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Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Dutch Land Forces and Off-Brand Klingons

February 13th, 2018 | 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

Dutch Armies of the 80 Years’ War 1568-1648 (2 vols; Osprey Men-at-Arms 510 & 513) (Nonfiction, Bouko de Groot, 2017) Europe’s first and longest national War of Independence dragged in fighters from Elizabethan poets to Tupi Indians, but most people think of the Dutch as only a maritime force. These two books, magnificently illustrated from period sources and modern paintings (by Gerry Embleton) in the Osprey tradition, turn the focus to the land forces from infantry (Book 1) to cavalry, artillery, and engineers (Book 2). Inspirational and research gold for players and GMs of “early modern” adventure RPGs such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess or (ahem) The School of Night. –KH

Nothing is True and Everything is Possible (Nonfiction, Peter Pomerantsev, 2014) British son of Russian dissident parents gets a gig with a Moscow hipster TV station, leading to encounters with gangsters, professional mistresses, propagandists, corruption victims, and cultists. Acute evocation of character and place adds animates this view of postmodern authoritarianism, as seen from its spawning ground.—RDL

Good

The League of Gentlemen (Film, UK, Basil Dearden, 1960) Ex-army officer (Jack Hawkins) assembles a team of ne’er-do-well former military types to execute a daring bank robbery. The rigorous constraints of the heist genre structure immortalize the stoic ethos of pre-Beatles Britain.—RDL

The Ritual (Film, UK, David Bruckner, 2017) Four British bros on a hiking tour through Sweden in memory of their dead friend take the proverbial wrong turn through the dark dark woods and yes there is a creepy cabin. Bruckner’s spooky, cold, god’s-eye direction is the best thing here; Joe Barton’s script (loosely from a novel by Adam Nevill) commits no egregious sins but neither does it really do anything interesting; Rafe Spall would be better served if his character was one of four instead of the only one we get to know. –KH

Star Trek: Discovery Season 1 (Television, US, CBS, 2016-2017) Disgraced Starfleet commander (Sonequa Martin-Green) receives a surprise career reprieve from a surprisingly ruthless starship captain (Jason Isaacs) helming a super-weapon ship during the first Federation-Klingon war. A split between a front half full of apparently oddball, deliberately jarring choices that pay off as curveballs in the superior back half make this season hard to evaluate. I guess I’ll take advantage of a low bar, then, and say that this still beats all other latter-day Trek first seasons.—RDL

Okay

Crack-Up (Film, US, Irving Reis, 1946) Hardboiled art expert (Pat O’Brien) tries to prove he really was in a train wreck only he recalls, uncovering a sinister conspiracy at the Manhattan Museum. Fun character actor turns and touches of Val Lewton atmosphere number among the energetic distractions from the script’s higgledy-piggledy construction. With Claire Trevor, Herbert Marshall and Ray Collins; partially based on a story by golden age SF writer Fredric Brown.—RDL

Ire-Inspiring

The Deer Hunter (Film, US, Michael Cimino, 1978) Trio of Russian-American steelworkers (Robert DeNiro, Christopher Walken, John Savage) plunge from the insular shelter of their working class Ohio town into the violent madness of the VietNam war. A first act of masterful social observation gives way to the pernicious, in which every Vietnamese or Chinese character is alien and depraved, and the VietNam conflict matters only as an test of American innocence. Boy though that Vilmos Zsigmond sure could photograph stuff.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Velvets and Vourdalaks

February 6th, 2018 | 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

Phantom Thread (Film, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) A young woman (Vicky Krieps). the latest mode//lover to a tempermental fashion designer (Daniel Day Lewis), determines to surmount his plethora of emotional barriers, many of them abetted by his sister/business partner (Lesley Manville.) Sumptuous, sly exploration of the roles power and dependency play in love.—RDL

Recommended

Birdland (Film, Canada, Peter Lynch, 2018) Cop undergoes  interrogation when her ornithologist husband is implicated in the murder of his mistress. Deconstructed crime drama with stylized acting, set in a version of Cronenberg’s noir Toronto updated to our new architectural era of coldly illuminated glass and steel.—RDL

The Night of the Devils (Film, Italy, Giorgio Ferroni, 1972) When his car breaks down in a remote Geman forest, a blindly rational lumber buyer takes refuge with a family of recluses just as they start to systematically vampirize one another. Modernized adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak combines the literary atmospherics of the 60s gothic cycle with 70s gore and nudity.—RDL

Rocco and His Brothers (Film, Italy, Luchino Visconti, 1960) Strife tears apart a family of impoverished southern migrants to Milan when two of the brothers, violent wastrel Simone (Renato Salvatori) and saintly-to-a-fault Rocco (Alain Delon), in turn become involved with a worldly streetwalker (Annie Girardot.) Neorealist drama takes its time to set up its core situation, in a pacing choice showing its origins as a novel adaptation. Hold off on buying a copy until the freshly restored pristine 4K print appears on disc.—RDL

