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Posts Tagged ‘Ken and Robin Consume Media’

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Phoebe-Waller Bridge, The Night Stalker, and the Great American Speed-Reading Hoax

February 2nd, 2021 | 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

Crashing Season 1 (Television, UK, Netflix, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, 2016) Twee trainwreck (Waller-Bridge) goes to London to visit the longtime friend (Jonathan Bailey) she absolutely, definitely, 100% isn’t in love with, staying at the condemned hospital where his fiancee and other charming neurotics live as short-term tenants. Fits PWB’s sensibility, later seen to its fullest in Fleabag, into an accessible sitcom format.—RDL

The Night Stalker: The Hunt for a Serial Killer (Television, US, Netflix, Tiller Russell, 2021) Four-part docuseries follows the two LA County Sheriff’s detectives who hunted serial killer Richard Ramirez in the summer of 1985. The focus on the detectives makes a refreshing change from the more usual killer-centric framing of true crime, and the length of the series actually accommodates the victims’ perspective as well. Russell even approaches the city itself as a frame, albeit sketchily. Not immune from the occasional misplaced glam effect (especially the fetishistic recreation of elements of crime scene photos) but pretty much a best-of-breed example of the genre. –KH

Scan Artist: How Evelyn Wood Convinced the World That Speed-Reading Worked (Nonfiction, Marcia Biederman, 2019) LDS go-getter with a flair for showmanship builds a business empire, mostly to the benefit of others, from the bogus practice of speed-reading. Parallels to eliptony abound as this keenly observed biography places Reading Dynamics in the storied tradition of all-American hucksterism.—RDL

The Visitor (Film, Italy, Antonio Pietrangeli, 1963) Lonely agricultural agent (Sandra Milo) invites a pinched, insecure big-city suitor (François Périer) to spend a day with her in her bumpkin-plagued small town. Milo brings touching depth to her character in this bittersweet comedy/drama.—RDL

Good

Havana Motor Club (Film, Cuba/US, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt, 2015) Cuban gearheads battle Party bureaucracy, and the fact that they only have a handful of vintage, heavily customized vehicles, in their bid to legalize car racing. Documentary covers a unique subculture at a point of transition with sympathy and humor.—RDL

Long Shot (Film, US, Jonathan Levine, 2019) Rabble-rousing journalist (Seth Rogen) signs on as speechwriter for his childhood crush (Charlize Theron), now the Secretary of State, as she lays the groundwork for a presidential campaign. Smart romcom offers a credible impediment to the leads’ coupledom. Gotta ding it a level for its stock climax, though.—RDL

Making Apes: The Artists Who Changed Film (Film, US, William Conlin, 2019) Documentary tells the history of the Planet of the Apes franchise from the point of view of its innovative prosthetic makeup artists. Like a feature-length special feature, except that it’s produced by one of the principal subjects rather than the studio, and thus leaves the dirt in.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Technothriller, a Western and the State of Curmudgeonry

January 26th, 2021 | 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 Bomb Maker (Fiction, Thomas Perry, 2018) When a genius demolitionist wipes out half the LA bomb squad, a calmly competent alumnus pauses his lucrative personal security business to take temporary command of the survivors. Tightly told technothriller keeps its people as plausible as its munitions.—RDL

Pretend it’s a City (Television, US, Netflix, Martin Scorsese, 2021) Once more Martin Scorsese talks to New York humorist Fran Lebowitz, this time in the form of a miniseries. Although it gives an enjoyable picture of Lebowitz’ current state of curmudgeonry, if you come to it cold you might slide off the staccato, sometimes facile structure: short episodes, very few long stories or observations, and (aside from a nearly beside-himself Spike Lee on the topic of sports) almost no pushback or even interplay by the occasional interviewers. Recommended for Lebowitz fans, Good for the Fran-curious. –KH

The Sisters Brothers (Film, France/US, Jacques Audiard, 2018) Notorious gunslinger brothers, one psychopathic (Joaquin Phoenix), the other increasingly reluctant (John C. Reilly), pursue a good-hearted chemist (Riz Ahmed) into gold country. Straightens out the picaresque plotting of the Patrick deWitt novel, swapping its cosmic irony for moody Manichaeism.—RDL

Good

Father of My Children (Film, France, Mia Hansen-Løve, 2009) Charming, driven film producer  (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) careens toward bankruptcy and a decision that will leave his loving wife and daughters in the lurch. Fictionalized evocation of the final days of a well-known French film figure, told with impressionistic naturalism.—RDL

