deputy from the town jail, her injured husband (Patrick Wilson), a taciturn sheriff (Kurt Russell), an arrogant Indian killer (Matthew Fox) and a talkative old-timer (Richard Jenkins) head into the wilderness to effect a rescue. Nerdtroped men-on-a-mission Western ably combines, in a sentence I do not believe I am writing, Charles Portis-style dialogue and cannibal horror.—RDL

Very Semi-Serious (Film, US, Leah Wolchok, 2015) Documentary profiles Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor of The New Yorker, and its roster of cartoonists, from still-active nonagenarian George Booth to the latest up-and-comers. Informative look inside the creative and professional process of the nichiest of niche markets.—RDL

Good

The Book of Negroes (TV mini-series, Canada, Clement Virgo, 2015) Former slave Aminata Diallo (Aunjanue Ellis) recounts the events of her life, from capture as a child in Africa, to servitude in the US south and quasi-freedom in New York City and Nova Scotia, to a group of English abolitionists. Solid if inevitably softened adaptation of the Lawrence Hill novel, which you may know by its former US title, Somebody Knows My Name.—RDL

Okay

A Little Chaos (Film, UK, Alan Rickman, 2014) A woman working in the man’s field of landscape architecture (Kate Winslet) gets a rare opportunity to design an innovative fountain for Louis XIV (Alan Rickman) at Versailles. Although this period drama’s unfocused script fails to properly establish and develop the protagonist’s dramatic conflict, it does turn suddenly magical whenever Winslet and Rickman share a scene together.—RDL

Not Recommended

The Courtesan and the Gigolo: The Murders in the Rue Montaigne and the Dark Side of Empire in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Nonfiction, Aaron Freundschuh, 2017) Account of a sensational 1887 murder trial that sent a handsome foreigner to the guillotine, probably unjustly, for the murder of a prosperous demimondaine. Awkward hybrid of historical true crime and boilerplate academic analysis.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: The Post With Three Hands

January 31st, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

Wylding Hall (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2015) Another (and one of the best) of Hand’s effortless blendings of art and the uncanny, in this case a folk-rock band encountering a faerie in 1972 during a lengthy summer stay at the titular Hall. There is nothing twee or forced about this short novel, and everything horripilating and oblique and terrible and wonderful: think Fairport Convention opening for Arthur Machen. –KH

Recommended

The Abominable Mr. Seabrook (Comics, Joe Ollmann, 2017) Canadian cartoonist Ollmann wields a deft, dark brush and a disapproving, dour view of William Seabrook in this thorough biography of the once-famous bestselling travel writer, drunkard, sadist, psychic experimenter, and cannibal who hung out with Aleister Crowley, Aldous Huxley, Man Ray, James Joyce, and J.B. Rhine, to hit just the highlights. Ollmann can’t quite bring himself to like Seabrook, but his Can-conventionality winds up giving the biography a needed backstop for Willie’s weirdness to bounce off of. –KH

Death of a Cyclist (Film, Spain, Juan Antonio Bardem, 1958) Guilt grips a mathematician and his married lover after they kill a cyclist in a hit and run incident. Jagged cutting, compelling compositions and sleek 50s modernist design energize this taut existential noir.—RDL

Girl in a Band (Nonfiction, Kim Gordon, 2015) Memoir from Sonic Youth singer/bassist covers a childhood overshadowed by a taxing older brother, her art and music, and the divorce that broke apart her family and band. While the breakup album is a rock n roll tradition, Gordon’s established writing chops make the memoir format an even sharper stake to drive through the heart of cheating rat Thurston Moore.—RDL

Hello My Name is Doris (Film, US, Michael Showalter, 2016)  Left with possibilities on her hands after the death of her mother, an eccentric woman (Sally Field) conceives an infatuation for a much younger co-worker (Max Greenfield.) Mix of drama and cringe comedy challenges our willingness to identify with a character whose objectives can only end in disaster, instead of merely feeling sorry for her.—RDL

Illyria (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2007) Cousins Madeline and Rogan Tierney, scions of a theatrical lineage, fall in love in 1970s Yonkers. In this tight, intense novella the only magic is that of love and the theater, although little touches of “the fey” lurk in the wainscoting. –KH