Good

Playing Dead: a Journey Through the World of Death Fraud (Nonfiction, Elizabeth Greenwood, 2016) The author researches people who fake their demises and the investigators who track them down, then travels to the Philippines to acquire her own death certificate. Tour of the logistical and psychological limitations of pseudocide deals out its facts in a voice both confessional and tongue-in-cheek.—RDL

Not Recommended

Maudie (Film, Canada/Ireland, Aisling Walsh, 2017) Withdrawn woman (Sally Hawkins) breaks from her family’s protective disregard to move in with a reclusive fishmonger (Ethan Hawke), becoming an internationally recognized folk artist. Biopic of painter Maud Lewis arouses pity not for the characters, but for the actors, whose director betrays them by calling “print” on labored, tic-ridden performances. Canadian films often sentimentally idealize rural life or depict it as a grotesque hell; this does both!—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Giallo, Poliziotteschi and Mythic Churchill

January 30th, 2018 | 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 Bay of Blood (Film, Italy, Mario Bava, 1971) Rival schemes for control of a valuable seaside property trigger a cascade of gruesome slayings. Marxist-nihilist giallo gives Bava a flesh-rending pretext to indulge his flair for pure cinema. The largely standalone second act, lifted from its surroundings, becomes the template for Friday the 13th and its host of slasher flick imitators. Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve. —RDL

Caliber 9 (Film, Italy, Fernando di Leo, 1972) As Milan’s cops argue politics from the sidelines, a pardoned gangster resists the intimidation of ruthless money smugglers who think he stole $300,000 from them. Briskly brutal poliziotteschi with an eye for mod style and a dizzying third act that sucker-punches you right in the genre expectations.—RDL

Cartoon County (Nonfiction, Cullen Murphy, 2017) Vanity Fair editor (and former Prince Valiant writer) Murphy memorializes his cartoonist father John Cullen Murphy, artist of Big Ben Bolt and the post-Foster Prince Valiant, in the context of the cartoonists’ Fiddler’s Green that was postwar Fairfield County, Connecticut. There are better historians of comics, but few better writers, than Cullen Murphy in a pensive mood. –KH

Darkest Hour (Film, UK, Joe Wright, 2017) Wright’s playful cinematisms don’t shift this uncomplicated, not to say bald, narrative of national resolve that could as easily have been made in 1940 as in 2018, except that in 1940 it would have been about the Spanish Armada not WWII. Gary Oldman inhabits an iconic-hero version of Winston Churchill, in a larger-than-true-life performance that by itself justifies this 21st-century exercise in mythography. –KH

I Am Not Your Negro (Film, Switzerland/France, Raoul Peck, 2016) Documentary profile of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin uses period interviews and excerpts from an unpublished work about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and MLK to present his thoughts on the mythologies that justify black oppression. Skips the supplementary talking heads you’d expect from the format to power itself on to subtly layered narration by Samuel L. Jackson and an apt selection of archival and contemporary footage.—RDL

Yakuglas’ Legacy: the Art and Times of Charlie James (Nonfiction, Ronald W. Hawker, 2016) Survey of the style and influence of Charlie James (1867-1937), a key carver of masks and totems from the West Coast Kwakwaka’wakw people. Covers the ways in which his work and career adjusted to the Canadian government’s 1921 outlawing of the potlatch ceremony and confiscation of its ritual objects. Scholarly but accessible study provides insights into Kwakwaka’wakw mythology and James’ parallel efforts creating works for ceremonial use and for sale to outside collectors.—RDL

Good

My Friend Dahmer (Film, US, Marc Meyers, 2017) Teen outcast Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) becomes the ‘mascot’ of a clique of teen outsiders led by aspiring cartoonist John Backderf (Alex Wolff). In adapting Derf’s excellent graphic novel memoir, Meyers unwisely moves the center of the film from Derf’s adolescent cruelty to Dahmer’s unknowable void; the result is a movie that depends entirely on audience knowledge to really work. However, Lynch’s surprising physical acting turn as Jeff, Dallas Roberts’ heart-breaking performance as Jeff’s incapable father, and some really fine Seventies-esque color and camera work from Daniel Katz add enough to the scales to bump it to Good. –KH

Not Recommended

The Post (Film, US, Steven Spielberg, 2017) As Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) nervously shepherds a public offering for the company, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) plays furious catch-up after the New York Times’ Pentagon Papers scoop. From a Creedence-blaring Nam opener to final shots out of a film noir parody, it’s the full cornball Spielberg who shows up to work for this one. Streep is a ham now and Hanks is worse.—RDL

The Shiver of the Vampires (Film, France, Jean Rollin, 1971) Honeymooners take a detour to a castle owned by the bride’s cousins, where they are preyed upon by its resident bloodsuckers. So, I decided to fill in a hole in my genre film awareness and check out a sample work by this divisive director of arty horror sexploitation. Conclusion: a groovy goth-surf score and an appealing color sense do not outweigh somnolent pacing, rudimentary plotting, pseudo-academic lecture breaks and community theater-level acting. If you’re watching this in 1973 at 3 AM in a dusk to dawn drive-in screening while stoned, sleep-deprived and making out with a hot date in the front seat of a Chevy Impala, upgrade to Okay.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Oscar Noms are Fine, Paul Thomas Anderson, But Here’s the Real Accolade

