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Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Hollywood Kaiju and Genre-Shifting Reality Horror

June 4th, 2019 | Robin

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

The Pinnacle

The Perfection (Film, US, Richard Shepherd, 2019) Former cellist (Allison Williams) hooks up with the superstar graduate (Logan Browning) of the music academy she once attended, triggering a spiral of hallucination, betrayal, and revenge. Chameleonic piece of neo-midnight cinema finds and as quickly discards assured takes on multiple sub-genres, from erotic thriller to body horror to reality horror and beyond.—RDL


The Arabian Nights Murder (Fiction, John Dickson Carr, 1936) Three policemen describe their investigations of a murder in a museum to Dr. Fell, each man’s story simultaneously explaining and further mystifying the previous version. Something of a tour de force of nested narratives and variant viewpoints (especially for 1936) sees Carr playing with tone from Machen to Wilde to Sayers until Dr. Fell disproves them all, of course. –KH

Asako I & II (Japan, Ryusuke Hamaguchi) Reserved coffee shop clerk avoids telling her new boyfriend that he’s a dead ringer for her swoon-worthy first love, who up and vanished on her two and a half years ago. Truffautesque comedy-drama manages something even rarer than a successful tone shift—a subtle successful tone shift.—RDL Seen at TIFF ‘18; now in theatrical release.

Fosse/Verdon (Television, US, FX, Steven Levinson and Thomas Kail, 2019) Bio-miniseries dramatizes the creative collaborations and tumultuous personal relationship of dancer/actress Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) and choreographer/director Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell). Expository needs give this a rocky start, and it fades whenever it falls under the shadow of All That Jazz, but Williams’ stunning embodiment of Verdon compensates for any imperfections.—RDL

A Quiet Life (Film, Japan, Juzo Itami, 1995) High schooler left to care for her mentally disabled brother while her parents stay abroad befriends a man whose volunteer swim coaching conceals a sinister motive. Episodic, deceptively simple confrontation between innocence and darkness, based on autobiographical short stories of Kenzaburo Oe, winner of the Nobel Literature Prize and the director’s brother-in-law.—RDL


Godzilla: King of the Monsters (Film, US, Michael Dougherty, 2019) Eco-terrorists unleash King Ghidorah and a pack of kaiju to cleanse the Earth of humanity, and only Godzilla stands in their way. Remarkably true to the fantastic Toho spirit, despite inducting Godzilla (basically) into the Natty Bumppo-Rambo tradition of wild American warriors and (mostly) wasting Millie Bobby Brown and Zhang Ziyi. The monster fights are Recommended. –KH

To Wake the Dead (Fiction, John Dickson Carr, 1937) Gideon Fell solves a pair of murders linked by a killer in a hotel uniform — but only one of the murders happened in a hotel. Carr rockets the plot along in this one, keeping plenty of surprises in stock despite explaining the “impossible” part halfway through. Unfortunately, one of the surprises is that unusually for Carr, the motive doesn’t make sense and the method involves a bit of a cheat. Still enjoyable but not his usual triumph. –KH


Upgrade (Film, US, Leigh Whannell, 2018) An illicit chip implant restores a paralyzed auto mechanic’s ability to move, investing him with the computer power and killing reflexes needed to track down the men who murdered his wife. The best visual and kinetic portrayal of cyberpunk implants committed to film so far. Too bad about the stock characters and situations.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Gunslingers Old and New

May 28th, 2019 | 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 Flash Season 5 (Television, US, CW, Todd Helbing, 2018-2019) Barry and Iris adjust to having an adult superhero daughter from the future (Jessica Parker Kennedy) as they hunt the metahuman-murdering Cicada. Some early awkward schtick aside, this season locks into the series tone early and stays in it, lobbing in a few twists on the Big Bad trope along the way.—RDL

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley (Film, US, Alex Gibney, 2019) Armed with copious behind-the-scenes footage, documentary recounts the story of fraudulent Silicon Valley blood-testing company Theranos and its heartstring-tugging, oddball CEO, Elizabeth Holmes. The film shines in its character study of Holmes, showing the spell a fragile, self-caricurating personality can cast on hosts of putatively smart, high-status people.—RDL

Mission Impossible: Fallout (Film, US, Christopher McQuarrie, 2018) Ethan and crew hunt plutonium bomb cores stolen by an old nemesis’ apostles. Demonstrates a deep understanding of iconic hero storytelling, drawing its thrills and twists strictly from the franchise’s core elements.—RDL

Our Betters (Film, US, George Cukor, 1933) Wising up fast after a British Lord marries her for her money, an American heiress (Constance Bennett) becomes a dominating force in the social scene. Most filmed stage adaptations date terribly, but Cukor’s legendary ability to modulate actors’ performances finds the humanity behind the characters’ archness. Original by Somerset Maugham.—RDL