Jackie (Film, US, Pablo Larraín, 2016) In a series of flashbacks framed by Theodore White’s (Billy Crudup) post-assassination interview, Jacqueline Kennedy (Natalie Portman) arranges her husband’s funeral and his legacy. Larraín’s protean direction and Portman’s superb performance pull what began as a squishy-safe HBO biopic up into Recommended country despite the tinny dialogue. Somehow Larraín has made a hagiography about the cynical work of making a hagiography. –KH

Marina Abramovic: the Artist is Present (Film, US, Matthew Akers, 2012) Documentary reviews the career of groundbreaking performance artist as she undertakes a marathon event involving prolonged silent eye contact with volunteer participants at her MOMA retrospective. At times moving, occasionally funny and sweet, with more focus on Abramovic’s surprisingly accessible backstage personality than on abstract artspeak.—RDL

Radiant Days (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2012) Time-shifting story (written for YA?) of a graffiti artist in 1978 Washington DC meeting Arthur Rimbaud in 1870 lives and dies by Hand’s gorgeous language. Not quite enough myth or secret history for hard-core Powersians, but plenty of art and setting for Hand-philes. –KH

Good

The Ghost Ship (Film, US, Mark Robson, 1943) Junior officer’s first assignment aboard a freighter discovers that his captain’s mania for authority extends to murder. Val Lewton-produced nautical thriller imports the weird atmosphere of his non-supernatural horror films but suffers from a couple of classic script issues, including characters who bang on and on explaining its theme.—RDL

The Love Witch (Film, US, Anna Biller, 2016) In her narcissistic quest for the ideal lover, a foxy witch combines Helen Gurley Brown’s philosophy of man-catching with overly potent love potions. Obsessively detailed pastiche captures early 70s exploitation movie style from film stock to the era’s very specific sort of stilted acting. At two hours, this is overlong for what it is, and there are 20-30 minutes of easy cuts here.—RDL

Moana (Film, US, Ron Clements & John Musker, 2016) The ocean sends Polynesian Disney princess Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) on a quest to save her people by finding the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and, of course, herself. As is standard, the villainous Tamatoa (Jemaine Clement) has by far the best song. Visually lush and narratively undistinguished, this rote Disney self-actualization flick does at least demonstrate how high the “average” bar is set by the studio now. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Tree Ninjas are the Worst

January 24th, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

Five Element Ninjas (Film, HK, Chang Cheh, 1982) Martial artist vows revenge after invading ninjas use their elusive weapons to slaughter his master and comrades. Cheh, the Paul Schrader of the Shaw Brothers directing stable, takes overtly silly subject matter, with gold lamé ninjas and ninjas in tree costumes, and, aided by gallons of bright red stage blood, infuses it with his trademark doom, rage, and bodily mortification. Showcases top-notch acrobatics work with a hint here and there of the wire fu era that is just about to dawn.—RDL

It’s Love I’m After (Film, US, Archie Mayo, 1937) Caddish stage star (Leslie Howard) risks his fiery relationship with his leading lady (Bette Davis) by agreeing to disabuse a flighty heiress (Olivia de Havilland) of her infatuation with him. Witty dialogue delivered at requisite rattling speed by a cast you don’t associate with screwball comedy.—RDL

Girlfriends (Film, US, Claudia Weil, 1978) Aspiring photographer (Melanie Mayron) sinks into a funk when her best friend moves out of their shared apartment to get married. A winning slice of life that finds its charm in the real rather than the cute and quirky. Remains hugely influential on the indie movie style.–RDL

Leviathan (Film, Russia, Andrey Zvyagintsev, 2014)  Hard-drinking mechanic fights to stop corrupt mayor from expropriating his home—but forget it, Jake, it’s northern Russia. Majestically shot telling of the Job set story in a moral universe where God either doesn’t exist or has been bought off by the authorities. Though it doesn’t remotely smack of horror or the supernatural, H. P. Lovecraft would nod his head at the cosmic proportion of its bleakness.—RDL

Luke Cage Season 1 (TV, US, Netflix, 2016) Bulletproof dishwasher just wants to mind his own business in his new Harlem digs, but steps up to embrace his inner hero against the politically connected gangsters keeping the people down. Most of the nods to black history and culture that lend this its own distinct vibe among Marvel shows appear right in the text, but the biggest influence can be found in its adoption of the color palette, foregrounded music score and floaty pacing of early Spike Lee. I kept waiting for the tracking shot where Luke and Misty stand on the moving dolly while they trade information about Diamondback.—RDL

