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Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff: Roald in the Spy Factory

April 25th, 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.


Girls Season 6 (Television, US, HBO, Lena Dunham & Judd Apatow, 2017) An unexpected pregnancy forces Hanna to reconsider her ever-drifting New York existence and chaotic friendships. The final season of the decade’s most polarizing dramedy does as much bow-tying as it can get away with without betraying its theme of messy lives in constant collision with one another.—RDL

The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington (Nonfiction, Jennet Conant, 2008) Wounded RAF officer and future children’s book author goes to Washington at the behest of spymaster William Stephenson to covertly influence US policy, one cocktail at a time. Dahl may not have carried the Walther PPK his colleague and friend Ian Fleming would later put in Bond’s hands, but he sure had the seduction part down, including a taxing series of trysts with Clare Booth Luce. Conant presents an engaging narrative from events that in less able hands would fail to excite.—RDL

The Happiest Day in Life of Olli Maki (Film, Finland, Juho Kuosmanen, 2016) Finns pin their hopes on a featherweight contender who is more interested in remaining a small town mensch in love with his girlfriend than coping with the pressure put on him by his ex-fighter manager. Reverses the emotional polarity of the boxing bio: here you’re rooting for the hero to escape the dread fate of championship glory.—RDL. Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in North American theatrical release.

Orbital Cloud (Fiction, Taiyo Fujii, 2014) In 2020, a Japanese space blogger discovers orbital debris in impossible motion, triggering a technothriller race to solve the mystery, resolve the crisis, and save every satellite in LEO from a weaponized electrodynamic tether orbiter. The characters are broad but not annoyingly so, and if the standard technothriller is “competence porn” this is a downright competence orgy. Spies, satellites, and smartphones: what’s not to love? –KH

Sand Castle (Film, US, Fernando Coimbra, 2017) During the occupation of Iraq, a reluctant infantryman (Nicholas Hoult) finds purpose when his unit is detailed to protect efforts to rebuild a water station. With its emphasis on driving supplies up and down ambush-ready roads and rebuilding infrastructure in the midst of an insurgency, this addresses the specifics of the conflict it depicts, rather than reskinning pre-existing war film tropes.—RDL

Sound of the Mountain (Film, Japan, Mikio Naruse, 1954) Undemonstrative businessman discovers that his warmest family tie relationship is with his sweet-natured daughter-in-law, who his drunk, disdainful son flagrantly cheats on. Quietly heartbreaking drama exemplifies Naruse’s subtle portrayal of thwarted emotion.—RDL

True Story (Film, US, Rupert Goold, 2015) Disgraced reporter (Jonah Hill) gets too close when the accused family annihilator (James Franco) offers him a series of jailhouse interviews. Moody exploration of the ambiguous connection between a sociopath and a man anxious to be fooled.—RDL


De Palma (Film, US, Noah Baumbach & Jake Paltrow, 2015) The director of subversive, shockingly violent suspense serves as sole talking head for a career retrospective illustrated by clips from his and others’ films. De Palma freely dishes on his missteps, revealing why his films are as they are, for good and for ill.—RDL

The Lion in the Living Room: How House Cats Tamed Us and Took Over the World (Nonfiction, Abigail Tucker, 2016) The charming writing in this amiable pop-science book masks its only real flaw: it doesn’t really know the answer to its question. In fairness, nobody does — cats are hilariously hard to study, and human behaviorists apparently know less than animal behaviorists. Tucker tries to introduce a secondary theme — that cats’ hyperpredation, rapid reproduction, and ubiquity make them ecocidal monsters second only to us — but that only runs her into her original question again. –KH

Venus With Pistol (Fiction, Gavin Lyall, 1969) Art smuggler and dealer in antique pistols Bert Kemp gets tangled up in a ever-so-slightly-too-complicated conspiracy to repatriate a millionairess’ expropriated fortune in the form of dodgy masterpieces. And then the murders began. Lyall’s verbal fireworks aren’t quite as on form here and the story is a little staccato, but there’s no shortage of classic thriller sequences in this classic art-crime thriller. I love art-crime thrillers, but I’m trying to control for that here: if you too go weak in the knees for a confident paragraph on Giorgione, call it Recommended. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Sex, Wiindigo Lore and Urban Planning

April 18th, 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.


