Abraham Lincoln

Archive for the ‘Audio Free’ Category

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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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.


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


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


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


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

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Velvets and Vourdalaks

February 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.

The Pinnacle

Phantom Thread (Film, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) A young woman (Vicky Krieps). the latest mode//lover to a tempermental fashion designer (Daniel Day Lewis), determines to surmount his plethora of emotional barriers, many of them abetted by his sister/business partner (Lesley Manville.) Sumptuous, sly exploration of the roles power and dependency play in love.—RDL


Birdland (Film, Canada, Peter Lynch, 2018) Cop undergoes  interrogation when her ornithologist husband is implicated in the murder of his mistress. Deconstructed crime drama with stylized acting, set in a version of Cronenberg’s noir Toronto updated to our new architectural era of coldly illuminated glass and steel.—RDL

The Night of the Devils (Film, Italy, Giorgio Ferroni, 1972) When his car breaks down in a remote Geman forest, a blindly rational lumber buyer takes refuge with a family of recluses just as they start to systematically vampirize one another. Modernized adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Family of the Vourdalak combines the literary atmospherics of the 60s gothic cycle with 70s gore and nudity.—RDL

Rocco and His Brothers (Film, Italy, Luchino Visconti, 1960) Strife tears apart a family of impoverished southern migrants to Milan when two of the brothers, violent wastrel Simone (Renato Salvatori) and saintly-to-a-fault Rocco (Alain Delon), in turn become involved with a worldly streetwalker (Annie Girardot.) Neorealist drama takes its time to set up its core situation, in a pacing choice showing its origins as a novel adaptation. Hold off on buying a copy until the freshly restored pristine 4K print appears on disc.—RDL


Playing Dead: a Journey Through the World of Death Fraud (Nonfiction, Elizabeth Greenwood, 2016) The author researches people who fake their demises and the investigators who track them down, then travels to the Philippines to acquire her own death certificate. Tour of the logistical and psychological limitations of pseudocide deals out its facts in a voice both confessional and tongue-in-cheek.—RDL

Not Recommended

Maudie (Film, Canada/Ireland, Aisling Walsh, 2017) Withdrawn woman (Sally Hawkins) breaks from her family’s protective disregard to move in with a reclusive fishmonger (Ethan Hawke), becoming an internationally recognized folk artist. Biopic of painter Maud Lewis arouses pity not for the characters, but for the actors, whose director betrays them by calling “print” on labored, tic-ridden performances. Canadian films often sentimentally idealize rural life or depict it as a grotesque hell; this does both!—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Giallo, Poliziotteschi and Mythic Churchill

January 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.


A Bay of Blood (Film, Italy, Mario Bava, 1971) Rival schemes for control of a valuable seaside property trigger a cascade of gruesome slayings. Marxist-nihilist giallo gives Bava a flesh-rending pretext to indulge his flair for pure cinema. The largely standalone second act, lifted from its surroundings, becomes the template for Friday the 13th and its host of slasher flick imitators. Also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve. —RDL

Caliber 9 (Film, Italy, Fernando di Leo, 1972) As Milan’s cops argue politics from the sidelines, a pardoned gangster resists the intimidation of ruthless money smugglers who think he stole $300,000 from them. Briskly brutal poliziotteschi with an eye for mod style and a dizzying third act that sucker-punches you right in the genre expectations.—RDL

Cartoon County (Nonfiction, Cullen Murphy, 2017) Vanity Fair editor (and former Prince Valiant writer) Murphy memorializes his cartoonist father John Cullen Murphy, artist of Big Ben Bolt and the post-Foster Prince Valiant, in the context of the cartoonists’ Fiddler’s Green that was postwar Fairfield County, Connecticut. There are better historians of comics, but few better writers, than Cullen Murphy in a pensive mood. –KH

Darkest Hour (Film, UK, Joe Wright, 2017) Wright’s playful cinematisms don’t shift this uncomplicated, not to say bald, narrative of national resolve that could as easily have been made in 1940 as in 2018, except that in 1940 it would have been about the Spanish Armada not WWII. Gary Oldman inhabits an iconic-hero version of Winston Churchill, in a larger-than-true-life performance that by itself justifies this 21st-century exercise in mythography. –KH