The Villainess (Film, Jeong Byeong-Gil, South Korea, 2017) Trained killer for the Yanbian crime syndicate Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) gets a second life — as a trained killer for the Korean government, but her past (Shin Ha-kyun) comes back hard. The trail of hyperviolent action and reaction (and the themes of agency and its loss) connects an almost-too-fractured narrative. A double La Femme Nikita adds up to another triumph for South Korean action cinema. –KH


DC’s Legends of Tomorrow Season 4 (Television, US, CW, Phil Klemmer, 2018-2019) The crew’s new mission to capture escaped supernatural creatures dovetails with Constantine’s struggle against a vengeful demon. Cheerfully digs into its grab-bag nature, being somehow a show mostly devoted to goofball comedy that somehow also has a credible version of John Constantine in it.—RDL

John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum (Film, US, Chad Stahelski, 2019) Now “excommunicado” and an open target for New York’s zillion assassins, super-killer John Wick (Keanu Reeves) attempts to escape long enough to atone for his crime. Blessed by another clutch of superb action scenes, honoring everyone from the Shaw Brothers to Sergio Leone, production-designed to a glorious fare-thee-well by Kevin Kavanaugh — it’s still an essentially pointless side quest. –KH

The Left-Handed Gun (Film, US, Arthur Penn, 1958) Young gunfighter William Bonney (Paul Newman) avenges the death of his boss but alienates his friend Pat Garrett (John Dehner). Gore Vidal’s source teleplay attempts to depict Billy the Kid as a holy fool, but as filmed we get more of a manchild sociopath; both Vidal and Penn mix in a hearty dose of sublimated homosexuality to boot. Still worth watching as psychological document, and as early Paul Newman. –KH

Origin Story (Film, US, Kulap Vilaysack, 2019) Decades after learning of his existence in a childhood argument with her mother, comedy producer and podcaster Vilaysack goes to Laos in search of her biological father. Despite a few strained narrative devices, the emotional layers of its journey into familial truth resonate deeply.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Somebody Just Wanted the Heck Outta Dubrovnik

May 21st, 2019 | 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.


Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos (Nonfiction, Priyamvada Natarajan, 2016) Astrophysicist surveys the discoveries that upended the field, from the heliocentric solar system to the expanding universe, black holes, dark matter, universal acceleration and beyond. Illuminates not only these key concepts, but the changes in the structures of institutions of science that determine the speed with which new understandings are dismissed or adopted.—RDL

Men in War (Film, US, Anthony Mann, 1957) Weary lieutenant (Robert Ryan) attempting to get his dwindling platoon back to base commandeers the Jeep a brutally savvy sergeant (Aldo Ray) is using to drive his catatonic Colonel. Spare, fatalistic war drama shares a hardboiled spirit with Mann’s westerns.—RDL

The Rider (Film, US, Chloe Zhao, 2017) A severe head injury leaves a young Lakota rodeo rider (Brady Jandreau) wondering if he can continue in the sport he defines himself around. Gorgeously shot, perfectly modulated slice-of-life drama features a cast of community members as versions of themselves.—RDL

Viva (Film, US, Anna Biller, 2007) Frustrated housewife seeks (Biller) sexual adventure after her husband storms out on her, leading to encounters with a succession of skeevy lotharios.  Satirical feminist script-flipping of early 70s sexploitation flicks commits utterly to its stylistic pastiche, from zowie color palette to lovingly sly set decoration to period-specific stilted line delivery.—RDL


Castle Skull (Fiction, John Dickson Carr, 1931) Detective Henri Bencolin arrives at Castle Skull, where actor Myron Allison has been burned alive. Early Carr attempts something like a “cozy Gothic” and unsurprisingly hits the rocks between the two subgenres. Flashes of brilliance and grue foreshadow Carr’s genius, though. –KH

Heaven’s Gate Director’s Cut (Film, US, Michael Cimino, 1980/2012) As wealthy cattle magnates in 1890s Wyoming organize death squads to wipe out recent immigrants, a town sheriff with patrician roots (Kris Kristofferson) and a rustler-killing ranch foreman (Christopher Walken) vie for the independence-minded brothel proprietor (Isabelle Huppert) who loves them both. In its restored, director-approved form, the film whose commercial failure killed the American New Wave registers as neither bomb nor masterpiece, but a grandiose and almost oppressively beautiful visual work bogged down by its inability to compress any scene.—RDL


Arrow (Television, US, CW, Beth Schwartz, 2018-2019) A stint in prison for Oliver and flashes of Star City’s grim future provide the backdrop for a new challenge to the Queen legacy from a copycat archer. Arrow’s core formula, with its time-jumping structure and tortured hero is tougher to reiterate than most, as this effort to throw new genres into the mix demonstrates.—RDL

The Mischief Makers (Fiction, William Haggard, 1982) The Security Executive calls in retired Colonel Russell to consult on a load of Algerian weapons and a brewing race riot. Haggard gets his head back around the plot, and one or two characters show the old flash, but the author is tired and lets his politics drive story once or four times too often. –KH


