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Posts Tagged ‘Ken and Robin Consume Media’

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Lies, Tyranny and Decadence

November 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.

The Pinnacle

Tyrant Banderas (Fiction, Ramón del Valle-Inclán, 1926) A Latin American dictator’s capricious decision to punish an underling’s petty crime sends reverberations affecting lives high and low in his rebellious capital city. Written in a voice of omniscient, scathing mockery, featuring searing imagery and frequently protagonist switches. It’s not hard to see how this Spanish novel became a foundational work for the classic generation of Latin American writers.—RDL


Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (Nonfiction, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, 2017) Researcher reveals the covert attitudes on race, gender, sexuality and more  Americans reveal through their Internet activity. A flow of fascinating facts on matters from race horse superiority to the crime reducing powers of violent hit movies. —RDL

The Land of Steady Habits (Film, US, Nicole Holofcener, 2018) Early retiree from the finance world (Ben Mendelsohn) discovers that divorce from his house-proud ex (Edie Falco) has left him just as rudderless as his ex-addict adult son (Thomas Mann.) Mordantly funny drama of exurban anomie, adapted from a novel by Ted Thompson, gives Mendelsohn space to score in a rare leading role.—RDL

Masques (Film, France, Claude Chabrol, 1978) Biographer stays at the country house of his subject, a pompous TV presenter (Philippe Noiret), bringing with him a hidden agenda and a pistol. Cozy, sun-dappled suspenser features a lovely heel turn from Noiret, who gradually reveals the sinister truth behind an overbearingly genial persona.—RDL

Mystery of the Wax Museum (Film, US, Michael Curtiz, 1933) Fast-talking reporter (Glenda Farrell) tracks a sketchy suicide to the wax museum of burned sculptor (Lionel Atwill.) The 30s Warner Brothers house style of wisecracking reporters and cynical cops drops into a world of Expressionistic horror, limned with Curtiz’s hallmark momentum and visual verve. In early two-strip Technicolor, with pre-Code innuendo and drug references. As a rare 30s fright flick that clearly takes place in that period, makes a fun reference point for Trail of Cthulhu GMs.—RDL

The Proud Rebel (Film, US, Michael Curtiz, 1958) An altercation with a sheep tycoon’s violent son (Harry Dean Stanton) forces a Civil War veteran (Alan Ladd) to pause his obsessive quest to cure his young son’s muteness to pay a debt to a stubbornly independent farmer (Olivia de Havilland.) By this point Curtiz is shooting in Scope, so he compensates for limited ability to move the camera with exquisite composition and staging. Features fine performances, including from the dog around whom much of the finely calibrated melodrama revolves.—RDL.


H.P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent (Nonfiction, Barton Levi St. Armand, 1979) This early work of scholarship positions HPL’s writing as a tension between Aestheticism and Puritanism. Although it scants his actual pseudo-Decadent phase (e.g., “The Hound,” “Hypnos”) it remains an illuminating criticism. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Forget What You Know About Amnesia

November 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.


Halloween (Film, US, David Gordon Green, 2018) Forty years after his 1978 killing spree, Michael Myers returns to Haddonfield, where survivalist Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) has been waiting to kill him. Easily the best sequel to that Pinnacle horror film, it works because it tosses out all the cruft and returns to Carpenter’s original for its myth (and many of its story beats). Like Carpenter, Green cannily provides enough character to invest the viewer in the horror, while also inserting not quite enough meta to take you back out of it. –KH

I Love You Again (Film, US, W. S. van Dyke, 1940) After a conk on the head, con artist (William Powell) realizes that he’s been living an entirely different life for the last nine years—as a small town stuffed shirt whose beguiling wife (Myrna Loy) intends to divorce him. Set aside tiresome notions of how amnesia works to delight in the ineffable timing and charm of its leads in this lesser-known screwball comedy.—RDL

Michael Curtiz; A Life in Film (Nonfiction, Alan K. Rode, 2017) Biography of the  director of classics such as Casablanca, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Sea Hawk and White Christmas whips its deep research into the narrative shape its splenetic, hard-charging subject would have demanded. If you need your artists to be swell people, you can strike another titan of the studio era from your list, in this case for bullying, parental neglect and a sometimes shocking disregard for workplace safety.—RDL

The Mission (Film, Hong Kong, Johnnie To, 1999) After surviving a hit, triad boss Lung hires five experts (Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Jackie Lui, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet) to keep him alive. How this stripped-down, elegant, macho crime thriller hasn’t already had two disappointing Hollywood remakes is beyond me, but here we are. The gunfight on the escalator more than makes up for the sniper scene that maybe goes on a little too long. –KH

The Other Side of the Wind (Film, US, Orson Welles, 2018) Legendary director (John Huston) holds party for flunkies and film world notables to screen footage from his nearly completed, sex-drenched experimental picture. Even if it had been released when shot, rather than four decades later and posthumously, this aesthetic whirl of old Hollywood and 60s European art cinema would have played as a battle between eras. Now, with most of its cast dead, including the young bucks, it lands as a disturbance in the timestream.—RDL

Providence (Comics, Alan Moore & Jacen Burrows, 2015-2017) In 1919, closeted journalist Robert Black goes on the trail of the mystical underground of New England, encountering figures and phenomena later thinly fictionalized by H.P. Lovecraft. Moore deepens his Neonomicon storyline, and continues his project of depicting the “nameless orgiastic blasphemies” that HPL decorously cloaked. Moore’s mastery of the form and deep command of the material produce another great work. –KH [Note: If you don’t want lots of penises in your comics, you don’t want this book.]