Citizen Jane: Battle For the City (Film, US, Matt Tyrnauer, 2017) Documentary recounts the David and Goliath throwdown between writer Jane Jacobs’ vision of a vibrant, street focused city took on Robert Moses’ modernist urban renewalism and its mania for towering housing projects and downtown expressways. Magisterially presents a web of information and ideas as a gripping conflict with real emotional stakes.—RDL. Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in theatrical release.

Crashing Season 1 (Television, US, Pete Holmes & Judd Apatow, 2017) Without a place to stay after he catches his wife in bed with an extremely annoying other man, a naive Christian (Holmes) heads to New York to pursue his stand-up comedy dream. Observational squirmcom follows the Apatow formula of not following a formula, rooting the laughs in all-too-real autobiography.—RDL

Masters of Sex Season 4 (Television, US, Michelle Ashford, 2016) With his marriage kaput and hers averted, Virginia pursues Bill, and he pulls away. A culminating season for the show’s sex researcher romantic arc, even if conventional TV writing is increasingly creeping in around the edges.—RDL

The Round House (Fiction, Louise Erdrich, 2012) 13 year old living on an Anishinaabe reserve in North Dakota resolves to identify and kill his mother’s rapist. Crime novel framework grants propulsion to a rich community portrait informed by the mythologies of the windigo and Star Trek: the Next Generation.–RDL


China 9, Liberty 37 (Film, Italy/Spain, Monte Hellman, 1978) Handsome gunfighter (Fabio Testi) develops second thoughts about his assignment from the railroad to kill a grizzled dirt farmer (Warren Oates) after meeting his alluring younger wife (Jenny Agutter.) Suffused with aching existential loneliness (not to mention steamy 70s sexuality), this late fusion of American New Wave and spaghetti western aesthetics might qualify as a forgotten masterpiece, if not for its botched dialogue mixing and the flat performance of its hunky but inert leading man.—RDL

My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea (Film, US, Dash Shaw, 2017) Uncool kids struggle to survive when a quake causes their entire high school to…well you get the idea. Animated feature drawn to look like the doodles in the back of a misanthropic teen’s geometry notebook. Voice talent includes Jason Schwartzman, Maya Rudolph, Reggie Watts, Lena Dunham and Susan Sarandon.—RDL. Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in theatrical release.


The Golden Cane Warrior (Film, Indonesia, Ifa Isfansyah, 2014) Unprepared martial arts student must seek the ultimate golden cane move after vengeful fellow students murder their guilt-wracked guru. Even with solid storytelling and cinematography, a fu film that cheats the fight choreography tops out at “okay.” Cool to see a period martial arts film from Indonesia though.—RDL

Purani Haveli (Film, India, Shyam & Tulsi Ramsay, 1989) Cruel foster parents Kumar and Seema buy the titular creepy mansion with their ward Anita’s money. When her beau Sunil and Seema’s scheming brother Vikram, along with two dozen or so indistinguishable friends, go out to the house, a haunted statue, ghostly forces, and finally a demonic ogre begin attacking them. This jovial Bollygothic (Bollygiallo?) is pretty much derailed by boring leads and an endless comic subplot (Sunil’s assistant is an exact double of the local bandit leader) but eventually turns the scares back on for a final act full of blood, fire, and the power of … Christ? –KH

Not Recommended

Ghost in the Shell (Film, US, Rupert Sanders, 2017) No matter how slavishly beautiful the visuals, the shell of a movie is nothing without an animating spirit. I think I heard something like that about fifty times in this thuddingly obvious script, which impressively manages to never diverge from the anime storyline in an interesting or original direction. Clint Mansell’s score is a great soundtrack, just not for this movie. Poor Scarlett Johansson is as trapped as the Major; she’s the only person the viewer has any sympathy for. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Pinnacle Pulp and Kaiju Subtext

April 11th, 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

The Encyclopedia of Pulp Heroes (Nonfiction, Jess Nevins, 2017) It may be impossible to exceed this book as a reference to the series heroes from 1902 to 1945. It is, apparently, impossible to physically print it — this Kindle ebook contains entries on 6,400+ different characters from fifty countries, from Ethiopian tween-in-peril Yayne Abäba to Dutch detective Dorothea Zwart. That does entail some compression — even Doc Savage’s entry is only five paragraphs long — but for exhaustive and authoritative coverage this encyclopedia is the best by far. –KH


The Forbidden Room (Film, Canada, Guy Maddin, 2015) Stream of weird but straight-faced nested narratives shot in Maddin’s characteristic amphigorey of early film styles adds up to a buzzy, comic subversion, or rather implosion, of narrative and film. All of Maddin’s manias are present, from overheated intertitles to epochal Freudianism, with a terrific marbling of genre horror this time out. –KH

Frantz (Film, France, Francois Ozon, 2017) After WWI a French soldier travels to Germany to seek out the family and fiancee of his German best friend, who died in the trenches—or is that the real story? Restrained period melodrama evokes the high style of studio Hollywood, with particular touches of William Wyler and Alfred Hitchcock.—RDL Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in theatrical release.

