We’re all in this together.
We here at Spectrum Culture understand that the world is a scary place right now. With the spread of the novel coronavirus, it’s time to stay home. As one meme states:
We’re here to help. This feature is a running list of all music, film and books that we’re consuming while housebound. We’ll be updating it daily and hopefully giving you some ideas of how to pass the time.
Feel free to recommend what you’ve been listening to, watching and reading. We’re all in this together.
A Dandy in Aspic [Streaming on Criterion Channel]
Director Anthony Mann died during the filming of this Cold War spy thriller and it is a fitting last film for the genre stylist. It follows a labyrinthine game of cat-and-mouse as the British intelligence service seeks to root out a deadly Soviet double agent within their ranks. The film is split between Swinging ‘60s London and the dour gray streets of bifurcated, walled-off occupied Berlin. Mann’s camera delights in the contrasts between the two cities and allusions to the recently-launched James Bond films as well as Antonioni’s masterful Blow Up. Anyone who enjoys a twisty, backstab-saturated spy movie would do well to give this one a go. – Ryne Clos
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I’d read The Brothers Karamazov in college, in a week having had to race through the then-standard Constance Garnett translation, admittedly aided by Cliffs Notes to keep track of who’s who and what names kept changing. I’d always meant to try it again, slowly. But I bailed on the now-standard Pevear-Volokhonsky version around page 350, finding it stolid and lifeless. When I found the Ignat Avsey (what a moniker) Oxford World’s Classics edition, sadly overlooked, I began to race through it again, this time for pleasure. The parts I remembered about Alyosha and his monastic departure resonated, and for about half of the plot, the pace never let up. Then Mitya’s crime and trial entered, and dominated, until nearly the end. While intricate and well-constructed, those details failed to keep me mesmerized. Those who favor whodunits may, on the other hand, turn to Dostoevsky’s epic for a look at how a master took on this genre way back when. And I did finish it, again. – John L. Murphy
Dark Phoenix [Streaming on HBO]
With the world seemingly on the verge of collapse, my husband and I sought out some low-stakes entertainment. We wanted something familiar, fun and easy to follow. The X-Men series seemed like the perfect choice, particularly as our kids have been into the animated series now that it’s available on Disney+. We decided to start at the end and work our way back.
When I first reviewed Dark Phoenix in May of last year, I noted that “Hollywood still doesn’t really know how to handle a powerful woman.” In re-watching the film a year later, I’d adjust my diagnosis. In fact, the thing that stood out to me on a second viewing of Dark Phoenix is how well it prioritizes women. Not only are their multiple female protagonists, the primary villain is also (kind of) female, a first for the long-running series. Not only that, and this will sound pretty controversial to some, but the actresses here all put in excellent performances.
Yes, the film absolutely fumbles Jean Grey/Dark Phoenix’s powers. And the writing is laughably terrible, which is perhaps why some wrongly criticized the performances. Jennifer Lawrence, in particular, was accused of phoning it in as Mystique. But Lawrence, despite the terribly wooden dialogue she’s forced to deliver, commands the screen in each of her few scenes. She’s the rare actor who can convey a flurry of conflicting emotions using her eyes alone, and the fact that she does so through garish colored contacts here is further testament to her abilities.
Sophie Turner, a proven talent from her time on “Game of Thrones,” was also deprived of credit for her strong performance. I was particularly impressed by the physicality of her performance. Turner didn’t muscle up for the role; rather, she brings the qualities that Jean has in the comics to the screen. She’s so powerful that she barely needs to try when she’s dissolving men into dust. While Kinberg and company might not know what to do with Jean’s powers, Turner certainly does.
Finally, I had a chance to better appreciate Jessica Chastain’s performance this time around. Her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moments as a real human in the film’s first few minutes are what make her later scenes as a cold alien in a human shell all the more impressive. Chastain is an actor who can almost instantly convey warmth and humanity, which is what made her such a perfect choice for Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Tate Taylor’s The Help. In removing that warmth to play the alien shapeshifter Vuk, Chastain creates a genuinely disturbing villain.
So yes, Dark Phoenix is a bit of a dumpster fire. But the ladies of Dark Phoenix gave viewers some really interesting things to think about, we just missed them in all of the mess. – Mike McClelland
Better Call Saul [Streaming on Netflix)
When Breaking Bad was a thing, I had to restrain myself from hyperbolizing. Did the show about an Albuquerque high school teacher with terminal cancer who becomes a meth kingpin surpass Shakespeare in the artful exploration of drama, comedy, and tragedy? Yes–yes, it did. Not only were the themes and conflicts timeless, but they also crystallized the unique flavor of Capitalism’s death-grip on American society in the early 21st century. It would take the hubris of Heisenberg to try to follow up such a triumph with a spin-off, but that’s exactly what Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould have done with Better Call Saul.
