EX rex: 10 newish things worth your time

Balatro, Kali Malone, and MGMT.

EX rex: 10 newish things worth your time

EX is a research report about where culture is headed. In our monthly recommendation index, we hand-pick recent cultural items worth your attention. Plus a few surprises from the vaults. 

1) Balatro

Balatro is all about the thrill of doing poker wrong. It’s about taking a standard playing deck and defacing it with psychedelic jokers, alchemical transformations, cosmic interferences — anything in your toolkit that will make the integers on-screen as large as arithmetically possible. When it works, it feels almost mischievous, as if you’d scrawled your own OP Magic: the Gathering card on a scrap of office paper and slipped it into your deck. As a roguelike deck-builder in the style of Slay the Spire, Balatro possesses a charming purity; every card in your deck is some iteration of one of the standard fifty-two. Despite this deceptively simple conceit, Balatro enables myriad strategies, begging you to bastardize your deck in service of exploiting probabilities and forcing winning hands. It’s without a doubt one of the best roguelikes in recent memory. [Pao]

2) The Butcher

Claude Chabrol’s serial-killer thriller The Butcher (1970) is one of those movies that was once seriously acclaimed. But it no longer fits into our networks of film discovery, which are all about newness or at least weirdness. The Butcher looks like traditional genre fare, and there’s nothing flashy in the way it turns into something greater. It preserves the crescendo of Hitchcockian suspense while coolly expanding the mystery of what’s going on behind people’s eyes; it expects you to read the whole story in a face framed in a window and a guarded expression under passing streetlights. (Ebert wrote an appreciation of this in The Great Movies, but it's spoiler-filled.) That’s more work than Netflix & Co. think viewers are up for today, so you won’t find The Butcher anywhere but on torrent sites, where it’s been encoded and preserved by the good people at [checks filename] “HANDJOB.” [Chris]

3) City of Pirates

Raúl Ruiz’s surrealist City of Pirates is the sort of movie that makes critics crack open the chest of words like “oneiric” and “mnemotechnical.” But all you need to know is that it’s funny. As you might fear, it’s one of those “mesmeric” movies where both the camera and the conversations move in circles; but, before it loses you, it stops short on a ridiculous surprise or sight gag. Praising this movie on the strength of its jokes, when the real Ruiz-heads are going off about the politics of exile or Borges or whatever, does make you feel a bit like Soulja Boy talking about Braid. But anyway, if you like to smoke and you like to drink, check out the films of Raúl Ruiz — just don’t hold your breath waiting for the pirates to show up. [Chris]

4) Helldivers 2

Helldivers 2 is the surprise of the year for anyone who didn’t play the first Helldivers. Developed by the mid-sized Swedish outfit Arrowhead, the new game drops the camera behind the player, a dramatic evolution from the first game’s top-down perspective which underlines its fundamental appeal: genuine, panic-stricken chaos. The game insists upon friendly fire, fiddly minimap controls, pipe-dream mission objectives, and dense thickets of ambient fog. War isn’t so much hell as it is an enormous pain in the ass. Such rude, player-unfriendly obfuscation flies in the face of the endless empowerment of many modern live-service games, which is probably why people can't get enough of it. [Clay]

5) Kali Malone, All Life Long

Kali Malone records can be a bit of a tough sell. Her last was a set of three hour-long drone pieces performed on sine-wave oscillator alongside alongside Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley and cellist Lucy Railton; her earlier works reclaimed the pipe organ, of all instruments, as a vehicle of melancholy and slow-building power. The new All Life Long works chorale and brass ensembles into her palette — and it is, like its predecessors, revelatory, unearthing the ancient power of these sounds in a new, secular context. Time seems to dilate under their influence, suggesting transcendence is closer at hand than we realize. [Clay]

6) MGMT, Loss Of Life 

MGMT’s Loss of Life is an album of restraint. From Congratulations’ “Siberian Breaks” to Little Dark Age’s “When You Die,” MGMT have spent much of their post-Oracular Spectacular discography writing garrulous pop songs that swerve in unexpected directions. Loss of Life, by contrast, is an exercise in understatement. Steel-string guitars glisten over soft pads; a piano carries the melody as a fretless bass sidles into view. Songs like “Dancing in Babylon,” “People in the Streets,” and “Nothing Changes” are the work of a band who no longer feel they have anything to prove. The prankster’s logic that guided the anti-pop artistry of their earlier LPs is still present, though more subdued — this album favors measured crescendos over start-stop code-switching. [Pao]

7) Mk.gee, Two Star & The Dream Police

Like fellowtravelers Steve Lacy and Kacy Hill, the producer and multi-instrumentalist Mk.gee hails from the post-Blonde cosmos of dreamy, elliptical pop-R&B. Like them, he has an innate sense of texture, filling his debut LP with analog guitar licks, far-off drones, and tape-damaged synthesizers. But he also understands melody, wringing classic-rock pathos out of the hook on “Are You Looking Up” and Phil Collins-grade wistfulness on the title track. It’s a short, slippery LP – barely longer than the EPs that preceded it – but every track seems beamed in from some alternate universe’s pop-radio canon. [Clay]

8) Sexy Beast

Jonathan Glazer’s fourth and most recent film, the Best Picture nominee Zone Of Interest, credibly feels like the invention of a new cinematic grammar. Astonishingly, you can see the seeds of this planted in the director’s debut, the surrealist 2000 caper Sexy Beast, which is worth a rewatch (or first viewing) for people still grappling with intrusive thoughts of the director’s newest work. Unlikely pretty much everything else in Glazer’s ouevre, Sexy Beast is buckshot with wild humor, practically ending with a punchline. But like them, every scene seethes with alien menace, here taking the form of a wildly against-type Ben Kingsley. He gives the film’s psychosexual conflict an elemental force. [Clay]

9) Shōgun

I’m not the only one who remembers James Clavell’s Shōgun (1975) as a high school classic: a brick of a book to stay up all night reading, left over from a time when adventure was still a living genre. The book launches as a series of jams, scrapes, perils, etc. navigated by a cartoonish Englishman, and lands as a story about understanding “the Japanese,” but its real payload is the wealth of stratagems and mind games you get from all the intriguing figures vying for control, who clearly prefigure the plotters of the (sorry) Game of Thrones books. (Shōgun is obviously dated and Orientalist, also, and it explains objects like the “futon” as if they were inventions of the high elves.) FX’s glossy new adaptation seems okay, but it’s so anxious to avoid trashiness that it jettisons much of the action that gives the plot its momentum. One hopes that as it goes on, it recaptures more of the magic we all remember from the musical. [Chris]

10)The Vince Staples Show

In interviews and on Twitter, Vince Staples can seem like the funniest man alive. But across his five remarkably consistent LPs, he is at most a mordant humorist, focusing his diamond-tight bars instead on how the traumas of his past haunt more urgent, corporeal needs. On the five-episode Vince Staples Show, he finally brings these two personas into conversation. Staples, playing himself, stays laconic — and wiseass — in the face of cop fans, dystopian theme parks, Rick Ross, and his own conflicted past. By the series’ end, it’s clear he’s creating a twisted cosmos that may well drive the next phase of his career. [Clay]

What popped for you in February?