The Babysitter (Film, US, McG, 2017) Dorky 12-year-old fraidycat Cole (Judah Lewis) can only really connect with his hot babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving) so of course she’s up to fell Satanic doings. Energetic direction of a better-than-average script by Brian Duffield blends Home Alone with an 80s slasher film to ultimately fun effect. If we must have coming-of-age arcs, this is the way to have them: 80 minutes long and doused in fake blood. –KH


They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (US, Film, Morgan Neville, 2018) Documentary about the fractured making and financial unmaking of Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind (q.v.) provides essential context for its surprise completion. In addition to the odd omission of any information on its reconstruction, its tone is surprisingly corny if not outright condescending for a doc on such a mold-busting work of art.—RDL

You Might Be the Killer (Film, US, Brett Simmons, 2018) Camp counselor Sam (Fran Kranz) calls slasher-buff pal Chuck (Alyson Hannigan) for advice on his weird memory lapses and oh yeah all these murdered counselors. Longer, but not vastly more enjoyable than, its Twitter inspiration. More importantly, it has no more ideas to play with than that and kinda wastes Alyson Hannigan to boot. –KH

Not Recommended

Luke Cage Season 2 (Television, US, Cheo Hodari Coker, Netflix, 2018) Luke (Mike Colter) copes with his anger issues and reluctantly circles a reconciliation with his estranged father (Reg E. Cathey) as Mariah’s (Alfre Woodard) efforts to go legit are challenged by the brutal, grudge-bearing Bushmaster (Mustafa Shakir.) It’s so frustrating to see a beacon of Afrocentric superhero storytelling killed off by muddled throughlines, an endless procession of inconsequential dramatic scenes, and the writing room’s evident conviction that Luke Cage is the fourth or fifth most interesting character in a show called “Luke Cage.”—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Halloween Brings Werewolves, Innsmouth, a Demon, and Girls’ Gymnastics

October 30th, 2018 | Robin

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

The Pinnacle

Burning (Film, South Korea, Lee Chang-dong, 2018) Aspiring writer obligated to return to his dad’s crummy farm loses his new girl to a mysterious rich dude (Steven Yeun.) Sublime and ambiguous suspense film that keeps the viewer questioning the nature of its central mystery. Yeun’s casual, collected menace makes him a bad guy for the ages.—RDL; Seen at TIFF; now in theatrical release.

You Will Know Me (Fiction, Megan Abbott, 2016) A hit and run killing turns the screws on a suburban family organized around the daughter’s potential Olympic gymnastics career. Taut, precisely observed examination of the noir heart lurking in the American success drive.—RDL


Bad Times at the El Royale (Film, US, Drew Goddard, 2018) Four guests (Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson) check into a shady hotel on the Cali-Nevada border in 1969; retro quasi-noir ensues. Another B-picture on an A-budget, this near weightless film doesn’t feel 141 minutes long any more than it feels actually set in 1969. But everybody (especially Bridges) does their damn job, and Michael Giacchino turns in another great score, and that’s just enough to edge it over the state line to Recommended. –KH

Border (Film, Sweden, Ali Abbasi, 2018) Customs officer whose ability to smell fear and shame makes her a standout at her job feels a powerful attraction for a traveler whose Neanderthal-like features resemble her own. Beguiling weird tale framed, lit and edited in the style of a social realist drama.—RDL; Seen at TIFF; now in theatrical release.

When Animals Dream (Film, Denmark, Jonas Alexander Arnby, 2014) Shy teenager in a remote fishery town undergoes a strange physical transformation connected to the condition that has paralyzed her mother. Plays for much of its run time as a realist social problem drama, where the social problem is lycanthropy.—RDL


The Endless (Film, US, Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2017) Two brothers return to the cult compound they left a decade ago, where they discover that a bizarre space-time anomaly has their former community in its thrall. Non-Euclidean weird tale has its engagingly head-bendy moments, but by casting themselves in the leads the directors lose the acting punch they need to deliver their emotional arc.—RDL

Lovecraft’s Pillow and Other Strange Stories (Fiction, Kenneth Faig, Jr., 2013) This collection of (mostly) Lovecraft-related tales by a pre-eminent Lovecraft researcher only really hits a weird note in the first two “Tales of the Lovecraft Collectors” and in “Gothic Stories,” but most of the rest at least remain interesting, especially to those of us with strong opinions about (or interest in) Lovecraft research. “Innsmouth 1984” and “The Squirrel Pond” hit a sort of realist Ramsey Campbell horror note that Faig shies away from in the other tales. –KH

Noroi: the Curse (Film, Japan, Kōji Shiraishi, 2005) In his final documentary, a paranormal researcher reveals a sprawling case concerning a psychic child, eerie baby murmurs, and a man in a tinfoil hat. Ambitious found-footage horror constructs some genuinely creepy moments but could use a tighter edit..—RDL


The Perfume of the Lady in Black (Film, Italy, Francesco Barilli, 1974) Disturbing visions of repressed childhood trauma assail an overworked industrialist (Mimsy Farmer.) Stylish visuals and a a jittery, fawn-like performance from Farmer elevate this blend of giallo and old-school Freudian surrealism. But there’s more to surrealism than not making sense, and the script fumbles the alternate, non-linear logic necessary to the style.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Welles and Hill House Lead a Double Pinnacle Week