Midnight Plus One (Fiction, Gavin Lyall, 1965) Former SOE operator Lewis Cane is hired to drive a millionaire across France from Brittany to Liechtenstein: the wrinkles being that the millionaire is wanted by the French police, and someone keeps trying to kill him. Remarkably excellent turns of phrase and much car-love spangle this taut thriller, which is a nigh-ideal type of the genre. Steve McQueen purchased it for a movie, but sadly died before making it. McQueen as Cane is exactly right, though. –KH

The President (Film, Georgia, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2014) With his young grandson in tow, a murderous autocrat toppled by revolution becomes a fugitive inside the borders of his own country. The exiled paterfamilias of Iranian cinema refashions the outlaw-duo-on-the-run movie into a hard-punching political lament.—RDL


20 Million Miles to Earth (Film, US, Nathan Juran, 1957) Reptilian creature kidnapped from Venus by a US military mission wants only to be left to eat sulphur in peace, but as it grows to monstrous size is chased, burned, experimented upon, leading to a rampage through Rome. In  this Kong derivative the military industrial complex in particular and also every other human we see cause all the destruction, a fact none of the characters notice or comment on. Whether this is a brilliant act of po-faced satire that never reveals itself, or perfunctory writing, remains ambiguous all the way to the abrupt conclusion. Creature animation by Ray Harryhausen.—RDL

Legends of Tomorrow Season 2 (Television, US, CW, 2016-2017) A somewhat reconfigured assemblage of third-string superheroes continues its time-traveling mission, discovering that the best villains from all the other Arrowverse shows have teamed up to reassemble the Spear of Destiny and rewrite reality. After a rocky start recapitulating most of the problems of the first season, the elusive tone of loopy super-romp finally locks in and fun is had.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Mutants, Propaganda, and a Stage Play

April 4th, 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.


Army (Film, Japan, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1944) Three generations of a Japanese family hew to a militaristic ethos that brings them nothing but frustration and pain. A movingly anti-war film, made during the war, and paid for by the Japanese army, who thought they were funding rousing propaganda. They must have only read the dialogue, in which the characters speak in heartless slogans, without envisioning acting and direction that would reveal them as tragically misguided.—RDL

Colossal (Film, Canada, Nacho Vigalondo, 2017) After returning to her hometown to regroup, a hard-drinking ex-journalist (Anne Hathaway) discovers a link between her actions and the kaiju attacking Seoul, half a world away. Vigalondo delivers another delightful genre smush-up with this character-driven comedy/drama/monster piece. With Tim Blake Nelson and Jason Sudeikis, who gets to do a turn we haven’t seen from him before.–RDL Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in theatrical release.

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks (Nonfiction, Amy Stewart, 2013) Comprehensive survey of the plants we turn into booze, and the herbs, fruits, nuts flowers, spices and trees we use to flavor them. Will have you hankering for impossible-to-source liqueurs, which you might sip while regaling your companions with alcoholic fun facts. Includes cocktail recipes and gardening tips.—RDL

Five Came Back (Television, US, Netflix, Laurent Bouzereau, 2017) Documentary miniseries follows the work of Hollywood directors John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens and John Huston for the armed forces in WWII. Bouzereau, the go-to director for historical moviemaking docs, captures both the emotion and the aesthetic paradox behind a quest to create propaganda without sacrificing artistry or truth.—RDL

Legion Season 1 (Television, US, FX, 2017)  When he falls for a fellow mental patient who doesn’t like to be touched (Rachel Keller), a diagnosed schizophrenic (Dan Stevens) journeys through his mind to discover that his delusions might just be real–making him a mutant of unprecedented power. Injects Marvel’s X-universe with surreal humor and a giddy sense of style, while still delivering the straight-up superhero stuff when it needs to.–RDL

