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Posts Tagged ‘Ken and Robin Consume Media’

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Time Travel, Zora Neale Hurston and the Russian Mob

April 24th, 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

Fire!! The Zora Neale Hurston Story (Comics, Peter Bagge, 2017) Straight-up biography in (well-endnoted) comics form of anthropologist, novelist, folklorist Hurston, the most glorious maverick of the Harlem Renaissance. Bagge doesn’t try to find a through-line except in Hurston’s mercurial personality, which is probably for the best as her prose can’t be condensed to comics and her politics shouldn’t be. –KH

Source Code (Film, US/France, Duncan Jones, 2011) U.S. Army helicopter pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens on a commuter train headed for Chicago, sitting across from a stranger (Michelle Monaghan) who seems to know him. And then he does it again. A tasty blend of thriller, science fiction, and Groundhog Day that just plain works — everybody does a great job filming a script that moves more than fast enough to deliver the Dickian mindscrew at its core. –KH

Vory: Russia’s Super Mafia (Nonfiction, Mark Galeotti, 2018) Traces the evolution of organized crime in Russia from pre-WWI horse thieves to Stalin’s bandit pals, and on to gulag-hardened recalcitrants, the regime-favored trusties who violently broke them, the trigger-happy turf-grabbers of the wild 90s and the finally the hybrid businessman-gangsters of today. Punchy subtitle notwithstanding, this admirably focused, engagingly written survey looks at its subject matter through a demythologizing lens.—RDL (Full Disclosure: In his time off from interviewing Chechen hit men, the author is One of Us, and a KARTAS Patreon backer.)

Wild Wild Country (Television, Netflix, Chapman Way & Maclain Way, 2018) Docuseries recounts the rise and fall of the free-loving, gun-toting, salmonella-weaponizing Rajneeshpuram religious community in rural Oregon. A rippling score by Brocker Way adds tension to the archival footage/modern interview format, as the artifacting of deteriorated video footage underline a chaos of conflicting perspectives.—RDL

Good

Cash on Demand (Film, UK, Quentin Lawrence, 1961) Persnickety, dare I say Scrooge-like, bank manager Fordyce (Peter Cushing) learns what’s really important when a roguish bank robber (Andre Morell) uses him in a clockwork heist. Real-time tension counterpoints Cushing’s superb portrayal of a man disintegrating under pressure. I would not disagree if other viewers’ temperament upgrades it to Recommended. –KH

White God (Film, Hungary, Kornél Mundruczó, 2014) Tossed out on the side of a highway road by his adoring owner’s loser dad, Hagen the mixed-breed suffers mistreatment, including a stint as a fighting dog, before leading a city-wide canine kill spree against his oppressors. Allegorical drama with arthouse style and an exploitation heart.—RDL

Okay

The Deadly Companions (Film, US, Sam Peckinpah, 1961) After accidentally shooting her child in a gunfight with outlaws, a tortured Union veteran (Brian Keith) delays his mission of vengeance to make himself an unwelcome bodyguard to a dance hall performer (Maureen O’Hara.) In his first directorial outing, Peckinpah introduces a bracing moral grottiness unusual for a studio western of the period, but shows little affinity for the script’s central hostility-to-affection romantic arc.—RDL

Kodachrome (Film, US, Mark Raso, 2018) Struggling A&R guy (Jason Sudeikis) reluctantly agrees to a road trip with his estranged, dying famous photographer dad (Ed Harris) and his nurse (Elizabeth Olsen.) RIYL strong performances and obvious story developments.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Deadites and Samurai

April 17th, 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

Ash vs. Evil Dead Season 2 (Television, US, STARZ, Craig DiGregorio, 2017) Ash (Bruce Campbell), now allied with Ruby, returns to his hometown and a certain cabin in the woods to battle a new, more human-like threat, the demon Baal. Season 2 moves closer to the spirit of the original, including more sympathetic portrayal of Ash, while gleefully topping itself in the gore department. The ending, apparently a last minute creative shift, leaves a headscratcher for Season 3 to redeem . —RDL

Commandos Strike at Dawn (Film, US, John Farrow, 1942) After the Nazi takeover of Norway, a mild-mannered fisheries scientist (Paul Muni) forms a resistance cell. Gripping drama pulls no propaganda punches, as was typical of the films Hollywood made about the war, during the war. With story by C. S. Forester.—RDL

