Feb 272015

Leonard Nimoy’s Spock has long been a touchstone and role model for me. In Spock, I saw an outsider like myself who still managed to earn friendship and respect despite his alien attributes. His accomplishments were rooted in his intelligence, but he was no robot. He abhorred cruelty and a strong undercurrent of compassion ran beneath his cool facade of logic. I will never be as smart or rational as Spock, but I could do my best to follow his example. I could be another outsider who manages to find a place in the world and achieves some degree of success. I could try to approach problems thoughtfully and remain calm when things go wrong. I could be serious without being humorless.

It might have taken me a lot longer to figure this out if I hadn’t met Mr. Spock via reruns on TV. And I’m so saddened that Nimoy, the man who breathed so much humanity into the alien, is now gone. But Spock endures and that gives me some comfort. As long as people strive to be a little more rational and a little more decent to each other, Spock endures.

Feb 112015

Why do my favorite things have to go away? When Stephen Colbert ended his show last year, I took some comfort in the belief that Jon Stewart would stick around for a few more years. And then came the news last night that Stewart will be leaving The Daily Show later this year. Now what will I binge-watch on the weekends? Sure, John Oliver is still doing brilliant stuff on HBO. And I’m trying to like Larry Wilmore’s The Nightly Show, but the panel segments can be grating.

The Daily Show will find a new host, but Stewart’s legacy will loom large over his replacement. His sharp yet humane wit made this messy and unfair world a little more tolerable. Whatever he decides to do next, I hope that he continues to poke a finger in the eyes of the powerful and the hypocritical.

Dec 312014

A few brief thoughts on my year at the cinema:

  • Guardians of the Galaxy was the best popcorn movie of 2014. Like a lot of people, I had my doubts about whether Marvel could make a decent movie based on a third-tier comic book title, but they demonstrated that a strong script, stunning visuals, and charismatic actors can elevate the most obscure source material into a blockbuster. It still seems odd to me that we now live in a world where Chris Pratt is an action hero, but odd in a good way.
  • I liked Birdman, but it didn’t leave me enthralled. I could appreciate its technical prowess and it has some genuinely funny moments, mostly thanks to Michael Keaton and Edward Norton. I’m just not sure that’s enough to justify the raves it has received.
  • I still need to see Boyhood. Don’t tell anyone.
  • I wish I could have liked Interstellar more than I did.
  • Best movie that came out of nowhere: The Babadook.
  • My favorite time at the movies this year was seeing The Grand Budapest Hotel. Wes Anderson’s fussy movies usually leave me cold, but this story within a story about the final glory days of an Eastern European hotel is probably his best work. Ralph Fiennes is perfectly cast as the hotel’s solicitous manager and the plot concerning a stolen painting is zany while maintaining a dark and melancholy undertone. It’s a movie that rewards repeated viewings because of Anderson’s careful attention to detail and because of the many hilarious moments delivered by the cast. It makes me want to spray myself liberally with some L’air de Panache and take a holiday.
Dec 282014

2014 was another stellar year for music and I have the iTunes bill to prove it. I didn’t buy many complete albums, but below are the tracks, artists, and videos that I had on repeat over the past 12 months:

  • Scandinavia continues to produce some of the most interesting and exciting pop music around. Lykke Li made a sweeping vista of heartbreak in “No Rest for the Wicked”. Perennial favorite Robyn and producer duo Röyksopp made a pulsing club track urging us to “Do It Again“. Makthaverskan made an accusation a thing of soaring beauty in “Asleep“. I don’t know if it’s the cold weather or the socialized medicine that’s creating such a vibrant music scene just below the Arctic Circle, but more of this, please.
  • Few artists captivated me this year like fka Twigs. She fuses electronic music and R&B into a sound that is equal parts sexy, dangerous, and arresting. “Two Weeks” is this year’s definitive make-out song and I won’t be surprised if it fuels a slight spike in the birth rate in 2015. The video for “Two Weeks” is also pretty great and should be familiar to anyone who remembers the movie Queen of the Damned.

FKA TWIGS [two weeks] from nabil elderkin on Vimeo.