The Woman in Black (Play, Stephen Mallatratt, 1987) Based on the novella of the same name by Susan Hill, the play presents that book’s protagonist Arthur Kipps as he attempts to exorcise his decades-earlier sighting of the Woman in Black by … performing it as a stage play. Remarkable story economy and tension create legitimate horror on stage, drawing the audience in through the narrative layers to the tragic heart of the ghostly tale. (Seen in a terrific production by Chicago’s WildClaw Theatre, playing through April 23.) –KH


Ghost Mountaineer (Film, Estonia, Urmas Eero Liiv, 2015) In 1989 a mixed group of Estonian students goes mountain climbing in the Siberian mountains of Buryatia, and bad doings transpire. Shot as a mix of documentary, thriller, and nature film, this flick ambitiously combines the two keys to a great ghost story (setting and psychology) with political horror, social horror, and enough other elements to unbalance things nigh completely. But for four acts out of five, it’s gripping, icy, and unpredictable. –KH

Lone Survivor (Film, US, Peter Berg, 2013) Navy SEAL strike force hunting a Taliban leader finds itself outgunned and out of contact with air support. Establishes an interesting but never quite resolved tension between its desire to pay tribute to the men who died in the real incident it portrays, and its depiction of warfare as an arbitrary hell no amount of self-mastery can tame. Stars Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Taylor Kitsch.—RDL

The Sunshine Makers (Film, UK, Cosmo Feilding-Mellen, 2015) Documentary tells the story of the brash front man and spectrumy scientist who teamed up to produce and distribute the sixties’ most famous LSD tablet. Portrait of the nerdiest drug underground finds its poignancy in the contrast between youthful heedlessness and the protagonists’ present dotage.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Ancient Capes and the Sunken Place

March 28th, 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

Get Out (Film, US, Jordan Peele, 2017) The misgivings of a young black photographer (Daniel Kaluuya) over meeting his new white girlfriend’s parents take a turn toward terror. Rod Serling-style satirical social horror isn’t built to sustain itself at feature length, but don’t tell that to Jordan Peele, who picks up that neglected mantle and, with brilliant, multi-layered execution, does exactly that and so much more.—RDL


Black Amazon of Mars (Fiction, Leigh Brackett, 1951) On barbaric Mars, rugged hero John Eric Stark’s effort to fulfill a comrade’s dying wish leads him to a warrior queen and an ancient civilization of ice beings. Efficiently forward-moving sword & planet novella provides an object lesson in genre prose that goes big without losing control. Later reconfigured as the novel People of the Talisman.—RDL

The Evolution of the Costumed Avenger: The 4,000-Year History of the Superhero (Nonfiction, Jess Nevins, 2017) Nevins picks his standard scholarly way through the potential candidates for proto-superheroism from Enkidu to Domino Lady in a triumph of research that manfully resists the alluring side-eddies such a project stirs up. A final two chapters on the post-1938 superhero are less assured, but fortunately also less essential. –KH

The Shadow People (Fiction, Margaret St. Clair, 1969) Dick Aldridge’s girl Carol is kidnapped from her basement flat in Berkeley — by elves. This weird blend of the Shaver hollow earth and Robert Kirk’s “Commonwealth of Fairies” contributes to the off-kilter nature of the novel, as does St. Clair’s repeated refusal to follow her own leads, and her decision to set the last half of it in a nascent fascist state. The story remains compelling, however, and the stark originality (and clammy horror) of her mashup makes me wish more urban fantasy had followed her instead of Emma Bull. –KH


Clio and Me: An Intellectual Autobiography (Nonfiction, Martin Van Creveld, 2016) Possibly the world’s premier military historian provides a quick tour of his mental upbringing, formation, and evolution. It doesn’t have either enough juice or enough venom to be truly Recommended, but it’s always worth exploring the life of a great mind. –KH

Cinema and Sorcery: The Comprehensive Guide to Fantasy Film (Nonfiction, Arnold T. Blumberg & Scott Alan Woodward, 2016) Hefty tome provides detailed discussion of fifty “classics” of sword-and-sorcery film from the 1940 Thief of Bagdad to the first Hobbit film in 2015. Each writeup provides notes on the score, cast, production, deeper meaning, magical rules, (mostly forced) connections with other films, a gameable bit, and a brief (usually sympathetic) review. A brief “concordance” (sic) of 400+ other sword-and-sorcery movies completes the book. –KH

