My best of 2015 list will be ready by, oh let’s say the end of January. That’ll give me time to finish Three Moments of an Explosion and see Star Wars. In the meantime, I took advantage of the holidays to take in all sorts of fun stuff. And since podcasts make up a comparatively small amount of it, I’ve taken the liberty of awarding my picks of the week to two non-podcasts. Here are this week’s 27 reviews.
Doctor Who: “The Husbands of River Song” — Well. In two consecutive episodes, my two favourite supporting characters in Doctor Who get marvellous sendoffs. The comedy in this plays wonderfully, but it’s the character drama between the Doctor and River that really sells this. That scene at the dinner table midway through really got me, though I’m not sure if it was the script and performances or just Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll playing in the background. Even if the resolution is a bit of a deus ex meteors and everybody ends up a bit in meteors res, it’s still a delightful romp. My only regret is that this is the first and last time we’ll see Peter Capaldi and Alex Kingston in these roles together. Because they are every bit the pair that Kingston and Matt Smith were. Lovely.
Deadwood: Season 1, episodes 11-12 — Firstly, I’ve really been enjoying Todd VanDerWerff’s essays on Deadwood from his days at the AV Club. In spite of being bundled up into sets of three episodes, they’re among his best writing: up there with his Sopranos reviews and the few seasons of Mad Men that he covered. Anyway, these last two episodes of Deadwood’s first season are outstanding. If the second season keeps the pace of these last three episodes, I’ll be a happy viewer. But I’m going to take a break from this before diving into that season, to watch Mildred Pierce as part of an ongoing Todd Haynes pilgrimage. But I’m really looking forward to seeing how the second season manages to be more acclaimed than the first.
QI: “Merriment” — Bill Bailey is dressed like Paul McCartney on the Sgt. Pepper’s cover!
The Graham Norton Show: “David Beckham, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega & Kylie Minogue” — I could not love Carrie Fisher more. Also, why don’t more late night talk shows have multiple guests at once? Not many shows could give us David Beckham and John Boyega fighting with toy lightsabers and narrowly missing Kylie Minogue’s head.
Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee: “President Barack Obama” — Certain parts of this are a bit stagey, as you’d expect. But I’m always quite impressed by Obama’s ability to play himself in stuff. Really, though, you should watch this to see a president in a frame of mind where he doesn’t feel the need to pitch messages all the time. It’s not the Marc Maron interview, but it’s in the same vein and it’s got some funny moments.
Doctor Who: “The Eleventh Hour” — This was the first piece of media I consumed in 2016. It’s a great start, really. To my year, and to the Steven Moffat era of Doctor Who. By the end of this episode, any attentive viewer has Moffat’s game pegged, at least on a metafictional level: Amy is introduced as a diegetic insert of a Doctor Who fan, so we can assume even at this point that her story will be about what it means to love Doctor Who. As fresh starts go, this is one of the greats.
Sherlock: “The Abominable Bride” — And so would this be, if it hadn’t turned out to be something else entirely. I shall say no more, because spoilers. I will say this: I love that Benedict Cumberbatch plays a substantially different Sherlock in Victorian garb than he does in the modern stories. The other characters in Sherlock have always been fairly consistent with their portrayals in Conan Doyle. But the moody sociopathy of Cumberbatch’s modern Holmes is straight out of contemporary anti-hero television. It was a canny choice by Cumberbatch (and by Moffat and Gatiss) to strip back that element of his character and allow this Holmes to be the dour Victorian eccentric that he started off as. I had as much fun watching this as I’ve ever had watching Sherlock, no doubt partially because Moffat and Gatiss write Victorian witticisms with spectacular aplomb. But somehow, I’m left wondering if the fun that I had actually reflects the quality of the episode. There’s a sort of messy gratuitousness to this that almost matches that insane wedding episode from the last season. Still, there are enough bon mots and meta-critiques in this that I remain quite positively disposed to it.
Frank Sinatra: Nothing But The Best — This is a compilation of Sinatra’s best singles for Reprise, which is not where he did his best work. His earlier Capitol recordings are the real reason he’s a legend. But still, there something about this more relaxed version of Sinatra that’s just better for putting on and pottering about doing other things. You can’t do that with In The Wee Small Hours, because it’ll make you cry all over your laundry.
Hawkwind: Hall of the Mountain Grill — I’ve never actually gotten around to listening to a full Hawkwind album, but the recent death of Lemmy seemed like it necessitated a spin of this. It took me back to a time when I was discovering music like this regularly. In spite of never having heard it, this fits right into the established grooves in my brain. “You’d Better Believe It” is a serious jam. More Hawkwind to follow, probably.
Caroline Shaw/Roomful of Teeth: Partita for 8 Voices — There’s something about vocal music that has the capacity to inspire sheer, giddy joy more easily than other idioms. I’d heard the Passacaglia from this spectacular piece many times, but I figured it was time I checked out the other three movements. They’re playful and emotive and hold the hell out of your attention. Roomful of Teeth is a vocal ensemble unlike any other and Shaw, being a member, knows what they’re capable of. She takes full advantage of the group’s technical capacities to the point where listening to the music becomes both an emotional experience and something like watching a really impressive high-wire act. A Pulitzer is not praise enough. Pick of the week.
