February 13, 2014

Elsewhere: Japan’s ghosts, the difficulties of reason, iPhone rumors, creationism & Hieronymus Bosch

Elsewhere: Japan’s ghosts, the difficulties of reason, iPhone rumors, creationism & Hieronymus Bosch

Cassettes may be dead (more or less) here in America, but according to Kotaku, they’re still a very popular format in Japan, and much of that is due to karaoke fans of “enka” music. Related: I wrote a piece for Christ and Pop Culture a few years ago on the nostalgia of cassettes.

Regardless of whether you believe in ghosts or think that stuff is all a bunch of superstitious hooey, this account of exorcisms, haunting encounters, and other supernatural disturbances in post-tsunami Japan is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and very spooky read.

A Fox Business host claims that The Lego Movie is anti-business. Nell Minow calls that absurd: “This is a movie that is fundamentally a feature-length informercial for one of the world’s biggest toy brands.” This incident reminds me of similar accusations levelled at that staunch bulwark of liberal, anti-capitalist thought, The Muppets. Also, did you know that The Lego Moviebuilds its story upon religious and moral themes” (not to mention ancient Roman architects)?

Sam Harris recently issued a challenge to critics of his book The Moral Landscape: he would personally pay $10,000 to anyone who could write an essay that made him change his mind. However, Jonathan Haidt argues that it’s unlikely Harris will be paying out, and not necessarily because he won’t receive a winning entry: If reasoning is so easily swayed by passions, then what kind of reasoning should we expect from people who hate religion and love reason? Open-minded, scientific thinking that tries to weigh the evidence on all sides? Or standard lawyerly reasoning that strives to reach a pre-ordained conclusion? My favorite part in Haidt’s piece comes near the very end, where he briefly argues for a humbler and more social view of reason.

Rumors are swirling that Apple will release the iPhone 6 later this year, and it’ll come in two sizes: 4.7” and 5.5” (both are bigger than the current iPhone 5). Apple is notoriously secretive concerning their hardware designs, which only fuels more speculation — and inspires lots of concept designs by independant designers. Sometimes the designs are real head-scratchers, but it would not suck if the iPhone 6 looked something like Federico Ciccarese’s concepts.

Speaking of iPhones, April Fool’s Day is still a few months away, but it’s not too early to play a prank or two on your iPhone-carrying friends. The “never-ending text” prank strikes me as particularly devious. (If you decide to play one of those pranks on someone, you can make it up to them by giving them some tips for extending their iPhone’s battery life.)

Earlier this month, Ken Ham (of Answers in Genesis fame) and Bill Nye (aka “The Science Guy”) engaged in a much-publicized debate regarding the truth of evolution and whether a literal, six-day view of the Biblical account of creation is scientific or not. Many have written responses and analysis of the debate, including a couple of my Christ and Pop Culture colleaguesBrad Kramer argues that “many young Christians are tired of being forced to choose between the rationalistic dogmatism of the Ken Hams of the world or the rationalistic dogmatism of the Bill Nyes.”

Valerio Amaro asks that all-important question: What would happen if J.R.R Tolkien worked in advertising?

Somebody finally transcribed the 600-year-old butt song from hell in Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights. And did you know that it has lyrics?

Sam Solomon explains why he’s done with social media buttons on his site: “Those magical social buttons aren’t worth a damn anymore, and they won’t bring you traffic.” His reasons are precisely why I removed them from Opus awhile back.

What do fan sites devoted to bands on extended hiatus say about fandom? According to Pitchfork’s Christina Lee, they serve as “digital chronicles of how a band's hiatus is felt over time.”

February 11, 2014
Pinô

Pinô

Otto A Totland (2014, Sonic Pieces)

A collection of poignant solo piano pieces that’s perfect for looking at faded photographs and thumbing through dusty old books.

February 6, 2014

Review Round-Up: “The Lego Movie” by Chris Miller & Phil Lord

Review Round-Up: “The Lego Movie” by Chris Miller & Phil Lord

I confess that when I first found out they were making a movie based on Legos, my initial reaction was essentially an eye-roll. Heaven knows there are plenty of movies and TV shows have been nothing more than commercials, so something like The Lego Movie seemed inevitable. But the voice casting seemed rather inspired, especially with Chris Pratt (aka Parks and Recreation’s loveable bumbler Andy Dwyer) voicing the lead role, and the initial trailers did have a certain infectious je ne sais quoi about them.

But honestly, what changed my mind was the fact that my sons recently got their first Lego kits, and my oldest especially has taken to them. I’ve rarely seem him so focused, so intent. Suddenly, the idea of a Lego-inspired movie seemed rather brilliant, provided that directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller could pull it off, and it seems that they have. The Lego Movie currently has a 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, having amassed a slew of glowing reviews.