Veerana (Film, India, Tulsi & Shyam Ramsay, 1988) Surprisingly sexy-for-1988-Bollywood vampire Nakita preys on lustful men, first in her own body (Kamal Roy) and eventually in that of area nymphet Jasmin (Jasmin) after a wicked sorcerer enables the Exorcist-style possession. The thick Bava-Hammer blend of the horror almost drowns the Indian elements; the lengthy comic relief subplots are pure Hindi kitsch by contrast. Relatively few songs for the 175-minute running time mean lots of emoting and googly eyes and screaming until the final exciting act. –KH


The Hollow (Film, US, Kyle Newman, 2004) Amiable but toothless attempt to update the Headless Horseman as a pumpkin-headed slasher stalls on its own soft edges, and on that whole giving the Horseman a head thing. Neither of the villains, bully Nick Carter or football-obsessed dad Judge Reinhold, truly threaten our hero; Stacy Keach chews the scenery as a drunken graveyard attendant, also to no effect. –KH

Not Recommended

John Wick: Chapter 2 (Film, US, Chad Stahelski, 2017) Super-assassin who wants only to re-retire finds himself forced back into the game. Baroque sequel can’t repeat the waggish simplicity of the original’s premise, so instead thoroughly mishandles the reluctant protagonist trope on its way to a contrived non-ending. But don’t worry, that sets up the dispiriting premise to a franchise as unnecessary as it is inevitable!—RDL

Youth (Film, Italy, Paolo Sorrentino, 2015) During his stay at a luxury resort in the Swiss mountains, a retired composer (Michael Caine) mulls accusations of apathy while hanging out with his daughter (Rachel Weisz) his film director pal (Harvey Keitel) and a pensive movie star (Paul Dano.) A delicately melancholy, visually dazzling idyll abruptly sunk by that classic art film self-destruct button, the final veer into BS melodrama. Especially ironic here, as a major subplot concerns the director’s inability to find a ending for the script he’s about to shoot.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: The Mind Paradox

March 21st, 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.

Guess which of us was in Vegas this week and which of us wasn’t.


After the Storm (Film, Japan, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, 2016) Perpetually broke failing novelist sidelines as a private investigator and tries to be a better son and father and ex-husband. Well, kinda tries. Wry, beautifully portrayed family drama.—RDL. Seen at TIFF ‘16; now in US theatrical release.

A Skeptic’s Guide to the Mind (Nonfiction, Robert A. Burton, 2013) Exploration of the many daunting obstacles standing in the way of an accurate understanding of how the brain creates the mind. Engagingly argues that many exciting theories in the field are rife with unverifiable circular reasoning and magical thinking, as you have to use the mind to study the mind, and that’s how minds roll.—RDL


Mystery Team (Film, US, Dan Eckman, 2009) Former child detectives who refuse to grow up (Donald Glover, DC Pierson, DominIc Dierkes) get a taste of hard-R rated reality when they agree to investigate a double murder. Although a less than tight edit leaves some of the jokes gasping for air, there are a lot of them, and Glover has charm to spare and the backing of able comedy pinch-hitters including Aubrey Plaza, Ellie Kemper, Bobby Moynihan, Matt Walsh and Jon Daly.—RDL


Time Without Pity (Film, UK, Joseph Losey, 1957) Fresh from sequestration in an overseas alcohol clinic, a writer (Michael Redgrave) arrives back in London to discover that his son is about to hang for murder, triggering a frantic last ditch investigation to exonerate him. Feverish juggernaut of 50s hysteria in which the expat US director drives his British cast to out-emote his Method-acting countrymen.—RDL

Not Recommended

The Lure (Film, Poland, Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015) Mermaid sisters, one more aggressive in pursuit of human flesh than the other, cross the boundary into the human world as stripper-singers at a sleazy nightclub. If you understand me at all, you know that I go to a Polish killer mermaid sexploitation musical wanting to like it, but the basic building blocks needed to establish and develop an engaging story are just plain absent.—RDL

The Silenced (Film, South Korea, Lee Hae-young, 2015) Consumptive girl sent to a Japanese-run sanatorium school during the Occupation faces bullying and a rash of mysterious departures. Gorgeously photographed mix of horror and superhero tropes packs together so many elementary storytelling errors that it’s hard to single out just one. Oh, let’s say: if you’re going to have a central mystery, don’t make it also your premise, and especially don’t telegraph it so heavily that the audience remains way ahead of the characters.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Long in the Tooth (and/or Claw)

March 14th, 2017 | Robin

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


The Body in the Library (Fiction, Agatha Christie, 1942) Not flawless by any means, but a nicely paradigmatic Miss Marple mystery. The best thing about the Marple stories is that they force Christie to at least pretend to consider real human personalities, as opposed to moving cutouts around on a railway timetable. Miss Marple’s bleak view of humanity is refreshing, too. –KH