Game of Thrones Season 8 (Television, US, HBO, David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, 2019) The Daenerys/Northern Alliance decides the fate of Westeros in final battles against the Night King and Cersei. The question posed by the final season was whether the show would disappoint by sticking to its original revisionist ethos, or by turning suddenly aspirational. Gobsmackingly, it to splits the difference and does both! Misconceived ideas, ill executed.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Grayscale Martial Arts, a Teenage Witch, and the Roots of Cinematic Criminal Profiling

May 14th, 2019 | 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 Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Part 2 (Television, US, Netflix, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, 2019) Sabrina’s full-time attendance at the Academy puts her on a collision course with High Priest Blackwood and his plans to remake the Church of Night in his misogynistic image. In an age of binge shows that sag in the middle, this provides a model in which discrete episodes with beginnings, middles and ends steadily escalate an overall story arc.—RDL

Shadow (Film, China, Zhang Yimou, 2019) In legendary China (vaguely based on the Three Kingdoms era), a wounded swordsman trains and manipulates his double (both Deng Chao) to reclaim a prize city and defeat an unworthy king (Zheng Kai). Sheerly gorgeous production design and fight choreography more than justify simplistic characters and arbitrary plotting. –KH

The Sniper (Film, US, Edward Dmytryk, 1952) Self-loathing misogynist (Arthur Franz) targets women in a serial shooting spree, stymying San Francisco police. Establishing a pattern that we now consider a staple, this disturbing crime drama focuses on realistic criminal pathology, with results appallingly relevant to the present.—RDL

The Train (Film, US, John Frankenheimer, 1963) As the Allies approach Paris, a railway station manager covertly working for the Resistance (Burt Lancaster) reluctantly spearheads an effort to stop a culture-loving German colonel (Paul Scofield) from shipping a train full of modern art masterpieces to Berlin. High-contrast black and white lends grim weight to this taut wartime procedural thriller.—RDL


The Fate of Lee Khan (Film, HK, King Hu, 1973) Rebels against the Yuan Dynasty set up an inn on the borderlands to steal a military map from a royal official. Mostly intrigue and on a single set, leading to a big final battle, featuring Hu’s classicism if not his sublimity. Recycles the premise of  Hu’s Dragon Inn (1967.) Newly restored.—RDL

The Killer Collective (Fiction, Barry Eisler, 2019) Mostly retired assassin John Rain assembles his allies to help fellow Eisler protagonist and Seattle cop Livia Lone break open a very protected child porn ring. Do too many badasses spoil the soup? The thriller beats are all there with a couple of good ambushes to boot, but the core John Rain pleasure — the expert, detailed hit — is missing. –KH


Raw (Film, France, Julia Ducournau, 2017) Brilliant student’s first year at a veterinary college is marred by intensive hazing of freshman and her descent from vegetarianism to a hunger for human flesh. Absolutely brilliant in its intense and disturbing imagery—until, like so many European genre exercises, it has no third act, instead concluding with an abrupt twist that invalidates everything that precedes it.—RDL

Sorceress (Film, France, Pamela Berger and Suzanne Schiffman, 1987) Dispatched to a small village to hunt heretics, a 13th century friar (Tchéky Karyo) fixates on the local supplier of healing herbs (Christine Boisson.) Gentle moral fable’s attempts to evoke historical authenticity founder on its misconceptions of medieval witch- and heretic-hunting.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Black and White and Red All Over

May 7th, 2019 | 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

Shadow (Film, China, Zhang Yimou, 2019) In defiance of his king (Zheng Kai), a commoner (Deng Chao) trained to pose as a secretly wounded general prepares for deadly and politically destabilizing duel. Stately court intrigue lays the groundwork for stunningly executed, outlandish action. Stunning grayscale production design, with some red showing up at the end for obvious reasons. —RDL Seen at TIFF’18; now in North American theatrical release.


Avengers: Endgame (Film, US, Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) The Avengers, et al. (Robert Downey Jr., et al.) attempt to reverse Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) destruction of half the life in the universe. In a film longer, but less draggy, than Infinity War, the Russos deploy effective character beats to (mostly) successfully (mostly) land character and story arcs from 21 earlier films. With no great fight scenes and an only somewhat-better-than-average CGI battle, the film still works on its own terms. Recommended for fans of the MCU, which let’s face it, we all are. –KH

Avengers: Endgame (Film, US, Joe and Anthony Russo, 2019) Earth’s remaining superheroes, plus a spare alien or two, look for ways to undo Thanos’ elimination of half the universe’s population. Less a film than three very different, ultra-expensive TV shows laid end to end, this delivers valedictory character moments amid a recursive meta-commentary on the uber-franchise it putatively concludes.—RDL