Silence (Film, US, Martin Scorsese, 2016) Two Jesuit priests, Frs. Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver) go to Japan in 1640, during the Tokugawa persecution of Christians, to discover the truth about Fr. Ferrera (Liam Neeson), who has reportedly renounced Christ. For a film called Silence there’s a whole lot of voiceover, and Andrew Garfield is so much weaker than Adam Driver as an actor that even Scorsese can’t entirely save him. But when Liam Neeson reappears we get a glimpse of the Pinnacle this film could have been, and regardless of its flaws, it’s not a film you’ll forget any time soon. –KH

Silence (Film, US, Martin Scorsese, 2016) 17th century Jesuit priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) smuggle themselves into Japan at height of a murderous anti-Christian persecution campaign, in search of their mentor (Liam Neeson.) Based on a Shusaku Endo novel, this battle between faith and survival offers up one of the more overtly idea-driven, and thus stylistically classical, entries in the Scorsese canon.–RDL

Theeb (Film, Jordan, Naji Abu Nowar, 2014) In 1916 Theeb (Jacir Eid al-Hwietat), a young Bedouin boy, follows his brother and a mysterious English soldier into the desert and into danger. Deliberately recalling the stark, character-focused Westerns of Anthony Mann and the iconic imagery of John Ford, this Bedouin Western focuses on Theeb’s coming of age against a hazy backdrop of world war and technological change. Fortunately, Eid carries the film like a tiny Robert Duvall; the result is personal crisis made mythic. –KH

Good

The Fan-Shaped Destiny of William Seabrook (Fiction, Paul Pipkin, 2001) Aging SF fan obsessed with his lost love and William Seabrook meets a beautiful girl at WorldCon 1997 who turns out to be Seabrook’s lost love reincarnated and then it gets super weird. The hyper-fizzy potency of the high concept, and my sheer delight at someone having written a (footnoted!) literary thriller about William Seabrook and the many-worlds theory of quantum mechanics, keep the rating at Good. That said, it’s almost deathly talky, the Seabrook pastiches don’t really work, and the sex scenes are more than a little embarrassing. But if this is the kind of thing you like, you won’t be able to help liking this thing. –KH

Hidden Figures (Film, US, Theodore Melfi, 2016) Braided biopic follows three African-American women — math genius Katherine Goble (Taraji P. Henson), computer pioneer Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and engineer Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) — as they win key jobs at NASA’s Langley Research Center, overcome racism (Kirsten Dunst) and sexism (Jim Parsons), and oh yeah help John Glenn orbit the Earth. The acting is almost all top-notch (especially Monáe who more than holds her own), the score effective, and the orgy of midcentury design and space-race nostalgia everything an early-Gen-X boy could wish for. Sadly, it suffers from the set-em-up-knock-em-down rote that most biopics do, and as a triple biopic there’s no room for twists or even depth. You might say the script was pretty much … by the numbers. –KH

Okay

Furious Seven (Film, US, James Wan, 2015) Dom and the gang are back, and because Jason Statham wants to fight them, they have to get a McGuffin, requiring them to also fight Ronda Rousey, Tony Jaa and Djimon Hounsou. Over-the-top stuntfest misses just two ingredients to fully emulate the Hong Kong action aesthetic: a Faye Wong song playing under the Paul Walker tribute montage, and actual emotion in the melodramatic bits.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Rats, Djinn, and the Vampyre

January 17th, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

A Crack in the Wall (Fiction, Claudia Piñeiro, 2009)  Thwarted, middle-aged architect falls for a young woman who drops by his office to ask about a man he and his superiors at the firm buried in the foundations of an apartment building three years previous. Sharply conceived literary crime novel provides a master class in setting up expectations and then going somewhere more interesting.—RDL