Logan (Film, US, James Mangold, 2017) In a welcome franchise turn away from endless world-saving, Mangold helms a dusty, character-driven Western set in a darkening, mutant-free future. The hyperviolence is just as wrenching as the emotional torsion of the dying Logan (Hugh Jackman) and Xavier (Patrick Stewart); this is a grown-up movie in more senses than its R rating. –KH

Mr. Nobody (Film, Belgium, Jaco Van Dormael, 2009) In a glossy near-future, the last man who will die of old age (Jared Leto) recounts the story of his life—or rather the stories of his many possible yet contradictory lives. Arrestingly designed existential mystery maintains emotional engagement with its many-versioned protagonist even as it constantly questions the reality of what we’re seeing.—RDL


The Dam Busters (Film, UK, Michael Anderson, 1954) Self-effacing engineer (Michael Redgrave) and jut-jawed bomber commander (Richard Todd) lead the effort to destroy key German dams in 1943. Chiefly remembered as a key visual reference for Star Wars, this paean to technical expertise and heroically contained emotion pushed the limits of miniatures effects but creaks just a touch today. If you’re planning to show this to kids, brace yourself to deliver the How It Used To Be Normal To Name Beloved Pets After Vicious Racial Epithets talk.—RDL

Generation Loss (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2008) Photographer who experienced a flicker of notoriety during the punk era takes a reluctant trip to a remote Maine island to interview an older counterpart. Crime novel with horror motifs boasts enviable prose and a rich sense of place, but suffers the momentum issues that come when the protagonist doesn’t actively investigate the mystery until the upshift to the climax.—RDL

Tickled (Film, NZ, David Farrier & Dylan Reeve, 2016) TV reporter’s attempt to do a story on an ostensibly comical competitive men’s tickling league leads to an international web of gobsmacking harassment, with a shadowy, Wall Street-fattened kinkster at its center. Investigative documentary in the Nick Broomfield mode unravels a surprisingly relevant tale of our ever-weirdening times, but goes overboard in hyping a standard ambush interview as a sequence of white-knuckle suspense.—RDL

The White Mandarin (Fiction, Dan Sherman, 1982) In 1948 Shanghai, CIA officer John Polly kills a gangster and flees north to join the Communists — but as a mole at Mao’s side. The tradecraft and setting are great, but the distanced tone and lack of tension keep it from full success as a thriller. A deniable undercurrent of the supernatural remains symbolic, adding to the tone but not to the mystery. –KH


The Magnificent Seven (Film, US, Antoine Fuqua, 2016) In a world with the 1960 John Sturges original, this film is completely unnecessary, and Fuqua brings very little except pointless backstory to this racially balanced but gassily bloated remake. (Vincent D’Onofrio’s mountain man is pretty great, though.) The moral, the story, and the dialogue are all watered down; Fuqua has gotten better at filming action but no better at explaining it cinematically. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Double Pinnacle Week

March 7th, 2017 | Robin

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

The Pinnacle

Ghettoside (Nonfiction, Jill Leovy, 2015) Amid a murder epidemic, LAPD detectives fight through widespread institutional neglect to find and convict the killers of a fellow cop’s son. Powerfully observed fly-on-the-wall journalism argues that failure to prioritize murder investigation in high-crime, segregated neighborhoods ensures the continuance of a vendetta culture that keeps the bodies dropping. Belongs on your true crime shelf right next to Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.—RDL

Zodiac (Director’s Cut) (Film, US, David Fincher, 2007) One of the three best movies in a stellar film year reached almost Lovecraftian depths, showing how even glancing encounters with merely human evil deranged or destroyed almost everyone involved in the investigation of the Zodiac killer. Fortunately, the real case history allowed a somewhat more upbeat ending. The Director’s Cut expands the running time by 5 minutes (to 2hrs 43mins) and adds one good character scene and one magnificent procedural scene, as SFPD detectives try to convince an unseen DA over a speakerphone to seek a search warrant. –KH


The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (Film, West Germany, Fritz Lang, 1960) Commissioner Kras (Gert Fröbe) is out of his depth when a new series of crimes committed by Dr. Mabuse — the long-dead mastermind from Lang’s earlier films — roils Berlin, centered around the weird Hotel Luxor. Lang’s last film trusts a dizzying overlay of eye imagery, antiphonal dialogue, and dissembling characters to exalt a B-movie plot and scanty postwar budget. Its themes of surveillance paranoia and manipulation remain current even though its style can seem flat and outmoded. –KH