January 23rd, 2018 | 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

Phantom Thread (Film, US, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) Couturier to the 1950s London elite Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) adds a new lover/model to his ensemble, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Her refusal to be relegated to backdrop, and the interplay of both with Reynolds’ sister/manager Cyril (Leslie Manville) drive the strangely Gothic comedy or arch drama to its sublime conclusion. Jonny Greenwood’s score and (of course) Mark Bridges’ costumes deepen and perfect this work of art about the work of art. –KH

Wormwood (Television, US, Errol Morris, Netflix) Through the eyes of the son who has never let it go, this documentary series probes into the 1953 death by defenestration of military research scientist Frank Olson, long linked to MK-ULTRA, the CIA program of LSD experimentation. Morris continues to expand the formal boundaries of the documentary, here using collage, mulit-cam split screen and dramatization sequences that use the full palette of cinema, from score and composition to the casting of such stellar actors as Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker and Tim Blake Nelson. Through these devices he brings forth a profound emotional resonance that could easily have gone missing amid the story’s labyrinthine layers of conspiracy.—RDL

Recommended

Freak Out!: My Life with Frank Zappa (Nonfiction, Pauline Butcher, 2013) Memoir recounts counterculture chaos and personal intrigue that come with her job as personal secretary to the iconoclastic purveyor of hyper-sexualized jazz-rock-classical music from 1967-1970. Evocative inside view of its time and place retains an affection for its central figure even as it punctures his pseudointellectualism and hippie-era chauvinism.—RDL

Love, Nina (Nonfiction, Nina Stibbe, 2013) Young woman’s sparklingly snarky letters to her sister recount her life as a nanny to a literary family. Everyday moments from 80s London become compulsively readable thanks to the writer’s pinpoint comic ear and willingness to make herself look as nutty as anyone else she portrays. With guest appearances from such neighbors as Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.—RDL

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (Nonfiction, Marlene Zuk, 2013) Evolutionary biologist surveys recent research challenging simplistic conceptions of early human existence and their supposed application to diet, exercise and gender roles today. Learn about the great ear wax divide, the anti-AIDS gene the Vikings spread, and the great overarching lesson of science: “uh, it’s complicated.” Although Zuk engages in a bit of straw-manning by poking fun at paleo beliefs as expressed by random internet commenters, those bits are more about comic relief than persuasion, so I’ll allow it.—RDL

Satan’s Town (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1956) When cruel yakuza boss Ohba (Ichiro Sugai) escapes from prison, honor compels his underling Hayasaki (Seizaburo Kawazu) to help him get enough money to flee to Hong Kong. Suzuki must have decided to jam as many noir elements as he could into his third film (his first yakuza picture) and that over-fullness feeds his innovation and experimentation in editing and shot composition. –KH

Okay

Harbor Toast: Victory in My Hands (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1956) Suzuki’s first film (also known as Victory is Mine) has flashes of interest and some neat framing shots, but it’s just a bog-standard B-picture about a jockey whose brother (a beached sailor) helps him out of a jam when he falls for a gangster’s woman. Bump it up to Good if you’re keen to spot the emerging genius in this factory film beginning. –KH

Proud Mary (Film, US, Babak Najafi, 2018) Taraji P. Henson does a creditable job as the titular Mary, an assassin for Danny Glover’s mob who impulsively starts a gang war with the Russians over a 12-year-old boy (Jahi Di’Allo). But even decent acting chops mean nothing slathered in murky lighting; the lackluster fight choreography and dull score slow this wan attempt at modern blaxploitation way down when it should be kicking out the jams. –KH

Fascinatingly Terrible

A Lady Without Passport (Film, US, Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) Risk-taking immigration officer (John Hodiak) on undercover assignment in Cuba investigates a sinister people smuggler (George Macready) and falls for a glamourous Buchenwald survivor (Hedy Lamarr.) Lewis (Gun Crazy) directs the hell out of a script that takes one weirdo turn after another in its struggle with the sympathy issues endemic to movies with immigration cop heroes. It must also be said that any film where George Macready plays an oily villain becomes automatically good whenever he occupies the screen.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Golem and a Gill-Man

January 16th, 2018 | 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) Impelled from childhood to prove himself with his fists, Apollo Creed’s son (Michael B. Jordan) quits his white collar job and moves to Philadelphia in hopes that a reluctant Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) will train him as a boxer. Coogler invests the dramatic bits with a refreshing honesty and naturalism, then demonstrates a similar mastery when the film climbs into the ring.—RDL

The Good Place Season 1 (Television, US, NBC, Michael Schur, 2016) Through a cosmic oversight, selfish telemarketer Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a cheerfully whimsical afterlife, overseen by a kindly, bow-tied immortal entity (Ted Danson.) Hard to think of anyone other than Schur who could pull off a delightful network sitcom that doubles as a 101 course on moral philosophy. William Jackson Harper is a particular revelation, pulling off the always difficult straight man role with precision and aplomb.—RDL