The Founder (Film, US, John Lee Hancock, 2016) Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton) discovers the McDonalds (Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch) and takes their fast food system national. Terrific acting by Keaton, Offerman, and Lynch pull this tale of “greed makes good” up from mere biopic to something closer to the gangster film. Still a little messy, but with the kinds of flaws that wind up adding wrinkles rather than ruining story. –KH

The Human Factor (Fiction, Graham Greene, 1978) A mole hunt closes in on an MI6 Africa analyst compromised by his past as a field agent in Apartheid-era South Africa. Character-driven spy thriller remains firmly in the realm of the plausible .—RDL

Non-Fiction (Film, France, Olivier Assayas, 2019) Shop talk and debate about the digital future of the book industry act as the text for a publisher (Guillaume Canet), his wife (Juliette Binoche) a novelist (Vincent Macaigne), and their circle, with infidelity the subtext. Affectionate satire of the intelligentsia is formally conventional except for one factor—having its people talk about the things they would actually talk about.—RDL Seen at TIFF’18; now in North American theatrical release.

The Sorceress of the Strand (Fiction, L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace, 1903) The brilliant beautifier, Madame Sara, plots murder and theft in six short stories. Conventional Edwardian prose (and dull detectives) can’t obscure the superb femme fatale villain or her ingenious plots. A quick, delightful read. –KH

Supernatural Season 14 (Television, US, CW, Andrew Dabb & Robert Singer, 2018-2019) As Sam Dean battle the sinister alternate-world archangel Michael, something is up with their nephilim ward Jack. The penultimate season of genre TV’s marathon running show summons a fresh, double switcheroo to vary its structural template.—RDL

A Quiet Place (Film, US, John Krasinski, 2018) In the wake of a monsterpocalypse, a man (Krasinski) and his pregnant wife (Emily Blunt) struggle to protect their son and daughter from alien creatures that hunt by sound location. 50s monster invasion tropes updated with slow burn pacing, as a metaphor for the fragility of the contemporary American family.—RDL


Cats on Film (Nonfiction, Anne Billson, 2017) A fun catalogue of 100 cat-centric and cat-jacent films sorted into categories based on their feline content: Catzillas, Cataphors, etc. Billson’s range is wide, covering plenty of non-Anglophone films, occasionally in the form of short fictions (“My Day by Jones”). Cat lovers and film lovers will both get something from it, but should expect only skritches and not meat. –KH

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (Film, Hong Kong, John Woo, 1979) Nobleman wounded in a wedding day massacre enlists a swordsman and a drifter to seek vengeance on his enemy. Initially plays like a standard martial arts flick of the era, then introduces the themes of comradeship and romantic fatalism Woo will fully realize in his later heroic bloodshed films.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Avengers, Trek, Batman and Beyonce

April 30th, 2019 | 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

Homecoming (Film, US, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, 2019) Beyoncé performs at Coachella 2018, backed up by a drum line, marching band, chorus, orchestra, and dancers all from historically black colleges. The audacity of remixing her catalog for brass-and-drum band aside, this spectacular concert film incorporates everything from “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to hip-hop to funk in an extravaganza of African-American culture. Add in snippets of Bey’s insane work ethic and inspirational quotes and it’s hard to imagine what to call the result if not a Pinnacle. –KH


The Avengers: Endgame (Film, US, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo, 2019) The Avengers, et al. (Robert Downey, Jr., et al.) seek to reverse Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) destruction of half the life in the universe. Longer than Infinity War but less draggy, the Russos’ second half lands most of 21 movies surprisingly well, while finding genuine character moments for their stars. We don’t really get a great fight scene, but the Russos edit this CGI battle more effectively. In the end, the whole achievement is Recommended for MCU fans — which, don’t kid yourselves, we all are. –KH

Bugsy Malone (Film, US/UK, Alan Parker, 1976) Suave boxing promoter (Scott Baio) romances an aspiring singer (Florence Garland) as a Prohibition gang war rages around him. Gangster homage with an all-kid case changes its nature depending on the viewer’s age. If you first see it as a kid, it’s a beguiling fantasy of kid empowerment. Coming to it as an adult, I see the weirdest, most disorienting entry in the 70s revisionist nostalgia cycle.—RDL

La Chienne (Film, France, Jean Renoir, 1931) Staid clerk (Michel Simon) falls for a grisette (Janie Marèse), whose pimp boyfriend (Georges Flamant) encourages her to bleed him dry and pass his paintings off as hers. Mordant, naturalistic drama depicts love as a relationship between exploiter and mark, finding surprising sympathy for characters who are all objectively terrible in one way or another. Learn everything about the difference between France and America by comparing and contrasting with Fritz Lang’s faithful yet very different 1945 remake Scarlet Street.—RDL

Flexie!: All the Same and All Different (Film, Canada, Gary Burns and Donna Brunsdale, 2015) Documentary taps collectors, friends and family to explore the enigmatic allure of paintings by Saskatchewan’s Levine “Flexie” Flexhaug. His pieces, whipped up before patrons’ eyes at a rural gas station, vary a constrained set of stock elements, occupying a blurry boundary between kitsch and folk art.—RDL


