The Big Short is my favorite movie of this year’s awards season.

January 15, 2016 In The News, Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (1) 1254

bigshottrailerThe Big Short is my favorite movie of the 2016 Awards Season*. I feel a little bad saying that, in light of yesterday’s Oscar nominations and their slate of white, white (blonde) faces, and the fact that The Big Short is, well, short on both women and minority actors. But the fact is I watched it through twice, and would happily sit through a third viewing. The film is alternately funny and gutting, the cast is pretty much universally brilliant, and the directing–from Adam McKay, who brought us films like Anchorman, Anchorman 2, and Funny or Die’s The Landlord–is impressive, avant-garde without being distracting, and making a complicated subject accessible.

* Okay, it’s tied with Mad Max: Fury Road, but since that came out over the summer it doesn’t really feel like an Awards Season movie.

Not too accessible, mind you. Despite the sidebar scenes in which celebrities like Selena Gomez, Anthony Bourdain, and Margot Robbie (in a bubble bath) break the fourth wall and explain complicated financial structures in layman’s terms–one of the film’s more unique and amusing contrivances–I frequently found myself leaning in so I could follow the fast-paced dialogue about derivatives, mortgage-backed-securities, credit swaps, and so on.

The Big Short is far from the first film about the 2008 Financial Crisis, but it might be the best combination of sweeping and accessible. Too Big to Fail captured the moves and conversations happening inside the banks and the Federal Reserve, and films like 99 Homes capture the human cost across the nation, but The Big Short takes a wider scope and time period to show the viewer what happened, through the eyes of a handful of professionals who predicted the crash. Continue Reading

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Book Review: Neal Griffin’s “The Benefit of the Doubt”

June 25, 2015 Books, Reviews Comments (0) 660

Neal Griffin’s debut novel, “The Benefit of the Doubt” is a page-turner of a thriller by an author with clear expertise in both police procedure and police culture, unflinching in its presentation of violence, racism, and vice. Set in small-town Wisconsin, the book explores the reality of small-town policing and the way crime and corruption go unchecked; think Fargo meets Copland. The book does not turn around a twist or reveal but relies on solid pacing and storytelling to hold the reader.

The story follows two men on intersecting paths. Ben Sawyer is a former big-city cop, used to dealing with gangs and violence but banished to rustic Wisconsin after his temper gets the better of him and he nearly kills a suspect. Harlan Lee is a felon on parole with a laundry list of scores to settle. As their lives gradually entangle (unbeknownst to either man), other characters are pulled in: The precinct’s dirtiest cop and corrupt new chief, a young lady cop fresh out of black-ops in Iraq, and Ben’s own wife and stroke-disabled father. Continue Reading

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HBO’s Game of Thrones: Unbent, Unbowed, Unbroken (S5E6)

May 18, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (1) 707


As usual, I’m playing fast and loose with spoilers from the show, from all the books (including sample chapters, and even from interviews and apocryphal material. You have been warned.

The writers on HBO’s show have one, and they’re going to play it over and over again.

As a fan of the book series, one of the more difficult things to accept from the TV is the reduction, to the point of near-elimination, of magical elements. In the books, magic steadily grows as an influence as Dany’s dragons age, but on the show we get dragons and White Walkers, and that’s about it. Even where magical plotlines seem to be set up–Berrick Dondarion, for instance–the show shies away from the supernatural. There’s no Coldhands, no Horn of Joramun, no glass candles, no Quaithe or Azor Ahai or any other prophecies, no glamour, and no Lady Stoneheart. At least, not yet.

The show runners have talked about magic, and their sense that it takes away from the realism of the show; that asking viewers to accept an undead Caitlin Stark or a magical door through the Wall is asking them to go a step too far. Instead, we get rape, and more rape, and–oh yeah–just a little more rape.

Rape is the go-to peril for any female character on the show, and while in earlier seasons the threat of rape was used with some skill to create tension–between Joffrey and Sansa, Brienne and Locke, or later Tyrion and Sansa–it’s now deployed with little art to elevate Ramsey into top-villain position. I’m reminded of that Stephen King theory about terror, horror, and revulsion. The series has devolved into Hostel territory, and like many people I found myself watching that final scene and hoping for some unexpected twist that never came. Instead we got the horrifying yet dull scene we all expected, even if it didn’t make sense for any of the characters involved.

I don’t need to go on about why this is such a weak storytelling choice; for that I’d recommend you read Laura Hudson at Wired. Hudson is particularly dead-on about how regressive this feels as a storyline; we’ve been down this road with Sansa already, and it’s just tiresome to have the writers try to re-tread. Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post is more forgiving of the choice, particularly the way it’s presented in contrast with the analogous scene from the novels; but I’d argue that if the best defense one can mount of this scene is “it could have been worse,” we’re not addressing the core problem. Specifically, that far too often when the show’s writers deviate from Martin’s source material, that deviation involves sexual violence against a woman.