Eleven Samurai (Film, Japan, Eiichi Kudo, 1967) Retainers of a falsely punished clan realize that the man responsible for their fate, the heedless and violent son of the shogun, needs killing. Tense and moody mix of Edo politics and samurai action.—RDL

In Order of Disappearance (Film, Norway, Hans Petter Moland, 2016) When drug dealers kill his son, a taciturn snow plow operator (Stellan Skarsgard) starts killing his way up the local gangster food chain, sparking an ever-widening cycle of violence. Wintry, mordant take on the vigilante revenge genre.—RDL

The Power House (Fiction, William Haggard, 1967) A left-wing MP’s failed defection leads to a war between London gambling houses, and Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must keep the lid on all of it. Crime and party politics burst in on Haggard’s cozy world, to the benefit of pacing. Haggard also changes up his standard class signifiers somewhat in the interest of properly blackguarding a thinly-disguised Harold Wilson. The resulting discord makes Haggard’s plotting even more satisfying. –KH

Good

A Cool Day For Killing (Fiction, William Haggard, 1968) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must protect the English heirs to the ruling family of the Sultanate of Shahaddin from Chinese agents in this genuinely thrilling yarn. Although the two sympathetic heirs are female and half-Malay, respectively, 21st-century audiences may jib at Haggard’s gender and ethnic essentialism; spy-fi fans may cavil at the relative lack of challenge posed by Russell’s Chinese opposite number. –KH

Okay

Baadshaho (Film, India, Milan Luthria, 2017) During the Emergency in 1975, Princess Gitanjali (Ileana d’Cruz) depends on her loyal bodyguard Bhawani (Ajay Devgan) to heist her fortune in gold when crooked government officials seize it. Relatively competent, if leisurely paced, period heist thriller literally goes up in a cloud of dust in the abrupt and opaque final act. –KH

Truffle Boy: My Unexpected Journey Through the Exotic Food Underground (Nonfiction, Ian Purkayastha with Kevin West, 2016) Truffle supplier to the NYC restaurant elite recounts his quest for high-end fungus in an industry rife with risk and deception. Requires the reader to sniff out salient nuggets of food biz info from a field of anodyne autobiography.—RDL

Two Evil Eyes (Film, Italy/US, George Romero and Dario Argento, 1990) Two hour-long films based on Poe stories: in Romero’s “Facts in the Case of Mr Valdemar,” he ties Poe’s grotesque to an EC Horror-style crime-comeuppance story, while Argento’s “The Black Cat” nestles the title story amidst ample other Poe callouts. Romero’s half is competent enough, even Good, albeit mostly marking time to the weird end; Argento neither provides Poe’s portrait of a madman (Harvey Keitel) nor digs into the notion of a Poe universe unspooling around him. Especially for Argento fans, this is Not Recommended. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: More Dogs, More Stalin, More Haggard

April 10th, 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

The Death of Stalin (Film, UK, Armando Iannucci, 2017) As they prepare for Stalin’s funeral (spoiler),, frantic members of his inner circle, portrayed with comic relish by Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Isaacs and Michael Palin, scheme for survival as the power vacuum closes. Iannucci’s “The Thick of It” / “Veep” style achieves apotheosis by tackling a circumstance where the stakes go all the way up to murder.—RDL

The Hard Sell (Fiction, William Haggard, 1965) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive investigates sabotage and delays of a British jet prototype being built in Italy — where he has no jurisdiction. A judicious blend of political machinations and policier maneuver steadily speeds the pace of this novel into genuine thriller territory, albeit at the discreet remove Haggard prefers. Maybe the ending wraps up a little too neatly, but that’s hardly a deal breaker. –KH

Isle of Dogs (Film, US, Wes Anderson, 2018) Exiled to Trash Island off the coast of Megasaki in retrofuture Japan, a pack of dogs (Bryan Cranston, Edward Norton, Bob Balaban, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray) help crashed 12-year-old pilot Atari (Kyou Rankin) search for his own exiled dog. Over and above the strong script and metronomically quirky Anderson-company performances, the most impressive thing about this stop-motion animation adventure quest is its sheer crafted beauty. Anderson surpasses Fantastic Mr. Fox and turns his obsessive-compulsive auteurism into a strength instead of a crutch. –KH