Lou Harrison/Dennis Russell Davies et al: Symphony No. 3 & Grand Duo for Violin and Piano — Why Lou Harrison’s music isn’t at the centre of the repertory by this point is a mystery to me. His third symphony is one of the loveliest and most accessible pieces from late 20th-century America. If the classical music world made sense, conductors would be scrambling to put out full Harrison cycles rather than more goddamned Mozart.
Rush: Grace Under Pressure — I tend to make a lot of the first music I listen to in a given year. This time, I finished 2015 off with what was once the first side of this (with “Headlong Flight” thrown in for good measure — the perfect song to end a great year). On the walk home after midnight, side two rang in 2016. Given that this is one of the darkest Rush albums, I’m choosing to interpret my choice as a cautionary tale: I’d best not initiate any nuclear wars this year.
Rush: Permanent Waves — A perennial favourite. I love Permanent Waves so much that I have trouble listening to any other Rush album without immediately following it up with this.
The Chemical Brothers: Surrender — This really feels like Daft Punk in places. Which certainly isn’t a bad thing, but given the choice between psychedelia throwbacks (more prominent on both Dig Your Own Hole and Further) and French house, I’ll go with the former every time. “The Sunshine Underground” is a jam, though.
David Cavanagh: Good Night and Good Riddance — Finished! God, I loved this. Maybe it ended a little abruptly, but it’s such a minor problem in the face of everything that comes before that I don’t actually care at all. More shall be said about this in my year-end list, I’m sure. (Fated to be more of a “year-beginning list,” it would seem.)
China Miéville: “The Dusty Hat” — Do you ever read something, or see something that you don’t understand and that makes you like it more? It sort of pulls you in by its sheer incomprehensibility? That doesn’t happen to me all that much, but when it does, the thing in question often becomes an all-time favourite. It happened with Mulholland Drive, At Swim-Two-Birds, Trout Mask Replica, and a bunch more I’m forgetting. On first read, “The Dusty Hat” is very much like those things were. It has far and away the most adventurous and best prose of the stories in Three Moments of an Explosion so far and is immensely imaginative in its details. (A particular favourite: “I was glad I didn’t have a cat or a dog because I thought they’d die from being in the room with him.”) Overall, I kind of don’t know what even happened in this story. But I definitely enjoyed it more than any of the others in this collection, with the possible exception of “The Buzzard’s Egg” — which was immediately comprehensible and thus in a strange way less promising. If I remember, I plan to read this again right when I finish the book. Pick of the week.
China Miéville: “Escapee” — One of the pleasures of Three Moments of an Explosion is these little tiny stories of fewer than five pages, which often follow the larger stories like “The Dusty Hat.” This one’s an outline for a movie trailer — the second one of those in the book — for a movie about a man with a large hook embedded in his back. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing that movie, provided it were written by Miéville and directed by Robert Rodriguez.
Captain Phillips — My impression from the reviews was that this was only okay and mostly notable for being super Oscary and having a great performance by Barkhad Abdi. Both of those things are true, but I thought this was terrific overall. Paul Greengrass is a meat and potatoes director, who just gets out of the way of the story. That approach makes this totally gripping. The screenplay flags in scenes that aren’t ruthlessly procedural and full of people making decisions, i.e. the very beginning of the movie, where we meet Phillips’s family, and the quick pep talk he gives to his crew about a half-hour in. It would have been a better film with those two scenes removed altogether. But once the action starts, there are no weak points. Near the end of the movie, Tom Hanks’s performance is so good that I almost understand why he’s so esteemed.
The Hunting Ground — I watched this at a New Year’s Eve gathering. Yeah, I say “gathering” advisedly, because this is not a documentary you watch at a “party.” It is appalling, and not especially surprising to anybody who pays attention to these things. It is worth seeing. There are moments in this where a simple fact will appear onscreen as an intertitle, with seven or eight studies cited as sources for that fact. Those moments are surprisingly powerful, and bolster the personal narratives related by survivors of campus sexual assault, which are really difficult to take.
Vertigo — Yeah, I’d never seen Vertigo. It’s great, obviously. Maybe a little dated. It has a particular sort of expository writing that you don’t see much of anymore. Plus, Jimmy Stewart is definitely an actor from the 50s. And his character is probably the most conspicuous private eye in cinema history. Seriously dude, there’s no way she doesn’t see you there behind that pillar. It’s stuff like that that kept me at arm’s length, a bit. I suppose you’ve got to approach these old masterpieces on their own terms, but there are plenty of movies older than this that I find completely fresh and immediate even today: The General, Citizen Kane, The Rules of the Game, Sunset, tons more. On first viewing, the fact that this has now surpassed Kane in the estimation of the world’s critics (as per the last Sight and Sound poll) seems totally ridiculous to me. But I certainly wouldn’t argue with anybody who claims that Bernard Hermann’s score is the best in film history. Favourite line: “I’ve been right here all the time putting olive oil on my rubber plant leaves.”
