Delivering Virtue, by Brian Kendall / **** ½

delivering_virtue1020It’s fairly obvious that Delivering Virtue is inspired by Charles Portis’s superb True Grit (or at least Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers, itself heavily inspired by that great book). Both are picaresque Westerns narrated by an overly verbose characters; both follow long journeys across the West; and both are filled with any number of strange and odd encounters along the way. Yes, the particulars are different – the trip here follows our “hero” Rain as he brings a child bride across the great wilderness to meet her husband-to-be, a religious prophet – but there’s no denying the DNA here: the writing populated with rich flourishes, the dry sense of humor, the sense that we’re seeing the West in the days after the fame and fortune had dried up. Luckily for Brian Kendall, his writing is up to the task, creating a rich, entertaining narrator whose running commentary makes the book a blast to read, whether he’s justifying his decision to meet up with a lover (despite being warned not to), befriending his horses, or using farm animals to feed the little girl in a way that probably shouldn’t be encouraged. There are some oddities in Kendall’s book, though, and they both intrigue and frustrate me. Just how old is young Miss Virtue, who starts the book in diapers and ends up speaking in full sentences by the end, after what doesn’t seem like that long of a journey? Why are other people punished every time Rain strays from the directions he’s been given? And what to make of that odd, odd ending? Delivering Virtue feels ultimately incomplete, a parable where the lesson has been omitted, and while I somewhat admire that, giving the whole tale a cryptic feel, I can’t deny that it also left me a bit frustrated, and kept me from loving the book as much as I wish I did. (I feel this most applies to the ending, which left me more baffled than moved.) Nonetheless, it’s a delightfully odd Western, with an off-kilter sensibility that I loved, some bizarre and entertaining adventures along the way, and a great sense of style to the whole thing.

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Drunk History (Season 3) / ****

imageHere’s the thing: I still really love Drunk History. I’ve often commented that Drunk History is proof that a single-joke premise can work if you run with it well enough, and now that I’ve watched three seasons of that joke, I can attest that the idea of actors re-enacting drunken history tales by comedians never gets less funny. And as the show has embraced its cheapness, it’s only gotten funnier, tossing in tiny airplanes, badly labeled props, and so much more. More than that, this season brought by Kyle Kinane, who may be the best drunk storyteller the show’s ever had, only to maybe match him with Paul F. Tompkins’s amazing work. So why am I so glad the season’s over? Maybe it’s just the length. Each season of Drunk History keeps getting longer – 8 episodes the first season, then 10 the next, and now 13 – and it ends up running the joke into the ground, turning what’s normally hilarious into a bit of a “been there, done that” instead. Do I still enjoy the show? Without a doubt – and I’d argue that Tompkins and Kinane delivered what will easily go down as two of the best segments the show’s ever done, with the Harriet Tubman story from earlier in the season right up there. But I can’t help but feel that it would all be better if it the seasons were allowed to be short, or maybe split a la South Park4

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The Good Dinosaur / *** ½

The_Good_Dinosaur_UK_PosterLet’s get this out of the way: The Good Dinosaur is absolutely, unquestionably astonishing to look at. Even with a company that’s so often pushed the boundaries of computer animation, The Good Dinosaur is absolutely phenomenal work, creating a landscape that’s nearly indistinguishable from reality, a river that’s photorealistic, and does so while making the beauty as much a part of the film as anything else. Now, if only the script was anywhere near as ready. It’s not that The Good Dinosaur is ever actively bad, per se; to date, Pixar’s only made one truly bad film (Cars 2). But excepting that one failure, it’s hard to argue that The Good Dinosaur is their weakest, most disappointing effort. The story never feels organic or coherent; instead, it feels like a slew of disconnected scenes sort of tied together, with a protagonist who only lurches among them because the script demands it. The film’s villains feel like an afterthought, the supporting cast bland (with the exception of Sam Elliott, but that’s really only because of Elliott’s presence, not the character), many of the sequences dull. Worse than that, it’s heavy-handed and didactic, hammering the same points again and again with blunt dialogue instead of relying on imagery and more indirect means like Pixar does when it’s at the top of its game (Inside Out being the most recent and obvious example). It’s just sort of an overstuffed, rambling mess, and while it never quite got bad enough to be a complete failure, it still gets frustrating – especially because it’s still capable of some great sequences that are as good as anything Pixar’s done (there’s a nighttime conversation about family that’s beautiful and done without more than a word or two of dialogue). If you want a longer, more fleshed out review of the film that both nails its weaknesses and admits its strengths, I can’t recommend Tasha Robinson’s great piece enough; the short version, though, is that it’s a Franken-script made up of lots of good moments than never coalesce into a satisfying, or even good, whole. (That all being said, the short “Sanjay’s Super Team” beforehand, which tells the story of a young Hindu boy’s daydreams while his father prays? Absolutely loved it – imaginative, stylish, and fun. More than made up for “Lava”.) 3andhalf

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Minions / ****

imageLook, I know that as a parent, it’s apparently my obligation to hate the Minions. But for whatever reason, I don’t really. Maybe it’s just that my kids haven’t really gone ga-ga over them like so many others; maybe it’s just that I find them pretty harmless. Whatever the case, the Minions never really bothered me, and having seen the feature film about them, they still don’t, mainly because the filmmakers know exactly what they’re doing. This isn’t a sappy story with a Big Important Message to convey; this isn’t a treacly story about lost loves or anything like that. This is a story about creatures (which are kind of dumb) trying to help a supervillain steal the crown jewel, and it’s part adventure, but mostly comedy. There’s physical jokes, a nice 60’s-rock soundtrack, a lot of silliness, and just a general sense of fun that I couldn’t deny. Are there better animated movies out there? Sure. But Minions fills a great void, delivering a kid’s movie that’s more about silliness and fun than it is some deep message or some emotional journey, and based off of my kids’ giggling throughout (okay, and some of mine), it does its job well. Does that mean I have to turn in my parenting card now? 4