Sisters of the Gion (Film, Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi, 1936) Geisha sisters, one sentimental, the other calculating, struggle for money and dignity, and against the folly of their self-deluding patrons. A sort of preparatory sketch for his later classic Street of Shame shows Mizoguchi’s unusually clear-eyed understanding of the sex trade.—RDL

Those Who Came Back (Film, Mexico, Alejandro Galindo, 1948) Passengers and crew of a plane downed in the Amazon rainforest establish a new community as hope of rescue dims. Sets up the template for aviation disaster movies before establishing itself as a moral fable.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Queen’s Gambit, Sabrina, and Fran & Marty Talk About Stuff

January 19th, 2021 | 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 Queen’s Gambit (Television Miniseries, US, Netflix, Scott Frank, 2020)  Child genius (Isla Johnston) Introduced to chess and substance abuse during her time in an orphanage grows up into a killer player (Anya Taylor-Joy) mowing down an array of male opponents on her way to an epic confrontation with her cold-eyed Soviet nemesis. From gorgeous production design to a star-making performance from Taylor-Joy, to the stunning achievement of making not just a few but many chess games cinematically riveting, this Walter Tevis adaptation excels on every level.—RDL

Recommended

Barry Sonnenfeld, Call Your Mother (Nonfiction, Barry Sonnenfeld, 2020) In a series of well-honed, often hilarious, always unsparing, anecdotes, the director of Men in Black and Get Shorty recounts his adventures in film and the upbringing that made him into the industry’s most notorious bundle of neuroses.—RDL

Pretend It’s a City (Television Miniseries, US, Netflix, Martin Scorsese, 2021) Following a train of thought not unlike the one that led to a certain podcast, Scorsese turns his enjoyment of hanging out with acerbic writer and speaker Fran Lebowitz into seven episodes of delightful snark on such erudite topics as book ownership, talent, transit, and the then-and-now of New York City.—RDL

Good

Mank (Film, US, David Fincher, 2020) While bedridden, Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) looks back on his drunken, cynical career and attempts to justify it by writing Citizen Kane. A movie about the evils of the Big Lie committing a Big Lie itself, a movie about idiosyncratic lefty genius that tries to hollow out Orson Welles (a downright elderly Tom Burke) while riding his coattails — the flaws of this film don’t stop with the stagy, tell-don’t-show, talky screenplay (by Fincher’s dad). But Fincher loves shooting in black and white, and Amanda Seyfried (as Marion Davies) like Oldman often overcomes the material. The period-style score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross swings along, too. –KH

Okay

The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina Season (Television, US, Netflix, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, 2021) Sabrina and gang take on a succession of eldritch horrors intent on cosmic destruction, including one of deeply familiar octopoid aspect. Idiot plotting and time-killing musical numbers foretell a structural waywardness leading to a classic instance of series finale letdown.—RDL

The Cotton Club Encore (Film, US, Francis Ford Coppola, 1984 / 2017) Stardom-bound cornet player (Richard Gere) becomes an unwilling errand boy for Dutch Schultz (James Remar) and falls for his girl (Diane Lane) as ambitious hoofer (Gregory Hines) woos a singer at the eponymous, mob-run nightclub. Coppola again shows his interest in scenes over narrative, in a film with a way longer run time than any of the 30s movies it homages.—RDL

Sylvie’s Love (Film, US, Eugene Ashe, 2020) Amid the cool glamour of 50s New York, an aspiring TV producer (Tessa Thompson) catches feelings for the stardom-bound sax player (Nnamdi Asomugha) who takes a day job in her dad’s record store. Lush romantic drama switches throughlines for its final act, a feat more readily accomplished in prose fiction than within the unforgiving confines of the screenplay format.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Discovery, WW84, and Korean Time Phone Horror

January 12th, 2021 | 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 Call (Film, South Korea, Lee Chung-hyun, 2020) Returning to her mom’s house while she’s in the hospital, a young woman receives a series of landline calls from inside the house—and from 20 years in the past. Tense timey-wimey horror thriller keeps the twists coming and the tension ratcheting.—RDL

Death Takes a Holiday (Film, US, Mitchell Leisen, 1934) To experience life as a mortal, the grim reaper (Fredric March) takes on mortal form for a long weekend as an aristocrat’s guest, falling for a restless ingenue (Evelyn Venable.) Stagy but atmospheric adaptation of an interwar Italian play that marries Symbolist and Romantic motifs.—RDL

