Best Podcast episodes of 2019 (part 2)

Having yesterday considered the best episodes of Reply All, today I’m moving on to the crème of the other podcasts out there:

5) Can My Stutter Be Cured? [Crowd Science]

A touching look at a group of patients struggling to overcome stammering.

4) The Fictional Presidencies of Hilary Clinton [Primetime]

Emily VanDerWerff uses popular TV shows to analyse America’s strange relationship with Hilary Clinton. Could the same women really inspire both Lesley Knope and Claire Underwood?

3) Mrs Sherlock Holmes [Criminal]

Criminal specialises in true crime stories that avoid straightforward mystery tales. Nonetheless, episode does raise the question why no one has made a TV series based on the life of Grace Humiston, a New York heiress born in 1869, who, despite her gender, became not only a crusading lawyer but also a famed criminal investigator?

2) Don’t Accentuate the Positive [Happiness Lab]

Anyone who finds the Onion headline “Perky Optimist Brings Joy Wherever She Leaves” as funny as I do, is sure to find validation in this episode. Yale psychologist, Dr Laurie Santos uses research and anecdotes to make the simple, but somehow still counterintuitive point, that only imaging success leaves us unprepared for failure and ultimately makes us more miserable.

1) The Missing Crypto Queen and the Dropout

I’m going to mess about with the format of this list in two ways for this one. Firstly, I am choosing two podcasts not one. I’m also choosing whole series rather than individual episodes. However, these two podcasts are both compelling and make a fascinating pairing.

They both centre on the women behind multi-billion dollar scams. Elizabeth Holmes won plaudits as “the new Steve Jobs” and persuaded some of the richest and most famous people in America to put their names and money behind a plan to revolutionise blood testing, which rested on devices that did not work and were probably physically incapable of ever doing what Holmes claimed they could. Ruja Ignatova sold an imaginary crypto currency to thousands of people around the world.

Ignatova was likely a con artist from the start and very possibly working in league with organised criminals throughout. Holmes appears to have been more a narcist, who genuinely convinced herself she could fake it until she made it. What unites them was their ability to harness the mythos and tropes of Silicon Valley to prevent their victims properly scrutinising the product they were selling.

Why ‘Knives Out’ is my favourite film of 2019

If you have not seen Knives Out yet; then whatever you are expecting it to be; expect something different. I intend to keep that surprise intact. Therefore, I will avoid saying anything too specific beyond noting that it is homage to the Agatha Christie style ‘stately home homicide’ whodunnit.

The best – and truest – complement I can pay it, is that it is an ideal use of cinema. By that, I mean it deserves to be seen in a bespoke place, specifically reserved for watching films. It works on myriad levels and no detail in it is incidental. Therefore, it rewards complete concentration. However, because of the effort that has gone into crafting the witty script, elegant editing and pitch-perfect performances; intense attention comes effortlessly to the audience.

Indeed, the quality of the filmmaking is something that can be savoured in and of itself. It is a pleasure to behold, even above and beyond the enjoyment of the film itself.

Knives Out absolutely merits a second viewing. Partly because there are more jokes than anyone can take in on a single viewing. However, it is also because, watching it again allows you to observe how writer/director Rian Johnson seeds information, creates and then subverts expectations, and finetunes the characterisations to make everything first fizz and then explode.

However, it is the joy of my first viewing that will stay with me. I confess, I was pretty unhappy when I went in to see it. I found the final stretch of 2019 quite a slog, more marked by doubts and fears than anything else. One film can’t change that. But one as engrossing and immersive as Knives Out stopped me dwelling on all the things that had been bothering me, for a few hours at least. It allowed me to follow a trail intriguing clues leading me on a humorous trail involving compelling characters, and forget about everything else for a while.

Clearly, escaping into fantasy long-term is unhealthy, but I’d argue that short breaks from an often-difficult reality are not only ok but actually vital for our wellbeing. That’s why I am so grateful films as good as Knives Out exist. Now and again we all need to kill time.

