Saturday, September 22, 2012

Where Pen Meets Paper Is Moving

Just in case you haven't noticed a lack of posts lately, I've moved the blog to Wordpress. If you're still interested in what Andrew and I have to say, check us out at!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Book Review: Brain Rules

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina (Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. 301 pp)

John Medina is a development molecular biologist and research consultant. He is an affiliate Professor of Bioengineering at the University of Washington School of Medicine. He is also the director of the Brain Center for Applied Learning Research at Seattle Pacific University.

In Pursuit of Learning 

Can we, as human beings, learn better? We go through grade school, middle school, high school, college, perhaps even graduate work without ever questioning if we are learning optimally. As a person who seeks to learn continuously and realizing I won’t remember every piece of information imparted to me in my lifetime, Brain Rules offers almost magical solutions to apply my learning better in work and life on the whole.

Separated into 12 easy-to-remember principles about optimal brain function, Brain Rules explains complex issues in simple, relatable, and applicable ways. Medina culls research all across the field of brain science and translates the research into easily digestible chapters. Since Brain Rules attempts to popularize scientific research, the book won’t be for everyone. In particular, I imagine those in scientific fields related to brain research will find Medina’s writing much too simplistic.

But for the common reader, Medina’s prose is perfect. He translates complex ideas into simple notions the everyday man and woman can apply.

While the research behind the 12 principles of Brain Rules is interesting, the most fascinating part of the book, for me, surrounded the potential ways in which businesses and educators can take these principles and use them within their contexts.

Exercise for the Brain 

For example, science reminds us of the critical importance of exercise. While most understand the importance of physical activity on bodily health, many don’t recognize the effect of exercise on brain function.
“Business leaders already know that if employees exercised regularly, it would reduce health-care costs… But exercise also could boost the collective brain power of an organization” (26-27).
I have already found this principle undeniably useful. Whenever I get stuck in the brainstorming phase of a project, a quick run typically launches my creativity to higher levels.

Illustrations for the Brain 

Consider the importance of association. How often have you been in a lecture or a business presentation where you sit in front of an hour-long, text-based Powerpoint presentation? Assuming you’ve encountered one of these occurrences, do you remember anything from it? If you’re anything like me, probably not.
“If you are a student, whether in business or education, the events that happen the first time you are exposed to a given information stream play a disproportionately greater role in your ability to accurately retrieve it at a later date. If you are trying to get information across to someone, your ability to create a compelling introduction may be the most important single factor in the later success of your mission” (116).
Whether in academia or the boardroom, the introductory hook to your information matters significantly. Whether a story, a metaphor, a picture, or a song, an audience needs a hook in order to ignite memory retention. To just state facts is a failure to understand the best ways for your audience to remember.

Sleep for the Brain 

Photo by Scott Akerman 
Lastly, how often did you pull an all-nighter before a final exam? Did your last-second cramming help your grades? Brain research suggests a good night’s sleep helps your brain to retain information. Likewise, the mid-afternoon period when all of your employees are yawning is the least productive time during the day. Studies suggest a power nap contributes to productivity at a greater degree than powering through tiredness. Medina ponders,
“What if businesses and schools took seriously the existence of nap zones? No meetings or classes would ever be scheduled at the time when the process C and process S curves are flat-lined. No high-demand presentations and no critical exams would be assigned anywhere near the collision of these two curves” (167).
When you schedule exams or critical presentations/meetings for time periods where people function at their most tired state, you should expect sub-optimal results.

Simple Principles Worth Applying 

Now, all three of these examples might seem self-explanatory. I, for example, utilized the sleep-before-a-test strategy throughout my academic career without understanding the scientific benefits behind it.

But even if some of the Brain Rules principles seem self-explanatory, the bottom line remains static. Our society functions inefficiently. We make students sit in front of text-based presentations and then expect them to have a photographic memory for the test. We require our employees to sit in front of computer screens 8-10 hours a day and expect them to function at full brain capacity.

There’s room to reform business and education to become more efficient and productive. Brain Rules offers intriguing possibilities for creating a better system. If you are interested developing a better process for learning, you must read Brain Rules.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: Strength to Love

Strength to Love by Martin Luther King, Jr. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963. 192 pp)

Born in 1929, Martin Luther King, Jr. was a pastor, activist, and leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. King rose to prominence during the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott and orchestrated the 1963 March on Washington where King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. King earned the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. He was assassinated in 1968.