Valdez is Coming (Fiction, Elmore Leonard, 1970) Mild-seeming town constable reveals the killer inside him when a cattle baron maneuvers him into gunning down an innocent man and then refuses to compensate his widow. Laconic western fable of racism and gun-handling expertise.—RDL

The Widow Couderc (Film, France, Pierre Granier-Deferre, 1974) Escaped convict (Alain Delon) hides out as farmhand to a lonely widow (Simone Signoret) whose former in-laws hope to push her out of her home. Naturalistic rural noir set against a background of rising fascim, based on a Simenon novel.—RDL

Good

Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (Television, US, CBS All Access, Alex Kurtzman & Michelle Paradise, 2020-2021) The Discovery crew signs up to fix a gritty far future where an interstellar catastrophe has reduced the Federation to a vestige of its former glory. Every season of Discovery becomes a markedly different show, finding new ways to get Trek right, while also embracing another narrative bête noire—this time, relentless cheerleading for its heroes. Star Sonequa Martin-Green dares to escalate her performance to Shatnerian heights.—RDL

Okay

Vampires vs. the Bronx (Film, US, Oz Rodriguez, 2020) Area tweens (Jaden Michael, Gerald W. Jones III, Gregory Diaz IV) notice vampires behind the gentrification of their Bronx neighborhood and fight back. “What if Lost Boys, but just about the Frog Brothers and in the Bronx” could still have worked, but not with the tiny budget and un-terrifying vampires available. It’s hard to blame the child actors for not doing better with the metronomic script, but they’re no Stranger Things kids. Points given for Method Man as a priest and for actually going there and using the Eucharist wafer as a plot coupon. –KH

Wonder Woman 1984 (Film, US, Patty Jenkins, 2020) When the Dreamstone resurfaces in 1984 Washington DC, Diana (Gal Gadot) wishing for the return of Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) is only the first thing that goes wrong. Random clumps of ill-thought-out scenes (including literally handwaving the invisible plane) capped by whatever the opposite of sticking the landing is may authentically recall Bronze Age comics, but it’s not always good movie making. Although Gadot and Pine remain great, Jenkins whiffs badly on the villains: Kristen Wiig twitches endlessly as proto-Cheetah, and Pedro Pascal (possibly overcompensating for his Mando minimalism) somehow hits every wrong note as Maxwell Lord. Jenkins’ fight and action scenes also suffer by comparison with the first film, regressing to the mean with a vengeance. –KH

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Wonder Woman, Palm Springs, Midnight Sky

January 5th, 2021 | 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 Book of Lamps and Banners (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2020) Increasingly strung-out punk photographer Cass Neary tries to leverage the hunt for a rare occult manuscript into a payout for her and her lover, but of course murderous complications intervene. Hand presents all four books in the series as rapid frames in Neary’s dramatic dissolution rather than episodes in an iconic hero’s career; this one, therefore, has to manage the trick of shifting Neary into her final stage without derailing its momentum. Fortunately, the titular Book (and the weird tech implications Hand gives it) have enough power to drive the novel around the turn. –KH

Joe Gould’s Teeth (Nonfiction, Jill Lepore, 2015) As a demonstration of the biographical researcher’s art, Lepore delves into a great unanswered question of New York literary lore—whether portions of the allegedly massive oral history of everything by literary eccentric Joe Gould, as made famous in two iconic Joseph Mitchell New Yorker articles, survive or ever existed. What she discovers deromanticizes Gould’s madness, revealing him as both a victim of institutional psychiatry and a harasser and stalker.—RDL

The Night Comes For Us (Film, Indonesia, Timo Tjahjanto, 2018) Triad enforcer (Joe Taslim) goes rogue to protect a girl he’s orphaned, endangering his friends and setting up a showdown with his former running buddy (Iko Uwais.) Artfully shot grand guignol martial arts action from alumni of The Raid showcases top-notch prop/improvised weapon use.—RDL

Palm Springs (Film, US, Max Barbacow, 2020) Checked-out wedding guest (Adam Sandberg) fails to prevent the sister of the bride (Cristin Miliotti) from entering the infinite time loop he’s trapped in. Charming, funny romcom assumes you’ve seen a time loop movie before and makes clever hay with those expectations.—RDL