5 other films I loved this year:
The Farewell
Avengers: Endgame
If Beale Street Could Talk
Can you Ever Forgive Me
Ad Astra

Why ‘Maybe You Should Talk to Someone’ is my favourite book of 2019

This year I have read the stories of spies, terrorists, serial killers and generals. Yet the book that had me flipping pages the fastest mostly takes place in an ordinary office in suburban LA, where regular people receive standard pyschotherapy.

In Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, Lori Gottlieb – a TV producer and journalist turned clinical psychologist – examines the purpose of therapy and how it works. However, it is not a monograph. Instead, Gottlieb conveys this message through the interlinked stories of four of her patients, along with her own experiences in therapy.

Gottlieb spent most of her TV career working on ER, so knows how to craft drama. So she chooses a case with plenty of mysteries and revelations to serve as the spine of the book. That allows her to create cliffhangers and deliver emotional gut punches.

However, the real appeal is the way Gottlieb recreates the intense empathy inherent in therapy on the page, drawing her readers into the lives of other people and then showing us how people who seem utterly lost can, with the right help, find a path to contentment.

Hat-tip: The book was flagged up to me by YANSS and Longform

The rest of my top ten of the year:

10. Babel: Around the World in Twenty Languages by Gaston Dorren

9. Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee by Casey Cep

8. The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War by Ben Macintyre

7. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou

6. Ottoman Odyssey: Travels through a Lost Empire by Alev Scott

5. Why We Need Religion by Stephen T. Asma

4. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs: A New History of a Lost World by Stephen Brusatte

3. Yes to Europe by Robert Saunders

2. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

The Siren Call of Safety: My Rise of Skywalker review

I have avoided revealing anything in this post that is not in the trailers or other pre-release publicity

A fan’s lament

I noticed myself noticing something whilst watching the Rise of Skywalker. Perhaps because it was mostly shot in the UK, a lot of minor roles are filled by actors who have played major parts in British TV shows. So, my brain would regularly be like “wasn’t that X-wing pilot a detective in Sherlock. Even in one of the film’s most emotionally charged moment, I was distracted by the realisation that a small but pivotal role was played by someone strongly associated with playing a very distinctive character, very different from the one they were depicting in the Rise of Skywalker.

Why am I telling you this? Well, I’m a huge Star Wars fan. I’m enthusiastic about the direction the saga has taken in the Disney/Kathleen Kennedy era. I would have been so enraptured watching The Force Awakens and the Last Jedi, that something small like this wouldn’t really have registered to me. That I was taken out of the film by it, illustrates that the new film did not cast the same spell on me.

Sure, it was still entertaining: the cast of characters remains hugely likable, John Williams remains a genius and ILM continue to deliver a mic drop visual after mic drop visual. However, it is impossible not to be disappointed that the trilogy has ended this way.

The criticism I’ve seen made most frequently is that the pacing is rushed. Which it undoubtedly is. In fact, it feels like two films have been edited into one. If films are often praised for their ‘lean’ storytelling, then the Rise of Skywalker is emaciated. It has been cut back so viciously that the bones of the plot are largely stripped of character development, thematic depth or anything else that might put flesh on them. The relentless gallop through the narrative also robs the audience of slower moments where tension can build. The effect of this pace is alienating rather than invigorating.

These writing and editing issues are exasperated in the first act of the film by the filmmakers trying to incorporate unused footage of Carrie Fisher shot for the Force Awakens. I appreciate why giving one of the saga’s truly great characters (and the fantastic actor who played her) a proper send-off seemed important. However, taking dialogue from one film and trying to jam it into another is the wrong way to do it. It feels out of place in the film it’s now in. And the editing doesn’t cover the joints in a smooth way.

The perils of playing it safe

However, I want to suggest a more fundamental flaw with the Rise of Skywalker: Lucasfilm was too cautious.

In his book Messy, Tim Harford cites numerous incidents where measures intended as a safety feature actually become dangerous. For example, part of a safety valve in a nuclear reactor breaks loose and causes a blockage which leads to a meltdown. Or more mundanely an anxious public speaker is so anxious about not knowing what to say, that they cling to a carefully pre-prepared script rather than reading the room and wind up saying exactly the wrong thing.