    • A year ago, almost nobody had heard of Future Islands. And then they appeared on Letterman’s show to perform “Seasons”, a moment that quickly went viral. The song itself is bittersweet and full of yearning, qualities that lead singer Sam Herring captures even while showing off some of the goofiest dance moves ever captured on video. Amidst a wash of New Wave synths, Herring beats his chest as he demands a human connection, something that we can all understand.

    • I can’t stop watching the video for Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda”. And not just for the obvious reasons. She is one of the most fluid rappers working today, aided by a wicked sense of humor and  a subversive agenda that has plenty to say about sexuality, feminism, and being a woman in a male-dominated and frequently misogynistic business. Sure, Minaj is drop-dead gorgeous, but that wouldn’t matter much to me if she wasn’t also immensely talented.

Nicki Minaj – “Anaconda” from > on Vimeo.


  • I’ll close with a personal anecdote. I attended my first Rock the Garden festival over the summer and I had the opportunity to meet local sensation Dessa backstage. I’ve long admired her carefully crafted songs and I was thrilled to watch her perform live. She was charming, kind, and generally awesome. Thanks, Dessa!



Dec 232014

It’s once again time for me to share my unsolicited opinions on the pop culture that brought a smile to my face over the past year. I’ll start with television, which is fast becoming my preferred medium for complex storytelling.

The sheer quantity of TV worth watching this year left me and my TiVo feeling a little overwhelmed. Personal favorites like Game of Thrones and The Americans continued to be compelling (that GoT episode depicting a particularly cinematic battle on the Wall is better than anything Peter Jackson has done with the entirety of the ill-conceived Hobbit trilogy) while Fargo completely surprised me with a series that outshines the original Coen brothers’ movie in terms of character and plot.

In any other year, True Detective would have been my favorite show of the year. It generously borrows from the literary traditions of noir and Southern Gothic, but the combined talents of Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey give heft to the pulpy material. The show establishes a foreboding sense of dread that never lifts (despite the rather pat ending). I’m rewatching the series now and I’m still struck by the quality of the writing and the assured direction.

But this was also the year of The Knick, a show that revitalized the medical drama by sending it into the past. And I loved every blood-soaked minute of it. This show has it all: an impressively mustachioed Clive Owen playing an arrogant surgeon with a cocaine habit, Andre Holland as an African-American surgeon who can barely tolerate the casual and vicious racism surrounding him, gory surgical procedures, shocking violence, forbidden sex, nuanced supporting characters, and a Cliff Martinez electronic score that captures the chaotic dawn of the 20th century in New York City. It wasn’t like anything else on television, an impressive feat given the embarrassment of riches in 2014.

Dec 162014

Horror films work best when they reflect the mundane through a looking glass darkly. The Babadook, a finely honed and nerve-wracking movie from Australian director, focuses its looking glass on a hallowed fixture of domestic life: the relationship between mother and child. We meet Amelia (Essie Davis), a young widow who is still grieving the death of her husband several years past. Her grief is made even more excruciating by the circumstances of his death, which I won’t detail here because it’s a crucial plot element. She does her best to care for Samuel (Noah Wiseman), her young and rather high-strung son, but a toxic combination of resentment and loss have placed her on the knife’s edge of a nervous breakdown.

One night, Samuel asks his mother to read to him from a mysterious storybook that he found on his shelf. The book depicts, through a series of pop-up images, a menacing character named Mr. Babadook. Babadook’s likes include top hats, hanging from the ceiling, and driving people to commit murder and suicide.

Amelia quickly decides that this is not appropriate reading material for a 7-year-old, but the damage is already done. Samuel soon begins hearing voices and, in one particularly harrowing scene, has a full-blown meltdown brought on by visions of the Babadook. And then Amelia begins seeing a cloaked figure creep into her bedroom at night. Before long, they are both trapped in their dimly lit home by their own fear and insomnia as the Babadook lurks in the shadows.

For a debut feature, The Babadook is remarkably self-assured. Kent doesn’t introduce any extraneous details or waste time establishing the story. She has created a sleek cinematic engine emitting a disquieting thrum that grows steadily louder. It’s one of the best movies of the year and I’m expecting great things to come from Ms. Kent. The movie is playing in only a handful of theaters, but is readily available on iTunes and Amazon.