October 23rd, 2018 | Robin


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

The Pinnacle

The Haunting of Hill House Season 1 (Television, US, Netflix, Mike Flanagan, 2018) A ghost-ridden mansion reasserts its hold over a fractured family who briefly tried to renovate and flip it a generation ago. Makes full use of its ten-hour run time, radically reconfiguring the source material into a multi-perspective, chronologically fragmented family saga centered around deeply drawn and acted characters.—RDL

The Other Side of the Wind (Film, US, Orson Welles, 1976 & 2018) Imperious director J.J. Hannaford (John Huston) returns from European exile to make one last masterpiece but the system (and his own legend) gets in his way. Scripted and shot as a combination of found footage and film-within-a-film, this prodigiously innovative, elliptical movie has finally achieved final cut (Bob Murawski completing the remaining 70% of the editing from Welles’ notes) thanks to Netflix money and hard-working producers Frank Marshall and Filip Jan Rymsza. –KH


Dogman (Film, Italy, Matteo Garrone, 2018) Dog groomer Marcello (Marcello Fonte) plays sidekick and lackey to brutish thug Simone (Edoardo Pesce) until … Garrone’s strong, pure study of a man under pressure depends almost entirely on Fonte‘s acting for its compelling drive. The story is far less complex than Garrone’s amazing Gomorrah, but this is almost its equal as a film. –KH

Friedkin Uncut (Film, Italy, Francesco Zippel, 2018) Perhaps with a lesser subject than Chicago’s own William Friedkin, this fairly conventional documentary-about-a-director (direcumentary?) would just be Good, but Friedkin remains a live wire at 83 and the galaxy of talents from Ellen Burstyn to Walter Hill to Quentin Tarantino who pay him homage do so joyfully. (The Willem Dafoe segment also reminded me why and how much To Live and Die in L.A. blew me away when I saw it in the theater.) Friedkin eschews the term “art,” about his own films at least, but like a true artist he stubbornly shoots what he sees. –KH

Overlord (Film, US, Julius Avery, 2018) Just before D-Day the remnants of an American paratrooper squad (Jovan Adepo, Wyatt Russell, John Magaro, et al) must destroy a key Nazi radio jammer in a church, but find the Nazi forces conducting supernatural experiments in the crypt. Remarkably competent war action joins with top-notch zombie action for a thoroughly satisfying, controlled horror-adventure B-movie on an A-budget. –KH

Salt Fat Acid Heat (Television, US, Netflix, Samin Nosrat, 2018) Chef and author Nosrat trains her ebullient food perspective on four bedrock elements of successful cooking, with stops in Italy, Japan, Mexico and the Chez Panisse kitchen. Though you’ll never see me slathering as much sodium on a chicken as the infectiously charming host wants me to, it is refreshing to see the travel/food docuseries shift emphasis from aspirational restaurant-going to making meals at home.—RDL

Send These to Me: Immigrants in Urban America (Nonfiction, John Higham, 1984 rev. ed.) Mostly centering on the Jewish immigrant experience, Higham lays out the historical parameters of America’s combination of welcome and nativism, often within the same writer or group. Notable for its detached tone, and for taking the time to forensically tease out the various strands of American anti-Semitism rather than simply condemning it and diving into platitudes. –KH

They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Film, US, Morgan Neville, 2018) Tells the story of Orson Welles’ last great fiasco, the making of The Other Side of the Wind (q.v.). Particularly well cut together explainer weirdly omits the final chapter in which Netflix pays to fix the seemingly intractable problems and finish the film (and create this documentary). –KH

The Trouble With You (Film, France, Pierre Salvadori, 2018) Upon discovering that her dead super-cop husband corruptly framed Antoine (Pio Marmai) for a jewel heist, Marseille police woman Yvonne (a wonderful Adele Haenel) tries to protect him from the consequences when he gets out of prison. Screwball comedy mashes up romance, crime, and philosophy as unconsidered moral choices lead to ever more ridiculous consequences, all to a fab go-go score by Camille Bazbaz. –KH

X — the eXploited (Film, Hungary, Karoly Ujj Mészáros, 2018) Brilliant detective Eva (Monika Balsai) can’t function thanks to crippling panic attacks, but still manages to link a series of seeming accidents and suicides as murders with political implications. A solid political thriller, a strong policier, and for an act or two just a very creative variation on the Nero Wolfe model, all filmed with style. –KH


Duelles (Film, Belgium/France, Olivier Masset-Depasse, 2018) Story by Hitchcock, shots by Douglas Sirk: In idyllic 1960s Brussels, neighboring housewives Alice (Veerle Baetens) and Celine (Anne Coesens) succumb to paranoia and madness following a fatal accident to Celine’s son. The story moves well, and Baetens plays increasing mania wonderfully. But Masset-Depasse’s relatively conventional treatment and extremely safe and conventional choices raise the question: what is this movie doing, exactly, besides marking time for the inevitable Reese Witherspoon remake? –KH

Manborg (Film, Canada, Steven Kostanski, 2011) Soldier awakens as cyborg in a dystopian future, to do battle with Count Draculon, the fascist demon who killed his brother. Affectionate spoof of 80s straight to video schlock with impressive homebrew special effects. Two of the funniest bits, a trailer parody and the copyright warning, appear after the credits.—RDL