The Limehouse Golem (Film, UK, Juan Carlos Medina, 2017) In 1880, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) of Scotland Yard investigates the serial killer called the “Limehouse Golem,” and comes to believe that accused poisoner Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) holds the key. Scriptwriter Jane Goodman pulls off a tour de force adapting Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant original novel, which alludes not just to the Ripper but to the Ratcliff Highway murders, the Maybrick poisoning, and the whole “London tapestry.” Douglas Booth superbly plays (historical) transvestite comedian Dan Leno, the unlikely axis around which film and novel both pivot. –KH

The Shape of Water (Film, US, Guillermo del Toro, 2017) Sweet but lonely custodian (Sally Hawkins) develops a covert bond with a gill-man imprisoned at the Cold War scientific installation where she works as a custodian, placing her in danger with its brutal security chief (Michael Shannon.) Dark adult fairy tale reminds us that del Toro’s best ally is a tight script. A couple of years I might have dinged this a notch for obviousness, but what used to be heavy-handed allegory is now social realism.—RDL

Tokyo Drifter (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1966) Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a deadly but reformed yakuza, must leave Tokyo to ensure the safety of his substitute father, former yakuza lord Kurata (Ryuji Kita), and the singer who loves him (Chieko Matsubara). Foes hunt Tetsu through increasingly heightened settings until the final insane shootout in a surrealistic white-painted nightclub. Suzuki responded to the constraints of budget and genre not just with the aforementioned surreal collage but by editing a film with a manga sensibility, a scene’s (or shot’s) action abruptly stopping once its “panel” has conveyed the story beat. –KH

Zero K (Fiction, Don DeLillo, 2016) A man who drifts between challenging but uninvolving jobs travels to a transhumanist outpost in Central Asia, where his ultra-rich father and terminally ill stepmother have made plans for her cryogenic preservation. Hypnotically compelling futurist vision, in which DeLillo demonstrates that your protagonist can be a passive observer if what’s being observed is sufficiently compelling. In a genre novel you’d be waiting for the mutants to break out of the secret lab and start eating people but this is a literary novel so you’re not.—RDL

Good

The Anderson Tapes (Film, US, Sidney Lumet, 1971) Just-released ex-con burglar Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) decides to rob the ritzy apartment building his girlfriend (Dyan Cannon) lives in and assembles a crew (including Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken) unaware that his every move is being taped or filmed or both by the FBI, IRS, BNDD, HUAC, and a private detective agency. Lumet doesn’t do much with the surveillance motif (which was admittedly a gimmick even in the original novel) except clog up an otherwise terrific heist movie packed with great character actor turns. –KH

XTC: This is Pop (Film, UK, Roger Penny & Charlie Thomas, 2017) Career survey of the group behind such hits as “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Dear God,” and “Peter Pumpkinhead,” bookended by a hilarious anti-rockumentary rant by bandleader Andy Partridge. I was surprised to discover that they didn’t break in the US until “Dear God,” because they were big here in the tasteful wilds of Torontoland from the first album on.—RDL

Okay

Hostiles (Film, US, Scott Cooper, 2017) In 1892, U.S. Cavalry captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana. Cooper tries and fails to blend the cavalry Western with the nihilist road movie against majestic (albeit familiar) scenery beautifully lensed by Masanobu Takayanaki. Bale’s acting, and that of Rosamund Pike as a widow Blocker rescues along the way, try and fail to wring meaning from a facile story. –KH

I, Tonya (Film, US, Craig Gillespie, 2017) Casting figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as both harbinger of and scapegoat for America’s descent into folly, Gillespie wants to have his cake and eat it too: mock Harding and her possible co-conspirators as white trash idiots, while exalting her postmodern “truth” as the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and mother (Allison Janney). The result is a moral hash that also suffers from the standard flaws of the Worst Genre (the biopic); occasional stabs at meta-narration don’t add dimension or diversion to the story. Robbie and Janney’s performances carry the film on their backs, but it’s barely worth the effort. –KH

Kong: Skull Island (Film, US, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) In the wake of the US pullout from Vietnam, a joint scientific/military survey of an uncharted island arouses the ire of its guardian, a titanic ape. Overstuffs its mix of disaster movie ethos and Apocalypse Now references with so many characters it forgets to make any of them its protagonist, coming to life only when John C. Reilly’s grizzled survivor character occupies the screen.—RDL

Not Recommended

7 Sisters (Film, UK/France/Belgium, Tommy Wirkola, 2017) Septuplets who pose as a single person (all played by Noomi Rapace) one day of the week apiece risk exposure in a totalitarian future Europe that ruthlessly enforces a one-child policy. Anti-abortion SF action thriller racks up a kill count not unlike Wirkola’s Dead Snow, but here it’s happening not to cartoonishly drawn dolts but to sympathetic characters played with grounded intensity by a compelling actor, to glumly punishing effect. Alternate title: What Happened To Monday.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Vodka and Other Toxins