I fear Lucasfilm took a risky precaution by deciding to go back to a trusted director. It is understandable why they did this: the studio has been repeatedly burned by taking risks on directors – including parting ways with the Rise of Skywalker’s original director, Colin Trevorrow. In that context, rehiring JJ Abrams, the man who successfully delivered the saga’s relaunch in Force Awakens, must have seemed like a way to almost guarantee they would get a decent film.

However, that created a problematic dynamic. In contrast to their Disney compatriots at Marvel, Lucasfilm do not have a masterplan for how the story will unfold film-to-film. Instead, the writer/director of each entry in the saga improvises. Now, as anyone who improvises on stage or screen can tell you, it only works if you are prepared to accept and develop others’ contributions, the so-called “yes and…” principle. Rejecting them breaks the flow of the process.

Just such a break is created, by bringing back the director of the episode VII to direct episode IX. Abrams clearly had ideas about how the rest of the trilogy would pan out. Judging from the Rise of Skywalker those ideas seem to have differed substantially from what Rian Johnson actually did in episode VIII.

Rather than developing the story Johnson bequeathed him, Abrams instead seems to have tried to pull the saga back in the direction he initially intended: Characters introduced in the Last Jedi are ignored; whilst characters from Force Awakens often act in a way that seems at odds with what we learned about them in the previous film; and the previous film’s big reveal is retconned away. This isn’t even done in an intelligent way. Instead a character simply goes (to paraphase slightly): “When I said X (in the Last Jedi) that was actually sophistry. I really meant Y, which is the literal opposite”!

It also feels like Abrams drives forward with ideas, like the return of Palpatine as an antagonist, which because they were not seeded in Episode VIII seem to emerge from nowhere.

I also couldn’t escape the sense that Abrams had used up a lot of his ideas for action sequences in Force Awakens. So in the Rise of Skywalker, he resorts to making things bigger in a way that doesn’t turn out better. The combination of this drive for scale and the rushed editing, mean that a lot of the battles sequences become an uninteresting blur.

Let the past die – Kill it if you have to

Thus the very thing that probably most recommend Abrams to Lucasfilm, having successfully directed the Force Awakens, was actually the thing that made him the wrong director for the Rise of Skywalker. He did not have enough fresh ideas to contribute. Plus, his preconceived ideas about the saga’s direction clashed with the direction it actually took. This makes for a film that whilst not bad is jarring and uninspiring. It also points to a real danger for Lucasfilm or anyone else handling a long-running franchise. If you don’t take risks and tweak your formula, audiences will tire of seeing the same film repeated. For a franchise, too much caution is path which leads, sooner or later, to certain death.

Scorsese v Marvel (or why fans make the best critics)

Image credit available here

*This post contains a spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War*

During an interview with Empire, legendary director Martin Scorsese was asked (for some reason) what we thought about Marvel films and replied:

“I don’t see them. I tried, you know? But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”

Look, I’m not going to try and tell you Iron Man 3 is better than Taxi Driver, but it seems a bit much to claim Marvel films aren’t ‘cinema’. Genius that he is, I would submit there are a few flaws in Scorsese’s reasoning.

Definition

The funny thing about equating being cinematic with “human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being” is that it fails to identify any quality of film that distinguishes it from other mediums. Surely most good plays, books and TV series also “convey emotional, psychological experiences”?

By contrast, one thing that cinema perhaps does do uniquely well, is deliver exciting spectacles that make you feel like you’ve just been on a great theme park ride. That kind of spectacle is in many ways the purest cinema; it was often all very early films consisted of. And it tends to be the aspect of a film that is most diminished when it is watched on a TV rather than in the cinema. Scorsese himself has demonstrated that character drama is less inherently tied to the cinema by releasing his latest film on Netflix, a decision which would be unthinkable for the next instalment in the MCU.