I Am Not Your Negro (Film, Switzerland/France, Raoul Peck, 2016) Documentary profile of writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin uses period interviews and excerpts from an unpublished work about Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and MLK to present his thoughts on the mythologies that justify black oppression. Skips the supplementary talking heads you’d expect from the format to power itself on to subtly layered narration by Samuel L. Jackson and an apt selection of archival and contemporary footage.—RDL

Yakuglas’ Legacy: the Art and Times of Charlie James (Nonfiction, Ronald W. Hawker, 2016) Survey of the style and influence of Charlie James (1867-1937), a key carver of masks and totems from the West Coast Kwakwaka’wakw people. Covers the ways in which his work and career adjusted to the Canadian government’s 1921 outlawing of the potlatch ceremony and confiscation of its ritual objects. Scholarly but accessible study provides insights into Kwakwaka’wakw mythology and James’ parallel efforts creating works for ceremonial use and for sale to outside collectors.—RDL


My Friend Dahmer (Film, US, Marc Meyers, 2017) Teen outcast Jeff Dahmer (Ross Lynch) becomes the ‘mascot’ of a clique of teen outsiders led by aspiring cartoonist John Backderf (Alex Wolff). In adapting Derf’s excellent graphic novel memoir, Meyers unwisely moves the center of the film from Derf’s adolescent cruelty to Dahmer’s unknowable void; the result is a movie that depends entirely on audience knowledge to really work. However, Lynch’s surprising physical acting turn as Jeff, Dallas Roberts’ heart-breaking performance as Jeff’s incapable father, and some really fine Seventies-esque color and camera work from Daniel Katz add enough to the scales to bump it to Good. –KH

Not Recommended

The Post (Film, US, Steven Spielberg, 2017) As Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) nervously shepherds a public offering for the company, editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) plays furious catch-up after the New York Times’ Pentagon Papers scoop. From a Creedence-blaring Nam opener to final shots out of a film noir parody, it’s the full cornball Spielberg who shows up to work for this one. Streep is a ham now and Hanks is worse.—RDL

The Shiver of the Vampires (Film, France, Jean Rollin, 1971) Honeymooners take a detour to a castle owned by the bride’s cousins, where they are preyed upon by its resident bloodsuckers. So, I decided to fill in a hole in my genre film awareness and check out a sample work by this divisive director of arty horror sexploitation. Conclusion: a groovy goth-surf score and an appealing color sense do not outweigh somnolent pacing, rudimentary plotting, pseudo-academic lecture breaks and community theater-level acting. If you’re watching this in 1973 at 3 AM in a dusk to dawn drive-in screening while stoned, sleep-deprived and making out with a hot date in the front seat of a Chevy Impala, upgrade to Okay.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Oscar Noms are Fine, Paul Thomas Anderson, But Here’s the Real Accolade

January 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.

The Pinnacle

Phantom Thread (Film, US, Paul Thomas Anderson, 2017) Couturier to the 1950s London elite Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) adds a new lover/model to his ensemble, Alma (Vicky Krieps). Her refusal to be relegated to backdrop, and the interplay of both with Reynolds’ sister/manager Cyril (Leslie Manville) drive the strangely Gothic comedy or arch drama to its sublime conclusion. Jonny Greenwood’s score and (of course) Mark Bridges’ costumes deepen and perfect this work of art about the work of art. –KH

Wormwood (Television, US, Errol Morris, Netflix) Through the eyes of the son who has never let it go, this documentary series probes into the 1953 death by defenestration of military research scientist Frank Olson, long linked to MK-ULTRA, the CIA program of LSD experimentation. Morris continues to expand the formal boundaries of the documentary, here using collage, mulit-cam split screen and dramatization sequences that use the full palette of cinema, from score and composition to the casting of such stellar actors as Peter Sarsgaard, Molly Parker and Tim Blake Nelson. Through these devices he brings forth a profound emotional resonance that could easily have gone missing amid the story’s labyrinthine layers of conspiracy.—RDL


Freak Out!: My Life with Frank Zappa (Nonfiction, Pauline Butcher, 2013) Memoir recounts counterculture chaos and personal intrigue that come with her job as personal secretary to the iconoclastic purveyor of hyper-sexualized jazz-rock-classical music from 1967-1970. Evocative inside view of its time and place retains an affection for its central figure even as it punctures his pseudointellectualism and hippie-era chauvinism.—RDL