A Man and a Woman (Film, France, Claude Lelouch, 1966) Attraction sparks between two single parents whose kids attend the same boarding school, a script supervisor (Anouk Aimée) and a race car driver (Jean-Louis Trintignant.) Beguiling romance in which the obstacles keeping the lovers apart take a back seat to New Wave formal experimentation and early 60s chic.—RDL

The Yacoubian Building (Fiction, Alaa Al Aswany, 2002) As Gulf War I begins elsewhere in the region, Cairo residents of high and low status, united by a connection to the titular building, find their daily struggles worsened by the brushes with dictatorial power. Revisits the social realist tradition of Egyptian fiction within the context of recent politics.—RDL

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling (Television, HBO, Judd Apatow, 2018) Documentary miniseries lovingly portrays the rise and ensuing struggle of Shandling, creator of the seminal Larry Sanders Show and previous cult hit It’s Garry Shandling’s Show. Hilarious and heartbreaking bio of a wounded guy who sought solace in perfectionism, and found it in Buddhist meditation.—RDL.

Okay

The Emperor’s Candlesticks (Film, US, George Fitzmaurice, 1937) Russian spy (Luise Rainer) and Polish agent (William Powell) fall in love while racing to deliver competing messages to the czar. Frothy Continental espionage confection expends much screen time on the complexities of its titular McGuffin. Rainer is always a bit of a dud, especially when contrasted with the infinitely more present Maureen O’Sullivan, who appears in a secondary role.—RDL

I, Vampire (Comics, DC, Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino, 2011-2013) Collected in three trade paperbacks, this relaunch of J.M. deMatteis’ emo action vampire hero Andrew Bennett overlaps a literally apocalyptic story of Andrew and his murderous lover Mary with DC’s magical supers and John Constantine and Batman and Stormwatch for some reason. The result is a cascading series of dei ex machina and over-the-top writing that vitiates the characters’ humanity while not selling their epic status. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Raidin’ Tombs and Retailin’ Games

March 27th, 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

The Arena (Fiction, William Haggard, 1961) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must protect a radar company from acquisition by a foreign industrial combine. The banker opposed to the deal takes center stage in this third of Haggard’s cozy spy thrillers, the plot turning on the state of his marriage and health as much as on the machinations of Germans and (brrr) arrivistes. The result is affecting and original, if not quite thrilling per se. –KH

The Death of Stalin (Film, France/UK/Belgium, Armando Iannucci, 2018) Contemptible, monstrous weasels Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), and Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) maneuver for power following the titular death of Stalin in 1953. This black farce unspools at a lickety-split pace, with dialogue as crackling as it is craven. Iannucci’s decision to forego cod-Russian accents keeps comic delivery on key while adding just the right surreal tinge to the dramatically collapsed historical events. Jason Isaacs’ Yorkshire-voiced bully Marshal Zhukov steals every scene, but Michael Palin’s heartbreakingly sad and funny turn as true believer Molotov may be the best in show. –KH

The Moving Target (Fiction, Ross Macdonald, 1949) LA private eye Lew Archer investigates a wayward businessman’s disappearance at the behest of a wife who only half wants him back. In the first of his 18 Archer novels, Macdonald follows the Chandler hardboiled template, but with less stylized prose and characterization. GMs looking for inspiration for their own Cthulhu Confidential scenarios might stroke their chins at the crooked astrologer and the shady Mithras cultist.—RDL

Good

Friendly Local Game Store (Nonfiction, Gary L. Ray, 2018) The owner of Black Diamond Games in Concord, CA clearly lays out the basics of what it takes to create, run, and manage a retail hobby game store as a small business, sharing both the airy “bistro math” of small business plans and some real costs and revenues (and narratives) from his own million-dollar-a-year emporium. Everyone in gaming should know what it takes to keep pumping those cards and dice and players and other corpuscles into the body of this idiosyncratic (to say the least) industry. If you’re a hobby retailer, or interested in starting a game store yourself (or in buying one from someone less interested) vault this book up to highly Recommended. –KH

Tomb Raider (Film, US, Roar Uthaug, 2018) Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) travels to the mysterious island of Yamatai in search of her vanished father (Dominic West) only to discover a tomb in the process of being raided by Matthias Vogel (Walton Goggins). Vikander plays the role with a sort of wounded curiosity rather than Angelina Jolie’s feral confidence, but she plays her weaker part well and jungle archaeology adventure remains wonderful whoever wears the blue tank top (or the fedora). Not quite the juicy pulp of the 2001 film, but it manages to infuse the depressing reboot of the game with a modicum of joy. –KH