The Stolen Caravaggio (Film, Italy, Roberto Ando, 2018) Film company secretary Valeria (Micaela Ramazotti), who ghostwrites screenplays for blocked writer Alessandro Pes (Alessandro Gassmann), gets a lead on a story about the titular Caravaggio and to nobody’s surprise winds up inside the action. More propulsive than Ando’s Confessions, this meta-film wants to be Charade or a similarly dizzying romcom thriller, but doesn’t quite reach it. However, the ride is fun, and Maurizio Calvesi’s cinematography makes everything gorgeous. –KH


Happy as Lazzaro (Film, Italy/Switzerland/France/Germany, Alice Rohrwacher, 2018) The peasants of isolated Inviolata remain serfs in the 1980s, with the good (saintly?) worker Lazzaro (Adriano Tardiolo) bearing his fellows’ burdens in turn. Halfway through the movie, everything changes, and the neo-medieval mise-en-scene becomes today’s urban fringe. Rohrwacher tells a timeless story of exploitation with moments of stark beauty and emotion, but her choice of “golden legend” crosses up her ideological priors to eventually strangling effect. –KH

Naples in Veils (Film, Italy, Ferzan Ozpetek, 2017) After a super-hot one-night stand with diver Andrea (Alessandro Borghi) medical examiner Adriana (Giovanna Mezzogiorno) finds herself investigating, and suspected of, his murder the next day. Then she starts seeing his ghost, or his twin, or … ? Lush and beautiful, set in Naples’ avant-garde art scene and ignoring the Camorra or any aspect of reality whatsoever, the film eventually disappears into its own sexy, gorgeously shot ass. Two thirds of a movie — even two thirds of Vertigo — is still not a movie. –KH

Not Recommended

Ex-Shaman (Film, Brazil, Luiz Bolognesi, 2018) Docudrama leisurely follows Perera, the former shaman of the Paiter Surui tribe in the Brazilian interior. Bolognesi’s general melancholy tone doesn’t provide emotional insight, and the Anthro 101 subject matter doesn’t hold great interest by itself. Strong suspicion that Bolognesi staged some shots and the throughline, and certainly tinkered with the sound, leaches the film of what value it had left. –KH

Jumpman (Film, Russia/Lithuania/Ireland/France, Ivan I. Tverdovsky, 2018) After dumping him in the baby hatch of an orphanage at birth, Oksana (Anna Slyu) comes back for Denis (Denis Vlasenko) to use his congenital analgesia — inability to feel pain — for fraud. Denis becomes a jumpman, someone who jumps in front of rich people’s cars to extort them for bribes or (thanks to a deep-benched conspiracy) legal judgements. The scam is interesting, unlike the acting or camera work, but (along with a weird Jocasta-complex vibe from Oksana) never pays off because in Russia, movie ends you. Kirill Richter’s score is the only real standout, by turns brooding and atonal. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Ken Does the Chicago Film Fest; Robin Homebrews His Own Horror Fest

October 16th, 2018 | Robin

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


Border (Film, Sweden, Ali Abbasi, 2018) Tina (Eva Melander) looks Neanderthal, but she can sniff out shame and fear (among other things) making her a valued customs officer — until she meets Vore (Eero Milonoff) who looks like she does. From a story by Jon Ajvide Lindqvist (Let the Right One In) who also co-wrote the script, the film plays effortlessly with many different genres from policier to horror to magical realism. –KH

Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook (Nonfiction, Julie Bates Dock, 1998) Dock provides the first-ever critical edition of Gilman’s short-story masterpiece, complete with ample documentation from Gilman’s correspondence, contemporary reviews, and a clear overview of its textual history. Mandatory reading for people who want to opine on Gilman. –KH

Liverleaf (Film, Japan, Eisuke Naitô, 2018) Bullied transfer student Haruka (Anna Yamada) finally unbottles her rage in ultraviolent revenge, revealing secrets and burying bodies in a blizzard. Based on a manga, some of the scenes are achingly beautiful — and often gory as hell. Maybe some of the story beats could have used some signals or supports, but this is ukiyo-e after all, so maybe not. –KH

The Mercy of the Jungle (Film, Belgium/France/Rwanda, Joel Karekezi, 2018) Career Rwandan Army Sergeant Xavier (Marc Zinga) and peasant private Faustin (Stéphane Bak), left behind during an offensive in the Second Congo War must survive the jungle, a band of rebels, and their own psyches in this effective war movie that occasionally becomes genuinely gripping. The two leads’ strong, lived-in performances give Karekezi a solid core to return to, keeping the picaresque nature of the material reined in. –KH

Needing You … (Film, Hong Kong, Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, 2000) Alpha male manager Andy (Andy Lau) and manic pixie sales rep Kinki (Sammi Cheng) discover each other and their feelings thereupon in this romantic comedy paced like a car chase film. Cheng’s effortless charm carries the film despite some grating characterization, and the comic relief is mostly actually comical, which never hurts. This won’t make you fall in love with romcoms if you don’t already love them, but its lessons in pacing apply all over the dramatic spectrum. –KH

Satan’s Slaves (Film, Indonesia, Joko Anwar, 2017) After their mom dies, a quartet of young siblings fends off supernatural assaults on their ramshackle country house. Presents the now-fashionable fusion of haunted house and Satanic cult sub-genres through an Islamic cultural lens, abetted by well-crafted scares and hints of hip style.—RDL