Boundaries

However, even if one accepts this definition of cinema, does it follow that Marvel films fall outside it?

There are films, including very good films, that are essentially a succession of adrenaline shots. The Raid, for example, doesn’t give much weight to the ‘emotional, psychological’ experiences of its characters. And for good reason, they are there to fight each other in magnificently choreographed martial arts sequences. Plumbing the depth of their psyches or watching them evolve as people would be beside the point.*

However, Marvel films aren’t really in this category. Character is a key part of the exercise. It’s not a coincidence that superhero films are almost invariably named after their protagonists. They tend to jettison the plots (and often the look and tone) of their comic book source material. They will, however, always retain the characters.

It simply isn’t true to say that these films aren’t trying to ‘convey the emotional, psychological experiences’ of these characters. For example, the opening act of Avengers: Endgame is essentially all about making the audience feel our heroes’ anguish at having failed to prevent half the universe’s population being killed. More of it is devoted to a support group meeting, than to action.

Not that we should mistake the presence of action for the absence of character. Good action sequences frequently express something about the characters in them. For example, the story of both the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy is about the formation of a team. Hence at the start of both films, the action sequences have the heroes opposed to each other or at least pursuing divergent objectives; around the midpoint they are working together but ineffectually so; and by the final battle, the audience sees them operating as more than the sum of their parts.

The point

I unpack these comments not because I think they are important in and of themselves. The MCU will continue not withstanding Scorsese’s disinterest and he has clearly earned his right to his cinematic preferences. It is disappointing that many outlets treated his off-the-cuff remarks about films he’s clearly not that interested in as important pronouncements, but they do need page views and this kind of thing gets people talking (as I’ve illustrated by writing a blog post about it).

However, they do illustrate something about the nature of criticism. That an undeniable genius can misread a sub-genre in a fairly basic way, illustrates that it is basically impossible to offer a meaningful critique of something unless you are interested and engaged with it. As interest and engagement tend to go along with enthusiasm, it’s almost invariably going to be the case that fans make the best critics. Ask a metal-head to assess an opera and it’s likely all you will learn is that it’s not a piece of metal music. Ask an opera lover who appreciates what an opera can be and you’ll get a real sense of if the work before you measures up. So, ironically if you want to know what’s wrong with superhero films, then you really need to ask someone who loves superhero films.

*Though it’s worth noting that even in a film like the Raid the filmmakers still need you to identify with the characters enough for you to emotionally invest in the action. Notice how before the fighting starts in this sequence (NSFW), there are multiple close-ups of the heroes face, giving you the opportunity to appreciate the extent of his fear.

My favourite films of 2018

Eligibility = Films with a UK release date in 2018

Honourable mentions

Spiderman: Into the Spider verse, Three Identical Strangers, Crazy Rich Asians, Black Klansman, Shape of Water, Thoroughbreds, Unsane.

Notable Absence

Solo – I love Star Wars. For two of the past three years, Star Wars films would have topped this list. Yet whilst I thought Solo was fine. The acting was notably good. However, it didn’t excite me or make the mythology feel notably richer.

Biggest disappointment

Avengers: Infinity War – Never has so much movie, felt like so little. Thanos was a (surprisingly) excellent villain but the heroes were fighting for screentime with the result that no one got enough. Plus, the big shocking ending felt like it had no stakes whatsoever as it will clearly be reversed in Endgame.

5. Widows

When we praise a film for its moral complexity, we often say it recognises ‘grey areas’. Widows certainly does that. However, it also inhabits an even deeper level of ambiguity. Many of its characters are doing bad things for good reasons.

Also, adeptly treads the line between arthouse and genre filmmaking.

4. Black Panther

A devastating riposte to anyone who thought either the superhero genre or the MCU had nothing left to offer. Takes the reliably entertaining Marvel formula and supplements it with bold new elements like Afro-futurism and thematic depth. It is the first film in the MCU you can have a meaningful debate about the meaning of.

Drifts a little towards the generic in its final act but prior to that it barely puts a foot wrong.