The Overlook Film Encyclopedia: The Gangster Film (Nonfiction, Phil Hardy, 1998) Sadly the last in Overlook’s exceptional series, this massive crime-film reference covers 1,500+ films from Gang War (Bert Glennon, 1928) to Underworld (Roger Christian, 1997), including plenty of French and Hong Kong classics alongside the caper films, policiers, Mafia movies, and other subtypes of this fuzzy genre. (It excludes some “individualist” crime and noir films, which Hardy was saving for a sadly never-completed detective film encyclopedia.) Entries’ critical judgements are a little wonkier than in Hardy’s horror and Western compendia, but you can’t beat the scope. –KH

The Poet and the Vampyre (Nonfiction, Andrew McConnell Stott, 2014) Gossipy, divagatory, and hence entertaining, discussion of the menage (Byron, Percy Shelley, Mary Godwin, John Polidori, and Claire Clairmont) that briefly met in the Villa Diodati in June 1816 and galvanized the horror genre in between bouts of fornication, bickering, and laudanum. Not quite the hour-by-hour blow-by-blow I was looking for, but I found lots of other good stuff in it nonetheless. –KH

Rats (Film, US, Morgan Spurlock, 2016) From the hardboiled exterminators of NYC to pathologists in New Orleans, from the restaurant tables of Vietnam to a Hindu temple in India, humans confront the ingenious, disease-ridden, ever-multiplying rodent that swarms wherever we do. Urban nature documentary jazzed up by horror movie techniques revels in unflinching gross-out. I sure was surprised by the moment where about a dozen rats rise up on their haunches to chitter, “Your friee-e-e-ee-end Ke-e-e-e-enne-e-e-e-th, we are coming for him, we are coming for Ke-e-e-e-enne-e-e-e-th…”—RDL

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Film, US, Joseph Sargent, 1974) Mister Blue (Robert Shaw) leads a fractious team of criminals in the hijacking of a New York City subway car, locking horns with coarse improviser Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) of the NYC Transit Police. A profane, ironic tribute to New York City, its infrastructure, and its irritated, wiseass officials and citizenry, it’s now a period piece that doesn’t seem dated. David Shire’s score likewise nails it, a 70s jazz groove veering between atonalism and funk. –KH

Under the Shadow (Film, UK/Qatar/Jordan/Iran, Babak Anvari, 2016) As missiles rain down on Tehran during the Iran-Iraq War, a woman whose career ambitions have been stifled by the regime reluctantly concludes that maybe her preschool daughter and her neighbors are right to say that djinn have invaded their apartment building. Lays down a baseline of naturalism that makes its ever so incremental shift into jump scares and supernatural imagery all the more unsettling.—RDL

Good

Inspector Pancakes Helps the President of France* (Fiction, Karla Pacheco, 2014) Presented as a charming kids’ board book with fun illustrations by Maren Marmulla, this tale of a dog in a little hat finding a stolen croissant conceals a mystery! Specifically, a brutal, hardboiled mystery full of very bad words, told in tiny print throughout the book, which I am not kidding you do not want your kids to read. The joke is funny and carried off well, but I don’t envy any parents who forget to filch this from the nursery once little Abigail learns to sound out words. –KH   *solve the white orchid murders

Okay

The Limits of Control (Film, US, Jim Jarmusch, 2009) Taciturn assassin (Isaach de Bankolé) travels through Spain, making a series of rendezvous with mysterious messengers (Tilda Swinton, Gael Garcia Bernal, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta) on his way to a  hit. Jarmusch’s most experimental feature mostly cares about beautiful compositions, the feeling that comes when you’re waiting to act, and paying homage to fellow director Claire Denis.—RDL

The Outfit (Film, US, John Flynn, 1973) Flynn’s adaptation of my favorite Richard Stark novel is great when it sticks to its source material, which sadly it only does intermittently. Watching Robert Duvall care about people and laugh and discuss his backstory badly damages what could have been a really great Parker performance, because hey Robert Duvall. Joe Don Baker, on the other hand, exceeds himself as a composite Parker sidekick; the all-hey-it’s-that-guy cast is the other reason to watch. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: It’s Recommendations All the Way Down

January 10th, 2017 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

1636: The Ottoman Onslaught (Fiction, Eric Flint, 2017) The latest installment in the Ring of Fire series returns to the main line of German history following the 1632 appearance of a 20th-century West Virginia town in Thuringia. Murad IV and his up-gunned Ottoman hordes (complete with airships and flame-tanks) blitz Vienna in what I suspect is really the first half of a long novel; fans of the series like myself have little to complain about once the action starts. –KH