A Big Deal 

Martin Luther King, Jr. is a big deal. I recall learning about his life and his influence on civil rights early and often in grade school. I heard his famous “I Have a Dream” speech long before I knew what it meant. King County—where I live—originally named after William Rufus King is now named after MLK.

Yet for all I’ve learned about King over the course of my education, I knew little about the origins of King’s thought. Aside from a passing mention of King as a Baptist minister, the facts I was taught regarding King sit mostly on the secular side.

Photo by Scott Ableman 
Thus, I found King’s theological inspiration fascinating. When I read his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” for a college course, my life changed. I found an ethic by which to live. I had no clue that King spent so much time in the public eye grounded by his theological inspiration.

A Collection 

For this reason, I found King’s Strength to Love incredibly fascinating.

A compilation of 15 separate sermons, Strength to Love follows a variety of topics. Loving neighbors and enemies represent a major theme. Contextual issues such as a Christian’s response to Communism also populate the pages.

If you have heard MLK’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, you’ve heard his unparalleled eloquence. King’s possesses stolid and erudite prose. As such, you could underline every other sentence.

The Continual Journey 

But for me, the most fascinating sermon concludes this book. Titled “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence”, the chapter unveils the MLK’s theological journey.

In his words,
“In my senior year in theological seminary, I engaged in the exciting reading of various theological theories. Having been raised in a rather strict fundamentalist tradition, I was occasionally shocked when my intellectual journey carried me through new and sometimes complex doctrinal lands, but the pilgrimage was always stimulating, gave me a new appreciation for objective appraisal and critical analysis, and knocked me out of my dogmatic slumber” (146).
Having experienced theological study, such sentiments ring true with me. Reading King’s words about his time in preparatory study reminds me of the journey we all take in faith, in philosophy, and in life. Without King’s intellectual journey, we more than likely would not have seen such a powerful external representation of his beliefs.

The Foundations of Faith 

Likewise, King’s honesty about his faith inspires me.
“God has been profoundly real to me in recent years. In the midst of outer dangers I have felt an inner calm. In the midst of lonely days and dreary nights I have heard an inner voice saying, ‘Lo, I will be with you’” (153).
Photo by Nathan Gibbs
In statements such as these, I find profound awe. This man—arguably the most important figure in the 20th century—relied heavily on his faith. Underneath his intellectual journey and his public leadership in the civil rights movement was a foundation in Christian faith.

In Appreciation of the Man 

Of course, Martin Luther King’s influence reaches far beyond Christian circles. As a philosophical system, King’s views on nonviolence are revolutionary. MLK openly announces the influence of Gandhi on his positions—a position clearly outside of orthodox Christianity but nonetheless an influence on King’s beliefs.

But, reading King talk about faith in Jesus and the importance of the church in tender words all while admitting his intellectual journey gives me courage.

If you are a fan of Martin Luther King or are interested in hearing his positions from his voice, Strength to Love is a mandatory read.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Monday, August 20, 2012

Book Review: Fooling Houdini

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind by Alex Stone (New York: Harper Collins, 2012. 291 pp)

Alex Stone has written for Harper’s, Discover, Science, and the Wall Street Journal. He graduated from Harvard University with a degree in English and has a master’s degree in physics from Columbia University. He grew up in Wisconsin, Texas, and Spain. He currently lives in New York City.

Magic and Me

I’ve always loved the art of deception. I had a small magic kit as a child, complete with a card deck and plastic magic wand. I, however, lacked the patience to learn the dexterity of sleight of hand or even a decent shuffle. To this day, I still have trouble shuffling cards for a poker game. But, I still value the medium, and enjoy watching stars like Blaine, Copperfield, or even Penn and Teller. My love story, however, pales in comparison to Alex Stone’s, a tale he recounts in Fooling Houdini.

The Magic Olympics

Photo by Steven Depolo
Fooling Houdini begins with Alex Stone competing in the Magic Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, the Magic Olympics. Already a member of the oldest magical fraternity, The Society of American Magicians (once headed by Houdini himself), Stone simply wishes to showcase his skills in competition. He, however, is humiliated, getting “red-lighted” during his act, disqualified for dropping a deck of cards, and putting his hands beneath the table. 