The Unquiet Sleep (Fiction, William Haggard, 1962) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must deal with a nascent drug ring peddling a not-yet-illegal pharmaceutical that implicates a government official. Haggard slightly titrates this cozy spy thriller with action, but gives in a bit too much to the temptation to vindicate his worldview through his protagonists to sell the emotional weight he wants. –KH

Okay

Death Watch (Film, France/UK, Bertrand Tavernier, 1980) Outfitted with camera eyes by his shifty reality TV producer (Harry Dean Stanton), a hard-knuckle reporter (Harvey Keitel) surreptitiously records a novelist (Romy Schneider) as she undergoes a rare event—death by disease. Listless 70s pacing drains the energy from this prescient, low-tech SF drama.—RDL

Death Wish (Film, US, Eli Roth, 2018) Chicago surgeon Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) becomes a murderous vigilante after home invaders kill his wife and leave his daughter in a coma. Though it nods toward the traumatized protagonist of Brian Garfield’s original novel, the script eventually becomes a straight-up revenge hunt. Despite his clear love of 70s film, Roth shies away from the anarchic power of the 1974 Charles Bronson movie in favor of competent domestic drama. Worse yet, he aims in so many more interesting directions in passing: Kersey as surgeon of society’s ills, vigilantism as meme, or even Kersey as cinematic serial killer. –KH

The X-Files Season 11 (Television, US, Chris Carter, FOX, 2018) Mulder and Scully continue to investigate eliptonic threats as the Cigarette Smoking Man hunts for their long-lost genetic hybrid son. With episodes ranging from middling to atrocious—and premise-violating—this faded reprise ekes its way to mediocrity with its sweet portrayal of the middle-aged Scully-Mulder relationship and a less-awful capper to the saga than we’ve had to date.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Cozy Spies and Underground Bunkers

March 20th, 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

Brigsby Bear (Film, US, Dave McCary, 2017) Man (Kyle Mooney) reunited with his biological family after being raised in an underground bunker by the couple (Mark Hamill, Jane Adams) who kidnapped him as a baby resolves to create a final episode of the weirdo kid’s show they made to mold him into a mathematician. Dark, bizarre comedy premise realized with a surprising sweetness and generosity of characterization.—RDL

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (Film, US, Ana Lily Amirpour, 2014) In a desolate Iranian city, a young man with a junkie father crosses paths with a chador-clad, skateboarding vampire girl. Hip and haunting mood piece scores with commanding widescreen compositions, tension-filled stillness, and b&w photography done right.—RDL

Good

Confession (Film, US, Joe May, 1937) Nightclub chanteuse (Kay Francis) refuses to reveal why she shot a caddish composer (Basil Rathbone) as he made a play for a naive music student (Jane Bryan.) Swirling his camera positions like a proto-Scorsese, May lets the melodrama fly, arcing from fizzy Continental confection to expressionistic dread . When Basil Rathbone gets shot dead by a woman at the end of the first act, the question is not whether he deserved it, but how.—RDL

Slow Burner (Fiction, William Haggard, 1958) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must trace the source of a mysterious radiation signal near London despite bureaucratic interference. If there is a spy novel equivalent of the “cozy mystery” this is it, concerned as much with suits, furniture, and good breeding as it is with the almost abstract threat of Russians or nuclear science. Haggard was praised for writing “Bond novels from M’s perspective” — his first novel doesn’t live up to that billing, but the tone shows originality and the plot shows promise. –KH

This is Not What I Expected (Film, Hong Kong/China, Derek Hui, 2017) Control freak hotel tycoon (Takeshi Kaneshiro) doesn’t suspect that the chef whose food obsesses him is also the irrepressible young woman (Dongyu Zhou) who draws him into a chaos and humiliation whenever they meet. Movie stars being charming, mouth-watering food scenes and an adorable pooch—what else do you need from a romantic comedy?—RDL

Venetian Blind (Fiction, William Haggard, 1959) Colonel Russell of the Security Executive must find the source of the leak in Britain’s Negative Gravity research, while training his own replacement — the secret rival of the program’s lead engineer. Another cozy spy thriller, with the same abstract air and focus on personalities and bureaucracy over action as his debut. This one has a strong plot with rather a nice ending. –KH