Good

The Evidence for Phantom Hitch-Hikers (Nonfiction, Michael Goss, 1984) This short treatise applies the standards of parapsychology, rather than the usual standards of folklore studies, to three specific incident groups in the UK. An interesting exercise, which would be Recommended had Goss expanded the scope of his treatise to any of the main American incidents or to more complete coverage of the myth-pattern he scants in his last chapter. –KH

The Manifestations of Sherlock Holmes (Fiction, James Lovegrove, 2020) Twelve short stories of Sherlock Holmes’ adventures, half of them “normal” pastiches, two told by minor Holmesian figures (Toby the dog and rival detective Clarence Barker), and four nerdtroped in some way: Lovecraft, Stevenson, Doyle again (Prof. Challenger and a murderous pterodactyl), and supers. “The Adventure of the Botanist’s Glove” is by far the best in the collection, and “The Adventure of the Yithian Stone” while too full of exposition does offer a nicely cruel glancing view of the Mythos. None of them are overtly bad (two Recommended, three Okay), but Lovegrove’s Doyle-voice quavers a bit even at the best of times. –KH

Shazam! (Film, US, David F. Sandberg, 2019) Resistant foster kid (Asher Angel) gains the ability to transform into an adult-shaped superhero (Zachary Levi.) Fun, cape-wearing riff on Big bookended by the usual over-elaborated exposition and CGI final fight sequence of superhero origin movies.—RDL

WW84 (Film, US, Patty Jenkins, 2020) In the era of pastel shades and high-cut leotards, a lonely Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) deals with the fallout when a wishing stone falls into the hands of an awkward pal (Kristen Wiig) and a wannabe tycoon (Pedro Pascal). Jenkins takes DC movies full circle to the lighthearted tone of the Donner/Lester Superman flicks—bringing with it their disjointed storytelling. Over time WW84 may come to be appreciated for its sincere dedication to weirdness, which is two thirds attributable to picking scenes and set pieces and trying to shoehorn them into a narrative, and one third from the freaky ghost of William Moulton Marston manifesting into the material.—RDL

Not Recommended

The Midnight Sky (Film, US, George Clooney, 2020) Terminally ill researcher (Clooney) remains behind on an Antarctic base to warn a returning spaceship crew to turn around, avoiding the devastation that has destroyed the world during their journey. An unrelieved series of down beats substitute dourness for profundity, with the entire proceedings wrapped around a leaden, cheap reveal.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Hand, le Carre, and, once more, The Mandalorian

December 29th, 2020 | 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

Curious Toys (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2019) Living in Chicago’s Riverview amusement park in 1915, gamine Pin stumbles onto a serial killer of young girls. Featuring cameos by Charlie Chaplin and Ben Hecht, Hand’s assured thriller prods and pokes (and gazes) at femininity and the images thereof. Story elements such as Chicago’s film industry and especially Pin’s erratic confidant Henry Darger bring those themes effortlessly into focus. –KH

Hard Light (Fiction, Elizabeth Hand, 2016) Pill-popping punk photographer Cass Neary gets dragooned into a series of murders with roots in the 1970s groupie scene and in an experimental occult film shot in Cornwall. Hand’s almost-occult crime series again satisfyingly walks several high-wires: broken but appealing protagonist, forgotten past and collapsing present, crime and horror. Hand’s Cass Neary series by now withstands comparison to William Gibson’s Bigend trilogy. –KH

Hunter with Harpoon (Fiction, Markoosie Patsauq, 1970) Inuit hunters embark on a deadly journey to find and kill a rogue polar bear. Harrowing novella of life and death in an unforgiving environment, packed with incident and told with startling, straightforward authority.—RDL

Lord of Light (Fiction, Roger Zelazny, 1967) The Buddha attempts to destroy the rule of the Hindu gods; alternately, an immortal culture-jamming spaceship crewman named Sam sabotages his fellow immortals’ attempt to keep their descendants’ planet culturally static. Zelazny deliberately wrote this SF novel in a fantasy register, or vice versa, in a critical test of Clarke’s Third Law. Cosmic scope packed into 250-odd pages makes for a heady read, as does Zelazny at the height of control over his own style. –KH

The Mandalorian Season 2 (Television, US, Jon Favreau, Disney+, 2020) Mandalorian fundamentalist (Pedro Pascal) quests to fulfill his geas and return Grogu (Baby Yoda) to the Jedi for further training. Punchy, minimalist episodes (again inspired by 1960s serial TV such as The Rifleman and Kung Fu) let the production design and interstitial dialogue build upon (and build out) the Star Wars universe while the themes (and Ludwig Göransson’s theme) carry the emotional weight. All this, plus the return of Space Bill Burr! –KH

