Favorite Shtuff of the VO Review in 2014
5 Favorite Reads
Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and Triumph of Spectacle by Chris Hedges
Chris Hedges is a polemicist. He’s a self righteous, feisty, and occasionally disingenuous far left intellectual that is so fed up with the corporate state that he discards any sense of responsibility for keeping a measured tone. Which is what makes Empire of Illusion so engaging as he takes aim on the deluded culture of American consumerism (broken down by chapter into the illusions of Literacy, Love, Wisdom, Happiness, and America itself). He’s shooting with urgency for a necessary wake up call, just don’t expect Hedges to play fair or give his targets leeway to defend themselves. There are very few shades of gray in his perspective, but that’s because the institutions complicit and active in creating our cultural delusions make it pretty easy to paint a stark picture.
Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kanheman
This is a fat volume and heavily researched. The mind is a master manipulator, that’s what I learned from reading this exhaustive breakdown by Kanheman regarding the two loose conceptual modes which our brains work in. We have to think fast, or we basically would be frozen by every decisions and all the data that comes our way throughout daily existence. But this instinctual lens through which we perceive reality is prone to bias and error. Our slow thinking is more deliberative and effective, but it takes time and gets bogged down in the details. You might come away feeling like you basically know nothing and that we as humans can’t be sure of much, and that’s true in many respects…but we’ve learned to live with it, often times because we’ve become very good at fooling #1, that is ourselves.
Waking Up by Sam Harris
Sam Harris, a controversial figure for saying things that make sense or presenting something with a little more nuance than people are comfortable with, takes a very personal approach with Waking Up. Regardless of how someone feels about Harris – I once was very critical of him before learning how woefully misrepresented his views were by a couple of sycophantic attention seeking quasi-intellectuals – anyone can be fascinated by Waking Up as it delves goes deep into theory of mind, neuroscience, and the nature of the self. Spirituality has a relevant potency for human beings, and we can actually tap into and understand it without taking on dogmatic or delusional beliefs, which is Harris’s basic thesis. This book put me onto meditation and mindfulness. I hesitate to say it changed me, but I read it while in the right place and in the right frame of mind and thus it does not feel hyperbolic to characterize my reading experience of it that way.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
This “biography of cancer”, along with The Panic Virus, this year illuminated for me the potential storytelling power that the history, conflict and study of medicine possesses. Maladies will likely be remembered as integral for raising the public awareness and consciousness about cancer as a disease. At the very least its an unmistakable milepost for showing us the progress we’ve made, and we can revisit its tale every 5 or so years for this purpose. Maladies is laden with science, politics, and a fascinating cast of characters. If you can get past the unavoidable medical terminology, there is a raw and beautiful heart coursing at the center of it all. Maybe that’s why it won a Pulitzer…just maybe.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
It’s difficult to express how profound this book was for me. If I try to describe the power that I feel is possible with a good study of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s work here, I fear I’d do it a serious disservice. It worms into the psyche and inspires change with compassion and subtlety. Heaping praise on it would prime too many expectations. Most of the advice regarding mindfulness and meditation is rather simple, nevertheless poignant. I suppose I would just say read it, and given the right circumstances and readiness, Wherever You Go has the potential to be a greatly inspiring, bordering on life changing, read for anybody.
5 Favorite Films:
We built the particular accelerator in Switzerland, not completely sure what utility it held, other than gaining some elemental and maybe ‘first mover’ glimpse of the universe. It was an international and human effort on par or exceeding flying to the moon. But it involves science and machinery that boggles the mind and isn’t immediately accessible for society to grasp its profundity. But they indeed spotted the Higgs-Boson, and it provided ambiguous information regarding the nature of reality and the cosmos. But perhaps it’s the process, the cooperation, and the questions it challenges humanity to ask that makes it worth it. These are the things watching Particle Fever had me thinking about.
Grand Budapest Hotel
In the past, Wes Anderson’s style kind of irritated me. It felt too eccentric in its aesthetic choices; too deliberately quirky. But I still respected his films, and could enjoy the wit and dryness with varying degrees of satisfaction. Even though Grand Budapest might visually be the most committed to Anderson’s characteristic style, the acting and story felt less wooden and more human compared to, say, Moonrise Kingdom or A Life Aquatic. Ralph Fiennes and his co-pilot Tony Revolori probably had a lot to do with this more engaging effect. And Fiennes’ work as Monsieur Gustave H. reaches comedic transcendence.
For my thoughts on GG, I direct you to my earlier review.