Love, Nina (Nonfiction, Nina Stibbe, 2013) Young woman’s sparklingly snarky letters to her sister recount her life as a nanny to a literary family. Everyday moments from 80s London become compulsively readable thanks to the writer’s pinpoint comic ear and willingness to make herself look as nutty as anyone else she portrays. With guest appearances from such neighbors as Alan Bennett and Jonathan Miller.—RDL

Paleofantasy: What Evolution Really Tells Us about Sex, Diet, and How We Live (Nonfiction, Marlene Zuk, 2013) Evolutionary biologist surveys recent research challenging simplistic conceptions of early human existence and their supposed application to diet, exercise and gender roles today. Learn about the great ear wax divide, the anti-AIDS gene the Vikings spread, and the great overarching lesson of science: “uh, it’s complicated.” Although Zuk engages in a bit of straw-manning by poking fun at paleo beliefs as expressed by random internet commenters, those bits are more about comic relief than persuasion, so I’ll allow it.—RDL

Satan’s Town (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1956) When cruel yakuza boss Ohba (Ichiro Sugai) escapes from prison, honor compels his underling Hayasaki (Seizaburo Kawazu) to help him get enough money to flee to Hong Kong. Suzuki must have decided to jam as many noir elements as he could into his third film (his first yakuza picture) and that over-fullness feeds his innovation and experimentation in editing and shot composition. –KH


Harbor Toast: Victory in My Hands (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1956) Suzuki’s first film (also known as Victory is Mine) has flashes of interest and some neat framing shots, but it’s just a bog-standard B-picture about a jockey whose brother (a beached sailor) helps him out of a jam when he falls for a gangster’s woman. Bump it up to Good if you’re keen to spot the emerging genius in this factory film beginning. –KH

Proud Mary (Film, US, Babak Najafi, 2018) Taraji P. Henson does a creditable job as the titular Mary, an assassin for Danny Glover’s mob who impulsively starts a gang war with the Russians over a 12-year-old boy (Jahi Di’Allo). But even decent acting chops mean nothing slathered in murky lighting; the lackluster fight choreography and dull score slow this wan attempt at modern blaxploitation way down when it should be kicking out the jams. –KH

Fascinatingly Terrible

A Lady Without Passport (Film, US, Joseph H. Lewis, 1950) Risk-taking immigration officer (John Hodiak) on undercover assignment in Cuba investigates a sinister people smuggler (George Macready) and falls for a glamourous Buchenwald survivor (Hedy Lamarr.) Lewis (Gun Crazy) directs the hell out of a script that takes one weirdo turn after another in its struggle with the sympathy issues endemic to movies with immigration cop heroes. It must also be said that any film where George Macready plays an oily villain becomes automatically good whenever he occupies the screen.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: A Golem and a Gill-Man

January 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.


Creed (Film, US, Ryan Coogler, 2015) Impelled from childhood to prove himself with his fists, Apollo Creed’s son (Michael B. Jordan) quits his white collar job and moves to Philadelphia in hopes that a reluctant Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) will train him as a boxer. Coogler invests the dramatic bits with a refreshing honesty and naturalism, then demonstrates a similar mastery when the film climbs into the ring.—RDL

The Good Place Season 1 (Television, US, NBC, Michael Schur, 2016) Through a cosmic oversight, selfish telemarketer Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) finds herself in a cheerfully whimsical afterlife, overseen by a kindly, bow-tied immortal entity (Ted Danson.) Hard to think of anyone other than Schur who could pull off a delightful network sitcom that doubles as a 101 course on moral philosophy. William Jackson Harper is a particular revelation, pulling off the always difficult straight man role with precision and aplomb.—RDL

The Limehouse Golem (Film, UK, Juan Carlos Medina, 2017) In 1880, Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy) of Scotland Yard investigates the serial killer called the “Limehouse Golem,” and comes to believe that accused poisoner Elizabeth Cree (Olivia Cooke) holds the key. Scriptwriter Jane Goodman pulls off a tour de force adapting Peter Ackroyd’s brilliant original novel, which alludes not just to the Ripper but to the Ratcliff Highway murders, the Maybrick poisoning, and the whole “London tapestry.” Douglas Booth superbly plays (historical) transvestite comedian Dan Leno, the unlikely axis around which film and novel both pivot. –KH