Anomalisa (Film, US, Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson, 2015) Star business writer headed for a breakdown (voiced by David Thewlis) instead embarks on a hotel room affair with an awkward fan (Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Carveresque tale of quotidian despond rendered surreal by depicting the action with stop-motion puppets.–RDL

Arrival (Film, US, Denis Villeneuve, 2016) Persuasive linguist (Amy Adams) joins a joint military-CIA effort seeking to communicate with alien beings inside one of twelve spacecraft to land across the globe. Atmospheric realization of a script that brilliantly fuses its hero’s external problem solving and inner transformation. Folks watching this in the future will think, “Well, that sure was a product of the Obama era.”–RDL

Ash vs. Evil Dead Season 1 (Television, Starz, 2015-2016) After 30 years of relative quiet, badass butthead Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) once again reads from the Necronomicon, summoning Deadites and prompting an alliance with two young proteges. Gleefully spins the gore, cartoonishness and frights of the second movie, plus the characterization of Ash from the third, into the series format.–RDL

The Ghost Army of World War II (Nonfiction, Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles, 2015) History of the US Army’s WWII deception unit, the 23rd Headquarters Special Troop, which recruited artists, engineers and audio experts to trick the Germans into attacking imaginary units represented by inflatable tanks, recordings, and other camouflage techniques. Hybrid of art book and military history beautifully showcases the drawings and watercolors the unit’s many inveterate sketchers, including Ellsworth Kelly, Art Singer and even some comic artists, made during the conflict.–RDL

The Incendiary: the Misadventures of John the Painter, the First Modern Terrorist (Nonfiction, Jessica Warner, 2005) Reconstruction of the life and crimes of James Aitken, a young Scottish loner who in 1776 and 1777 set fires in the naval yards of Plymouth and Portsmouth in solidarity with the hated Americans. Convincingly researched account of a drift into ideological violence driven by a still-familiar psych profile, told with refreshing spareness.–RDL

The Interestings (Fiction, Meg Wolitzer, 2013) Friendships formed at an arts summer camp set a woman on a path balanced between love and envy, from Watergate to Facebook. Bullseye social details and authentic characterizations tied together by a narrative voice that isn’t afraid to be either omniscient or acerbic.—RDL

Jackie (Film, Chile/France/US, Pablo Larrain, 2016) Jackie Kennedy (Natalie Portman), furious with grief in the hours and days after her husband’s assassination, plans his funeral. An affecting emotional trajectory, driven by a tour de force performance, becomes an origin story of American myth-making.–RDL

Zootopia (Film, US, Byron Howard and Rich Moore, 2016) First rabbit cop on the force (voiced by Ginnifer Goodwin) teams with smooth-talking fox con artist (Jason Bateman) to crack a missing otter case. Cleverly applies world-building principles to a Carl Barksian funny animal setting as it delivers a surprisingly layered take on bigotry.–RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Spicy Start to 2017

January 3rd, 2017 | 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 our podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

The Book of Spice: From Anise to Zedoary (Nonfiction, John O’Connell, 2016) Alphabetical entries cook up the erudition on spices as history, fable, remedy and, oh yes, food. Covers everything from the deadly snakes reputed to swarm in pepper trees, to the murderous rapacity of the spice trade, to the flavorings preferred by The Canterbury Tales’ cook. Did you know that when a mummy attacks, you should be able to tell it’s on its way from the smell of cinnamon, pine resin and bitumen? OK well that one’s an extrapolation on my part but you get the idea.—RDL

Finders Keepers (Film, US, Bryan Carbery and Clay Tweel, 2015) In North Carolina, a custody battle erupts over an amputated calf and foot, between the man who lost it in a small plane crash and the wannabe-Barnum who found it in a cooker bought at a storage container contents auction. Documentary finds pain and pathos behind the surface black humor of a weird news story.—RDL

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (Film, New Zealand, Taika Waititi, 2016) After the sudden death of his loving new foster mom, a precocious delinquent (Julian Dennison) winds up a backwoods fugitive, along with her cranky widower (Sam Neill.) Sweet and funny outlaw pursuit flick finds Waititi widening his visual scope.—RDL