January 9th, 2018 | 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

Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Film, US, S. Craig Zahler, 2017) Drug runner, badass, and devoted husband Bradley (Vince Vaughn) finds his options steadily closed off for the first three quarters of the film, until the titular brawl explodes bloodily and cathartically on screen. Superbly paced film feels much shorter than its 132-minute run time, while still providing Vaughn with more than enough space to inhabit Bradley’s stoicism. –KH

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris (Nonfiction, Holly Tucker, 2017) Police official Nicolas de La Reynie investigates a conspiracy implicating two of Louis XIV’s mistresses in a poisoning ring. Well-told popular history vividly evokes time and place while finding a clear narrative path through a notoriously twisty scandal. Unlike our Affair of the Poisons coverage, Tucker treats the occultism angle as a side issue, focusing instead on crime and punishment in Paris and sexual intrigue in the Sun King’s court.—RDL

Diabolical Fantasia: The Art of Der Orchideengarten: 1919 (Nonfiction, Thomas Negovan, 2017) The German magazine The Orchid Garden was Weird Tales before Weird Tales, only full of Weimar panache as well as Gothic grue. The art, here reproduced beautifully from the magazine’s first year, runs from the Gluyas Williams-esque cartoons of Paul Neu to moody linework by Rolf von Hoerschelmann and Heinrich Kley to poster weirdness from Otto Muck. It’s a little small for an art book, but it’s worth the price. –KH

Imperial Roman Warships 193-565 AD (Osprey New Vanguard #244) (Nonfiction, Raffaele D’Amato, 2017) With actual naval point defense, rather than pirate-chasing and river support, becoming necessary in late antiquity, Roman ships of the line evolved from classical triremes to the (liburnian-derived) faster, tougher dromon. Bolstered by an astonishing amount of period art and archaeological reconstructions, this should be your first stop for fantasy navies pre-gunpowder. –KH

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey (Nonfiction, Lawrence Osborne, 2013) The author tours the Islamic world to find out how hard it will be to drink there, prompting recollections of his devoted relationship to alcohol. Observes the world, and himself, with the acridity required from an upholder of the literary drinking man tradition.—RDL

Young & Beautiful (Film, France, Francois Ozon, 2013) 17-year-old (Marine Vach) escapes the smothering coziness of her bourgeois family to lead a double life as an escort. Naturalistic, though gorgeously lit, family drama observes its protagonist’s cryptic behavior from a careful remove.—RDL

Good

Bad Penny Blues (Fiction, Cathi Unsworth, 2009) Amid the first glimmerings of swinging London, an honest copper and a fashion designer prone to horrible psychic dreams conduct parallel investigations into a string of serial killings. Uncorrupted heroes and paranormal elements lighten the Ellroy-inspired strain of  British historical/political crime fiction established by The Long Firm and the Red Riding Quartet.—RDL

Luck-Key (Film, South Korea, Lee Gae-byok, 2016) Through a turn of events involving a slippery bathhouse floor and a locker key, a flailing would-be actor trades lives with an amnesiac rich guy, not realizing that he’s a hitman. Charming light comedy hobbled by an over-intrusive comic score. Remake of the Japanese film The Key of Life, which I would rate a notch higher than this.—RDL

Okay

Free Fire (Film, UK, Ben Wheatley, 2017) An outside beef between henchmen sours a gun deal, sparking an extended gunfight in a grotty warehouse. The formal constraints of a film devoted to a single-location shootout call for a bravura use of space that lies outside Wheatley’s interests. Sharper dialogue would have helped, too.—RDL

Lady Bird (Film, US, Greta Gerwig, 2017) Sacramento high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) struggles for identity and autonomy against the compulsively controlling impulses of her perpetually panicked mom (Laurie Metcalf). The generosity of Gerwig’s character writing and charm of Ronan’s performance go a long way to conceal the extent to which the script’s structure embraces the congenital failings of the Worst Genre, the coming of age tale.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: The Half of Jedi Ken Likes, Sriracha and Other Hot Takes

December 27th, 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

Lady Bird (Film, US, Greta Gerwig, 2017) Would-be free spirit Christine “Lady Bird” (Saoirse Ronan) and her hard-headed, hard-working mother (Laurie Metcalf) clash in this beautifully grounded teen coming-of-age film packed with genuinely human characters. Gerwig’s script and Ronan’s acting outdo each other to illuminate Lady Bird’s sometimes desperate random walk out of high school and out of Sacramento. As great as Ronan is, though, Metcalf is somehow even better. Gerwig’s relatively conventional two-shot setups are a bit static (Nick Houy’s staccato editing improves them mightily) but they capture the superb performances throughout, which is in fairness exactly what they should be doing. –KH

Recommended

The Breaking Point (Film, US, Michael Curtiz, 1950) Stubbornly independent war vet (John Garfield) struggles harder to hold onto his fishing tour boat than his marriage as he gets mixed up with criminals and a sultry party gal (Patricia Neal). Unlike Howard Hawks’ puckishly unfaithful adaptation of To Have and Have Not, Curtiz’s masterfully directed, strongly felt noirish drama evokes the themes and incident of the Hemingway novel.—RDL

Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers (Fiction, Tim Powers, 2017) Powers’ novels tend to outshine his sporadic short fiction, for all that the latter share the standard Powers obsessions with ghosts, Southern California, time travel, and hollow men. Baen has collected them in one volume, which is a bit of a muchness to read all at once (his collaborations here with James Blaylock include some welcome lightness of tone), but individual gems such as “Salvage and Demolition,” “Pat Moore,” “A Journey of Only Two Paces,” and “A Soul in a Bottle” are well worth savoring on their own. –KH

Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine (Nonfiction, Sarah Lohman, 2016) Historical gastronomist reveals the introduction and spread of US cooking staples black pepper, vanilla, chili powder, curry powder, garlic, soy sauce, MSG and sriracha. Chatty, reportorial account finds America caught in a cyclic internal struggle between its hunger for new tastes and its recurrent nativism.–RDL

Get Out (Film, US, Jordan Peele, 2017) Nothing in Peele’s assured horror update of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? matches his cold opening scene: the direction, music cue, black comedy, and weird tone are all perfect. But it gets close a few times, especially in the second act when Betty Gabriel is on screen as the oddly-behaving maid at Rose Armitage’s (Allison Williams) parents’ (Bradley Whitford and the great Catherine Keener) secluded mansion. White Rose has brought her black boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) home to meet her parents, and, well, you read the title. –KH

Peaky Blinders Season 1 (Television, UK, Stephen Knight, 2013) Confident, calculating and haunted WWI vet (Cillian Murphy) guides his Irish crime family to bigger and better things in Birmingham, defying a brutal and Belfast police inspector (Sam Neill) sent by Churchill to find a cache of stolen guns. Executes classic tropes of the family crime saga with a brisk disregard for usual TV writing stalling tactics.–RDL

Good

Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (Film, US, Werner Herzog, 2016) The master of the quirky, discursive essay-style documentary explores the impact of the Internet on society, covering angles ranging from game addicts to robotics pioneers.  Due to over-broad subject matter and reliance on polished speakers happy to serve up the Things They Always Say, Herzog’s trademark mix of doom, whimsy and materialistic mysticism floats around in search of a throughline.—RDL

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Film, US, Rian Johnson, 2017) The second film in the (first) Disney trilogy is actually two films. The Recommended one is interesting, exciting, and brave, featuring Rey (Daisy Ridley), her opposite number in the Force Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and their common master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). The Not Recommended one follows the self-immolating Resistance through a series of bad decisions and a completely wasted half hour on a casino planet straight from the prequels, with occasional sparks from Carrie Fisher’s Leia. Kylo Ren continues to own this franchise, and it’s a tribute to Driver’s performance and the strength of his story that I bump the movie as a whole up to Good. –KH

The Trip to Spain (Film, UK, Michael Winterbottom, 2017) The third installment of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s faux-documentary series serves up the familiar tasting menu of food porn, self-doubt, lush scenery, needling one-upmanship, and dueling celebrity impressions (Roger Moore and David Bowie are the standouts this time). This one doesn’t hit the downbeat as much as the previous films, perhaps because as our heroes age into their fifties, they’d prefer to joke and eat rather than introspect. (And who can blame them?) But it does leave the meal feeling a little light. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Bandit Lords, Jedi, and the CIA

December 19th, 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

Carol (Film, US, Todd Haynes, 2015) In the closeted 50s, an aspiring photographer with a passive streak (Rooney Mara) falls for a sophisticated woman (Cate Blanchett) embroiled in a custody battle with her soon-to-be-ex husband. Subtle drama marked by strong performances, a lovely use of muted color, and the director’s affinity for the period.—RDL

Cities of the Classical World (Nonfiction, Colin McEvedy, 2011) Following his unrivaled Atlas of World Population History, McEvedy began compiling data on and descriptions of 120 cities of the Greco-Roman ecumene (nothing east of Ctesiphon) for a comparative study left unfinished at his death. Featuring sketch maps of each city to the same scale, the book is necessarily uneven but nonetheless valuable and engaging. –KH

The Concubine (Film, Kim Dae-seung, South Korea, 2012) When a beautiful young bureaucrat’s daughter catches the eye of a prince, his murderously ambitious mother contrives to marry her off to her stepson, the king. Glossy, lurid tale of sex, violence and court intrigue dishes up a Korean counterpart to the Jacobean revenge tragedy.—RDL

The Grim Sleeper: The Lost Women of South Central (Nonfiction, Christine Pelisek, 2017) True crime account by the reporter who broke the case to the public follows the trail of victims left by appallingly prolific L.A. serial killer Lonnie Franklin Jr. Goes beyond the forensic horrors to cover the case’s social context and the experiences of victims’ families.—RDL

Marketa Lazarová (Film, Czechoslovakia, František Vlácil, 1967) In the 13th century Czech hinterland, a bandit lord’s sons kidnap a rival’s convent-bound daughter, arousing the attention of the German captain tasked to bring them to heel. Visually stark, aurally haunting epic of violence and innocence told in moody, elliptical fragments.—RDL