Centered around the crowd-favorite shady lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), a peripheral character in the earlier series, the show jumps back several years to document the character’s descent from a small-time grifter and elder law attorney into the oily conman who rakes in blood-money protecting psychopathic drug lords. Knowing where he ends up doesn’t make the journey any less excruciating; on the contrary, witnessing the tiny compromises and betrayals along the way just drives home the tragedy of Saul’s slow-motion downfall. Bob Odenkirk was made for this role, oozing charm and sweet-talking his way out of–and right back into–one shifty scheme after another. The minutia of legal work takes on intense dramatic weight, and the visual flair of Breaking Bad is in full form: Albuquerque quivers in time-lapse twilight; ants swarm an ice cream cone, foretelling meltdown and savagery. The shifting angle of two toothbrushes in a glass tells you everything you need to know about Saul’s relationship with his lawyer girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). This is where Better Call Saul surpasses Breaking Bad. Kim is the complex and compelling female character the earlier series mostly lacked, and Rhea Seehorn is maybe the greatest actor alive. With Kim caught between professional integrity and fondness for her shyster beau, Seehorn communicates worlds of angst, ambition, tension and love, often without saying a word. Even a child actor playing her younger self in a flashback manages this trick, and makes me wonder what kind of coaching went on behind the scenes.
Society might change in profound ways following the current plague–fingers crossed!–and the relevance of these shows to contemporary life might diminish, but I can’t see the artfulness of either one losing impact. This is concentrated storytelling, masterfully executed in all of its dimensions–writing, acting, directing and photography–and I no longer feel the need to avoid hyperbole. There are plenty of tales told by idiots and signifying nothing, but Better Call Saul is where you’ll find the sound and fury. – A.C. Koch
Sun Kil Moon – I Also Want To Die In New Orleans
Maybe the reason I like I Also Want To Die In New Orleans so much is the specific San Francisco references. I’ve been to Harris’ Restaurant on Van Ness once—or was it House of Prime Rib? Walking down to Aquatic Park is a pleasure for me too. And oh man, Mark, I’m with you on those techies. I personally would prefer to die in San Francisco; my current dream is to make enough money to live there comfortably for the rest of my life. But going down at a New Orleans oyster bar sounds delightful too. I want to get old and sip wine next to azure European bays and occasionally have enough money to blow on a steak; I’m all about that comfortable dad fantasy. I Also Want To Die In New Orleans reminded me a little of that city’s very own rapper Curren$y, who’s also all about his hand-squeezed lemonade—not least because Kozelek occasionally slips into something approaching rap on New Orleans, pronouncing every word like he’s puzzledly explaining it to someone (“I gazed off at thousands of cows in my prepubescent years, throughout my teens/I saw lots of dairy cows, Guernseys and Holsteins”). It’s a rock album in conversation with hip-hop, from its $uicideboy$-referencing title to its appreciation of the rewards that come from putting your life into art. But I think the real reason I like I Want To Die In New Orleans is because it takes me somewhere else—to the Bay of Kotor in Montenegro, to a late-night jam sesh, to the Cow Palace, out of the stale farts and day-old weed smoke that define my life right now. And it lets me imagine what I might do once I get my shit together. I’m definitely going to go for a steak. – Daniel Bromfield
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist [Weekly on NBC]
If I still believed in guilty pleasures, then I’d have to count Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist as one. The show can give in to treacle and the vocal performances can be uneven, but it feels like just the thing for apocalyptic watching (and I deny having reached dad-in-pandemic limits of critical faculty). Jane Levy’s title character maintains a necessary relatability among a genuine insanity (necessary because the show could too easily fall prey to its central gimmick, that Zoey can hear other people’s thoughts and feelings expressed as musical numbers). The show, even while dealing with difficult subject matter, maintains a brightness both in tone and in its visuals that makes for refreshing end-of-the-day viewing.
The show reached a new pinnacle with this week’s'”Zoey’s Extraordinary Glitch,” where Zoey begins to express her own internal thoughts in actual, real-world performances. Zoey’s resistance to singing and dancing “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” makes for a hilarious few minutes thanks to Levy’s physical and facial ridiculousness. It’s difficult humor made easy. The whole cast, though, charms (even when their characters very much don’t), and if not everyone can keep up with Skylar Astin’s vocals, it doesn’t really matter. It’s an hour of television that’s just smart enough, completely fun enough and surprisingly compelling. On second thought, there’s nothing guilty about this pleasure. – Justin Cober-Lake
Paterson [Streaming on Prime]
Paterson is one of the greatest films ever made about the passing of time, a phenomena that seems all the more pertinent right now as our quotidian nature has been disrupted and replaced by something entirely new. It all seems so slow, yet so fast? I guess that’s how it always is, yet it’s not the same without the human connection-based intricacies, intimacies and interactions we encounter on a daily basis. How I wish I could overhear a conversation about anarchy on a bus right now, or have a quick drink at the bar surrounded by people who are all cogs in the clockwork of my life, no matter how small, just as I am a cog in theirs. And despite re-watching this (for the 5th, 6th time?) in this strange new social isolation context, the film still succeeds in what it always has. It teaches gratitude and compassion—for what we have (a steady job, a loving relationship), for who we are and how we think (we’re all poets, in a way), and for the value of others (especially now). Like Paterson writes in “The Run,” we go through trillions of molecules every day that move aside to make way for us, while trillions more stay where they are. The magic is in the molecular movement and where it takes us, even in the most mundane of moments. I can’t wait to run again. – Greg Vallente
I knock off work
Have a beer at the bar
I look down at the glass and feel glad