The Shape of Water (Film, US, Guillermo del Toro, 2017) Sweet but lonely custodian (Sally Hawkins) develops a covert bond with a gill-man imprisoned at the Cold War scientific installation where she works as a custodian, placing her in danger with its brutal security chief (Michael Shannon.) Dark adult fairy tale reminds us that del Toro’s best ally is a tight script. A couple of years I might have dinged this a notch for obviousness, but what used to be heavy-handed allegory is now social realism.—RDL

Tokyo Drifter (Film, Japan, Seijun Suzuki, 1966) Tetsu (Tetsuya Watari), a deadly but reformed yakuza, must leave Tokyo to ensure the safety of his substitute father, former yakuza lord Kurata (Ryuji Kita), and the singer who loves him (Chieko Matsubara). Foes hunt Tetsu through increasingly heightened settings until the final insane shootout in a surrealistic white-painted nightclub. Suzuki responded to the constraints of budget and genre not just with the aforementioned surreal collage but by editing a film with a manga sensibility, a scene’s (or shot’s) action abruptly stopping once its “panel” has conveyed the story beat. –KH

Zero K (Fiction, Don DeLillo, 2016) A man who drifts between challenging but uninvolving jobs travels to a transhumanist outpost in Central Asia, where his ultra-rich father and terminally ill stepmother have made plans for her cryogenic preservation. Hypnotically compelling futurist vision, in which DeLillo demonstrates that your protagonist can be a passive observer if what’s being observed is sufficiently compelling. In a genre novel you’d be waiting for the mutants to break out of the secret lab and start eating people but this is a literary novel so you’re not.—RDL


The Anderson Tapes (Film, US, Sidney Lumet, 1971) Just-released ex-con burglar Duke Anderson (Sean Connery) decides to rob the ritzy apartment building his girlfriend (Dyan Cannon) lives in and assembles a crew (including Martin Balsam and Christopher Walken) unaware that his every move is being taped or filmed or both by the FBI, IRS, BNDD, HUAC, and a private detective agency. Lumet doesn’t do much with the surveillance motif (which was admittedly a gimmick even in the original novel) except clog up an otherwise terrific heist movie packed with great character actor turns. –KH

XTC: This is Pop (Film, UK, Roger Penny & Charlie Thomas, 2017) Career survey of the group behind such hits as “Making Plans for Nigel,” “Dear God,” and “Peter Pumpkinhead,” bookended by a hilarious anti-rockumentary rant by bandleader Andy Partridge. I was surprised to discover that they didn’t break in the US until “Dear God,” because they were big here in the tasteful wilds of Torontoland from the first album on.—RDL


Hostiles (Film, US, Scott Cooper, 2017) In 1892, U.S. Cavalry captain Joe Blocker (Christian Bale) must escort dying Cheyenne Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) from New Mexico to Montana. Cooper tries and fails to blend the cavalry Western with the nihilist road movie against majestic (albeit familiar) scenery beautifully lensed by Masanobu Takayanaki. Bale’s acting, and that of Rosamund Pike as a widow Blocker rescues along the way, try and fail to wring meaning from a facile story. –KH

I, Tonya (Film, US, Craig Gillespie, 2017) Casting figure skater Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as both harbinger of and scapegoat for America’s descent into folly, Gillespie wants to have his cake and eat it too: mock Harding and her possible co-conspirators as white trash idiots, while exalting her postmodern “truth” as the victim of abuse at the hands of her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and mother (Allison Janney). The result is a moral hash that also suffers from the standard flaws of the Worst Genre (the biopic); occasional stabs at meta-narration don’t add dimension or diversion to the story. Robbie and Janney’s performances carry the film on their backs, but it’s barely worth the effort. –KH

Kong: Skull Island (Film, US, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017) In the wake of the US pullout from Vietnam, a joint scientific/military survey of an uncharted island arouses the ire of its guardian, a titanic ape. Overstuffs its mix of disaster movie ethos and Apocalypse Now references with so many characters it forgets to make any of them its protagonist, coming to life only when John C. Reilly’s grizzled survivor character occupies the screen.—RDL

Not Recommended

7 Sisters (Film, UK/France/Belgium, Tommy Wirkola, 2017) Septuplets who pose as a single person (all played by Noomi Rapace) one day of the week apiece risk exposure in a totalitarian future Europe that ruthlessly enforces a one-child policy. Anti-abortion SF action thriller racks up a kill count not unlike Wirkola’s Dead Snow, but here it’s happening not to cartoonishly drawn dolts but to sympathetic characters played with grounded intensity by a compelling actor, to glumly punishing effect. Alternate title: What Happened To Monday.—RDL

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Vodka and Other Toxins

January 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 our new podcast segment, Tell Me More.