A Perfect Spy (Fiction, John le Carré, 1986) When his con man father dies, the M16 Head of Station in Vienna drops out of sight with the embassy burnbox, to write a memoir addressed to his son and his mentor. Literary fiction techniques come to the fore in this quasi-autobiographical novel from the tail end of le Carré’s Cold War phase.—RDL

La tête d’un homme [A Man’s Head] (Film, France, Julien Duvivier, 1933) Chief Inspector Maigret (Harry Baur) suspects that the bumpkinish delivery man arrested for the murder of a wealthy American matron is merely a patsy. Simenon adaptation builds from clipped police procedural to a crescendo of expressionist dread and melancholy.—RDL

Good

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life (Nonfiction, John Le Carré, 2016) The celebrated spy novelist presents his finest anecdotes about his encounters with heads of state, warlords, movie people, and other shady characters. With the possible exception of his piece on his con man father, the real David Cornwell remains as staunchly in the background as George Smiley ever could.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Mandalorian, Ma Rainey and Streep/Soderbergh

December 22nd, 2020 | 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

Let Them All Talk (Film, US, Steven Soderbergh, 2020) Superstar literary author (Meryl Streep) invites formerly close friends, the centered Susan (Dianne Wiest) and desperate, embittered Roberta (Candice Bergen) on a transatlantic cruise. Multiple unanswered questions lend narrative suspense to deceptively light drama driven by improvised dialogue. Soderbergh makes canny use of Streep’s star persona.—RDL

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Film, US, George C. Wolfe, 2020) At a Chicago recording date for indomitable blues performer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) an ambitious young trumpeter (Chadwick Boseman) makes his grab for stardom. Wolfe’s darting camera bridges the cinematic and the theatrical to give this contemporary stage classic a filmed treatment in accordance with its stature. This difficult feat requires electric performances, which Davis and Boseman unsurprisingly deliver.—RDL

The Mandalorian Season 2 (Television, US, Jon Favreau, Disney+, 2020) Aided along the way by a rotating roster of bad-asses, the Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) seeks a Jedi to take custody of the Kid. Lives up to the brilliance of the first season by keeping its arc the simplest of strings to connect independently satisfying episodes. Also of note: the way it leans into the cruelty of the setting, which the franchise has been fleeing since the Ewoks showed up. Where do I fall on the thing that happens at the end? I had both reactions!—RDL

The Two-Penny Bar (Fiction, Georges Simenon, 1932) Acting on a tip from a condemned prisoner regarding an old murder, Inspector Maigret infiltrates a community of Sunday revelers. The Maigret books don’t need to be read in order, making this structurally straight ahead entry, as usual favoring social observation over a puzzling mystery, an excellent starting point.—RDL

Good

The Flight Attendant Season 1 (Television, US, Steve Yockey, HBOMax, 2020) After a night of sex with millionaire passenger Alex (Michiel Huisman), alcoholic mess/flight attendant Cassie (Kaley Cuoco) wakes up next to his murdered corpse. This series wants so badly to channel Hitchcock’s mid-period neo-screwball man-on-the-run films that you kind of root for it. (It’s far from easy — even Stanley Donen just barely did it once!) Cuoco’s comedy experience gives her the needed timing in the role, and Cassie’s traumatic mental collapse (illustrated among other things by Alex reappearing to her throughout) mostly plays well. Zosia Mamet as her lawyer/best friend is a treat, too. But four hours (tops) of story across eight episodes means some arbitrary choices, second-tier dialogue, and (of course) divagating subplots. –KH

Okay

Autumn Leaves (Film, US, Robert Aldrich, 1956) Lonely typist (Joan Crawford) discovers the pathological side of her quick-talking young suitor (Cliff Robertson) only after she marries him. Aldrich, a specialist in caustic portrayals of tormented people, undercuts the therapeutic message of the script’s final act with every fiber of his noirish being.—RDL

Mannequin (Film, US, Frank Borzage, 1937) Anxious to escape poverty, a hard-working seamstress (Joan Crawford) marries a no-good fight promoter (Alan Curtis) who pushes her into the arms of a besotted shipping magnate (Spencer Tracy.) The antagonist never offers a credible threat to the happiness of the leads in this well-directed romantic melodrama.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Leary in Love, Selena in the Zoom Kitchen