Terrified (Film, Argentina, Demián Rugna, 2017) A police captain with cardiac problems reluctantly joins an ad hoc group of parapsychologists probing supernatural manifestations plaguing an everyday residential street. Contrast between a mundane, grounded setting and s-u-u-u-u-per creepy haunting sequences place this among the best in the occult investigator movie canon. You could easily start an Esoterrorists series by showing your players this movie and then saying, “Okay, you’re the next team to go in.”—RDL


Animal (Film, Argentina/Spain, Armando Bo, 2018) A civilized man (Guillermo Francella) disintegrates when his kidney fails. Notable for the slow-motion home invasion-demonic possession story featuring the scumbag drifter with a matching blood type who extorts him, but in the end the film feels like a writer with too many directions becoming a director without a clear vision. –KH

Boys Cry (Film, Italy, Damiano and Fabio D’Innocenzo, 2018) Vacuous losers Manolo (Andrea Carpanzano) and Mirko (Matteo Olivetti) accidentally run over a snitch, gaining them entry to a minor mafia clan and setting off a slow fuse of moral awakening. With no glamor, an overexposed palette, and lots of close-ups of the thugs, this is not a pretty mob film; your value likely depends on whether you care to identify with these accidental goombahs. –KH

Project Gutenberg (Film, Hong Kong, Felix Chong, 2018) Rejected artist (Aaron Kwok) throws in as protege to a murderous counterfeiter (Chow Yun-Fat.) Meta-minded crime drama swerves between tropes and sub-genres, logging a thrilling extended homage to A Better Tomorrow III in one of its subversions of Chow’s classic persona. –RDL


Ash is Purest White (Film, China/France, Jia Zhangke, 2018) In 2001 in the remote city of Datong, Qiao (Zhao Tao) is the girlfriend of petty mob boss Bin (Liao Fan); in 2006 she gets out of jail to find he has deserted her and she pursues him to Fangjie; in 2017 she’s back in Datong running mah-jongg waiting for him to show up. Too long to let any of the three acts work, and too invested in an unappealing Bin to be enjoyable at any length. The middle act, where Qiao rebuilds her life one grift at a time, could have been great. –KH

John Dies At the End (Film, US, Don Coscarelli, 2012) Hunky duo of amateur paranormal hunters battle a reality-altering drug and its monstrous manifestations. A shaggy dog spirit pervades this Bill & Ted meets Cronenberg action-horror comedy. Lesson: if your lead is kinda wooden, don’t put him in an extended two-hander with Paul Giamatti.—RDL

Sibel (Film, EU/Turkey, Çagla Zencirci and Guillaume Giovanetti, 2018) In rural Turkey, the mute daughter (Damla Sönmez) of the mayor (Emin Gürsoy) communicates using an ancestral whistling language, but most of her day is spent alone hunting a wolf. Zenciri and Giovanetti want to wrap their exoticized-society girl-power movie in fairy tale clothing, but do nothing to reconcile (or play up) the conflict between the two modes. The two leads also play differently, Sönmez bordering on histrionics while Gürsoy dives deep internally; the result is four halves of two movies. –KH

Transit (Film, Germany/France, Christian Petzold, 2018) To escape a France fallen to fascist invasion, Georg (Franz Rogowski) assumes the identity of a dead writer; while waiting in Marseille for his papers to clear, he becomes embroiled in both his lives’ complications. Moody, slightly surreal film becomes a case study in why voiceover narration is a terrible idea. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Lady Gaga and the Necronomicon

October 9th, 2018 | Robin

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

The Pinnacle

A Star is Born (Film, US, Bradley Cooper, 2018) Alcoholic country-rock star (Bradley Cooper) falls for a working class waitress (Lady Gaga) who has given up on her music dreams. Cooper goes far beyond the strong performances and focus on character you expect from an actor turned director, demonstrating a full cinematic palette of composition, color, transitions and sound.—RDL


Expect the Unexpected (Film, Hong Kong, Patrick Yau, 1998) Two HKPD cops, straight-laced Ken (Simon Yam) and loose, savvy Sam (Lau Ching-Wan) compete for the attention of a waitress (Yoyo Mung) while two gangs — one murderously competent, one bumbling — operate in her neighborhood. By turns gritty policier and amiable character piece, Yau braids the two strains, tones, and themes of his film so effortlessly that you don’t, well, expect the unexpected when they cross. –KH [Also apparently streaming now on Amazon Prime.]

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (Film, Japan, 1972, Shunya Itō) Silently defiant, ingenious inmate endures a corrupt prison system as she seeks the chance to escape and take revenge on her betraying vice cop ex. Stylistic and political radicalism justify the exploitativeness, or is it the other way around, in this lurid gut-punch of a movie. Park Chan-wook fans will recognize this as the reference point for Sympathy for Lady Vengeance. Caveat: If this combo of cinema’s two most problematic genres at all sounds like maybe it’s not for you, IT MOST ASSUREDLY IS NOT.—RDL

November (Film, Estonia, Rainer Sarnet, 2017) In Baroque-era rural Estonia, where the dead return periodically for dinner and farmers can turn old tools into demonic constructs, a determined peasant loves a handsome but dim neighbor who pines for a young noblewoman. Stark black and white image conjure the otherworldly quality of this earthy, eerie folk tale with touches of early Tarkovsky and the Brothers Quay.—RDL