Brawl in Cell Block 99 (Film, US, S. Craig Zahler, 2017) Drug runner, badass, and devoted husband Bradley (Vince Vaughn) finds his options steadily closed off for the first three quarters of the film, until the titular brawl explodes bloodily and cathartically on screen. Superbly paced film feels much shorter than its 132-minute run time, while still providing Vaughn with more than enough space to inhabit Bradley’s stoicism. –KH

City of Light, City of Poison: Murder, Magic and the First Police Chief of Paris (Nonfiction, Holly Tucker, 2017) Police official Nicolas de La Reynie investigates a conspiracy implicating two of Louis XIV’s mistresses in a poisoning ring. Well-told popular history vividly evokes time and place while finding a clear narrative path through a notoriously twisty scandal. Unlike our Affair of the Poisons coverage, Tucker treats the occultism angle as a side issue, focusing instead on crime and punishment in Paris and sexual intrigue in the Sun King’s court.—RDL

Diabolical Fantasia: The Art of Der Orchideengarten: 1919 (Nonfiction, Thomas Negovan, 2017) The German magazine The Orchid Garden was Weird Tales before Weird Tales, only full of Weimar panache as well as Gothic grue. The art, here reproduced beautifully from the magazine’s first year, runs from the Gluyas Williams-esque cartoons of Paul Neu to moody linework by Rolf von Hoerschelmann and Heinrich Kley to poster weirdness from Otto Muck. It’s a little small for an art book, but it’s worth the price. –KH

Imperial Roman Warships 193-565 AD (Osprey New Vanguard #244) (Nonfiction, Raffaele D’Amato, 2017) With actual naval point defense, rather than pirate-chasing and river support, becoming necessary in late antiquity, Roman ships of the line evolved from classical triremes to the (liburnian-derived) faster, tougher dromon. Bolstered by an astonishing amount of period art and archaeological reconstructions, this should be your first stop for fantasy navies pre-gunpowder. –KH

The Wet and the Dry: A Drinker’s Journey (Nonfiction, Lawrence Osborne, 2013) The author tours the Islamic world to find out how hard it will be to drink there, prompting recollections of his devoted relationship to alcohol. Observes the world, and himself, with the acridity required from an upholder of the literary drinking man tradition.—RDL

Young & Beautiful (Film, France, Francois Ozon, 2013) 17-year-old (Marine Vach) escapes the smothering coziness of her bourgeois family to lead a double life as an escort. Naturalistic, though gorgeously lit, family drama observes its protagonist’s cryptic behavior from a careful remove.—RDL


Bad Penny Blues (Fiction, Cathi Unsworth, 2009) Amid the first glimmerings of swinging London, an honest copper and a fashion designer prone to horrible psychic dreams conduct parallel investigations into a string of serial killings. Uncorrupted heroes and paranormal elements lighten the Ellroy-inspired strain of  British historical/political crime fiction established by The Long Firm and the Red Riding Quartet.—RDL

Luck-Key (Film, South Korea, Lee Gae-byok, 2016) Through a turn of events involving a slippery bathhouse floor and a locker key, a flailing would-be actor trades lives with an amnesiac rich guy, not realizing that he’s a hitman. Charming light comedy hobbled by an over-intrusive comic score. Remake of the Japanese film The Key of Life, which I would rate a notch higher than this.—RDL


Free Fire (Film, UK, Ben Wheatley, 2017) An outside beef between henchmen sours a gun deal, sparking an extended gunfight in a grotty warehouse. The formal constraints of a film devoted to a single-location shootout call for a bravura use of space that lies outside Wheatley’s interests. Sharper dialogue would have helped, too.—RDL

Lady Bird (Film, US, Greta Gerwig, 2017) Sacramento high school senior (Saoirse Ronan) struggles for identity and autonomy against the compulsively controlling impulses of her perpetually panicked mom (Laurie Metcalf). The generosity of Gerwig’s character writing and charm of Ronan’s performance go a long way to conceal the extent to which the script’s structure embraces the congenital failings of the Worst Genre, the coming of age tale.—RDL

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