December 15th, 2020 | 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

My Psychedelic Love Story (Film, US, Errol Morris, 2020) Joanna Harcourt-Smith recounts her cameo-studded tale of lysergic acid and international intrigue as Timothy Leary’s lover and confidant from his fugitive years to his coming out as an FBI informant. Master documentarian Morris gives the archival clips and images suitably trippy graphic treatment while hewing closely to his protagonist and her story.—RDL

Strange Cargo (Film, US, Frank Borzage, 1940) Irresistible hardened criminal (Clark Gable) escapes from the French Guiana penal colony, accompanied by a tough saloon performer (Joan Crawford) and a mysteriously prophetic Bible-toter (Ian Hunter.) Expressionistic parable of survival and redemption.—RDL

The Way of the Knife: The CIA, a Secret Army, and a War at the Ends of the Earth  (Nonfiction, Mark Mazzetti, 2013) The Global War on Terror sends the eternal CIA pendulum between analyst and cowboy swinging hard to the latter, as it transforms into a people-killing agency intertwined with the Pentagon. This ably organized account of post-9/11 to Obama spy games crisply paints a cast of bureaucratic infighters, freelancers and loose cannons.—RDL

Good

Selena + Chef Season 1 (Television, US, HBOMax, Aaron Saidman, 2020) Pop star and cooking novice Selena Gomez makes dishes under the Zoom supervision of LA chefs. Provides suitable amounts of Selena, chefs, and cooking to fit the bill — it won’t really rock the world of any experienced home cook, but that’s not really its job. Attempts at byplay with Selena’s family and friends mostly stay out of the way of the cooking. –KH

Under Occupation (Fiction, Alan Furst, 2019) In 1942 Paris, thriller writer Paul Ricard stumbles into a Resistance operation and joins up. Ricard’s story is not so much a novelistic arc as a series of episodes, some gripping some oblique; Furst’s (still considerable) gift for evocative description is all some stretches have going for them. Furst should probably be praised for avoiding the “real thriller echoes fake Ambler thriller” throughline, but should not be left off the hook for avoiding a throughline altogether. –KH

When Pigs Fly (Film, Germany/US, Sara Driver, 1993) In a rough hewn town somehow both in New Jersey and in Ireland, the gift of a haunted chair saddles an alcoholic jazzman (Alfred Molina) with ghostly houseguests, a child and a bartender (Marianne Faithfull) he once knew. Ramshackle hipster ghost comedy alternates whimsy and melancholy. —RDL

Not Recommended

Evelyn Prentice (Film, US, William K. Howard, 1934) Brilliant attorney (William Powell) defends a young woman charged with the murder of a cad, not knowing that his neglected wife (Myrna Loy) was also dallying with the victim.  Most 30s movies turn into hot nonsense the moment they enter a courtroom and that’s certainly true of this labored melodrama, which gives the frequent costars little opportunity to sparkle together.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Vintage European Noir and Genre

December 1st, 2020 | 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

… And the Fifth Horseman is Fear (Film, Czechoslovakia, Zbyněk Brynych, 1965) Forbidden to practice medicine and seeking only to avoid the eye of the government, Dr. Braun (Miroslav Macháček) nevertheless sets out on a perilous quest for morphine to treat a wounded resistance fighter. Every frame and shot of this film and more (especially the discordant sound design and score) channels and accentuates unease, shading into surreal paranoia. The film pitilessly exposes compromise for what it is while spotlighting a system that makes simple humanity immoral and impossible. Ostensibly set during the Nazi occupation, but filmed without historical costumes or trappings to indict the Communist Party as well. –KH

Recommended

Arcana (Film, Italy, Giulio Questi, 1972) Money-hungry fortune teller (Lucia Bosè) fails to entirely discourage her hot, fey son as he schemes toward an enigmatic inbreak of apocalyptic witchcraft. Surreal Marxist psychosexual urban folk horror benefits from the occasional jaggedness of its execution.—RDL

Ashes and Diamonds (Film, Poland, Andrzej Wajda, 1958) On the night of V-E Day, Polish Home Army fighter Maciek (Zbigniew Cybulski) gets the order to assassinate the new Communist commissar of a small town. Subverts the Communist propaganda of the source novel by casting the charismatic Cybulski and focusing on his moral struggle between duty and love, and includes powerful imagery that resonates through every major successive Polish film (and then some). A beautiful near-Pinnacle; only the lengthy subplot about a double-dealing apparatchik slackens its power. –KH