Undertale — Okay. So, if my last note on this made it seem like I’d finished the game… I hadn’t. I assumed I was close enough that I could basically offer a final assessment, but at the very last minute, Undertale turns into something dramatically different from and stranger that what it sets you up to think it is. I won’t spoil it, but I will say that the ending of Undertale is a complex metafiction of the sort that never fails to pull me in. I’ve seen these themes explored more effectively in other games (to say which ones would almost be a spoiler), but this is going to stick with me for a bit. Last week, I had this pegged as “worthwhile.” Now, I daresay it’s closer to essential. I had it pegged for a pick of the week until I got blown away by “The Dusty Hat.” Interestingly, they’re both things I don’t entirely understand.
Kairo — There are basically two things I’m looking for in a video game: a great story, and/or an interesting world that I can explore freely. If a game doesn’t have at least one of those things, I’m unlikely to be that interested. Steam has been recommending Kairo to me for ages, but I’ve been hesitant because it seemed like a game with no discernable story and a very minimal sort of environment with lots of puzzles. (I’m queasy about puzzles.) But it was on sale for a dollar this week, so why not. Turns out, it’s kind of the platonic ideal of a game. By that, I don’t mean that I’m blown away. More “pleasantly satisfied,” really. But you could easily point to Kairo to demonstrate what’s valuable about video games, and why they’re unique from every other medium. Kairo has nothing in it that could be done in a movie or a novel or a radio play. It’s purely the experience of “play” that makes up the content of Kairo. You explore and interact with your surroundings, and if you see something that suggests a story might have taken place here at some point (and you do) you can certainly surmise about it, but you’re not actually part of it. Kairo doesn’t require narrative conventions to make you feel stuff. Instead, it keeps a firm hold on its pacing and mood to make you feel by turns placid, proud and creeped out. Considering that it’s the most abstract game I’ve ever played aside from possibly Tetris (or SPL-T, I guess), it’s enormously effective. If you like this sort of thing, grab it while it’s still a dollar and spend a pleasant afternoon.
Kentucky Route Zero: Act 1 — Yeah, there’ll be more games than usual in the near future, since I can’t control myself during the Steam holiday sale. I’ve been meaning to play this for ages, but I’ve been waiting for the much-delayed Acts 4 and 5 to come out so I can down it in one big gulp. But then, you know, Steam sale. Kentucky Route Zero is the kind of game that I’m obviously going to like, in exactly the way that Kairo wasn’t that. It’s text-based to the point that it’s basically a Twine story with graphics — gorgeous, moody graphics. It’s mysterious and uncanny without being outright scary (which will almost certainly make it more preoccupyingly frightening to me in the end). And it wears its structural gimmicks on its sleeve. This was made for me. My favourite moment so far was something I stumbled upon by accident: an area where you can’t actually do anything except watch two men push a broken airplane down a road. It’s like something out of Beckett. Seems to bear no relation to anything, but it’s been sticking with me. I can tell already that this is going to be one of those games where the actual gameplay is only half of the interactive experience and the other half is trying to work out what the hell it all means. To be fair, we shouldn’t hold a game in higher esteem for being this way: this is a kind of interaction that comes attached to every medium. There’s a quote I heard once but can’t quite place — I think it might be Hitchcock — something like “the most important act in a movie is the fourth one, where you’re talking about it on the drive home from the cinema.” In that sense, all fiction is interactive fiction, Kentucky Route Zero is not significantly more interactive than Vertigo, and is thus fundamentally different from Kairo. I don’t know where this game is going. But I’m super excited about it.
Mortified: “Boys DO Cry (w/ special guest CHVRCHES)” — It was the “special guest CHVRCHES” bit that sold me, but the two stories of sensitive teenage boyhood are worth the price of admission. (What a strange expression to use about a free podcast. Never mind, I’m done with this.)
99% Invisible: “Bone Music” — In the Soviet Union, western pop records were bootlegged on exposed x-rays. They sound ghostly and ethereal. This podcast tells the story (which includes an interview with Nikita Khrushchev’s son) and also plays sound from some of the records. It’s produced in collaboration with the Kitchen Sisters. So basically, everything about this makes it worth a listen.
Serial: “Escaping” — The first really interesting episode of this season. And, it’s interesting because of the tape of Beau telling his own story. Looks like we’ll have less of Koenig explaining stuff from here on out, which in general is a good thing.
Radiolab: “The Fix” — Stories about addiction can get a bit heavy, and Radiolab can sometimes take heavy stories and make them oppressively bleak. But this isn’t like that. It’s interested in the personal stories of addicts, but it’s more interested in the story of how our perception of addiction has prevented us from taking known medical steps that can help some addicts recover.