Star Wars: the Last Jedi (Film, US, Rian Johnson, 2017) As First Order ships corner the last of the Resistance, Rey attempts to persuade a reluctant Luke Skywalker to tutor her in the ways of the Jedi. Tasked with reconfiguring Empire, the thorniest of the original trilogy, Johnson serves up new variations on the requisite moral ambiguity, surprises, and a structure that moves from diffusion to convergence.—RDL

Wormwood (Television, US, Netflix, Errol Morris, 2017) In November 1953, bacteriologist Frank Olson fell to his death from the 13th floor of the Hotel Statler in New York. Morris combines documentary interviews with Olson’s son and other investigators, cinematic re-enactments (Peter Sarsgaard plays Olson), and visual collage for a trippy, murky journey through CIA skullduggery, LSD experiments, and very confidently asserted hearsay. Morris is a master at work, and everyone should know his tools. –KH

Good

Running on Karma (Film, HK, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2004) Psychic male stripper (Andy Lau) who can read auras sees the doom for a spunky junior detective (Cecilia Cheung) on the trail of a contortionist killer. An aggressively unlikely latex muscle suit wears Andy Lau in this paranormal police procedural turned Buddhist fable. To’s co-directing efforts with his screenwriting partner Wai usually set aside the former’s stoic control for the latter’s flamboyant plate-spinning, this time with extra gonzo results.—RDL

Okay

The Punisher Season 1 (Television, US, Netflix, Steve Lightfoot, 2017) Vigilante special op Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) uncovers the deeper reason for his family’s murder, an illegal CIA heroin ring, and (eventually) kills everyone involved with the dubious help of emo hacker Micro (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and incompetent DHS agent Madani (Amber Rose Revah). Episode 10 is magnificent; the rest is the now-standard Marvel-Netflix first-gear-only storytelling. The acting is also notably weak; only the terrific Bernthal and Deborah Ann Woll (reprising her Karen Page role) really enliven their characters. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Fincher Kings

December 12th, 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

Icarus (Film, US, Bryan Fogel, 2017) Cyclist/filmmaker Fogel embarks on a Morgan Spurlock-esque documentary in which he subjects himself to a doping routine, only to find his Russian medical advisor in the center of an international scandal that might have placed him on the FSB hit list. Fogel hits the documentarian’s jackpot of a story that explodes into something bigger during the shoot, and makes the most of it.—RDL

Mindhunter Season 1 (Television, US,  Netflix, Joe Penhall, 2017) If you liked David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac you will groove on this series (produced by Fincher, who directed four episodes) about the creation of the FBI’s serial killer profiling system in the 1970s. Although only Holt McCallany (as the gruff veteran agent, Bill Tench) and Cameron Britten (as serial killer Ed Kemper) rise above the prosaic characterization, the real star is (as so often with Fincher) the procedure. –KH

The Punisher Season 1 (Television, US, Netflix, Steve Lightfoot, 2017) Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal) discovers that he isn’t finished wiping out the people who killed his family, and forms a reluctant alliance with a computer hacker (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) to flush out the remaining conspirators. Ultra-violence and empathy go hand in glove, with Bernthal continuing to score as a humanized Punisher, and an unusually coherent structure for a Marvel/Netflix show, in which all the subplots pay off into the main narrative.—RDL

Wild Seed (Film, US, Brian G. Hutton, 1965) 17-year old (Celia Kaye) runs away from her New York home to find her biological father in L.A., learning the ropes of hitch-hiking and rail-riding from a handsome young drifter (a fresh-faced and tenor-toned Michael Parks.) Existential road romance shot about twelve seconds before the advent of the counterculture features sympathetic characterization, a lush jazz score and gorgeous black and white location photography by Conrad Hall. The only element holding this back from unheralded masterpiece status is Kaye’s valiant struggle to meet the demands of the material.—RDL

Good

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (Film, US, David Fincher, 2008) As her mother (Cate Blanchett)  lies dying, her daughter reads the life story of her ex-lover, a man who aged in reverse. Oddball entry in Fincher’s filmography, rich in incident but light on drama, in which he keeps the trademark queasy greens and oranges but otherwise wears Steven Spielberg’s style like a jacket he’s trying on.—RDL

Pitfall (Film, US, Andre de Toth, 1948) Restless claims adjuster (Dick Powell) risks his career and family when he has a fling with a crook’s good-hearted girlfriend (Lizabeth Scott), entering the crosshairs of her sleazy ex-cop stalker (Raymond Burr.) Snappy dialogue and direction, as well as top performances from the lead distinguish this entry in the spiral-from-domesticity noir sub-genre. The script’s desire to steer clear of melodrama injects a fresh note of emotional realism, at the cost of an anticlimactic conclusion.—RDL

Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping (Film, US, Jorma Taccone & Akiva Schaffer, 2016) Fame-addled pop star (Andy Samberg) sees his tour documentary go sour when his sophomore album lays an egg. Update of Spinal Tap to today’s stadium pop and slick promotional documentaries, densely packed with jokes and cameos.—RDL

Okay

Justice League (Film, US, Zack Snyder, 2017) Batman (Ben Affleck) must assemble Earth’s mightiest heroes to fight … a CGI third-tier Kirby villain. While better than the previous theatrical DCEU efforts, and even reasonably true to the comic book origin of the team, the end result remains a big missed opportunity. For a movie ten years in the making, far too much was rushed, especially including the vapid CGI — the Snyderverse works best when, like Nolan always did, he grounds it in the real. Joss Whedon’s much-bruited fixups only add dissonance and weaken Snyder’s mythic vision without building human connection. Even Danny Elfman’s score seemed bland and committee-driven. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Thunder God, Fairy Enchantress, Weresquito

November 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.