Black Gravel (Film, West Germany, Helmut Käutner, 1961) Truck-driver Neidhart (Helmut Wildt) finds his carefully compartmented life and his black-market gravel scheme unraveling after his ex-girlfriend Inge (Ingmar Zeisberg) comes back to town as the wife of a USAF Major. Neidhart is a fascinating noir protagonist, as he’s not the classic “man who makes one mistake” but a man who only ever acts slightly better than you expect. Käutner’s bleak portrayal of contemporary German society implies he thinks Germany suffers even by that comparison. Unfairly neglected and denigrated by the New Wave. –KH

The Devil Strikes at Night (Film, West Germany, Robert Siodmak, 1957) In 1944, Berlin police commander Kersten (Claus Holm) tracks a serial killer that the SS and Party don’t want to admit exists. Based on the historical Bruno Lüdke case, Siodmak uses noir conventions to transform a policier into the uncovering of societal evil and incompetence. Slightly arbitrary plotting (and an off-kilter love story for Kersten) yields to the pleasures of the redirected signifier. –KH

Le Doulos (Film, France, Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962) Ex-con Maurice (Serge Reggiani) doesn’t know who he can trust, and given that his best friend Silien (Jean-Paul Belmondo) talks to the cops, who can blame him? “Le Doulos” means “the informer,” and much of the movie plays out as a series of ultra-cool scenes that don’t get Maurice (or the audience) any closer to understanding who’s informing or what’s going on. Just enjoy the ride and let Melville tell you when he wants to. –KH

The Facts of Murder (Film, Italy, Pietro Germi, 1959) Inspector Ingravallo (Germi) of the Rome police doggedly investigates a burglary and a murder that happened a week apart in next-door houses, and suspects a connection. Claudia Cardinale takes over the screen as a housemaid; the script hints at even darker secrets left not-quite-hidden. Germi resolves the contradictions between neo-realism and noir by playing up their common features: stern morality, black-and-white starkness (mirrored in the “high and low” sets), and pitiful motives. –KH

Four Ways Out (Film, Italy, Pietro Germi, 1951) Four thieves rob a soccer stadium and split up; the film follows their various attempts to escape the law and their own inner demons. Slightly repetitive structure still works thanks to well-drawn characters and a modicum of interwoven stories. Gina Lollobrigida gets top billing for a brief guest role; Cosetta Greco actually deserves it as one thief’s proud wife. –KH

Story of a Love Affair (Film, Italy, Michelangelo Antonioni, 1950) Private eye Carloni (Gino Rossi) uncovers a deadly secret while investigating a millionaire’s wife Paola (Lucia Bosè), driving her old lover Guido (Massimo Girotti) to reconnect with her. Antonioni’s first feature, a loose riff on The Postman Always Rings Twice, is a sheer joy to look at. He refuses to show anything straight-on, except for Bosè (a former Miss Italy who he was sleeping with), creating a vertiginous quality enhanced by the jazzy score. –KH

Good

L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home (Nonfiction, David Lebovitz, 2017) Baker and pastry chef Lebovitz returns with another hilarious, recipe-strewn account of the multitudinous exasperations Paris throws at Americans who dare to live there, this time when he makes a host of rookie mistakes buying and renovating an apartment.—RDL

Okay

May God Forgive You… But I Won’t (Film, Italy, Vincenzo Musolino, 1968) Fast-drawing rancher (George Ardisson) systematically avenges the murders of his family. Racks up a John Woo-level body count as it pushes Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western framework to almost Gothic extremes. The protagonist is called Cjamango McDonald, a totally real name that actual people would in fact have.—RDL

Not Recommended

Bitter Rice (Film, US, Giuseppe De Santis, 1949) On the lam after a jewel robbery, a woman (Doris Dowling) escapes pursuit by throwing in with seasonal rice pickers, arousing the jealousy of a hot-blooded rival (Silvana Mangano.) The schlock instincts of producer Dino De Laurentiis bubble up into this lurid rural noir as it struggles against its socially responsible Neorealist outer layer.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Dickinson & Noir from Around the World

November 24th, 2020 | 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

Any Number Can Win (Film, France/Italy/US, Henri Verneuil, 1963) Aging ex-con Charles (Jean Gabin) recruits hot-blooded young ex-con Francis (Alain Delon) for one last perfect job: a casino robbery on the Riviera. Verneuil uses the acting to drive the story, allowing the script to beautifully lay out the heist and its obstacles; low-key tension throughout flares up in a final tour-de-force scene. –KH