Okay

10 Cloverfield Lane (Film, US, Dan Trachtenberg, 2016) Aspiring fashion designer (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in an underground bunker, whose tightly-wound prepper owner (John Goodman) claims that civilization has been destroyed above them. Not so much a genre mash-up as three acts of expected confinement thriller beats duct-taped to the end of a kaiju flick. Great to see Goodman given the space to layer one of his ogre characters, though.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Jessica Jones and the Battle of Cannae

March 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

The Fire Within (Film, France, Louis Malle, 1963) Finished rehab but still consumed by depression, a raffish writer heads to Paris to look up all the old friends who love, but can’t help, him. Unlike most films about this subject, Malle fills this piece with movement and a sense of life—albeit one the protagonist can see but not take part in. Updated adaptation of a novel by the fascist writer Drieu La Rochelle—or, as the surrealists knew him, the hated Drieu La Rochelle.—RDL

Jessica Jones Season 2 (Television, US, Netflix, Melissa Rosenberg, 2017) At Trish’s urging, Jessica (Krysten Ritter) reluctantly investigates the accident that gave her powers, sparking a murderous cover-up. The serialized storytelling goes up a notch in structural cohesion while exploring themes of female rage that don’t get addressed much of anywhere, let alone in a superhero show.—RDL

Mosaic (Television, US, Steven Soderbergh, HBO, 2017) The murder of a rich and vulnerable children’s author (Sharon Stone) spurs the sister of the man convicted of the crime to enlist an alternate suspect (Garrett Hedlund) and a local police chief in her search for the real killer. Boasts sterling dramatic scene crafting, Soderberghian elan, and a breakout performance by Devin Ratray as the everyman cop. An anticlimactic ending,, the result of its origin as a multimedia app allowing the viewer to choose which characters to follow, keeps it a notch shy of Pinnacle status.—RDL

The Night Watch (Fiction, Patrick Modiano, 1971) Young burglar who has infiltrated the Resistance for the Carlingue (French Gestapo) spirals toward the inevitable doom of the double agent. WWII spy novel as filtered through the consciousness of a mentally deteriorating narrator. By the winner of the 2014 Nobel for Literature.—RDL

Good

The Ghosts of Cannae (Nonfiction, Robert L. O’Connell, 2010) A solid example of post-Keegan “you were there” military history covering the epochal — but not at all decisive — defeat of the Roman legions in 216 B.C. by Hannibal in a model double envelopment. O’Connell is rather better at reconstructing the battle than at putting it into its strategic context, and his chapter on the pernicious effect of Cannae on ambitious military men in the millennia since promises more than he has space (or support) for. But if you want a book about Cannae, this is the book you want. –KH

Okay

The Next Voice You Hear (Film, US, William A. Wellman, 1950) Put-upon factory worker (James Whitmore) and his pregnant wife (Nancy Davis) react with trepidation when God starts briefly interrupting worldwide radio broadcasts. One of those movies about faith that cheats by having God do things. Wellman’s direction stages a rearguard action against the sentimental text by portraying 50s domestic life as a crucible of fury and dread.—RDL

Shambolically Orthogonal to Our Categories

Capone Cries a Lot (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1985) Entangled with the adulterous Kosome (Yuko Tanaka) neophyte naniwa-bushi singer Umeimon (Kenichi Hagiwara) leaves Japan with her for 1920s America where his dream is to perform naniwa-bushi for the President, Al Capone (Chuck Wilson). Suzuki blends his contempt for narrative with his surrealistic eye to create a latter-day samurai gangster Chaplin film full of grotesque racial humor, music, and carousels. (He filmed the San Francisco scenes in an abandoned, American-themed amusement park.) Its wild tone-shifting, terrible white actors, and tiring length make me hesitant to recommend seeing it, but you’ll know you’ve seen something if you do. –KH

Not Recommended

Stanley and Livingstone (Film, US, Henry King, 1939) Hard-charging journalist (Spencer Tracy), accompanied by trusty frontier coot (Walter Brennan), undertakes an arduous multi-year journey into the African interior in search of famous missionary (Cedric Hardwicke.) The decades have not been kind to this earnest hymn to coloniaIism.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Double Annihilation

March 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.