In a quest to redeem his failure at the conjurer’s art, and even fool the masters, he studies with anyone and everyone he can. The first person he meets is Jeff McBride, leader of the Mystery School. McBride holds three Guinness World Records for his card handling abilities, and was crowned magician of the year by the Academy of Magical Arts. He’s a big deal. So, Stone goes to school.
“McBride likes to call his school ‘Hogwarts for grownups,’ and what happened on the first day was straight out of Harry Potter. To begin with, we were asked to congregate around a flame burning at the center of the room atop an iron pedestal. The shutters had been drawn against the January light, and it was murky inside. As we rose to our feet the flame trembled, casting a ripple of shadows on the walls. Contorted by the shifting play of light, the masks seemed to flicker awake in a momentary flash of borrowed life” (35).
Magical Archetypes

Here, Stone learns of four archetypes of the magician: Trickster, Sorcerer, Oracle, and Sage. Stone sadly realizes that he has remained in the cycle of Trickster for quite some time, but that only renews his fervor to continue his journey as a magician. Stone, then, decides to find someone under which to apprentice, discovering master illusionist Wesley James, now retired. Wesley basically lives at a pizzeria.
“One weekend turned into many. Saturdays at the pizzeria became my newest ritual—harking back to the one that began in my early childhood, when my father would take me to the magic store on the weekends. My friends and family soon learned not to call me on Saturdays; I observed the magic Sabbath more faithfully than the Hebrew one. (I may be half Jewish, but I’m all magician)” (52).
Breaking the Code

Photo by Steven Depolo
On his journey of magical education, Stone learns to read minds (or fake it), to count cards, and then, he does the unthinkable. He breaks the magician’s code: the promise by working magicians not to reveal the basis of their tricks, or else risk getting blackballed by fellow magicians.
“Keeping a magic trick secret clearly isn’t the same thing as hiding a childhood trauma or an extramarital affair. Nonetheless, the double-edged nature of secrecy goes a long way toward explaining what makes magic, and the people who practice it, so unusual” (135).
Stone describes the mechanics of wristwatch stealing, cardsharping, and finger calisthenics within the book. But, what’s worse is his first attempt at exposing trade secrets occurred in a Harper’s magazine article, a mainstream magazine for the laypeople. 

Stone was shunned from the magical community altogether, had he written for a magical magazine, the punishment wouldn’t be harsh, but alas he plays his cards (pun intended) foolishly. Few have forgiven him, and even his mentor Wes found it hard to do so. But, the truth is this kind of thing happens all the time. Stone cites magician Val Valentino, known for his television special Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed. So, the magical community has moved on, somewhat. If they can forgive Val Valentino, why not Stone?

Fooling is Bliss

Nonetheless, Stone continues on the journey to become a master, and finds a way to fool his mentors (I won’t tell you how). After all, 
“[T]he biggest draw is that it’s just plain fun to fool people. Anyone who claims otherwise—that fooling people isn’t one of magic’s central joys, one of its primary pleasures—is being dishonest. To truly astonish someone, to freak them out so badly they can’t sleep at night, to blow their mind and make them question their sanity—that, to me, as to all magicians, is heaven. It’s one of the chief upsides to becoming a magician, aside from the fact that black is very slimming” (172).
If you want a journey from failure to discovery to magic tricks and mentalism, Fooling Houdini is a fantastic memoir. Alex Stone proves himself to be a great story teller of magical proportion.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Album Review: The Idler Wheel...

The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do by Fiona Apple (Clean Slate, Epic, 2012. 43 minutes)

Born in New York City, Fiona Apple is a singer-songwriter and pianist. Apple first gained notoriety for her debut album, Tidal, winning a Grammy Award for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance. The Idler Wheel… is Apple’s fourth studio album.


I can’t say I’ve known a truly unstable person and I want to be careful about labeling Fiona Apple as such—I don’t know her and it would be rude to assume. But, I imagine friendship with such a person would be a roller coaster. Words might be volatile; you’d walk on pins and needles. If this person told you they were trustworthy, would you trust them?

Again with the reminder that I don’t know Fiona Apple, I’ve found her lyrics to signify someone with a screw loose. I love her honesty but she seems like an erratic person.

In her latest release, The Idler Wheel…, Apple continues to write with a bare honesty unmatched in the world of pop music. Melding jazz, alternative rock, and some new electronic flourishes, The Idler Wheel… might be Apple’s best.

A Fight with Her Brain 

The album opens with “Every Single Night”, a jazzy single with Apple’s neuroses in full effect. She sings,
“Every single night / I endure the flight / Of little wings of white-flamed / butterflies in my brain / These ideas of mine / Percolate the mind / Trickle down the spine / Swarm the belly, swelling to a blaze / That’s where the pain comes in / Like a second skeleton / Trying to fit beneath the skin / I can’t fit the feelings in”
Through all of this tension both musically and lyrically, Apple sets up an aggressive chorus where she croons,
“Every single night’s a fight with my brain”

Everything about The Idler Wheel… unsettles. In particular, “Jonathan” stands out with its tense piano chords and boxy counter melody. Nothing about the song adds comfort to the listener.