Drew McWeeny, “‘The Lego Movie’ delivers pure delight for young and old fans alike”:

Beautifully shot, impeccably paced, and with a voice cast that nails it in every role, large or small, “The Lego Movie” is a genuine delight, and it makes me suspect that there’s nothing Lord and Miller are incapable of as directors. At this point, they have earned the benefit of the doubt from me. They could announce that their next film was a snuff movie and I was the star, and I'd still be excited to see it. If you’re a parent, you can genuinely look forward to taking your kids to this and to the conversations you’ll have afterwards, and if you’re just a comedy fan, prepare for 100 minutes of consistent joy.

Keith Phipps:

It certainly works as a feature-length Lego commercial, but it also doubles as a feature-length reminder of how toys can serve as catalysts for creativity, letting kids get lost in worlds the toymakers never imagined.

Drew Taylor:

… a degree of cynicism is probably warranted, considering just how closely the movie could resemble a feature-length commercial (and to be sure, whole aisles of toy stores are currently being flooded by the stuff). But it turns out that “The Lego Movie” is an absolute blast — a whip-smart, surprisingly emotional family film where the toy property is seen less as a concrete template than a tool for seemingly limitless potential.

Jason Gorber, “THE LEGO MOVIE Is Brickin' Fantastic”:

I mean, sure, it’s only February, but this is one of the funniest, most clever animated films in years. Not since Who Framed Roger Rabbit has a film both toyed with (pun intended) and adhered to (pun again!) what has come before, a beautiful balance between the novel and the unique. It’s a kids film for adults, and an adult film for kids. Basically, just ignore the age that’s listed on the box, it's only there as a guide.

The Lego Movie opens in theatres February 7, 2014.

February 5, 2014

Elsewhere: Slowdive, Daft Punk, The Cure, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Moral Nihilism

Elsewhere: Slowdive, Daft Punk, The Cure, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Moral Nihilism

For this installment of “Elsewhere,” I’m experimenting with a new format, both in terms of design and voice. Enjoy!

Last week, it became official: Slowdive has reunited for some concerts and possibly a new recording. So it shouldn’t be surprising that folks are revisiting their music. Paste’s Zach Schonfeld boldly claims that Slowdive’s Souvlaki trumps My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless as “the definitive shoegaze statement.” For example, he calls it “Rumours for the dream-pop set, a bracing chronicle of heartbreak that finds each contributors to that heartbreak playing equal roles.”

Related: Club AC30’s Robin Allport remembers when he first heard Slowdive and considers their legacy and The Fly offers “An Introduction to Shoegaze” featuring a nice assortment of music and video clips.

Meanwhile, in music news from last week that most people heard about, the Grammys happened, and one of the gala’s most acclaimed performances was Daft Punk and Stevie Wonder’s. I've watched the performance a number of times, and it leaves me with a big smile every time, especially when Stevie Wonder brings it home with “Another Star.” It strikes me as a definitive Daft Punk experience given how it reveals the love and appreciation they have for their influences and collaborators.

And finally, in music news that has my inner angst-ridden high school student absolutely giddy, The Cure have announced their musical plans for 2014: a new album titled 4:14 Scream, a couple of concert DVDs, and a new “Trilogy” tour during which they’ll play The Top, The Head on the Door, and Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me in their entirety. Which means it’s time to break out the red lipstick, mascara, and black fingernail polish.

Taylor Marshall wonders whether or not The Beatles promoted abortion in their music. Simcha Fisher has written a solid, thoughtful (and slightly cheeky) response:

Our main job isn’t to apply ‘censor’ bar across everything that doesn’t come straight from the Baltimore Catechism. We take what is good. We’re supposed to be experts at identifying what is good. We’re not supposed to be screaming meemies who bite our lips and blush every time someone dips into a minor key.

Related: Marshall’s analysis reminds me of the time Glenn Beck tried his hand at art history and criticism.

Alissa Wilkinson reflects on what she learned from the life and work of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died earlier this week from a heroin overdose. Hoffman was one of Hollywood’s finest actors, capable of playing a wide range of characters. Consider that he played both the gentle Phil Parma (Magnolia) and the despicable Dean Trumbell (Punch-Drunk Love). Jared Keller reminds us of an even more tragic side to Hoffman’s death: he was a father as well as a great actor.

Alissa Wilkinson has also penned a great essay explaining why Christianity Today reviews R-rated films: “…we want Christians to be some of the most thoughtful conversation partners and culture makers you can find.”