Recommended

Annihilation (Film, US, Alex Garland, 2018) After her spec-op husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) emerges near death from an alien ecosystem, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman) joins an expedition into the heart of the Shimmer. Loosely based on the novel by Jeff Vandermeer and more closely modeled on Tarkovsky’s Stalker, this film captures the weird sublime in a palette (and sound design) all its own. Performances are of course excellent, although casting Jennifer Jason Leigh as a closed-off martinet plays frustratingly against her strengths. –KH

Annihilation (Film, US, Alex Garland, 2018) After her husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from a mission strangely altered,  a cancer researcher (Natalie Portman) follows in his footsteps to explore an eerie contaminated zone. Employs Tarkovsky’s palette and Cronenberg’s motifs to intermingle the DNA of The Lost Patrol with “Colour Out of Space.”—RDL

Blaise Pascal (Film, Italy/France, Roberto Rossellini, 1972) Taxman’s son (Pierre Arditi) battles prevailing misconceptions and chronic ill health to advance the fields of physics and mathematics, plus a thick slice of Jansenist theology. Deliberately paced, painterly biopic keeps the conflict at the margins of the action to portray the mid 17th century as an alien thought-world.—RDL

A Futile and Stupid Gesture (Film, US, David Wain, 2018) Despite swirling self-doubt instilled in him by a disapproving father, writer Doug Kenney (Will Forte) shapes comedy for a generation as co-founder of the National Lampoon. Avoids the usual biopic pitfalls by conjuring the conquering wiseass style of 70s comedy and by spinning out an array of brilliant, surprising transitional devices. Among the many current comedy mainstays channeling their past counterparts, Thomas Lennon does a particularly memorable turn as nihilist legend Michael O’Donoghue.—RDL

Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (Film, Italy, Ruggero Deodato, 1976) Model-handsome blond cop (Ray Lovelock) and model-handsome dark-haired cop (Marc Porel) wage urban warfare against a gambling kingpin and assorted other violent criminals. Absolutely bananas, covertly satirical poliziotteschi dishes up a jolly buddy cop tone even as its sublimated homoerotic heroes operate as a two-man death squad.—RDL

Paterson (Film, US, Jim Jarmusch, 2016) Bus driver (Adam Driver) who shares a name with his New Jersey hometown works, writes poems, and delights in his life with his adorable if unworldly wife Golshifteh Farahani. Ode to life’s quiet sublimity that only Jarmusch could make.—RDL

Valis (Fiction, Philip K. Dick, 1981) Writer Philip K. Dick recounts the efforts of his friend and alternate self Horselover Fat to uncover the real meaning behind a visionary experience and/or psychotic break he had in 1974. Depending on how you choose to interpret it, this is either an SF novel concerning an alien satellite directing the actions of mankind from outside time and space, or literary fiction about the after-effects of a consciousness-shattering neurological event.—RDL

Good

Black Empire (Fiction, George S. Schuyler, 1993 (critical ed.)) In “Black Internationale,” Dr. Henry Belsidus uses the knowhow of his global black secret society to conquer Africa; in “Black Empire” he defends the continent against white imperialism with terrorism, air power, and (yes!) a death ray. Journalist Schuyler, the “black Mencken,” serialized this sensational pulp “hokum” in 1936-1938 in the black Pittsburgh Courier. The serial betrays its slapdash composition, but the imaginative experience of a black Fu Manchu uplifting his race by genius and terror is almost as arresting to white readers now as it must have been to black readers then. –KH

The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (Nonfiction, Douglas Valentine, 2004) A Thing I Always Say is that nothing beats an outraged lefty book on a topic for horror game research. Valentine paints a grim picture indeed of heroic drug agents constantly blocked from investigating the Establishment’s ties to narcotics trafficking. Although beginning with a pro forma discussion of the Rothstein ring in 1919, the majority of the book covers the FBN’s investigations in the 1950s and 1960s, ideal for Noir World or Fall of Delta Green Handlers looking for darkness in high places. –KH

Okay

Gun Runners (Film, Canada, Anjali Nayar, 2015) After a pair of Kenyan bandits turn in their AK-47s in exchange for amnesty, one pursues politics; the other, his dream of glory as a marathon runner. Documentary, intent on shaping a tale of redemption through perseverance, remains oddly incurious about key questions of policy, economics, and ethics behind its central situation.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Animals, Real and Imaginary