Maggie’s Plan (Film, US, Rebecca Miller, 2015) Sweetly controlling woman (Greta Gerwig), realizing that marrying a charming academic (Ethan Hawke) has allowed him to actualize into his full self-centeredness, contrives a scheme to return him to his high-strung ex-wife (Julianne Moore). Urbane NYC comedy of manners artfully bounces its stars’ established personae off of one another. Moore portrays her twitchy cultural theorist as if Madeline Kahn had played Maude Lebowski, but with a sympathetic emotional core few actors would even shoot for.—RDL

Other People (Film, US, Chris Kelly, 2016) Comedy writer (Jesse Plemons) returns home to help care for his terminally ill mom (Molly Shannon), neglecting to tell his family that he’s just broken up with his longtime boyfriend. Beautifully balanced between character comedy and drama, with skilled direction eliciting the best from a great cast. Shannon in particular gives a career-best performance.—RDL

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (Film, US, Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, 2016) As homefront interest in the Afghan war wanes, an acerbic TV journalist (Tina Fey) tries to pry herself from a career rut with an assignment to Kabul. The decision to frame the proceedings as an observational comedy, abetted by winning turns from Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman and a calmly scene-stealing Billy Bob Thornton, brings a fresh spark to the usual structure of the war correspondent sub-genre.—RDL

Good

Elvis & Nixon (Film, US, Liza Johnson, 2016) Although Michael Shannon’s weirdly disconnected Elvis is actually capable of holding the spotlight with Kevin Spacey’s manic Nixon, and a strong supporting cast backs them up, the movie doesn’t really know what it wants to do when it gets to the iconic moment. It’s not long enough for that to be a real problem, but it steps on its own mythology too much to be its own justification. –KH

La La Land (Film, US, Damien Chazelle, 2016) Actress Mia (Emma Stone) and jazz pianist Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) meet in Los Angeles while chasing impossible dreams in an old-school musical that also aims to be an old-school city symphony, an old-school romance, and an old-school showbiz picture. It almost squares the circle of “fresh nostalgia,” and looks great throughout regardless. –KH

Okay

Rounding the Mark (Fiction, Andrea Camilleri, 2007) Irascible, food-obsessed Police Inspector Salvo Montalbano finds a link between a waterlogged corpse and a child trafficking ring. There comes a time in every mystery series’ life where what was once taut goes slack, and judging from prose style and plotting this appears to be that point for this one.–RDL

Not Recommended

Phantom of the Theatre (Film, China/HK, Raymond Yip, 2016) In 30s Shanghai, a warlord’s son finds that life mirrors art, plus spontaneous combustion murders, when he directs a romantic ghost movie in a haunted theater. This bid to refashion the HK ghost genre into something sensible enough to support a lavish production might just work, if lead Tony Yang had screen presence to go with those cheekbones of his.—RDL

Ire-Inspiring

La La Land (Film, US, Damien Chazelle, 2016) Aspiring actress falls for struggling jazz pianist. As in his better wrought Whiplash, Chazelle presents an ethos in which creative recognition is the only thing that matters—here in a slow-starting quasi-musical where the leads sing and dance effortfully, the characters don’t deserve the sympathy the script extends to them, and the songs fade into memory on impact.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Fixers, Palookas, Gaslighters and Star Warriors

December 27th, 2016 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

Creed (Film, US, Ryan Coogler, 2015) Illegitimate son of Apollo, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) seeks out Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) to train him as a boxer, and in a reprise of the original, takes his shot when the world champion (real-life boxer Tony Bellew) picks him for a bum-of-the-month publicity payday. The Rocky series has always been, appropriately, A-treatments of B-movies, and this seventh installment is no exception. (Unlike Rocky V.) Cliche becomes legend, and the cycle finally gets a mythically appropriate conclusion. –KH

The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany (Nonfiction, Donald E. Westlake, 2014) Levi Stahl of the University of Chicago Press has assembled this too-short collection of Westlake (and briefly, Richard Stark) writing about crime fiction, writing, and Donald Westlake. If you appreciate any of those three you appreciate all of those three, and so too this book. –KH

Julieta (Film, Spain, Pedro Almodovar, 2016) Woman recalls the tragic events that led her daughter to mysteriously break off all contact with her. Fuses three Alice Munro stories into a melodrama drenched in passion, menace, and color–qualities that no one but Almodovar would find in her material.–RDL. Seen at TIFF16; now in North American theatrical release.