In light of his receiving a Golden Globe lifetime achievement award, Woody Allen’s adoptive daughter Dylan has detailed the sexual abuse she suffered at his hands. Allen has never been prosecuted and has denied the charges. Not surprisingly, this has reignited the age-old debate over how one responds to art made by represensible and questionable artists, i.e., if Allen is truly guilty, does that somehow “contaminate” his art? Adding some more fuel to the debate, Damon Linker argues that Allen is a moral nihilist, which certainly doesn't make him a child molester, but it does render him powerless to condemn such actions.

My Christ and Pop Culture colleague Derek Rishmawy has written an thoughtful piece dissecting the “myth of isolated worship” in response to this Donald Miller piece. Rishmawy writes: “The idea that a Christian can experience healthy, Christian worship and community outside of the context of church is an American myth that Miller seems to have played right into. A healthy, functioning Church is about putting Christ on display for the world to see, not our individualism.”

The AV Club has written a nice primer to “the bullshit-strewn career of Penn & Teller.”

Naomi Wolf explains how porn has damaged our views of sex, but not necessarily in the way you might think: “The onslaught of porn is responsible for deadening male libido in relation to real women, and leading men to see fewer and fewer women as ‘porn-worthy.’ Far from having to fend off porn-crazed young men, young women are worrying that as mere flesh and blood, they can scarcely get, let alone hold, their attention.”

Finally, photographer (and geographer) Kilian Schönberger treks across Europe taking photos of places that look like they belong in old fairy tales, e.g., gloomy forests, ivy-covered castles. Basically, I want to go to there. (The photos are all stunning, and made all the more impressive by the fact that Schönberger is colorblind.)

January 29, 2014

Slowdive Returns

Slowdive Returns

Longtime readers will know that Slowdive is one of my favorite bands, if not my absolute favorite band. Indeed, I even went so far as to call them “one of the most perfect bands to have ever graced God’s green earth” in my review of 2004’s Catch The Breeze compilation. But as much as I've loved their music since discovering them in 1995 — the same year they released their swan song Pygmalion — I never thought they’d actually reunite.

And yet, that's precisely what’s happening. After the launch of an official Slowdive Twitter account and a series of countdown tweets, Neil Halstead, Rachel Goswell, et al. have revealed that they’ll be playing at Spain’s Primavera Sound festival in May alongside the likes of A Winged Victory For The Sullen, Arcade Fire, Chvrches, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, Mogwai, and Pixies.

Very excited to announce that Slowdive will be performing at @Primavera_Sound 2014. More info and announcements to follow.

— Slowdive (@slowdiveband) January 28, 2014

Even more exciting than concert dates, though, is the possibility of new material, which Halstead and Goswell discuss in an exclusive interview with The Quietus.

“The initial impetus was the idea of doing some new music,” Halstead explains, a revelation to get the hearts of the shoegaze hardcore all a flutter. “It seemed easier to do that because it’s not so public. But then we thought it would be good if we could raise a bit of money to make the record, and doing a couple of gigs would enable us to do that. And that’s the way it shaped up — while we’re rehearsing we can see if we’ve got another record in us.”

And then there’s this cheeky little bit concerning the challenge of playing music together again after nearly two decades:

“In the first rehearsal, the first song we tried was ‘Slowdive’ — the first song on the first EP,” Halstead says. “It was one of the more straightforward ones, and we had a real goose bumps moment. We all just looked at each other. It was quite creepy. It was like, ‘We were good!’ There’s only three albums — well, and quite a lot of EPs — to choose from. We will definitely be playing some stuff from Pygmalion, as we never got to play that record live before. I think the live set will be a pretty fair reflection of our career and our hits — or not hits as they were.”

The entire interview is an excellent read, though if you’re even a marginal Slowdive fan, you’ve probably already read it, maybe even more than once. What seems obvious from the interview is that Halstead and the others are in a good place collectively, and enjoying playing together again. Or as Halstead puts it:

“We want it to be fun for us, but we also want the people who are into Slowdive to come and see the band and enjoy it for what it is. I’m not interested in any critical reappraisal. I meet a lot of kids who got into the records after we split up and they say, ‘I’d love to have got the chance to see Slowdive play live.’ So for them, this is a nice opportunity and I hope they come out and enjoy it.”

Naturally, there’s bound to be some critical reappraisal, given that Slowdive will be sharing the Primavera stage with bands that they’ve no doubt influenced (e.g., Mogwai, Deafheaven). Once derided by the press, shoegaze/dreampop has seen a huge resurgence in recent years, from Sigur Rós and M83’s soaring post-rock anthems to the dreamy sounds of Memoryhouse and Pure Bathing Culture to the “metalgaze” of Deafheaven and Alcest. As such, it’s nice to see one of the genre’s shining jewels reunite and be able to take full advantage of the good will that’s been building for them and their music for the last two decades.