Recommended

The Assistant (Film, US, Kitty Green, 2020) Diligent film company assistant (Julia Garner) can’t help but spot the accumulating evidence of its top exec’s extensive sexual harassment. Exacting, hyper-naturalistic examination of the ambient complicity baked into most any work hierarchy.—RDL

Cold War (Film, Poland, Paweł Pawlikowski, 2018) The tumultuous love of a musical director (Tomasz Kot) and a singer (Joanna Kulig) play out over many years on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Drama of hurtful love between people whose relationship only works under external oppression, with crystalline black and white photography by Łukasz Żal.—RDL

Dickinson (Television, US, Alena Smith, Apple+, 2019) Between colloquies with Death (Wiz Khalifa) in his ghostly carriage, teen poet Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) defies her loving but forbidding father (Toby Huss), loves her brother’s fiancee (Ella Hunt), and generally commits to keeping it weird. Biographical comedy knocks the stuffiness from the 19th century with contemporary dialogue and needle drops, with emotionally truthful performances from Steinfeld and cast to keep the archness at bay. Zosia Mamet and John Mulaney vie for funniest guest spot honors as commercially-minded Louisa May Alcott and pompous dickweed Henry Thoreau.—RDL

Leave Her to Heaven (Film, US, John M. Stahl, 1945) Obsessive beauty Ellen (Gene Tierney) latches onto writer Richard (Cornel Wilde) and does anything to keep him for herself. Lush Technicolor and surging melodrama lull you into watching perhaps the most blood-freezing murder scene in American film history. Even a pre-plummy Vincent Price as a fixated D.A. can’t equal the threat of Gene Tierney in tortoiseshell shades. –KH

Out of the Dark (Fiction, Patrick Modiano, 1996) In mid-60s Paris, a callow bookhound falls for the magnetically elusive girlfriend of a small-time gambler. Sparely told tale of love and memory with noirish undertones.—RDL

Panique (Film, France, Julien Duvivier, 1947) Local ne’er-do-wells Alice (Viviane Romance) and Alfred (Paul Bernard) frame sad-sack Monsieur Hire (Michel Simon) for murder in a lovely clockwork noir based on a Simenon novel. Simon’s performance, alternately off-putting and sympathetic, establishes the human truth at the heart of the story. –KH

Penn & Teller: Fool Us, Season 7 (Television, US, Penn Jillette & Teller, CW, 2020) Magicians Penn and Teller invite fellow magicians to perform a trick; they try to figure out how it’s done. Basically a variety/competition show, except with generosity, wonder, and kindness as the emotional keys. I find its world of professionalism, history, fellowship, and honesty makes for ideal lockdown viewing; I picked this season just because it’s the most recent one I’ve watched, but they’re all Recommended. –KH

Good

Razzia sur la Chnouf (Film, France, Henri Decoin, 1955) Gangster Henri Ferre (Jean Gabin) returns from America to take a crucial middle-management role in a heroin ring getting slack. Gorgeously shot, this  hangout film of the French drug underworld keeps us at a distance as Henri seemingly tours aimlessly through his new empire. The last act tightens considerably, though almost arbitrarily, so I’m not sure the combo scores. Marc Lanjean’s jazzy score absolutely scores, though. –KH

Rusty Knife (Film, Japan, Toshio Masuda, 1958) While the cops fruitlessly try to bust local yakuza boss Katsumata, ex-con (and ex-yakuza) Tachibana (Yujiro Ishihara) tries to keep his murderous rage from boiling over. Like many Nikkatsu directors of the era, Masuda ladles on scenes and developments without any particular care for logic or tone, creating a layered urban setting almost despite himself. The underplayed yet powerful romance between Tachibana and a pretty journalist on the crime beat provides a throughline if you want one. –KH

Not Recommended

Ad Astra (Film, US, James Gray, 2019) Spacecom sends closed-off astronaut (Brad Pitt) on a mission to contact his father (Tommy Lee Jones), whose long-lost craft is bathing the Earth in deadly cosmic radiation. Centering a heaping serving of daddy issues inside a pastiche of 2001 and Heart of Darkness, this exemplifies the very specific kind of bad that results when talented filmmakers devote wholehearted seriousness to a dumb idea.—RDL

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