Only Lovers Left Alive
It may have been the music. It may be my personal obsession with the already dystopic landscape of Detroit that gives the film its realness. But most the credit probably goes to the peculiar and endearing performances from Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as they play philosophical foils to one another in this totally unique future-fiction tale. The word that came to mind all throughout while I considered how pleasant Only Lovers Left Alive’s was for me, was ‘hypnotic’. It’s one of the most unique viewing experiences I’ve had watching a movie in quite some time. When a movie can make you feel something truly novel, and take your mind into a strange reality, I’d say it delivered as a piece of artistic expression.
Richard Linklater is one of those directors, for me, who can do no wrong. His films span all sorts of genre’s but still always feel established outside of any genre distinction. He even defies any obvious quality that makes me think “awww, yes, this is a Linklater joint”. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a clear artistic voice, I’d say he’s just not overly concerned with making his movies about one signature style. He seems focused often onn opening the minds of his characters through organic and engrossing dialogue. The scenes often take on a free associative element that is more akin to how human interaction occurs in the real world. Boyhood puts that on full display, and will likely be the film that is tagged as his masterpiece. Filmed over 12 years with the same actors, and the same boy from age 6 on, it’s a totally new way of experiencing character drama. The concept could have been a gimmick, but instead it really does feel like you grow up with Mason Evans Jr. Throw in career capping brilliance from Ethan Hawke with his supporting role, and you have yourself one of those movies that gets at the essence of what it feels like to be human – confused, hopeful, and searching.
5 Favorite TV Shows:
After watching Cosmos, Caitlin developed a nerd crush on Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I might have one too, mostly driven by the fact that he rocked blue jeans with a sport coat on Bill Maher. Seeing the wonder, excitement, and enthusiasm with which he describes the known universe, this galaxy, the planet we reside on, and the history of science is truly inspiring. Cosmos also has stunning and cinematic effect, a quality that rarely gets pared with educational television. It’s not just a delivery of dry factoids, it’s a journey of discovery and an effort to have the audience connect with scientific concepts the same way someone might feel while meditating or reading holy scripture. But, lest someone suggest that Cosmos is a quasi-attempt at making science religious, the experience is merely evoked because of the expansiveness and nature of the topic and the genuineness with which Tyson expresses it. Secularists, agnostics, or the non-believer do not seek converts. They simply look for wonder in the world just like anyone else, and find it very often right underneath their feet when wondering how it is that the ground they walk on came to be constituted in its current form. Cosmos is one of the most impressive examples of these insights being detailed and produced for a mass audience. Can be streamed on Netflix
Game of Thrones (HBO)
Season 4 of GOT saw the showrunners, writers, and actors all coming together with singular focus on taking this epic drama to a level of artistry which the source material was begging for. Not to say that this hadn’t occurred occasionally in the first 3 seasons, but nearly every scene this season seemed intent on reaching that level as we explored the cynical landscape of Westeros in 2014. The Red Wedding went down, where possibly could we go from there? Some critics feared and even telegraphed a message that Game of Thrones stood on a precipice of losing its focus in the wake of such earth shattering events; as though Season 4 couldn’t possibly wield the same narrative heft anymore. And, as the entertainment and internet media is wont to do, they trumpeted many forms of faux-controversy and nit-picky critique on GOT because…well because people click on that stuff. For awhile I allowed myself to be irritated by this, but over the course of the season I let the naysayers naysay and wisely began ignoring GOT articles. Weekly, I permitted myself to marinate in GOT’s now established stylistic sophistication. From the Taratinoesque Road Inn scene with Arya and the Hound, Sophie Turner’s next-level-coming-out-of-her-shell work as Sansa, small but poignant moments even provided to minor characters – such as Dontos tenderly offering up his last valuable possession -, witnessing Maisie Williams become one of the most engaging and chilling performances I’ve even seen from a young actor, to Game of Thrones finally stepping into the territory of high fantasy with Bran’s journey or the goosebump inducing scene where we witness the citadel of the white walkers; we’re now on a plane of dramatic storytelling that other shows and even films rarely reach. Sure, maybe most of the good guys are dead now, and the world is looking more and more bleak, but GOT was at its highest level, and sustained it, throughout Seson 4.