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Night Music, by John Connolly / *****

imageIf you’ve ever heard me talk about books before, chances are I’ve brought up and/or tried to make you read something by John Connolly. I’ve been banging the drum for Connolly since reading his debut novel, Every Dead Thing, and my love and admiration for his writing has only grown over the years. His Charlie Parker series is one of the best thriller series going today, blending horror and crime together into something that manages to be terrifying, exciting, and profound all at the same time. The Samuel Johnson trilogy is an absolute joy, delivering a hilarious tale about the gates of Hell and quantum physics that any adult would love and yet still feels perfect for its young audience. And now there’s Night Music, Connolly’s second collection of short fiction, and further testament to his astonishing writing, range, and talent. Trying to narrow down Night Music to a single genre is an exercise in futility, but that’s half of the joy. If you want horror, it’s undeniably on display. “On The Anatomization of an Unknown Man (1637) by Frans Mier” ranks as one of my all-time favorite short stories, slowly peeling back layers of reality until you realize just what a nightmarish story you’re really in. And Connolly’s earlier Kindle single, the terrifying “The Wanderer in Unknown Realms,” becomes part of a five story cycle that all combine to create a sense that there’s a world beyond us at all times – and it’s not a pleasant one. So, yes, there’s horror. But there’s also stories where the supernatural is just a starting point for something more subtle, and even beautiful, as in the 300-word “A Dream of Winter” or the melancholy “A Haunting.” Meanwhile, bibliophiles will adore the quietly whimsical “The Caxton Private Lending Library and Book Depository,” which finds a man investigating what appears to be the suicide of a character from a famous Russian tragedy. And the follow up to that story, “Holmes on the Range,” shows off Connolly’s gift for comedy, diving into the world of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous creation with affectionate ribbing. And the whole collection culminates in the personal essay “I Live Here,” wherein Connolly discusses his inspirations both literary and cinematic, all in his wonderful digressive style, before tying it all together with a strange final anecdote. All in all, it’s a flawless collection from one of the best – and most underrated – craftsmen working today. It’s a reminder that “genre fiction” doesn’t automatically mean “bad writing,” no matter what snobs will tell you, and that sometimes the joy comes from realizing that genre boundaries are all the more interesting when they’re broken and disregarded. In short, I loved this collection; I can’t recommend it enough, and my only regret is that I’m out of Connolly to read until his next book arrives. 5

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The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King / *****

imageThe only thing I may look forward to more than a new Stephen King novel is a new collection of his short stories. Yes, I love Stephen King, but even being a Constant Reader doesn’t prevent me from being willing to admit that the man can – and often does – go long on his word count. There’s something rewarding, then, to see King rein himself in, forcing himself to do as much as he can in a far lower number of words. Of course, this being King, that doesn’t rule out some longer pieces here – Ur was originally a novella released as a sort of trial balloon for the Kindle Singles program, and Blockade Billy as well was a small standalone novella previously released by King. Others are far shorter, including two brief poems both originally published in Playboy. But whatever the length, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams serves as a reminder of both King’s talent and prodigious gift, to say nothing of his stellar range. There’s the unsettling alien horror of “Mile 81,” the Raymond Chandler homage of “Premium Harmony,” the black comedy of “Drunken Fireworks,” the grim look at human nature of “Morality,” the haunting case of ruined dreams of “Herman Wouk Is Still Alive,” and so much more. Want deranged, insane narrators? Enjoy “Under the Weather.” Want a bizarre tale of a young child who seems to be evil incarnate? “Bad Little Kid” is for you. Want to read what feels like a mix between the climax of Revival and King’s stint in physical therapy? Oh, man, will “The Little Green God of Agony” scratch that itch and give you some nightmares to boot. But whatever the story, they’re all filled with King’s rich voice, his ability to evoke humanity in every character, and a keen eye about the world that always rings true. And just when you think you’ve seen it all, he tosses out the concluding story, “Summer Thunder,” which is a very different sort of story about the end of the world – one that’s far more beautiful and heartfelt than you might expect. All in all, it’s a fantastic collection, and if, like me, you’re initially disappointed that you’ve read a few already, well, trust me: they’re all worth reading again, and between King’s rich introductions and the revisions he’s made (mainly to Ur, but apparently to many), you’ll enjoy them all over again. It’s a great collection, and a reminder of what King can do, even without a broad canvas of pages to work on. 5

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Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Season 2) / *****

imageIt’s kind of amazing how quickly Last Week Tonight became such an essential part of my week. It’s not like I didn’t already love Oliver, and it’s not like I wasn’t a fan of the show already. But as the show began to grow in popularity, it grew in guts, doing things far beyond what anyone expected any cable news show to do. Why only complain about cigarette ads when you can make a mascot of a diseased lung and market that in other countries? Why just talk about the loopholes in religious laws when you can create your own church and explain it all that way? And best of all, why just give the highlights about government surveillance when you can fly to Russia and interview Edward Snowden? But while the stunts were attention grabbing, it was Oliver who held it all together, delivering insight, outrage, commentary, and comedy in equal parts, and turning his spotlight onto issues worthy of debate but not always getting the coverage they deserved. Felons re-entering the workplace, the bail system, the abuse of the municipal violations system, and even chicken farming – Oliver covered it all with wit, intelligence, thoughtfulness, and concern. Yes, Trevor Noah has guided The Daily Show well after the departure of Jon Stewart, allowing the show to remain both relevant and effective. But in many ways, Oliver has taken the place of his mentor, becoming a public conscience with a sense of humor, an educator with a relentless tenacity, and just a welcome presence on my television. 5

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