Tim Cavanaugh, managing editor, Reason.com
While it was only a fair crowd-pleaser (denounced by one Amazon reviewer as an "annoying and pathetic movie that drags on for hours of tedium without remorse"), Cedar Rapids won me over by taking the business conference as its setting. The movie dispenses plenty of naïf-in-the-wide-world jokes, and Ed Helms' performance as an insurance agent so rustic that Iowa's second city seems to him a modern Gomorrah is funny enough. But the movie's real subject is the anxiety of an annual industry confab—a sensation that is widely familiar to Americans but rarely if ever depicted on the silver screen. Is your purpose at a business conference to work, to party, to make connections, to get laid, to explore a new locale, to prove yourself, or some excruciating combination of all of these goals? The movie resolves all this through a favorite movie trope—the ad hoc family of misfits. And its cast includes the kind of low-wattage actors (John C. Reilly, Anne Heche, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Kurtwood Smith, Stephen Root) I think of as the real supernovae of the Hollywood firmament. But I like it because it captures the truth that every business conference starts out in dread and ends in unalloyed relief.
Brian Doherty, senior editor
The plenitude of a dying record industry brings us the ultimate "beat the bootleg" package—the five-CD Beach Boys Smile Sessions box set. It's the great American pop-opera of discovery, the frontier, and naming your favorite vegetable, as unfinished as the American experiment itself (this is not a finished Smile—just all of its glorious rubble), and as I wrote in 2004 when Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson issued his own sort-of finished version, "listening to this heartwarmingly gorgeous slab of vocal melody pop, the final processing of the ambitions of a young Southern California man with lots of money…ambition, and…love for the sound of American voices (particularly the voices of his brothers, cousin, and school chum) raised in song—from old work songs to western ballads to turn of the century pop to doo-wop—makes all the myths of genius…thwarted…seem a whole lot less interesting than adding this music to your day." This is all the more true of this surfeit of finished tunes, vocal experiments, studio chatter, and joyous repetition, starring the impossibly rich, grand, sweet, homey, and moving voices of the Wilson Brothers, their cousin Mike, and their high school chum Al working at their most complex, demanding, and hilarious level.
Nick Gillespie, editor in chief, Reason.tv and Reason.com
When it comes to policy books, Peter Schweizer’s Throw Them All Out is not just an irresistible read but an infuriating one. He details how politicians have openly enriched themselves in ways that would trigger insider-trading investigations in the private sector. If you need unquestionable proof that Nancy Pelosi and John Boehner are in fact the same person, grok this dissection of crony capitalism. Better still are chapters on folks such as Warren Buffett, who promoted TARP, the stimulus, and other big-government boondoggles as part of an altruistic “social compact” that directly fattened his bottom line. Buffett, writes Schweizer, “is a financial genius. But even more important for his portfolio, he’s a political genius.”
Paul Levitz's 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking came out slightly more than a year ago, but if you’re at all a comics nerd or a design geek, it’ll take you 12 months to sift through a coffee table book that’s the size of an actual coffee table. Lushly produced and intelligently written, it’s as much a scrapbook of the nation’s collective unconscious as it is the definitive reference work about Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and (god help us all) Aquaman.
David Harsanyi, columnist
Preposterous premise. Incomprehensible plot. The second season of the BBC television series Luther was even more refreshingly implausible than the remarkably far-fetched first season. This time some seriously twisted sociopaths, a self-destructive porn actress, and her nefariously cougarish mom have suicidal anti-hero Idris Elba tied up in knots.
Reading Neal Stephenson’s last book Anathem felt like taking a crash course on the history of science, philosophy, and religion on a really boring alien planet. Though his latest, ReamDe, isn’t exactly a return to form (it’s the least ambitious Stephenson novel since Zodiac) it probably is more thought-provoking than most things you’re bound to read. It’s a thriller of sorts, pivoting on a huge multiplayer online game, but more importantly, if you enjoy hundreds of pages of geeky discourse on currency, mobsters, and video games, you’ll be happy to have Stephenson writing on the 21st century.
Since I’m old and hopelessly nostalgic, I was excited to hear Merge Records had reissued Archers of Loaf’s excellent first album Icky Mettle. The real value, though, is that the re-issue includes the EP (a word we used to use to signify short albums) vs. The Greatest of All Time, which finds the band at its heaviest and most boisterous.
A. Barton Hinkle, columnist