Korengal (Film, US, Sebastian Junger, 2014) Three years after their deployment to Afghanistan’s Korengal valley, current and former members of the 173rd Airborne Brigade reflect on their war experiences. Revisits the events of the director’s 2010 doc Restrepo by shifting the focus to the personalities and responses of the people inside the uniforms.—RDL

The Lego Batman Movie (Film, US, Chris McKay, 2017) As more super-villains than you can fit in a single toybox attack Gotham City, a solipsistic Batman (Will Arnett) discovers that the only butt he can’t kick is that of his own loneliness. A hilarious examination of the Batman mythos for deep-dive comic fans in the guise of a frenetic, color-saturated kiddie extravaganza. Most recondite insider reference, narrowly beating out the shark repellent gag: casting Doug Benson as Bane. The kids in the audience really wanted to help Batman when he had trouble saying the word “sorry.”—RDL


The Final Girls (Film, US, Todd Strauss-Schulson, 2015) Max (Taissa Farmiga) and her friends find themselves trapped in the 1986 slasher film her mom (Malin Akerman) starred in. Strong performances by Farmiga and Akerman power an engaging meta roller coaster, but the story and production design aren’t as tight as they might be. Gregory James Jenkins does right by the “ode to ‘80s soundtracks” score, though. –KH

Room (Film, Canada/Ireland, Lenny Abrahamson, 2015) When her son (Jacob Tremblay) turns five, a desperate mother (Brie Larson) imprisoned in a shed for seven years by a sexual predator plots their escape. Intense performances an acute directorial sense for spaces large and small stand out, even if its handling of the final story escalation lacks the care and credibility that characterizes the rest of the script.—RDL


Appendix N: The Literary History of Dungeons & Dragons (Nonfiction, Jeffro Johnson, 2017) Compilation of game-advice, critical, and ludohistorical blog entries inspired by or reacting to titles and authors in Gary Gygax’ ‘Appendix N’ to the AD&D DMG. I’m broadly sympathetic to Johnson’s grumpy conservatism, and likely guilty of the same structural sins in my own lit-crit-book-from-blog, so I won’t address those. It does need a stronger edit for misprints and malapropisms, but its real value depends on where you are in your own reading. If, like they were for Johnson, Fritz Leiber and Tarzan are unexplored country for you, this is Recommended; for me, it was Okay. –KH


Sherlock Season 4 (TV, BBC, Steven Moffat & Mark Gatiss, 2017) Overlong, overwritten, overclever, and just generally over. Moffat & Gatiss split this season between trying to undo the damage they inflicted on the iconic characters in previous seasons and opening new wounds. Even more than in earlier seasons, the mysteries take a distant back seat to cheap character tricks, ever-lazier scripting, showy SFX, and pointless reveals; only Benedict Cumberbatch’s mulish dedication to the Holmes part keeps the show watchable at all. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Insane Wainscot Murderverse

February 28th, 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.


John Wick: Chapter Two (Film, US, Chad Stahelski, 2017) The latest in the operatic-action franchise pits decreasingly reluctant hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) against the Camorra and every other hitman in New York. Expands the original’s insane wainscot murderverse without breaking it, and adds the two best set-piece gunfights in the series. –KH

Kilo Two Bravo (Film, UK, Paul Katis, 2014) British soldiers in Afghanistan’s Helmand province face an escalating horror show after one of them steps on a landmine in a dried-up river bed. Utterly naturalistic treatment heightens the situation’s harrowing suspense and physical suffering. Based on a real incident. Also known as Kajaki.—RDL

The Queen Pedauque (Fiction, Anatole France, 1893) Unworldly cook’s son follows his tutor, a bibulous, womanizing priest, into the service of an aristocratic alchemist who wants him to mate with a fire elemental. Saucy satire skewers occultists, atheists and Catholics. —RDL


I Live in Fear (Film, Japan, Akira Kurosawa, 1955) Blustering foundry owner terrified by the H-Bomb (Toshiro Mifune) informs his family he’s moving them to Brazil, prompting them to go to court to have him declared mentally incompetent. Social drama about irreconcilably stalemated characters lets Mifune, then 35, act a big old-age transformation and gives Kurosawa a reason to explore the compositional possibilities of cramped, over-populated spaces.—RDL