February 27th, 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

Black Panther (Film, US, Ryan Coogler, 2018) As T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) ascends to the throne of Wakanda, a reckoning with paternal sins awaits him in the form of insurrection-minded ex-special forces soldier Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan.) Freed from the constraints of the origin story structure, this seamless blend of Bond flick, Arthurian intrigue and Afrocentric social consciousness sings from start to finish.—RDL

Happy! Season 1 (Television, US, Brian Taylor & Grant Morrison, SYFY, 2016-2017) Degenerate ex-cop (Christopher Meloni, in a performance melding the Bad Lieutenant with Wile E. Coyote) searches for his kidnapped daughter, aided by her imaginary friend, the titular blue flying cartoon unicorn (voiced by Patton Oswalt.) Hyperviolent supernatural action comedy delivers the twisted midnight movie sensibility you’d expect from a team-up between Morrison and half of the Crank team. I’m not saying this is the  Unknown Armies TV show, but it sure could be happening in that universe.—RDL

Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri (Film, UK/US, 2017) Rage-filled gift shop clerk (Frances McDormand) riles her small town by buying the titular ad space to spur a stalled investigation into her daughter’s murder. Tricky anti-fable of revenge and vigilantism that encourages the viewer to misread it, aided by the chasm between the moral authority of McDormand’s performance and everything we see her character do.—RDL

Planet Earth II (Television, BBC, 2016) Stunningly photographed animals across five key habitat types struggle to mate, protect offspring, eat and avoid being eaten. As rich with artifice and convention as any baroque opera, this natural history extravaganza, granted emotional weight by another gloriously quavery David Attenborough vocal performance, sumptuously rewards an interest in wildlife and in the capabilities of one’s 4K television.—RDL

Good

The Art of Choosing (Nonfiction, Sheena Iyengar, 2010) Social psychologist rounds up research, including her own, into the human (and pre-human) decision-making process. Although I would have preferred more treatment of the key experiments themselves and less of the cultural references and general discussion meant to make them accessible, they nonetheless offer considerable fodder for extrapolation for any designer or theorist of games.—RDL

Okay

Holidays in Heck (Nonfiction, P.J. O’Rourke, 2011) Inviting unflattering comparison to his 1989 gonzo tour de force Holidays in Hell, this essay collection puts former war correspondent O’Rourke on the “civilian travels with mostly family” circuit, with dampening effects on his humor. O’Rourke can’t summon the Menckenesque vitriol for mere liberals that he once did for Communists, although the gentler half of his humor (fondness for regular people) comes through still. The best of the pieces concerns a horseback trip through Kyrgyzstan, but like that trip it’s a long ride to the top. –KH

Jason Bourne (Film, US, Paul Greengrass, 2016) Whistleblowing effort by past ally Nikki Parsons (Julia Stiles) draws Bourne (Matt Damon) out of hiding and into the crosshairs of an ambitious new CIA pursuer (Alicia Vikander.) A spirit of pro forma cooperation with studio entreaties prevails over this unnecessary sequel. Enlivened by Tommy Lee Jones’ gratifying decision not to phone in his boilerplate role as a ruthless CIA director.—RDL

The Prisoner Handbook (Nonfiction, Steven Paul Davies, 2002) In a better world, we would be drowning in memoirs and oral histories of the greatest show in television history, but in this one we get excerpts from a few interesting interviews embedded in a by-the-numbers recap of the series and its themes and rather too much information about its fan club. –KH

The Whip and the Body (Film, Italy, Mario Bava, 1963) The arrival of a disinherited, sadistic nobleman (Christopher Lee) at his gloomy ancestral manor leads to murder and a haunting. Banned or cut in most territories due to its overt S&M content, this never quite captures the eerie mood that characterizes either the director’s  top work, or the best entries in the 60s gothic horror cycle. Shot MOS and dubbed, with another actor voicing Lee’s performance.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Black Panther and Casual Body Snatchers

February 20th, 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

Before We Vanish (Film, US, Kiyoshi Kurosawa, 2018) As a freelance illustrator copes with her husband’s lapse into an odd, affectless mental state, a reporter meets a young man possessed by an alien. Kurosawa riffs on Invasion of the Body Snatchers with his trademark eerie casualness, plus tongue-in-cheek humor and a touch of heart.—RDL