Oct 212014

I don’t subscribe to Cinemax, but that hasn’t stopped The Knick from becoming one of my favorite new shows of the year. The Knick is a medical drama set in a struggling New York hospital at the dawn of the twentieth century, just as medicine (and surgery in particular) is leaving behind its grisly sawbones era and entering an age of innovation and revolution. The show has earned a reputation for its depictions of gory and decidedly unsanitary surgical procedures, but the amazing cast is the real reason to watch. Clive Owen is tone-perfect as an arrogant yet brilliant chief surgeon who embodies both the best and worst tendencies of his time. He spends coke-fuelled weekends in his lab devising new surgical procedures and instruments, yet he is openly hostile to the first African American surgeon to join the hospital staff (played with seething intelligence by Andre Holland).

Steven Soderbergh’s direction infuses every episode with a kinetic energy that is bathed in both harsh light and soft shadow. It’s probably one of the most meticulously composed shows since Breaking Bad. And Cliff Martinez provides an electronic score that should seem anachronistic but somehow fits with the show’s theme of messy, halting progression. The Knick was renewed for a second season before it even aired, so I’m looking forward to seeing how the show and its characters evolve. It may even persuade me to subscribe to Cinemax.

Sep 032014

It should surprise absolutely nobody that I was a hardcore fan of The X-Files back in the day. How hardcore? I missed an episode during the second season and I pleaded on an X-Files message board for someone to send me a tape of the show. A kindred soul actually sent me a tape, which was no small achievement in the early days of the commercial Internet. But aside from message boards and newsgroups, I didn’t have many opportunities to discuss the show with other fans.

If only Kumail Nanjiani’s new The X-Files Files podcast had existed in the heyday of my own fandom. Nanjiani is a very funny comedian and actor who is even more of hardcore fan than me. The conceit of the podcast is pretty simple: Nanjiani and a guest discuss a select episode or two of the show. The discussions can be freewheeling, but they are rooted in Nanjiani’s deep love of The X-Files. It’s a great way to revisit the show or get introduced to it. I’ve been watching episodes from the first season so that I can follow along with the podcast and it’s fun to see how quickly the show finds its tone. Although it doesn’t get mentioned much today, The X-Files blazed a trail for today’s complex TV dramas.

Let’s just not discuss the travesty that the final three seasons.

Mar 122014

The Times’ David Carr has a difficult time keeping up with all the good stuff on TV. He writes:

I was never one of those snobby people who would claim to not own a television when the subject came up, but I was generally more a reader than a watcher. That was before the explosion in quality television tipped me over into a viewing frenzy.

Something tangible, and technical, is at work. The addition of ancillary devices onto what had been a dumb box has made us the programming masters of our own universes. Including the cable box — with its video on demand and digital video recorder — and Apple TV, Chromecast, PlayStation, Roku, Wii and Xbox, that universe is constantly expanding. Time-shifting allows not just greater flexibility, but increased consumption. According to Nielsen, Americans watched almost 15 hours of time-shifted television a month in 2013, two more hours a month than the year before.

Of course, I can relate. After I finish a few things on-line, this evening will be devoted to catching up on The Walking Dead and The Americans. I might even squeeze in an episode of The Daily Show before trying to make some progress on my book club selection.

I’m old enough to remember when people first started talking about television’s “golden age” in the late 90s, with the rise of shows like The X-Files and The Sopranos. But the proliferation of quality series over the last few years has been remarkable. Players like Amazon and Netflix will only accelerate this trend, throwing more content at me than I can possibly consume. I’m more than okay with that. I still love books and movies and music and comics and games, but serialized TV really has become my primary jam.

Mar 052014

I’m looking forward to the relaunch of Cosmos this Sunday. I have vague but pleasant memories of watching the original Carl Sagan series with my parents and it provided my introduction to the notion of scale; both in terms of the vastness of the universe and the deepness of time. I’m still a bit surprised that Fox and Seth MacFarlane are behind this project, but the early reviews seem positive and make no mention of dick jokes or climate change denialism. The fact that it’s airing on Sundays seems to indicate that Fox is hoping to attract a large audience. I’m skeptical that Americans will watch a general-interest science series in droves, but I would love to be proven wrong.

I should also try to re-read Sagan’s Contact, which made a big impression on me when I first read it back in the mid-80s.