Murder Me For Nickels (Fiction, Peter Rabe, 1960) Slightly loopy yet completely straight hard-boiled crime novel features the fixer for a juke-box racket getting caught in his ambitions — romantic and professional — when the Chicago Outfit starts muscling in. The dialogue and prose are weirdly and beautifully clipped, like drunken telegraphy. –KH

Total Balalaika Show (TV Special, Finland, MTV3, 1993) Following the recent tragic death of 64 members of  the Alexandrov Ensemble, someone has uploaded all 107 minutes of Finnish TV footage of their wonderful, giddy 1993 Helsinki Senate Square performance with the Finnish rock’n’roll art project Leningrad Cowboys. Indifferent sound mixing mars some of the music, but nonetheless the special captures that glorious, larger-than-history moment. Watch it with joy before it vanishes again into night and fog. –KH

Good

Aleister & Adolf (Comics, Douglas Rushkoff & Michael Avon Oeming, 2016) Media theorist Rushkoff’s take on the hoary fable of Crowley working (and Working) against Hitler in WWII catches Oeming in an inventive mood that feeds the theme of warring Signs and Sigils. Too many of the details are wrong or elided in the name of pacing to make this a classic of the genre, but its signal still beats its noise. –KH

Asylum (Nonfiction, William Seabrook, 1935) Seabrook turns his patented jazzy, ethnographic eye upon the doctors and inmates at Bloomingdale Insane Asylum, where he had himself committed in 1933 to cure his own alcoholism. Useful but not mandatory for Trail of Cthulhu Keepers. –KH

Rogue One (Film, US, Gareth Edwards, 2016) Criminal vagabond (Felicity Jones) embittered by the kidnapping of her scientist father (Mads Mikkelsen) gets a chance to rescue him from the Empire’s Death Star project. Too overstuffed with characters to give the hero’s transformational arc the screen time it needs to register emotionally. It is bracing though to see a Star Wars film that isn’t trying to evoke the feel and style of the original, going so far as to place itself in an entirely different moral universe.—RDL

Okay

The Saint (Film, US, Philip Noyce, 1997) Buried somewhere in this $70 million misfire is a charming spy film starring Val Kilmer as an updated version of Leslie Charteris’ suave mercenary thief. Despite some great Moscow locations and one or two good caper bits, the sputtering action and vague characterization combine to display the limitations of the script. –KH

Not Recommended

Chase a Crooked Shadow (Film, UK, Michael Anderson, 1958) Heiress (Anne Baxter) struggles to maintain her grip when a man (Richard Todd) shows up at her Spanish villa claiming to be her dead brother. Dialogue-driven suspense film with one of those misconceived twist endings that punishes the viewer for identifying with its protagonist.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Galaxies Far Far Away and Also Regular Far Away

December 20th, 2016 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

Recommended

All These Worlds Are Yours (Nonfiction, Jon Willis, 2016) Succinct yet meaty tour of the various likely spots to look for extraterrestrial life, and the costs and difficulties associated with finding them. Spoiler: Willis is an Enceladus man. Bonus points for dropping the boring personal anecdotes required by editors of popular science books in favor of the occasional witty aside.—RDL

The Mermaid (Film, China, Stephen Chow, 2016) Guileless young woman falls for the environment-despoiling tycoon her fellow merfolk have sent her to assassinate. A big CGI budget gives Chow all the resources he needs to precision-execute his Chuck Jones riffs in this comedy-fantasy-actioner. Those unsteeped in the rapidfire tone shifts of the Hong Kong movie tradition may be taken aback by its veer from slapstick violence to distressingly bloody violence.—RDL

Neruda (Film, Chile, Pablo Larrain, 2016) Cynical secret policeman (Gael Garcia Bernal) hunts politician-poet Pablo Neruda after the Chilean government issues a warrant for his arrest in 1947. Magical-realist manhunt biopic shot in the blues and purples of a faded photograph.—RDL. Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in North American theatrical release.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Film, US, Gareth Edwards, 2016) In cold rationality, this is a Good war movie bumped up a rank by the presence of AT-ATs and similar delightful Empire chic. The story sprawls a lot, and with the exception of Donnie Yen’s wannabe Jedi and Alan Tudyk’s smartmouth droid, the characters never come to even Hammill-level life. But Edwards can shoot fights and apocalypses well, which is what matters here. –KH