Similarly, “Left Alone” waddles along with an unsteady chord progression. The song has energy but it feels like a tipsy sort of energy—the kind right before a blackout after a heavy night’s drinking.

The Outside Looking In 

In “Periphery”, Apple continues expressing her doubts about life and promotes herself as an outsider. She sings,
“Oh, the periphery / I lost another one there / He found a prettier girl than me / With a more even-tempered air / And if he wants her, he should get her / Cause I think he thinks she’s worth it / And maybe they’ll move from the periphery / Buy themselves their own plot of land / And I’ll care in a different capacity / I’ll just be hoping he makes a good family man”
Acting the jilted lover, Apple sings with her heart on the page and the music funnels her feelings into an agitated state.

With Music to Match 

The end of the record, however, shines the brightest. With odd percussion and even stranger chord progressions, “Anything We Want” continues the theme of unsettledness.

Over a discordant-then-resolved progression, Apple ponders,
“My scars were / Reflecting the mist in your headlights / I looked like a neon zebra / Shaking rain off her stripes / And the rivulets / Had you riveted / To the places that I wanted you to kiss me / When we find some time alone / And then we can do anything we want”
Perhaps most impressively, Apple composes a catchy chorus over the strangest chord progression. While the first two chords represent standard pop, Apple runs off the charts using augmented chords and strangely placed sevenths.

In sum, the song feels catchy-yet-off.

Is Everything Alright? 

Finally, Apple concludes The Idler Wheel… with “Hot Knife”. With syncopated a capella lines, she sings about a volatile relationship between male and female where each person is butter to the other’s hot knife. Lyrically, the most interesting part of the song occurs toward the end of the tune. Built over a cinemascope of lyrics, Apple suggests,
“You can relax around me”
Perhaps she means it in an ironic way but I find it fascinating how Apple spends the entire span of The Idler Wheel… introducing the listener to the wide scope of her neuroses and yet the last thing she tells us is that we can relax around her.

In her liner notes, on stage, and in interviews, Fiona Apple has presented herself as quite the iconoclast. In The Idler Wheel... she continues to promote this notion, yet she asks us to relax around her? Such a turn in lyrical narrative interests me. I continue to enjoy Apple’s art and if I must relax to hear more, relax I shall.

The Idler Wheel… is an excellent contribution to Apple’s discography—perhaps even her best. If you like singer-songwriters, difficult music and lyrics, or interesting characters, check out Fiona Apple’s The Idler Wheel...

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Book Review: Disgrace

Disgrace: A Novel by J. M. Coetzee (New York: Viking, 1999. 224 pp)

John Maxwell (J. M.) Coetzee is a Nobel-Prize-winning author of South African descent. He attended St. Joseph’s College and later the University of Cape Town. He later earned a Ph.D. from the University of Texas. While working as an academic, Coetzee began writing novels. In his acclaimed literary career, Coetzee has won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize, three CAN Prizes, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize and became the first author to win two Man Booker Prizes.

Disgrace Defined Two Ways

Isn’t it funny how often people associate disgrace and shame with being caught in the act? It seems, often times, shame and sorrow proceed from the public revealing of a transgression, not from true remorse for a certain action. In a very real way, this sort of disgrace is hollow and unrewarding.

True disgrace, it seems, should occur not from being caught but from passivity—an event happening to you about which you have no power. When something shameful happens and you can’t control it, that event reaches the depths of sorrow.

I found the dichotomy between these two definitions front and center in J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace.

The Carnal Desires of Man
“For a man of his age, fifty-two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well” (1).
David Laurie is a man of passion. A professor of romantic literature at a university in post-apartheid Cape Town, Laurie often submits to his carnal desires.

As the above quote implies, he’s certain of himself, his position, his charm. But oh how the mighty fall.

Photo by Tourist at Home
Laurie’s descent into disgrace begins on a sine qua non day on a walk through campus. He happens upon a student. She’s adequate, though quiet, in class but her looks are as stunning as the late evening sun.

Turning on the charm, Laurie commences his seduction. With ample amounts of power and a disposition for the romantic, Laurie soon conquers his student, engaging in adult relations.

Ravished by her beauty, David ignores his ethical code and sets aside reason. Soon after, news of the relationship spreads and scandal erupts. While damning, David only needs to issue a public apology, enroll in counseling—water under the bridge in the minds of university administration.