Dealt (Film, US, Luke Korem, 2017) The great risk of making a documentary about an entertainer is that the documentary pales next to the entertainment. Korem’s film about legendary card mechanic Richard Turner only really comes alive when Turner is dealing cards, or at least on screen talking about dealing cards. The human story of Turner overcoming, then accepting, his total blindness pales into conventional uplift, even with such a stubbornly individual subject. –KH

The House With a Clock in its Walls (Film, US, Eli Roth, 2018) Orphan Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) comes to live with his eccentric magician Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black) in the titular house. I suspect people who haven’t read the John Bellairs masterpiece kids’ novel may enjoy this more than those of us who regret losing Bellairs’ signature childhood-fear tone for an able whack at  Amblin-meets-Harry-Potter with a side of please-let-this-be-a-franchise desperation. Cate Blanchett is a standout as the witchy neighbor Florence Zimmerman, but Kyle McLachlan sadly has less to do as revenant wizard Isaac Izard. –KH

Housewife (Film, Turkey, Can Evrenol, 2017) After her mother’s murderous rampage traumatizes her in childhood, Holly (Clementine Poidatz) finds herself a passive, frightened woman taken for granted by her artist boyfriend Tim (Ali Aksöz) and pursued by motivational cult guru Bruce (David Sakurai). This modern giallo has all the virtues (haunting score, glorious palette and production design, visceral gore) and most of the vices (misogyny (here sorta subverted) and incoherence) of that genre. –KH

Mon Mon Mon Monsters (Film, Taiwan, Giddens Ko, 2017) Bullied high schooler becomes passively complicit when his tormentors, forced to hang out with him, capture a CHUD-like cannibal humanoid who used to be a young girl. Less a scary movie than a grim parable of power and cruelty filled with gore and horror motifs.—RDL

Necronomicon: The Book of Hell (Film, Argentina, Marcelo Schapces, 2018) When his neighbor the immortal protector of the Necronomicon dies, Buenos Aires National Library librarian Luis (Diego Velazquez) gets pulled into the resulting apocalypse. Individual shots and scenes work well, but the plot loses its thread early and never recovers; a clever invocation of Borges barely transcribes this film into Good. –KH


Corpse (Film, US, Christopher Ernst, 2018) Jealous cousin of a reality star Hillary Castaigne (Cara Loften) seeks fame while her model girlfriend Tess (Marion Le Coguic) falls victim to DNA rewritten by bioinformatician Boris (Doug Goldring) in this melange of Chambers’ Carcosa Mythos stories. I truly admire the notion of turning The King in Yellow into an art film, but Ernst’s reach pretty clearly exceeds his grasp here. The juxtapositions don’t create, they only confuse, and the story threads remain both uneven and unfinished. If you are a Carcosaholic, call it Worth Watching While Doing Something Else. –KH

Rules of Ruin (Film, Mexico, Victor Osuna, 2018) Workaholic translator Minerva (Yunuen Pardo) takes on the job of translating the titular grimoire, and invites possession and haunting by the Ancients. The human core story and Pardo’s dedicated performance keep you invested through a by-the-numbers plot, but the film doesn’t do what it could with the horror element, settling for by-the-numbers menace. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Haunting Docs and Shambolic Talk

October 2nd, 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.


Anthropocene: The Human Epoch (Canada, Jennifer Baichwal & Nicholas de Pencier & Edward Burtynsky, 2018) Documentary prowls the world depicting the massive scale of Homo sapiens’ alterations to the planetary environment. Titanic in its scope and paradoxical in the beauty of its hellishness—though the narration does not grapple with the way its visual language portrays humanity as a destructive invasive species in need of dramatic culling.—RDL. Seen at TIFF; now in limited theatrical release.

Dawson City: Frozen Time (Film, Canada, Bill Morrison, 2016) Collage technique uses archival footage, mostly from a recovered trove of silent films found buried in the Yukon permafrost, to tell the wild story of Dawson City and its early experience of cinema culture. A haunting ambient score turns what could be a quotidian tale of film preservation into a haunting meditation on images as messages from the past.—RDL

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (Film, UK, Paul McGuigan, 2017) Young Liverpudlian actor (Jamie Bell) has a romance with film star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) two decades after the peak of her career, only to discover that she’s been concealing a grave health problem. Bening, probably wisely, comes off more as a generalized fading movie icon than a likeness of Grahame. She and Bell deliver affecting performances and McGuigan adds a dash of style to what could have been a talky biopic.—RDL

The Good Place Season 2 (Television, NBC, Michael Schur, 2017) Having discovered that they are in the [[SPOILER]] Place, Eleanor and the gang reluctantly accept Michael’s help in avoiding the attentions of his fellow [[SPOILERS.]] Counters the dread sophomore slump with a significant change-up to its core formula, breaking new ground for the serialized sitcom.—RDL

Quincy (Film, US, Rashida Jones & Alan Hicks, 2018) Documentary interweaves chronological bio segments presenting the many careers and accomplishments of music legend Quincy Jones with an intimate present-day portrait of a hard-partying workaholic’s confrontation with the limitations of an aging body.—RDL


Norm Macdonald Has a Show Season 1 (Television, Netflix, 2018) It seems odd to think that an intentionally meandering, offputting, deconstructed talk show should be longer, but it should. Following the format of his old podcast, Norm takes his habitual talk-show-derailing affect to his own show with predictable consequences: when the guest can hang (like Michael Keaton or Jane Fonda) or fight back (David Spade, David Letterman) it’s great. When they can’t (Lorne Michaels), it’s shambolic. Most times, it’s kind of both. Recommended for full-tilt Macdonaldphiles, but the Norm sauce may be a bit too reduced for everyone to like the taste. –KH

