Abraham Lincoln

Ken and Robin Consume Media: Ricky Jay, Widows and Semiotic Conspiracy

November 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.


Babylon Berlin Season 1 (Episodes 1-8) (Television, Germany, Tom Tykwer et al., ARD/Sky, 2017) In 1929 Berlin, shell-shocked vice squad detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and his typist Charlotte (Liv Lisa Fries) encounter a tangle of mysteries while he tries to recover a blackmail film. Once the series determines that Charlotte is the actual protagonist, momentum never flags; even while it’s finding its footing, its portrait of Weimar Berlin remains captivating. Note: Netflix lists both Seasons 1 and 2 as a single season. –KH

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Film, US, Joel & Ethan Coen, 2018) Anthology of six mordant short films joined by their Western setting (both physical and genre), by their nature as memento mori, by superb musical touches (both Carter Burwell’s score and the repeated use of Scots and Irish ballads) and by lovely, even bravura, cinematography. Unavoidable uneven-ness keeps it just shy of Pinnacle status for me, though perhaps not for thee. –KH

Life Without Principle (Film, Hong Kong, Johnnie To, 2011) The lives of pressured finance-instrument sales stringer Teresa (Denise Ho), stoic cop Cheung (Richie Jen), and Panther (Lau Ching-Wan) the honor-bound numbskull fixer for a failing Triad, overlap and interlock as the Greek financial crisis roils Hong Kong markets. More discourse on ethics than zingy financial thriller, To moves through his three plots as assuredly as his camera moves through the space around them. –KH

Ricky Jay and His 52 Assistants (Film, US, David Mamet, 1996) This TV movie of Jay’s 1994 stage play needs nothing except Ricky Jay (RIP) and the titular deck of cards to captivate, although it also has cups-and-balls in a segment devoted to that illusion, and a zillion windup toys in one inspired bit. Jay blends historian, con man, and nonpareil card magician into a sui generis stage presence and  presentation impossible to duplicate or explain. –KH

The Seventh Function of Language (Fiction, Laurent Binet, 2015) Hard-nosed police superintendent teams with callow semiotics prof to investigate the eliptonic conspiracy behind the death of Roland Barthes, interviewing such witnesses as Michel Foucault, Umberto Eco, and Jacques Derrida. Satirical meta-thriller of figurative and literal academic violence rattles along like a cheeky cover version of Foucault’s Pendulum with samples of Fight Club. Get it in ebook format for easier reference look-up. “Eco listens with interest to the story of a lost manuscript for which people are being killed.” —RDL

Widows (Film, US/UK, Steve McQueen, 2018) When a robbery crew led by Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson) dies in a fiery shootout with the Chicago PD, his widow Veronica (Viola Davis) assembles their widows (Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) and a ringer (Cynthia Erivo) to pull off his next planned heist and get themselves out from under. McQueen assembles an astonishing ensemble cast, draws naturalistic performances from them in heightened scenes, and paints a mesmerizing picture of Chicago corruption and politics, all inside the beats of a heist film miraculously edited by Joe Walker. –KH


Black Coal, Thin Ice (Film, China, Diao Yinan, 2014) In a bid to finally crack the dismemberment murder case that ended his career, an ex-cop gets close—too close—to a laundry clerk who may be more than a witness. Finds strong moments as it uneasily mixes the opposing styles of neo-noir and affectless naturalism.—RDL

Can You Ever Forgive Me? (Film, US, Marielle Heller, 2018) Forgotten by the 1991 New York literary scene, biographer Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) teams up with hustler Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) to peddle her forged letters by denizens of the Manhattan Golden Age. McCarthy plays wonderfully (even charmingly) internalized despisal, and the mechanics of forgery intrigue, but the film doesn’t know whether lying is noble or not, blurring the hue of both. –KH

Eli Roth’s History of Horror (Television, US, AMC, 2018) Clips and interviews conduct not a history so much as a thematic survey of screen horror, including looks at slashers, creatures, vampires, and ghosts. Collects a solid range of subjects to say smart things about key movies, with flashes of the more comprehensive series the makers probably wanted to make occasionally peeking around the corner.—RDL

November Night Tales (Fiction, Henry Chapman Mercer, 1928) The polymathic Mercer wrote these seven stories, which range from Gothic to urban horror to weird adventure and back again, toward the end of his life. Ghost-story fans won’t want to miss “The Dolls’ Castle,” and “The Wolf Book” should set off a strong Blackwood vibe for everyone; there’s not a dud per se in the batch, but they do mostly share the eccentric tone and recondite interests of their creator. –KH


The Kennel Murder Case (Film, US, Michael Curtiz, 1933) Philo Vance (William Powell) investigates a locked-room murder peripherally related to a dog show. Directed with the usual Curtiz briskness, this modest series entry warrants an upgrade to Recommended if you’re programming a retrospective of Curtiz, Powell, or mystery novel adaptations. At one point a character utters the line “I’m a doctor, not a magician!”—RDL

Not Recommended

The Boss (Film, Italy, Fernando di Leo, 1973) Amid the multi-level corruption of Sicilian society, an efficiently murderous mafia soldier (Henry Silva) betrays and is betrayed on his rise to the middle. Dispensing with the usual convention that creates sympathy in a gangster film, The Boss depicts its protagonist as just as big a scumbag as everyone else. This is both interesting and a problem, but not as fatal a problem as the fact that it stops on a “To Be Continued” chevron and was never continued.—RDL

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