Poison People (Fiction, William Haggard, 1977) A coincidental death involves retired Colonel Russell of the Security Executive in a rich MP’s vendetta against an Indian heroin ring. Russell plays a slightly larger part in the plot, but Haggard has clearly hit diminishing returns. Probably only Okay for people not already fond of the series. –KH

Star Trek: Discovery Season 2 (Television, US, CBS, Alex Kurtzman, 2019) Mysterious space signals and a search for Spock plunge Burnham (Sonequa Martin-Green) and the Discovery crew, now captained by the charismatic Christopher Pike (Anson Mount) into a timey-wimey battle against a genocidal AI. After an inaugural season that withheld the Trekliness, year two reverses course at warp speed to deliver fan service galore, while breaking the record for most McGuffins in a single plotline. Mount’s breakout take on Pike elevates the energetic but muddled results from Okay status.—RDL

Straight Outta Compton (Film, US, F. Gary Gray, 2015) Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson) found N.W.A. in Compton and rise to fame, but the system (Paul Giamatti) forces them apart. Gray’s energetic, stylish direction works hard to overcome the rote biopic plot and increasingly hamfisted script. The music, of course, is a standout, especially the concert scenes. –KH


Visa to Limbo (Fiction, William Haggard, 1978) Surely Colonel Russell is out of foreign dignitaries by now, but no — his upstairs neighbor the Sheik of Alidra leaves London and his mistress. When Russell pursues the latter to Israel he traverses a plot involving the former. A somewhat clever conspiracy (to which Russell remains entirely incidental) is this book’s only real selling point. –KH

Not Recommended

Gotham Season 5 (Television, US, FOX, Bruno Heller, 2019) With the city cut off from the outside world and descending into chaos, heroes and villains team up when it really counts. The bill for mounting a Batman series without Batman in it comes enervatingly due in this final season. Instead of spending twelve episodes somehow doing Year One with a teenage Batman, the show spins its plates as usual, then tacks on an anticlimactic pilot for a show that will never air.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Witch Well Actuallys and the Ip Man Cinematic Universe

April 23rd, 2019 | 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.


Amazing Grace (Film, US, Sydney Pollack and Alan Elliott, 2019) Film of Aretha Franklin’s live recording of her best-selling gospel album in an LA Baptist church in 1972. Abandoned by Pollack and re-synched and re-cut by Elliott, the footage comes together now as a tribute to the community of sacred music as much as it does a showcase for Aretha’s phenomenal gift. –KH

The Boxer’s Omen (Film, HK, Kuei Chi-Hung, 1983) Seeking vengeance against the kickboxer who paralyzed his brother in the ring, a Hong Kong gangster goes to Thailand, discovering his true calling as a monk defending the desiccated, talkative remains of a Buddhist abbot from a local sorcerer. Big(gish) budget Shaw Brothers entry into the east Asian black magic horror sub-genre pelts the viewer with a gobsmacking array of uneasily related elements. Kickboxing! Gross-outs galore! Location shoots in Thailand and Nepal! Gratuitous nudity! Disgusting yet adorable creature puppets! Unexpected flashes of spiritual beauty!—RDL

Dance, Girl, Dance (Film, US, Dorothy Arzner, 1940) Earnest aspiring dancer (Maureen O’Hara) is swept along as her calculating sexpot pal (Lucille Ball) rises to burlesque stardom. Light melodrama gets a generation ahead of the feminist curve by taking on the then pervasive good girl/bad girl dichotomy from a woman’s perspective.—RDL

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Film, HK/China, Yuen Woo-ping, 2019) Despite his renunciation of Wing Chun, a shopkeeper (Max Zhang) is drawn into 1960s gangland turf battles, whose figures include a legitimacy-seeking triad boss (Michelle Yeoh) and a well-connected chef (Dave Bautista.) The Ip Man Cinematic Universe kicks off with a lavishly mounted period melodrama advanced by bravura  fight sequences.—RDL

Murder by Contract (Film, US, Irving Lerner, 1958) Self-actualized hitman (Vince Edwards) comes to L.A. to kill a witness in an upcoming trial, driving his local minders (Philip Pine, Herschel Bernardi) up the wall with his eccentricities. Crime drama with a wry, minimalistic style, including a mordant guitar score, that distinctly prefigures Jarmusch.—RDL

The Scorpion’s Tail (Fiction, William Haggard, 1975) On vacation in Spain and retired from the Security Executive, Colonel Russell happens on mysterious Soviet doings on an island. Haggard leans into the retired Russell as unmoved catalyst-witness to events with a hint of mysticism; the result satisfies more than most of these late Haggards. –KH