If I’m honest, the writing on this show peaked with the Red Wedding, and hasn’t really been great since. Sure, there have been a few high points, but season four was basically clunky from beginning to end, and while some of the changes made in season six five are interesting and tighten up the narrative, the show is suddenly reliant on tropes and redundancies to drive the story. I know I don’t have the willpower to stop watching, from this point on I suspect I will be hate-watching.

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TMBG Countdown: Honorable Mentions

April 30, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 471

A few songs that didn’t crack the top 26, but that I wanted to give special recognition for various reasons:

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

Call Connected Through the NSA (Podcast 4A, 2006)

TMBG’s response to revelations about Bush administration surveillance was a downloadable ringtone that reminded the user that every call was on a party line. It is, of course, totally irrelevant today.

Marty Beller Mask (Album Raises New and Troubling Questions, 2011)

One of the band’s most absurd songs, revealing drummer Marty Beller’s secret identity: Whitney Houston, who got sick of all the attention and really just wanted to play the skins in a rock band. The song was retired from live performance after less than a year when Whitney Houston was found dead. Continue Reading

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TMBG Countdown #1: Ana Ng

April 30, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 423

First release: Lincoln, 1988

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

I had this song at a lower position at first, but near the end of Sunday night’s show at Music Hall of Williamsburg I realized it could only come in at #1.

Ana Ng is a basically perfect song, about two people who might be in love, except for the globe that has kept them from ever meeting.

Inspired by a 1950’s Pogo cartoon by Walt Kelly, the opening lines of the song (“Make a hole with a gun, perpendicular to the name of this town in a desktop globe / exit wound in a foreign nation, showing the home of the one this was written for”) is one of my favorite things the band has ever written.

The song is a live standard, performed (according to TMBW) more than 600 times in a little under 30 years, and while it may not be your choice for number one, it’s inarguably an example of the band at their very best.

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TMBG Countdown #2: Birdhouse in Your Soul

April 29, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 1328

First release: Flood, 1990

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)


I mentioned I saw the band this past Sunday night at Music Hall of Williamsburg? They did two encores (as is standard, per John Flansburgh on Slate’s Working podcast) and as they led into “Dead” to start the second encore, I briefly entertained the thought that they might not play Birdhouse at this show.

Then, of course, “Dead” led straight into “Birdhouse” and my concerns were allayed. It would have been a very strange feeling, to experience a They Might Be Giants show with no “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” I believe they have played that song at every show I’ve ever attended. I learned in my early teens that the proper way to dance to Birdhouse is to jump up and down through the entire length of the song, and I’ve been able to chart my age by the shortening of time I spend jumping–first it was the whole song, then just the chorus, then just the first few measures of the song. Last night I sat in a chair in the balcony, and jumped not at all.

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TMBG Countdown #3: Don’t Let’s Start

April 28, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 557

First release: They Might Be Giants [AKA “The Pink Album”], 1986

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)


I have a confession: This song almost came in at #1, but I made a last-minute change on Sunday night while watching the band perform at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. To me, this is a defining work of art, the quintessential They Might Be Giants song, featuring the famous lyric that perhaps best encapsulates the band, played over an upbeat melody of course:

No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful
Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful

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TMBG Countdown #4: Disappointing Show

April 27, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 419

First release: TMBG Unlimited, 2001

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

This one requires a story.

From “This is from a live show at Columbia University in NYC. We had a new stage tech (for one day) who neglected to plug anything in before we walked on stage-leading to perhaps the most humbling show start of our humbling careers. Things went downhill from there with power failures and electronic disasters. This spontaneously written song captures the magic of the disappointment!”

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TMBG Countdown #5: Science is Real

April 26, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (0) 508

First release: Here Comes Science, 2009

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

An album of science songs was a natural choice for They Might Be Giants, especially after they partnered with Disney to release educational albums for kids. But of course this is the 21st century, and there was always the potential, especially in light of Disney’s commercial ambition, that “science” would be softened in the interest of marketability–which would be an especially egregious sellout for this band.

Instead, the album (which is a masterpiece as a whole) kicks off with this bold and unapologetic declaration of its thesis:

I like those stories about angels, unicorns, and elves
I like those stories as much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge, either simple or abstract
The facts are with science, the facts are with science

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TMBG Countdown #6: Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

April 25, 2015 Pop Culture, Reviews Comments (1) 489

First release: Flood, 1990

(This is an ongoing countdown that will be updated through April. Click here for the full list.)

Flood was the record that started it all for so many TMBG fans, and still holds up as one of their best records from start to finish; but I’d wager half or more of those fans first encountered this song not on Flood, but on Tiny Tunes Adventures, in the form of the video above.

As for me, this was another of those songs they played at weekend dances at my summer nerd camp. Yep. Dances. I distinctly remember dancing around playing an air violin.


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