January 24, 2014

The Mary Onettes prep “Portico” mini LP, premiere “Silence Is A Gun” single

The Mary Onettes prep “Portico” mini LP, premiere “Silence Is A Gun” single

If there’s a new Mary Onettes song floating around the InterWebz, then you know I’m contractually obligated to write something about it. Even though they released the excellent Hit The Waves last year (which featured one of my favorite songs of 2013), the dreamy post-punk quartet are nevertheless recording a new mini LP titled Portico. In the meantime, they’ve released a new single — the lo-fi, atmospheric “Silence Is A Gun,” which is replete with everyting you’ve come to expect from the band: nostalgic guitar tones and melodies, sweeping synth pads, and Philip Ekström’s yearning vocals.

Portico will be released later this year on Labrador Records. Via Brooklyn Vegan.

January 23, 2014

Every war movie is a pro-war movie?!

Every war movie is a pro-war movie?!

In his review of Lone Survivor, a based-on-a-true-story war movie starring Mark Wahlberg as a Navy SEAL, Calum Marsh argues that every war movie is a pro-war movie:

…it’s important to remember that despite their moralizing, war films are still essentially action films — blockbuster spectacles embellished by the verve and vigor of cutting-edge special effects. They may not strictly glorify. But they almost never discourage.

All war films have heroes, for understandable reasons: to give audiences someone to root for, and because soldiers often really are heroic. But when a film like Lone Survivor transforms its Navy SEALs into infallible supermen tragically bested, it suggests that these men are role models only in death — that it was war that made them noble and heroic. The carnage and difficulties only underline the message. War isn’t great; war makes you great. What is such a sentiment if not pro-war?

Now, to be fair to Marsh, I don’t disagree with everything he writes. There are certainly plenty of war and action movie “spectacles” that depict violence with a certain sheen of “coolness” (via editing, special effects, etc.) that minimizes the horror of war and its terrible human cost. But at the same time, what an incredibly narrow definition of what constitutes a “war movie.”

Near the article’s end, Marsh posits that “it isn’t clear what a thoroughly, effectively anti-war film would look like.” I’m going to assume that Marsh has never seen Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies. I challenge Marsh, or anybody for that matter, to watch that film — which depicts, in often graphic and heart-breaking detail, the effects of war on the innocent — and walk away with the notion that it’s anything but “thoroughly, effectively” anti-war.

GEMS’ “Never Age” is a timeless slice of dreampop

GEMS’ “Never Age” is a timeless slice of dreampop

I was hooked on Lindsay Pitts’ sultry vocals and Clifford John’s lush arrangements from the very first time I visited their Bandcamp page and listened to the Medusa EP. As such, I’ve been meaning to write something about GEMS for the last month or so, and their intoxicating brand of synth-y dreampop. I’ve yet to hear a bad track from the duo, but their finest moment to date is “Never Age,” which was originally released as a b-side by Turntable Kitchen.

The song is one of the band’s poppier efforts, and features a bassline that almost feels funky at times. John’s guitar evokes numerous bands of yore (e.g., The Smiths) without ever sounding beholden to them. Meanwhile, Pitts sighs “If only we could stay like this forever” during the chorus, and you realize that, while she’s singing about a lover, she could just as easily be singing about you and how you feel about this song.

“The Raid 2” premiered at Sundance & kicked it in the face

“The Raid 2” premiered at Sundance & kicked it in the face

The Raid: Redemption was one of the great action movies in recent memory. The film, which followed rookie cop Rama as he infiltrated a rundown apartment in pursuit of a vile mobster — which, of course, required kicking and punching his way through an army of baddies — brought director Gareth Evans and his star Iko Uwais international acclaim. And now they’re back with The Raid 2: Berandal. Here’s the official synopsis.

Immediately following the events of the original, The Raid 2 tracks Officer Rama as he is pressured to join an anticorruption task force to guarantee protection for his wife and child. His mission is to get close to a new mob boss, Bangun, by befriending his incarcerated son, Uco. Rama must hunt for information linking Bangun with corruption in the Jakarta Police Department while pursuing a dangerous and personal vendetta that threatens to consume him and bring his mission — and the organized crime syndicate — down around him.