Recommended

Stranger Things Season 2 (Television, US, Netflix, The Duffer Brothers, 2017) Mixing James Cameron into their Carpenter-Spielberg blend, the Duffer Brothers aim for Aliens or Terminator 2 but don’t quite manage to make an 80s sequel that equals the first installment. Like Aliens, it swaps in action beats for Season 1’s paranoia and the uncanny, not a net gain. The story spreads a little thinner this time, but the characters remain both colorful period types and well and sympathetically drawn humans, which counts for a lot. Extra points of course for including 80s Chicago as the nexus of adventure that it was, even if that episode (like most of the Eleven storyline) could have been stronger. –KH

Wu Yen (Film, Hong Kong, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2001) Feckless Emperor Qi (Anita Mui) and gallant swordswoman Wu Yen (Sammi Cheng) accidentally release the Fairy Enchantress (Cecilia Cheung), who interferes with their destined love by pitching woo to both of them. To’s journey into the crowd-pleasing schtick of the New Year’s comedy pays homage to a Chinese opera genre where women play the male leads as well as the female ones. Bundles clowning, gender gyrations, songs, martial arts, shadow puppets, and of course the semiotically essential fart gags.—RDL

Good

From the Lives of Marionettes (Film, Germany, Ingmar Bergman, 1980) Flashbacks and police interviews probe the motivations of a businessman who fantasized about killing his wife but instead murdered a prostitute. Deliberately uncinematic, dialogue-driven inquiry into the impossibility of human understanding finds Bergman at his most acidic and unsparing. Feel the pain of cinematographer Sven Nykvist, clearly instructed to strip every image of his trademark luminosity.—RDL

Joan Didion: the Center Does Not Hold (Film, US, Griffin Dunne, 2017) Loving documentary portrait of the essayist, novelist and screenwriter finds its emotional core in the personal losses explored in her books The Year of Magical Thinking and Blue Nights. Dunne, Didion’s nephew, enjoys access it’s hard to imagine any filmmaker getting from her, but the familiarity sometimes misses out basic story points. This would really benefit from the absolutely conventional talking heads montage at the beginning, for example, where we are told who the subject is and why she is important.—RDL

Thor: Ragnarok (Film, US, Taika Waititi, 2017) When Hela (Cate Blanchett) invades Asgard, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) must act by going on a road-movie tour through about three signature Marvel stories including Planet Hulk for some reason. The best of the Thor movies, this one finally gets a perfect mix of science, magic, and beautiful pointlessness for Asgard, possibly thanks to the Mark Mothersbaugh synth score. Tessa Thompson’s feisty Valkyrie is great, as is Jeff Goldblum’s camp Grandmaster. That said, Waititi’s comic timing is uneven at best, the script loses steam and tension repeatedly, and Bing and Bob Thor and Loki are not. –KH

Weresquito: Nazi Hunter (Film, US, Christopher R. Mihm, 2016) After surviving Nazi experiments that turned him into the titular were-mosquito, John Baker (Douglas Sidney) hunts the mad scientist who created him. This no-budget black-and-white flick suffers from really terrible acting from the villain, but plays itself refreshingly straight rather than straining for tiresomely ironic camp effect. This could easily be a lost AIP monster three-reeler, although even Samuel Z. Arkoff would probably have sprung for an actual diner set. –KH

Okay

Brooklyn (Film, Ireland, John Crowley, 2015) Young Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) adjusts to a new life in the US. Affectingly acted comfort movie doesn’t introduce any real conflict until the beginning of the third act.—RDL

Guilty of Romance (Film, Japan, Sion Sono, 2011) A housewife’s frustration with her distant, austere author husband make her easy prey for a professor who moonlights as a prostitute and her pimp. Starts as psychological realism and escalates to extreme cinema, except the psychology in the ramp-up projects more male desire than credibility.—RDL

Not Recommended

Police!!! (Fiction, Robert W. Chambers, 1915) Self-regarding naturalist and oft-thwarted would-be swain Professor Percy Smith meets a series of deserved comeuppances as he investigates cryptozoological phenomena ranging from giant minnows to three-eyed men. Inexplicably titled anthology of dated buffoonery pokes fun at scientists, ad men, artists, and feminists, while resolutely not containing the menagerie of interesting creatures Ken remembers it for. Once again the proposition, “Surely in all of his prodigious output Chambers wrote something of value other than the Yellow King stories,” is answered with a resounding nope.—RDL

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