The Tag-Along (Film, Taiwan, Cheng Wei-hao, 2015) Callow realtor, along with his girlfriend and grandma, run afoul of mosien, child-goblin-insect spirits who, after habitat encroachment on their mountainous forest homes, have expanded their range to prey on urbanites. Sublimation of Alzheimer’s fears overcomes the common stumbling block of ghost movies by having somewhere to escalate to in its third act.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Nic Cage Agonistes

September 25th, 2018 | Robin

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

The Pinnacle

Mandy (Film, US, Panos Cosmatos, 2018) A Manson-like cult leader (Linus Roache) allied with weird mutated bikers intrudes into the ominous forest idyll of an illustrator (Andrea Riseborough) and her lumberjack boyfriend (Nicolas Cage), prompting a mission of apocalyptic revenge. A doom-laden slow burn sets the stage for a upshift into ultraviolent Nic Cagery in this commanding, lysergic artsploitation flick.—RDL


BlacKkKlansman (Film, US, Spike Lee, 2018) In 1972, Ron Stallworth (John David Washington, wisely underplaying the role), the first black police officer in Colorado Springs, talks himself (literally) into the assignment of infiltrating the KKK. Lee’s didactic tendencies mar a movie that absolutely doesn’t need over-explaining, but the underlying power of the historical story, Lee’s indictment of cinema (specifically Birth of a Nation but also blaxploitation), and his presentation of varieties of black political action and life provide plenty of juice and body. Standout supporting performances from Adam Driver (as the Jewish officer who impersonates the “white Ron Stallworth”), Topher Grace (as a nebbishy David Duke), and Harry Belafonte (as lynching witness Jerome Turner) help it across the Recommended line. –KH

The Dream Years (Fiction, Lisa Goldstein, 1985) A Surrealist writer in 1920s Paris falls in love with a radical singer from forty years in the future. More a light fable than a full novelistic feast, and not as intense as some of her other work, but a lovely variation on themes of love, revolution, art, and temporality. –KH

Ex Libris: the New York Public Library (Film, US, Frederick Wiseman, 2017) Three and a half hour documentary presents an impressionistic portrait of the NYPL system, from after school programs at local branches to high-profile author appearances to executive meetings grappling with its changing mission in an e-information era. Wiseman uses his hallmark epic-length verite technique to compose a quietly compelling paean to vital social services.—RDL


Hell Baby (Film, US, Robert Ben Garant & Thomas Lennon, 2013) Expectant parents (Rob Corddry, Leslie Bibb) move into a decrepit New Orleans manor, the Maison de Sang, unaware that one of the twins in her womb is the spawn of Satan. Horror comedy packed with actors mostly from “The State” and “Childrens Hospital” knows its exorcism movie tropes and is always gleefully prepared to kill momentum to extend the premise of a scene beyond its limits. Keegan-Michael Key is particularly hilarious as an affable squatter with strong opinions about ghost dogs.—RDL

Predator 2 (Film, US, Stephen Hopkins, 1990) In the gang-plagued future Los Angeles of 1997, maverick cop Mike Harrigan (Danny Glover) takes the presence of a Predator (and a bigfooting federal task force headed by Gary Busey) personally. About half of this film is kind of brilliant, and half is kind of idiotic (including a sorta racist parallel between the Predator and Jamaican “Killer Voodoo” gangbangers) but on balance Glover keeps enough of the human shock and anger real to remain engaging throughout. RIP, Bill Paxton. –KH

Second Skin (Play, Kristin Idaszak, 2018) Three women tell their interlocking monologues on stage: a daughter (Stephanie Shum), her mother (Paula Ramirez), and a selkie (Hilary Williams). Idaszak’s stories and their tellers (especially Ramirez) compel in the moment, and the production design is first-rate, but the play — possibly because the characters never directly interact — doesn’t screw down the uncanny the way it could have. [Disclosure, ad, and brag: Runs through October 18 at the Den Theater in Chicago in a production by WildClaw Theatre, where I am an Artistic Associate.]


Lifeline (Film, Hong Kong, Johnnie To, 1997) Firefighters, led by soft-hearted maverick Lau Ching-Wan, perform rescues during a rough patch that has colleagues from other stations treating them as as ill-starred jinxes. To musters his mastery of space and movement to deliver thrilling firefighting sequences, particularly the final act set piece. Too bad no one rescued him from the emotionally off-key scripting of its irrelevant soap opera scenes.—RDL

The Predator (Film, US, Shane Black, 2018) Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) stumbles onto Predator-on-Predator conflict in Mexico but still manages to endanger his son because the first Predator’s ship crash landed near his house in America or something? I got nothing. The game cast (especially Keegan-Michael Key) doing their best “direct to video 80s movie” bits drag this squib up to Okay, but the muddled (and re-shot) script, murky fight direction, and unthinkable waste of Jake Busey do not help. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Golden-Eyed Vampire and a Predator

September 18th, 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.

Robin’s media consumption this week took place at the Toronto International Film Festival. Check out his capsule reviews here. Those reviews will reappear here when titles are released theatrically or on home video.