The Sand-Reckoner (Fiction, Gillian Bradshaw, 2000) Engaging novel centers on Archimedes’ return to a thinly sketched Syracuse from an offstage Alexandria, and the beginnings of his career as engineer (and would-be in-law) to King Hieron II. For a novel of the First Punic War there’s a lot of flute-playing and precious little conflict, save within the breast of Archimedes’ Roman slave Marcus. –KH


The Atlas of Cursed Places (Nonfiction, Oliver Le Carrer, 2015) Ranging from the archaeological (the tophet of Carthage) to the supernatural (the door to Hell in Stull, Kansas) to the environmental (the subterranean coal fires in Jharia, India) to the political (Gaza) to the natural (Sable Island) this compendium of 40 “bad places” should be much better than it is. The maps are reprinted 19th-century work and usually at far too small a scale; the scanty text is slightly woo-woo Wikipediac prose. –KH

Not Recommended

Captain Fantastic (Film, US, Matt Ross, 2016) When his wife dies, a driven idealist (Viggo Mortensen) who has been home-schooling their large brood as forest-dwelling, adorably radical ubermenschen must take them into the fallen world of strip malls and smartphones. Spends two acts developing a thorny dramatic conflict, and the third act wheeling out an array of writing cheats to avoid having to really reckon with it.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Batman and Bohemians

February 21st, 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.


Beware the Slenderman (Film, US, Irene Taylor Brodsky, 2016) Eerie calm pervades this documentary exploration of the 2014 incident in which two 12-year-old girls tried to murder a classmate in the belief that this would protect them from the Internet horror character Slender Man. This story becomes a little more explicable but all the more unsettling as Brodsky fills in the complicated human stories behind the initial news accounts.—RDL

Bohemian Paris of Today (Nonfiction, William Chambers Morrow, 1899) Daily life in Belle Epoque Paris as experienced by American art students, from hazing rituals at the École des Beaux Arts to a pub crawl through such classic Montmartre haunts as the Moulin Rouge, Mirliton, Hell, and Tavern of the Dead. Penned with a raconteur’s aplomb, this is a sourcebook for players of my forthcoming Yellow King RPG, from the point of view of the characters. Don’t you think beating your deadline by 118 years is just a tad show-offy, William Chambers Morrow?—RDL

Hell or High Water (Film, US, David Mackenzie) West Texas brothers (Chris Pine, Ben Foster) go on a bank robbing spree to prevent foreclosure on their late mother’s underwater mortgage, pursued by a pain-in-the-ass Texas Ranger (Jeff Bridges) and his long-suffering partner (Gil Birmingham.) Elegiac contemporary oater pushes the Death of the West all the way to up the Great Recession.—RDL

The Lego Batman Movie (Film, US, Chris McKay, 2017) Riotous mayhem in the Lego movie tradition suffuses every frame (pixel? stud?) and lets the kid-friendly message (“Even Batman needs friends and family!”) go down easy. You’ll probably wind up buying the Blu-Ray and freeze-framing every 20 seconds to get all the visual jokes; not all the verbal jokes work but their sheer number, speed, and scope ensure plenty of hits anyway. Will Arnett’s childlike badass continues to climb the all-time Batman rankings, and wonder of wonders Michael Cera keeps up as Robin. –KH

The OA (Television, US, Netflix, Brit Marling & Zal Batmanglij, 2016) Returning to her suburban home seven years after her disappearance, no longer blind, an enigmatic young woman (Marling) gathers a group of high school misfits to hear her story of strange captivity. Contemporary mad science fantasy shows formal audacity in both its rigorous fidelity to a searching, straight-faced emotional tone and in its readiness to explode viewer expectations.—RDL


The Arrows of Hercules (Fiction, L. Sprague de Camp, 1965) De Camp’s breezy historical novel stars Zopyros of Tarentum, who may or may not have invented the catapult for Dionysios I of Syracuse around 397 BC. Flat prose and thin characters notwithstanding, first-rate research and cribs from Greek poetry ballast the book. One wishes de Camp had expanded on the bureaucratic plots possible in the world’s first weapons research laboratory. –KH

Slow Horses (Fiction, Mick Herron, 2010) MI5 screwups banished to busywork at “Slough House” get sucked (and suckered) into an ongoing operation and of course discover their inner strengths, humiliate their snooty rivals, and save the day (sort of) through teamwork. Engaging if paper-thin read, with a fun habit of constantly seeding misdirection throughout the narrative to keep the reader on their toes. –KH

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