The film had its premiere earlier this week at the Sundance Film Festival, with Evans and Uwais in attendance. The reviews have been rolling in, and by all accounts, Evans and Uwais have another hit film, albeit a very violent and intense one, on their hands. (How intense? The Sundance screening was delayed for 5 minutes because someone passed out during it.)

Ryland Aldrich, “Sundance 2014 Review: THE RAID 2 Sets a New High Point for Violent Action Cinema”:

The Raid 2 is a full force actioner, just as tightly cut at almost an hour longer. It’s every bit a sequel to the first film and an expansion of the Merantau universe. Evans has expertly crafted a complex and interesting tale that weaves through the numerous bloody fight set pieces. And yes, the action in the sequel is even more impressive, even more artistic, and even more vicious than the first film.

Logan Hill, “Beyond Torture: How Gareth Evans’ ‘The Raid 2’ Redefines Action Cinema”:

…the film marries the criminal scope of The Departed (or Infernal Affairs) to a kind of virtuoso, kinetic violence that goes far beyond shock-value torture porn. No matter how carefully the shots are framed and planned, every fight is dirty, and even the hundredth wincing, messy, eye-gouging, jaw-ripping entanglement feels like a rebuke to the over-choreographed ballet of so much of Hollywood’s stylized, CGI-driven effects.

Drew McWeeny, “‘The Raid 2’ delivers visceral thrills on an epic scale”:

…with this movie, Evans establishes that he can handle any sort of action sequence, not just ones that involve hand-to-hand combat. There's a car chase in this movie that is tremendous fun, and there are a few moves he pulls that are so technically accomplished that I'm not actually sure what I saw. I can't wait to dig in and start to take apart the magic trick, but only because it actually makes me admire Evans more, not less.

David Rooney, “The body count is out of control in Gareth Evans’ bigger, bloodier followup to his 2011 Indonesian action thriller”:

Visceral in the extreme, the bravura kickboxing and martial arts mayhem still take pride of place, choreographed again by lead actor Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, who also appears, though as a different character from last time. But Evans expands the hardware beyond the usual guns and knives, giving some of his assassins their own special tools. Those include a baseball and bat, a pickaxe, some cool claw daggers and a pair of hammers wielded by a deadly female (Julie Estelle). There’s also a sensational extended car chase sequence that withstands comparison to anything in the Fast and the Furious franchise.

Bryan Bishop, “Gareth Evans mixes gangster drama and epic action”:

With a bigger budget and even grander ambitions, The Raid 2 is a sprawling epic that takes memorable characters, polished filmmaking, and truly audacious action choreography and spins them all into a delirious gangster drama that’s the most invigorating action movie I’ve seen in years.

Watch the trailer below.

And here’s a funny little video of Uwais showing off some of his skills at Sundance (apparently after someone asked him if he was really as fast he was in the movie).

The Raid 2 officially opens here in the States on March 28.

January 21, 2014

These e-mail newsletters can make your inbox fun and interesting again

These e-mail newsletters can make your inbox fun and interesting again

Given the rise of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media tools, it can be surprising that good ol’ e-mail hasn’t kicked the bucket yet (after all, it’s pushing fifty). The concept of sending messages back and forth, not in real time but rather, to an “inbox” and waiting for a response seems so, well, old-fashioned and slow.

Some are quite vocal in their hatred of the medium, and their reasons are not without merit. We’ve all been frustrated by spam, annoying forwards, and endless e-mail chains that get lost in our ever-growing inboxes. That being said, I still find myself looking forward to e-mail. Or rather, certain e-mails.

In the last year or so, I’ve discovered some e-mail newsletters that fill my inbox with interesting facts and stories. Some of the e-mail is simply enjoyable for its own sake, but some serves as a springboard for reflection and deeper consideration.

Prufrock - Micah Mattix’s newsletter is a constant list of interesting articles dealing with art, philosophy, religion, higher education, and criticism. Sometimes it can be a bit “ivory tower” but is nevertheless intriguing and thought-provoking.

NextDraft - Dave Pell’s newsletter is a refreshing blend of high-brow and low-brow, and focuses on technology, social media, journalism and media, and pop culture. For example, recent editions have featured stories on parental search trends, NSA wiretapping, and the history of the graham cracker.

Now I Know - One of my morning routines is firing up Gmail and reading Dan Lewis’ latest edition (which I’ve written about before). It’s always good to start your day off with something bizarre and mind-blowing. (I’m still reeling from this story about caterpillar memories.)

5 Intriguing Things - As the name implies, Alexis Madrigal compiles 5 stories every weekday that focus on technology, software, privacy, and culture. I’ve only recently subscribed to this one but a quick perusal of the archives has me excited for future editions.

Photo via Jason Rogers.