3. Mission Impossible: Fallout

The citizens of Ancient Rome simultaneously entertained themselves and sated their bloodlust by watching Gladiators fight to the death with wild animals and each other. In our more enlightened times, we replicate that experience by having Tom Cruise thrown off buildings, out of planes and into fires for our amusement.

Don’t allow the fact that this is pure popcorn cinema to blind you to its brilliance. It may not have deep character development, a story that makes sense nor any subtext. But Casablanca doesn’t have an epical final action sequence involving nuclear bombs, helicopters, martial arts, ropes, wires and the Himalayas. It is the perfect version of what it is. That takes incredible craftsmanship from very talented filmmakers. Don’t underestimate that.

2. Ladybird

I don’t really know why I adored this film so much but I can tell you that by the end I wanted to give every character a hug.

1. A Quiet Place

I fear this film may not have the cult afterlife it deserves. It is not really a film for DVD, let along a phone or tablet. It demands a proper cinema, where you have no ability to pause it and there’s strong social pressure to stay as silent as the tormented protagonists.

Not suitable for those of a sensitive disposition, but for everyone else it’s an extraordinary demonstration of how a simple premise can be developed into an extraordinary work of art.

The 5 best podcast episodes of 2018

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Created by Freepik

Podcasting is growing into a powerful medium. These episodes are as profound and compelling as any articles I read this year.

Some caveats in decreasing level of obviousness:

  1. I have not heard every podcast episode that came out this year.
  2. This is my selection and therefore inherently subjective.
  3. For both of the above reasons, podcasts about current affairs will probably be overrepresented whilst comedy, fiction, sport and many other genres are probably shortchanged.
  4. I am a politically restricted public servant these days, so have not chosen any episodes, which rules out me recommending any partisan podcasts
  5. I am judging individual episodes rather than a show as a whole. So there are many podcasts I love that have been great this year but didn’t have (what seemed to me like) stand out episodes, like By the Book, the Weeds, Talking Politics, Dear Prudence, Slate Money, Longform, Analysis, Beyond Today, Sinica and Susan Calman’s Mrs Brightside.
  6. I’m not ranking these episodes relative to each other. They are listed in order of their publication date.

Five Women (This American Life) 2nd March

This episode juxtaposes the stories of multiple women who worked for (and were sexually harassed) by the same man. It attempts to seriously answer questions that are usually used to dismiss accusations, such as ‘why didn’t they say something’ or ‘if it was that bad, why did they working for him?’

I first heard about Five Women on an episode of Longform that explores the inspiration for and craft behind this episode.

Star Wars: the Music (the Soundtrack Show) 9th May

A bit of a cheat because I am treating a three part series as one episode, but my goodness it’s brilliant. The original trilogy arguably has the most iconic score in film history and presenter/author David W. Collins has done audio work on numerous Star Wars projects ranging from computer games to the Last Jedi. That makes him an ideal person to pay tribute to John Williams’s genius as a composer. More surprisingly, he also rehabilitates George Lucas. I cannot think of another example of a fandom treating the creator of their beloved property with the kind of contempt that Star Wars fans display towards Lucas. He is (rightly) blamed for the terrible prequels. And even his initial success seems to have been achieved in spite of himself. However, through the prism of the music, Collins is able to show that without Lucas’ peculiar combination of nostalgia and forward thinking, Star Wars (and consequently much of contemporary cinema) is unimaginable.

INVCEL (Reply All) 10th May

How did a community born of kindness and solidarity morph into one defined by bitterness and ultimately violence?

Robert B. Talisse on Overdoing Democracy (Philosophy Bites) 23rd July

A warmly stated but sharply argued case for a counter-intuitive idea: As the stakes of political conflicts rise, they need to be kept more firmly in their place.

The Science of Being Transgender (Science Vs) 18th December

The Science Vs keeps its head when all about it are losing theirs on this topic. Somehow manages to be both fair and clear, wide ranging but to the point, and to take its subject matter seriously while retaining a light touch. A good demonstration of how being objective and reaching a conclusion are not mutually exclusive.