Predator (Film, US, John McTiernan, 1987) Tasked by CIA agent Dillon (Carl Weathers) to enter Nicaragua on an ostensible rescue mission, Special Forces major Dutch (Arnold Schwarzenegger) and his squad also enter the killing ground of an alien trophy hunter. Somehow I never saw this second film of McTiernan’s mind-bogglingly good first four. This one succeeds almost entirely on the back of McTiernan’s assured direction, although both Arnold’s control of his swaggering machismo and of its transformation into animal cunning are underrated. And man, nothing blows up like an 80s Commie base. –KH


Lake of Dracula (Film, Japan, Michio Yamamoto, 1971) Years after suffering a nightmarish vision of a golden-eyed vampire (Mori Kishida), Akiko (Midori Fujita) tries to paint her trauma by the side of a peaceful lake. Combining a Hitchcock-style psychoanalytic thriller with would-be Hammer Films action on a Toho Studios budget, the result comes off slightly disjointed but never boring. Watching it on the splendid, crisp Blu-Ray transfer by Arrow Films is Recommended. –KH

Operation Finale (Film, US, Chris Weitz, 2018) In 1960, Mossad agent Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) suffers from survivor’s guilt as he leads a team to kidnap Adolf Eichmann (Ben Kingsley) in Argentina for trial in Israel. The script, based on the memoirs of the real Israeli agents, wisely compresses historical time and offers some tasty dialogue, but doesn’t manage to fully cohere around either a heroic spycraft story a la Argo or a psychological exploration a la Munich. The implicitly promised actors’ duel between Isaac and Kingsley doesn’t quite come off, either. –KH

Not Recommended

In the Quarter (Fiction, Robert W. Chambers, 1894) As his fellow art students roister in Paris, Reginald Gethryn falls for a grisette despite the warnings of his older friend Braith. Lively and true to life in parts, this novel’s mild melodramatic joys do not make it past the two (two!!) stereotyped Jews who serve as the odious cardboard villains. At least Trilby has hypnotism to go with its anti-Semitism; Chambers just has local color, and it’s not even yellow. Some characters from this novel appear in the later stories in The King in Yellow, however. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Arch Playlets and an Investigating Organist

September 11th, 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.


Holy Disorders (Fiction, Edmund Crispin, 1945) Organist and composer Geoffrey Vintner faces thugs, infatuation, witches, Nazis, and murder in the cathedral town of Tolnbridge, so it’s a good thing that Gervase Fen is there to eventually solve the case. Notable for Crispin’s echoing (and name-checking) John Dickson Carr, who provides the Gothic bass to Fen’s eccentric treble. Not fully satisfying as a mystery novel, but brilliant and dark like a lightning storm at night. –KH

Nightmares and Nightcaps: The Stories of John Collier (Play, Edward Rutherford, 2018) Louche and haunted narrator (Kevin Webb) introduces six stories by the sly master, including my favorite of Collier’s, “Thus I Refute Beelzy.” Archly played, aiming for sometimes-incompatible creepiness and irony, the playlets can get broad at times privileging denouement over character depth. But the ensemble carries the moment, ably anchored by Webb. –KH [Playing through September 15 at the Athenaeum Theater in Chicago.]


Frequent Hearses (Fiction, Edmund Crispin, 1950) Gervase Fen investigates a murder spree touched off by the suicide of up-and-coming starlet Gloria Scott. Crispin’s own career writing movie scores provides ample and interesting color to this darkish mystery. When Fen disappears from the novel leaving Inspector Humbleby center stage, the narrative slows down and marks time. –KH

Jack Ryan Season 1 (Television, US, Amazon, Carlton Cuse and Graham Roland, 2018) CIA analyst Jack Ryan (John Krasinski) and his boss Jim Greer (Wendell Pierce) uncover a terrorist plot and find themselves thrust into the field to stop it. A solid throughline and confident directing — while nothing spectacular — undergird this fast-moving, basic modern-day thriller that closely replicates the experience of reading Tom Clancy novels. The season’s sole B-plot feels as pointless as it is, but at least it doesn’t take up much of your time. –KH

Rebel: My Life Outside the Lines (Nonfiction, Nick Nolte, 2018) The star of 48 HRS and Affliction details his storied acting career and anxiety-driven battle with various addictions. Sections of ghost writerly research alternate with others that feel like Nolte’s voice.—RDL

Sharp Objects (Television, HBO, Jean-Marc Vallée, 2018) Tailspinning reporter (Amy Adams) returns to her small Missouri town to cover a serial murder case, prompting a dark reckoning with her control-obsessed mother (Patricia Clarkson.) Ethereal imagery, impressionistic editing and committed performances lend realism to a crime novel plot driven by behavior engaged in by no humans ever.—RDL


Great Directors (Film, UK/France/Italy, Angela Ismailos) Documentarian interviews a roster of directors including Agnes Varda, David Lynch, Stephen Frears, Todd Lynch, Ken Loach and Liliana Cavani, with reverent but unfocused results. Bump up to Good if watched as an unchallenging appetizer to an upcoming 45-movie jaunt to one’s local international film festival.—RDL

Never So Few (Film, US, John Sturges, 1959) When not leading a liaison unit embedded with local Kachin forces in Burma, hardbitten army captain (Frank Sinatra) woos a shadowy profiteer’s worldly girlfriend (Gina Lollobrigida.) Two films with largely unrelated throughlines, a glossy romance and a fatalistic war epic, keep interrupting each other, leaving as the piece’s main virtue Sturges’ mastery of the Cinemascope frame and vivid 50s color palette. Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson appear in early supporting roles.—RDL

Film Cannister
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Flying Clock
Film Cannister