Black Panther (Film, US, Ryan Coogler, 2018) Superhero king of Wakanda T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) defeats a coup led by radical black liberation warrior Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan, electric as always) with the help of CIA agent Ross (Martin Freeman). Ohhh-kay. Crypto-reactionary politics aside, production designer Hannah Beachler and cinematographer Rachel Morrison definitively break from the dull Marvel in-house palette with strong oranges and bright light effects, contributing to (mostly) better fights than MCU standard. The acting, story, and direction are strong, too; it’s a shame the score went for sodden cliche instead of reflecting the cool Afrofuturism on screen. –KH

Don’t Think Twice (Film, US, Mike Birbiglia, 2016) Members of an improv troupe face the realization that they’re heading for the end of its expiration date when one of them (Keegan-Michael Key) gets on Saturday Nigh…er, Weekend Live. Funny, melancholy drama about that dangerous line between the determination needed to survive in the arts and the delusion that traps near-achievers inside their dreams.—RDL

The Eagle Huntress (Film, UK/Mongolia, Otto Bell, 2016) Kazakh schoolkid defies the expectations of chauvinist elders to follow in the footsteps of her dad and grandfather, competing and hunting foxes with her trained eagle. Even more than its stunning vistas and girl power message, the heart of this documentary lies in the touching strength of its key daughter-father relationship.—RDL

Lovecraft and Influence: His Predecessors and Successors (Nonfiction, Robert Waugh (ed.), 2013) Discovering a collection of critical essays on Lovecraft without a dud in the batch is almost as shocking as the sticker price for this collection. Highlights include Gavin Callaghan’s essay on Lovecraft and the Munsey pulps, and Michael Cisco on Lovecraft and William S. Burroughs. When Donald Burleson and Robert Price are the backup hitters in a Lovecraft lineup, you know you’re in for a home-run derby. –KH

Shady Characters: The Secret Life of Punctuation, Symbols, and Other Typographical Marks (Nonfiction, Keith Houston, 2013) Historical survey reveals the origins of such typographical pinch-hitters as @, #, —, and, of course, &. Packed with delightful factoids from the days of classical script to email and beyond.—RDL

Good

I Am (Not) A Number: Decoding The Prisoner (Nonfiction, Alex Cox, 2018) Working entirely from the call sheets and scripts (as written and as shot) of the greatest show in television history, filmmaker Cox provides his own step-by-step analysis of the famously twisty program and “decodes” its secrets. Worth it for fans, but like all “real answers” to great art, it isn’t. –KH

Larceny Inc. (Film, US, Lloyd Bacon, 1943) Smooth talking crook (Edward G. Robinson) and his less clever buddies buy a failing leather goods store in order to tunnel from its basement into the bank next door. Classic character actors bite with gusto into a script revolving around a basic comedy premise—there’s people in the shop and our heroes urgently need to get them out.—RDL

Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads (Nonfiction, David Morrell and Hank Wagner, 2010) Running chronologically from the tale of Theseus and the Minotaur through The Da Vinci Code, this collection of essays by thriller writers on thriller (mostly) novels should probably be considered more a study guide to the form than a list of the 100 best examples. (I’ve read 56 of the listed works, and boy do I have some nits to pick.) That said, there are some cracking good thrillers in the list, and a few of the essayists manage to sum up the book in question with a critical swing while discussing its impact on their own writing, which is really all you can ask given the format. –KH

Okay

Mudbound (Film, US, Dee Rees, 2017) The brutal social realities of wartime Mississippi put two families, white farm owners and the black sharecroppers who work their land, on a path to shared tragedy. Strong ensemble cast delivers affecting work within a screenplay that shies away from the ruthless cutting and reconfiguring needed to turn a years-spanning, multiple viewpoint novel into something movie-shaped.—RDL

Not Recommended

The Man From Hong Kong (Film, Australia, Brian Trenchard-Smith, 1975) Ruthless Hong Kong police inspector (Jimmy Wang Yu) cuts a swathe of havoc through Sydney and environs in his crusade against a fu-wielding drug lord (George Lazenby.) Ozploitation meets Golden Harvest in this gonzo actioner featuring horribly misfired racial gags and Sammo Hung action choreography. All of the storytelling is in the action, so you can upgrade to Okay by watching it Trump-style and fast-forwarding through the painfully stilted dialogue sequences.—RDL

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

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