Hannibal is on network television. This is very strange. It’s also on the weakest of the networks, which they would seem to be the least amenable to taking this kind of risk. Hannibal continues to get lowish ratings, but its become a cult hit online and a critical darling. So it’s sort of NBC’s prestige project, even though they don’t play much of a role in the production process of it anyway. Even more odd is it being the most disturbing and gorey show on television – even surpassing Game of Thrones – although they compete heavily for the title. Hannibal has concocted what is basically a new genre. I’d call it Lynchesque-‘fever dream’-art house-gore-hypnosis-horror-drama. The gore on this show is positively beautiful and I admit that’s uncomfortable to say. The lead performances from Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson are on point to a level where it pierces the mind in such a manner that you’ve hardly noticed being impaled by theatrical brilliance. Yeah, I’m HEAPING praise on this show because it’s that strange, arresting, and awesome. They’re exploring a new philosophical angle on the nature of psychopathy that leaves behind the trope and gets at basic questions of what makes someone human, what constitutes moral action, and asks if one were as self aware as Hannibal, does his behavior constitute an evolution in individual will that doesn’t even cross into the realm of normal human ethics because we simply can’t understand what drives him? I don’t think the show is interested in asking whether Hannibal is good or evil, compassionate or disdainful. He’s utterly alien, but the writing of his character focuses the viewer in such a way that we can’t help but ask questions about what instincts drive us and what depths of madness are okay to explore in an effort to better understand ourselves.
Fargo has the sort dramatic craft that rarely exists on television. It knows how to build tension, explore darker themes, humanize characters without justifying their despicable actions, and has just enough of the Coen Bros aesthetic to pay worthy homage to the 90s film while remaining its own animal completely. Apparently the show will be continued under the anthology format that True Detective also chose – a trend spearheaded by the American Horror Story folks. This is new territory in television drama, basically giving us 10 hour films as they often have the acting klout, the stylish flourishes, and contained storyline that film posses. In time, I could see it becoming an often used middle ground between the two mediums. It gives creators the freedom of time as well as the focused vision of knowing their beginning middle and end. Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton, along with a coming out performance from Allison Tolman and a career shifting turn from Colin Hanks, showcase some of the best ensemble casting and acting I’ve ever seen in a TV show. Kudos to FX for taking a chance here.
True Detective (HBO)
Some folks on the internet wondered if TV goers were becoming prisoners of the moment when it came to True Detective’s surprising popularity. I don’t think there was any question that the show would bring in fans of crime drama and psychological thrillers, but there was an upswell of fascination with the central mystery of the TD plot that was a surprising for people who keep up on pop culture. Which might give a critic the perception that a gimmick lay at the center of TD’s growing respectability. I toyed with such a thought, but even with a surprisingly hopeful and oddly tidy conclusion to the mystery of the Yellow King, my critical analysis of True Detective. It challenged me, it took risks with its narrative structure, it had a salient and powerful emotional arc, it forwardly explored concepts of existential and nihilistic philosophy, and evoked performances from veterans Woody Harrelson and Matthew McChonaughey that basically put them in Bryan Cranston territory. Can they make a buddy cop dynamic, have it be clever and occasionally hilarious, as well as explore questions of meaning, masculinity and the nature of reality itself? Why yes, yes they can.
My Favorite albums this year (quick, before it changes in the next 5 minutes)
10-6 tie cause distinguishing after the top 5 feels pointless:
…And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead – IX
These dudes just deliver. You get straight rock, arena rock, loud and wall-of-sound guitar riffs, and a epic progressive and conceptual framework. They don’t make mediocre music and are a consistent go-to for me when I’m needing a combination loud and epic rock experience that still delivers in a simpler rock & roll kind of way.
Lucius – Wildewoman
This sort of dropped out of the sky. I had never heard of them, saw that the album was getting a warm reception, and I gave it a shot. This is one of those finds that comes from looking for new stuff to listen to, and its always encouraging to land on a gem like this. Awesome female vocals, great songwriting, and very memorable, listen on a road trip kinds of songs.
Robert Plant – Lullaby…the Ceaseless Roar
If you liked Robert Plant’s work on ‘Band of Joy’, there will be plenty of goodness to revel in here on his latest effort. I guess this is considered his album with a new band called The Sensational Space Shifters. There are more experimental quirks that some might find out of place, but I actually appreciated some of the electronic and psychedelic touches.
Strand of Oaks – Heal
It’s odd because I don’t know that I can give a real tight critical analysis of this album, but I know that I’ve come back to it as much as any other album this year asides from my top 5. It’s rock music, but has unique and genreless elements that allowed it to stand apart from the robust selection of great music that came down in 2014.
Jozef Van Wissem – Only Lovers Left Alive OST
Films have been doing a lot of unique things lately with their scores and music. The music in Only Lovers Left Alive becomes one of the characters, and is a big part of setting the mood that made this one of the most hypnotic and unexpectedly great moves I saw all year. It makes for stellar regular listening as well, good for creative inspiration.
My best of 2014 ranked in order 5-1
5. Sylvan Esso- Sylvan Esso
Another difficult to describe project that I would nevertheless return to with frequency. It took me outside of my normal range of tastes, but they made it a pleasure to challenge my listening habits. 2 or 3 of the best songs I heard this year are present on this self-titled gem.