The Witch: A History of Fear, from Ancient Times to the Present (Nonfiction, Ronald Hutton, 2017) Examination of the converging belief systems that led to the European witch hunting spree applies updated historical and anthropological scholarship to the question of why it ran rampant in certain jurisdictions and remained muted in others. Stock up on well actuallys as this comprehensive treatment shows that many traditions, when not outright invented by back-projecting academics, appear later and are more geographically constrained than one might assume.—RDL


The Burglar (Film, US, Paul Wendkos, 1956) Tensions ratchet as a crew of jewelry thieves, led by a gutsy safecracker (Dan Duryea) and including his smoldering quasi-sister (Jayne Mansfield) wait out the aftermath of a big score. Sometimes overwrought acting, and an age gap between Duryea and Mansfield that misses the point of their relationship, mar an otherwise taut and atmospheric noir crime thriller. The pathos of her performance shows how underused she was in her usual roles as a cartoonier Marilyn substitute. Screenplay by David Goodis, based on his novel.—RDL

Happy Death Day (Film, US, Christopher Landon, 2017) Bitchy student Tree (Jessica Rothe) finds herself repeatedly reliving her birthday when someone in a baby mask murders her on it. This amiable blend of Groundhog Day and Scream doesn’t do anything very original, but it doesn’t do anything very wrong either. Bear McCreary’s score adds fun. –KH

The Last Laugh (Film, US, Fearne Pearlstein, 2016) Can you joke about the Holocaust? Should you? A collection of comedians (mostly Jewish) and Holocaust survivors weigh in on the lines between and around comedy and tragedy. The doc doesn’t pick a side, and even Mel Brooks seems a little scandalized at times. A shrug isn’t a very satisfying answer, but it may be the best one. –KH

The Lineup (Film, US, Don Siegel, 1958) San Francisco cops trace a reckless heroin smuggling ring that has hired psychotic gunman Dancer (Eli Wallach) to recover dope-ridden items from innocent travelers. Enjoying the tense direction, evocative location shooting, and cast of hardboiled mugs requires the viewer to set aside the implausibility of the antagonists’ scheme.—RDL

The Old Masters (Fiction, William Haggard, 1973) An attempted assassination of Tito (called “Milo” in the book) on the literal doorstep of retired head of the Security Executive Colonel Russell throws him into a showdown over a mining concession in Yugoslavia. While the plot and motives remain strong (including one uncharacteristic first-rate gunfight) sadly Russell remains almost an inert spectator. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Martial Arts Murders, Occult Balloonists, and Crucial Supermarket Reforms

April 16th, 2019 | 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.


Balloonists, Alchemists, and Astrologers of the Nineteenth Century: The Tale of George and Margaret Graham (Nonfiction, Daniel Harms, 2019) This slim book contains pretty much all that is known about the Grahams, a wild tale of self- and regular delusion. Harms doesn’t really site their weirdness in context, which is kind of more fun. –KH

Her Smell (Film, US, Alex Ross Perry, 2019) Fading rocker (Elizabeth Moss) rides a wave of cocaine and megalomania to an epic flame-out. Rock ‘n’ roll drama amped up by stylized dialogue, roving handheld camera, strong performances from a great cast and a score that bubbles with unease. With Eric Stoltz, Virginia Madsen, Dan Stevens and Cara Delevingne.—RDL Seen at TIFF ‘18; now in theatrical release.

Kung Fu Jungle (Film, HK, Benny Chan, 2014) When a self-trained fighter starts killing his way through Hong Kong’s top kung fu practitioners, an imprisoned former police martial arts instructor (Donnie Yen) offers to assist, in exchange for temporary freedom. Mixture of cop procedural and martial arts actioner gives action director Yen the framework to stage a variety of themed fights, ending with a thrilling final duel on a busy freeway. AKA Kung Fu Killer. —RDL

So Dark the Night (Film, US, Joseph H. Lewis, 1946) Avuncular Paris detective (Steven Garay)  stays in the countryside, leading him to a charming local girl (MIcheline Cheirel) and, eventually, murder. Oddball mix of elements with a bifurcated structure: mild Gallophilic comedy-romance, then a plunge into melancholy nightmare.—RDL

Supermarket Woman (Film, Japan, Juzo Itami, 1996) Irrepressible widow (Nobuko Miyamoto) determines to rescue the failing food mart of a hangdog grade school chum (Masahiko Tusugawa.) Peppy comedy returns to the food and underdog entrepreneurialism themes of his classic Tampopo, sprinkling in the reform and anti-corruption concerns of his later work.—RDL


The Antagonists (Fiction, William Haggard, 1964) An ailing Yugoslavian radar scientist draws attacks from all sides, with Colonel Russell of the Security Executive in the middle. Good on the motives for the characters, but a trifle overdrawn in places. –KH

The Flying Sorcerer (Nonfiction, Francis X. King, 1992) Driven by a citation in Harms (q.v.) I sought out this (very) brief inquest into the ballooning career of the obscure author of The Magus, Francis Barrett. Written for the specialist, it makes very little attempt to connect Barrett’s magic to his aeronautics; even briefer examinations of Barrett’s disciple John Parkins and the alchemist J.P. Kellerman round out the booklet. –KH

Girls of the Sun (France, Eva Husson) Traumatized war correspondent (Emanuelle Bercot) covers an all-woman unit of Yazidi partisans as they fight alongside the Peshmerga to liberate a city held by their former ISIS captors. The standout set-piece of this ripped-from-the-headlines feminist war movie is the gripping extended flashback depicting the escape of the protagonist from her captors.—RDL Seen at TIFF ‘18; now in theatrical release.