Good

Showrunners: The Art of Running a TV Show (Film, Ireland, Des Doyle, 2014) Anecdote-rich documentary casts a wide net of interviews, but hauls in a basic primer on the topic with little focus or direction. It’s enjoyable while you’re watching it, but it doesn’t really say or illuminate anything except “showrunning is hard work” and “showbiz is a lottery,” which most viewers probably knew already. –KH

Okay

The Fade Out, Volume 1 (Comic, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, 2015) Screenwriter prone to alcoholic blackouts goes about his business after finding a murdered starlet in his apartment. Brings in all the requisite elements for a 50s-set Hollywood noir, but saddles itself with a passive, checked-out protagonist who drifts through scenes instead of driving them.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: An Extra Moon and a Bottle of Wine

December 13th, 2016 | 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

An African Millionaire: Episodes in the Life of the Illustrious Colonel Clay (Fiction, Grant Allen, 1897) Pompous, avaricious diamond magnate becomes the repeated victim of a wily master-of-disguise con artist. Episodic caper tale, told from the point of the view of the marks, wields a wit as sharp as Vance or Wodehouse in its delightful trashing of capitalist mores. What a sad reflection on the gatekeepers of CanLit that I had to learn about this Kingston-born author from my arch-Chicagoan partner in crime!–RDL

Recommended

French Foreign Legion 1831-71 (Osprey Men-at-Arms 509) (Nonfiction, Martin Windrow, 2016) Although the discussion of the Legion’s organization, history, and equipment (in special detail) is up to the Osprey standard, this volume really stands out for its use of period art. Well-selected contemporary sketches, paintings, and even photographs bring the subject to life. –KH

Jacob’s Creek Moscato Rose (Wine, Australia, 2015) It is a Thing I Always Say that rose does not exclusively belong to the summertime but rather embodies the celebratory spirit of the holidays. Moscato is sweet; rose is usually sweet and this bubbly, ultra-quaffable frizzante is super sweet. A treat on its own or can cut through the fat coating all those festive snacks leave on the tongue. Inexpensive, and at 7.5% ABV lets you drink nearly as much of it as you want and still remember the lyrics to Good King Wenceslas.–RDL

Pirate Utopia (Fiction, Bruce Sterling, 2016) Alternate history diverges in 1919 with the arrival of the Pirate Engineer in d’Annunzio’s poetic-Futurist dictatorship in the Adriatic city of Fiume, although lots of other changes bubble up at the same time, such as H.P. Lovecraft becoming an advance-man for the U.S. Secret Service. Sterling never really advances his plot, preferring to curvette around the larger question of the appeal of fascism, but this trip to slightly-alternate Fiume is worth booking. The John Coulthart design and illustrations kick the book up to Recommended. –KH

The Pnume (Fiction, Jack Vance, 1970), Stranded spaceman Adam Reith frees himself from alien trophy hunters with the forced assistance of a young woman they have been keeping in a chemically induced prepubescence. The final installment of the series formerly known as Planet of Adventure sounds some minor key notes, with an unusually complicated (for Vance) relationship taking focus over pulp action.

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Nonfiction, Peter Frankopan, 2015) Perhaps better subtitled “The Same Old History of the World From a Different Perspective,” Frankopan’s book re-centers the story of the West on Persia and Central Asia, rather than on the Mediterranean. China remains a sideshow, the Huns are but noted in passing, and even the Persian Empire is rather under-rated. So why Recommended? Because where Frankopan does focus — e.g., the early medieval slave trade, the Anglo-Persian oil contest, and currency fluctuations throughout — he brings capacious research and yes, a different perspective. –KH

What If the Earth Had Two Moons? (Nonfiction, Neil F. Comins, 2010) The sequel to Comins’ What If the Moon Didn’t Exist? continues his tradition of smuggling astrophysics in as alternate history. More a book of planetary mechanics than anything else, it still provides ten great set-ups for SFnal worlds and (usually) justifies the pulpier sort of parallel. Sadly, the Counter-Earth moves into a Lagrange point, ruining that particular lovely madness. –KH

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