4. Woods – With Light and With Love
Folksky, psychedelic, singer/songwriter rock music…I’m down. Too many memorable tracks not to love this album and a I-feel-like-I’ve-heard-this-before-and-I’ve-always-known-it-was-classic-even-though-its in-fact brand-new quality to all of it.
3. alt-J – This is All Yours
Here I sit with feelings of indignation about the treatment alt-J gets from some critics. To be sure, alt-J is mostly embraced as an innovative and brilliant new outfit. But their subsequent rise to popularity, and some fool in the UK calling them the next Radiohead, naturally brings out the contrarians. Pitchfork did their nonsensical pseudo-analytical-too-many-big-words-that could-have-been-small-words review and gave them a 4.3 because that’s what Pitchfork does. When they’re feeling like being the tastemaker, they go and shit on some band people are respecting because it seems sophisticated to do so. I don’t like being my indignant self, but I will stick up for alt-J as I have Arcade Fire. They are stepping into that realm of next-level artistry. This is All Yours has some at times bizarre seques and various atmospherics that might seem like gimmicks or otherwise as though they didn’t know how to filter ideas from their jam sessions, but I would disagree that this what’s going on, that to me the music on comes across deliberate in its compilation. A full album experience in the truest sense. They’re weird, and still somehow make really catchy songs that flirt with the mainstream. Anytime “out there” stuff gets serious recognition, I will applaud that and defend it from those who wish to prematurely lay down labels like “sell out” or “pretentious”.
2. EMA – The Future’s Void
It feels strange considering that this album was indeed released this year. I’ve nearly forgotten that for the first half of 2014 it was my go-to listen. You can put it on and let it go without skipping a track. Here we have a timely mishmash of 90s angsty female fronted rock, gritty underground electronica, with a penchant for taking her tracks up to a fully expansive scale that conjure visions of William Gibsonesque, cyberpunk, dsytopic landscapes <<<< that was my best Pitchfork impression of a sentence. It’s an awesome album, plain and simple.
1. Run the Jewels – Run the Jewels 2
Killer Mike and El-P possess some serious jewels to open up track 1 ‘Jeopardy’ with Killer Mike vociferously spouting sans music “I’m finna bang this **** the **** out…you might wanna record the way you feelin’ like history being made”. It’s almost as though they’re challenging a listener immediately to check their perception as a shouting black man’s braggadocious and vocal swagger, unsullied by any backing track, is presented for first impressions. And, rest assured, let up on ferocity it never does. Here is the uncorked ‘id’ of an admitted misanthrope and a political and social justice activist. The most unlikely pairing of rap artists I think anyone could have conjured now taking the game down by breaking all the rules. Release album for free, entreaty street artists around the world to market your trademark fist and gun imagery, reinvent yourself at 40 and plant yourself atop the king-of-the-hill mountain of rap emcee’s; accomplishing all of this by hardly acknowledging the normal industry process of getting the word out on your shit. If you’re going to do these things, it’s best you make sure that the album is suitably badass, but also poignant and necessary.
The sounds cooked up from the mind of El-P are spooky, futuristic, with the occasional fusion of jazzy trumpets and guitar strings paying homage to the sounds he grew up on. That might seem brow raising were it not for the fact that the ferocious instrumentals only let up here and there to allow listeners to contemplate that this isn’t just dick measuring and street swaggering. They utilize the in your face tropes of battle rap and competitive fervor to speak not about their stacks or the keys they got in the trunk, but to tell people they’ve swallowed the red pill and what they now see is absurd. Those who remain complicit or blind to it are certifiable f*ckboys. This is as entertaining, head nodding, and feeling-awesome as social commentary will ever get…until the next Run the Jewels album. I bequeth unto it my #1 slot not only for sound but also for the manner in which they got the word out; simultaneously the best and most necessary album of 2014.
On my bubble or otherwise should be mentioned:
Spoon – They Want My Soul, FKA Twigs – LP1, Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire for No Witness, Hozier – self titled, Pharoahe Monch – PTSD: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Kate Tempest - Everybody Down, St Vincent – self titled, Ty Segal - Manipulator, Lanterns on the Lake – Until the Colours Run, Lana Del Rey – Ultraviolence, Wildbirds & Peacedrums – Rhythm, We Were Promised Jetpacks – Unraveling, Vince Staples – Hell Can’t Wait, Barrows – Red Giant, Sharon Van Etten – Are We There, Damien Jurado – Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, and I know I’m forgetting other stuff…its been a great year for music.
2013 albums that had serious staying power:
Danny Brown – Old, Darkside – Psychic, Run the Jewels – self titled, Forest Swords – Engravings, Arcade Fire – Reflektor, Chelsea Wolfe – Pain is Beauty
Forward to good art and entertainment in 2015!