My Name Is Julia Ross (Film, US, Joseph H. Lewis, 1945) Wealthy matron (Mae Whitty) and her knife-obsessed son (George Macready) target a job applicant (Nina Foch), drugging her and whisking her to a cliffside Cornwall manor, hoping to brainwash her into posing as his missing wife. The brisk telling of this contemporary gothic and villainous brio of Macready and Whitty distract from the fundamentally absurd  premise.—RDL

Nightfall (Film, US, Jacques Tourneur, 1956) Pursued by a dogged insurance investigator (James Gregory) and two bank robbers (Brian Keith, Rudy Bond) who think he has their loot, a fugitive illustrator (Aldo Ray) strikes up sparks with a down-on-her-luck model (Anne Bancroft.) Clipped, fifties hardboiled acting juices up this compact noir thriller, based on a David Goodis novel.—RDL

Rainy Dog (Film, Japan, Takashi Miike, 1998) Discarded yakuza (Show Aikawa) in rainy Taipei plies his trade for a local gang leader while half-heartedly looking after a supposed son his mother has abandoned to him. Miike mostly colors inside the lines for this melancholy crime drama, part of the thematically linked Black Society trilogy.—RDL

Too Many Enemies (Fiction, William Haggard, 1971) Retired head of the Security Executive Charles Russell finds himself embroiled in an Arab pressure plot against an MP. Having foolishly retired his main character, Haggard begins stretching his plots to include him, mitigating one of his great strengths. –KH


You Might Be the Killer (Film, US, Brett Simmons, 2018) On the run from a slasher killer, camp counselor Sam (Fran Kranz) calls up trope-aware pal Chuck (Alyson Hannigan), who helps him understand the significance of the creepy wooden mask he’s been carrying around with him. The joke of the Sam Sykes/Chuck Wendig tweetfest this adapts was inherent to its format; translated to the screen it becomes yet another unfunny horror spoof. Alyson Hannigan is, I gotta say, spot-on casting for Chuck Wendig.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Into the Poirot-Verse

April 9th, 2019 | 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

High Life (Film, France, Claire Denis, 2019) Death row inmates, including a monkish resister (Robert Pattinson) and a controlling scientist (Juliette Binoche) take a one-way spaceship journey beyond the solar system to send astronavigational and reproductive data back to Earth. Hypnotic and distressing, horrible and beautiful vision of hijacked fecundity.—RDL Seen at TIFF, now in US theatrical release.


Jorge Luis Borges (Critical Lives) (Nonfiction, Jason Wilson, 2006) Concise biography of the iconic Argentine fantasist teases out the connections between the short stories and the experiences of their author. Even before becoming fully blind in 1955, Borges led a circumscribed existence, so a short bio like this is the way to reckon with the life behind the work.—RDL

Lucha Mexico (Film, US, Alex Hammon &, Ian Markiewicz, 2016) Documentary profiles the stars of the various Mexican wrestling circuits, many of them second generation performers, as bruised and battered heroes of and for the working class. Goes behind the expected layer of outlandish stagecraft to find the poignant reality outside the ring.—RDL

Swan Song (Fiction, Edmund Crispin, 1947) The death of odious opera star Edwin Shorthouse looks like suicide by hanging — but detective don Gervase Fen solves the locked room mystery with his customary élan, though with less of Crispin’s customary riotous humor. Here, Crispin seems to care a bit more about his side characters’ emotional lives (and about his musical setting), deepening the book nicely. –KH

Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest of Europe (Nonfiction, Adam Zamoyski, 2008) Fast-paced, stylish history of the 1920 Russo-Polish War and its climactic “Miracle on the Vistula” that saved peace and democracy in Eastern Europe for two decades. Zamoyski concentrates on the military maneuvers, sidelining the political dimension — a bit of a shame, given how readable Zamoyski can be on such topics. –KH


The Highwaymen (Film, US, John Lee Hancock, 2019) Texas Rangers Frank Hamer (Kevin Costner) and Maney Gault (Woody Harrelson) come out of retirement in 1934 to hunt down the killers Bonnie and Clyde. Old Costner is great in any rifle-toting squinting role, and once Harrelson shows up to rescue the script from serial cliche this Western/policier finds a rhythm, but “more historically accurate than Arthur Penn” is not in itself a reason to make a movie. –KH

Machete Maidens Unleashed! (Film, Australia, Mark Hartley, 2010) With equal parts rue and perverse pride, interviewees recount the wild period in the early 70s when Roger Corman and others took advantage of ultra-cheap conditions to make a string of boundary-trampling exploitation flicks in the Philippines. Documentary covers an understandably unheralded movie scene rife with paradox, from the films’ misogynistic feminism to a reliance on revolutionary themes made with the eager assistance of the Marcos dictatorship.—RDL

Murder on the Orient Express (Film, US/UK, Sidney Lumet, 1974) Detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney) solves the murder of American thug Ratchet (Richard Widmark) on the titular train. Paul Dehn’s script highlights Christie’s mystery, and Lumet deepens characterization in the all-star cast, with excellent performances from (among others) Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery, and Vanessa Redgrave. Finney, however, plays Poirot with a hunched posture and nasal Belgian accent that never seem remotely natural. –KH

Shazam! (Film, US, David F. Sandberg, 2019) Orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel) gains the power of the titular wizard (Djimon Hounsou) and becomes [Captain Marvel] (Zachary Levi). The strength of the film lies in its amiable nature and in the strong casting of Batson and his sidekick Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer); these carry it over a drawn-out origin story and through a too-long final showdown. –KH


Murder on the Orient Express (Film, US, Kenneth Branagh, 2017) Detective Hercule Poirot (Branagh) solves the murder of American thug Ratchet (Johnny Depp) on the titular train. Branagh spends far more time on 65mm tracking shots and bombastic action sequences than establishing the mystery or even directing his all-star cast, who mostly fall back on their favored tics instead; Michelle Pfeiffer runs away with the story, such as it is. Branagh’s Poirot has OCD rather than merely being a fussbudget, but Branagh does intermittently channel the detective’s supreme arrogance. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: As Louise Brooks finds clues, a secret struggle to control feng shui sites rages

April 2nd, 2019 | 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.


Buried for Pleasure (Fiction, Edmund Crispin, 1948) Adrift after editing Langland’s poetry, detective don Gervase Fen decides on a whim to run for Parliament. But his would-be constituency suffers not just from murders, but escaped lunatics, frustrated love, and obsessive pub renovations, leaving Crispin ample scope for his Wodehousian comic instincts. In this one, the side plots outshine the murder, but Fen makes as good a straight man as he does a sleuth. –KH

Fengshui (Film, South Korea, Park Hee-kon, 2018?) Righteous geomancer aasists a callow king boxed in by his chief minister, who has gained a lock on the nation’s qi power by installing his ancestors in auspicious graves. Court intrigue drama tells a secret history of Korea as a fight over places of special power. –RDL

Louise Brooks: Detective (Comics, Rick Geary, 2015) Geary turns his crime-seeking eye to a fictional mystery involving washed-up actress Louise Brooks in 1942 Wichita. The actual mystery is a fine short, but Geary’s real strength as always is his strong line art and his subtle ability to evoke milieu. –KH

Shakespeare: The World as Stage (Nonfiction, Bill Bryson, 2007) Part of the short-form “Eminent Lives” series, Bryson’s mini-biography of the world’s greatest playwright happily brings speculation about the Swan of Avon back to the thin grounds of fact, while serving as a fine primer on Shakespeare’s life and work. A good-humored, but resolutely skeptical, roundup of the “anti-Stratfordian” theorists puts the perfect coda on an evening’s read. –KH

Young Törless (Film, Germany, Volker Schlöndorff, 1966) Prim new boarding school student becomes a complicit observer to the abuse of a classmate. Subtle realism and a sense of place give breathing room to this moral tale, based on a 1906 novel but suffused with consciousness of the Holocaust.—RDL


Who Is Dracula’s Father? (Nonfiction, John Sutherland, 2017) Sutherland teases out some inconsistencies and mysteries in Bram Stoker’s masterpiece novel, but never drills very deep into any of them. Still, a handy resource for Dracula Dossier players or Directors. –KH


Us (Film, US, Jordan Peele, 2019) On a visit to their summer home, a prosperous black family meets their monstrous doppelgangers. What begins as a superbly uncanny “underclass horror” film suddenly lurches tonally into fightemups and narratively into incoherence. Lupita Nyong’o is wonderful in both roles in every moment, but without a meaningful throughline, even she can’t save the film from its, er, monstrous doppelganger. –KH

Venom (Film, US, Ruben Fleischer, 2018) Maverick reporter (Tom Hardy) screws up his relationship with his lawyer fiancée (Michelle Williams) while investigating her science mogul client (Riz Ahmed) but gets a shot at redemption through his merger with a murderous alien parasite. Tongue-in-cheek CGI fest plays with the werewolf motif and intermittently achieves dumb fun.—RDL

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