But, Laurie considers himself a man of principle—too old to change.
“’And are you so perfect that you can’t do with a little counseling?’
‘It reminds me too much of Mao’s China. Recantation, self-criticism, public apology. I’m old-fashioned, I would prefer simply to be put against a wall and shot. Have done with it’” (66).
To him, an apology and counseling equals guilt and admission of immoral activity; he would rather end his life. In an odd way, David thinks he possesses a moral right to enjoy the beauty of the opposite sex.

The Impact of Carnal Desires of Men

Unsurprisingly, Laurie’s brash behavior results in the termination of his academic position. With nothing better to do and a desire to avoid the scandal’s spotlight, David travels to the South African countryside to spend some time with his daughter, Lucy.

Living alone, Lucy farms and runs a dog inn. Seeing Lucy refreshes David.
“They walked back along an irrigation furrow. Lucy’s bare toes grip the red earth, leaving clear prints. A solid woman, embedded in her new life. Good! If this is to be what he leaves behind—then he does not have to be ashamed” (62).
The good times in the presence of his daughter soon turn ugly when some bandits rob Lucy’s house, assault David, and rape his daughter. The violence of the event—with no rhyme, reason, or motive—shakes father and daughter to the core. The countryside is ground zero for post-Apartheid aggression.
“A risk to own anything: a car, a pair of shoes, a packet of cigarettes. Not enough to go around, not enough cars, shoes, cigarettes. Too many people, too few things. What there is must go into circulation, so that everyone can have a chance to be happy for a day. That is the theory; hold to the theory and to the comforts of theory. Not human evil, just a vast circulatory system, to whose workings pity and terror are irrelevant. That is how one must see life in this country: in its schematic aspect. Otherwise one could go mad. Cars, shoes; women too. There must be some niche in the system for women and what happens to them” (98).
Moreover, the disgrace Laurie felt during his university scandal pales in comparison to the disgrace of his daughter.
“She would rather hide her face, and he knows why. Because of the disgrace. Because of the shame. That is what their visitors have achieved; that is what they have done to this confident, modern young woman. Like a stain the story is spreading across the district. Not her story to spread but theirs: they are its owners. How they can put her in her place, how they showed her what a woman was for” (115).
Disgrace Experienced 

Photo by Porsche Brosseau 
In comparison to what happened to his daughter, Laurie reveals himself to be selfish and self-destructive. He experiences disgrace for living under passion. His daughter encounters disgrace by having something extremely personal and sacred taken from her. 

While both characters experience something we can define as “disgrace”, Lucy’s experience of disgrace is truer. David brought disgrace upon himself; Lucy found disgrace through sins against her.

Coetzee’s prose in Disgrace is minimal but powerful. Disgrace reads quickly but the content is heartbreaking and worthy of contemplation. How am I causing disgrace in other people’s lives? Am I more like David or Lucy? Such questions are painful but worth consideration.

If you’re interested in a deep, thought provoking, and painful book, Disgrace is for you.

Verdict: 5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, August 10, 2012

Film Review: The Damned United

The Damned United directed by Tom Hooper; written by Peter Morgan and David Peace (Columbia Pictures, BBC Films, Screen Yorkshire, R, 98 minutes)

Starring Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall, and Colm Meaney.

The Real Football 

So I really love football. I don’t mean American football—the NFL is great and I enjoy it thoroughly but it is not the subject of this review. I mean actual football—fĂștbol to some, soccer to others. Despite my affinity to the sport, I am rather new to the game. I am able to discuss, in detail, the current teams, tactics, and players but I haven’t a clue about the legends of years past.

For this reason, The Damned United interests me. It depicts the tumultuous and short-lived era of Brian Clough (Michael Sheen) as the manager of British heavyweight, Leeds United, in 1974 after the storied manager, Don Revie (Colm Meaney), takes the English national team job.

When It Gets Personal 

The story, though, begins years earlier when Clough and his right-hand man, Peter Taylor (Timothy Spall), manage middling Second Division club Derby County.

Upon drawing Leeds United in the FA Cup in 1968, Clough readies the Derby pitch in expectation of hosting this First Division leaders and Revie, a fellow former Sunderland player. When Revie ignores Clough and uses dirty tactics to win the cup tie, a rivalry is born.

Clough uses this snub to fuel his ambition and inspire his team (coupled with some shrewd signings) to promotion into the first division.

Now battling Leeds in league play, Clough and Taylor experience first-hand the poor play and win-at-every-cost attitude of Leeds United. In every way, Clough molds Derby County to represent the antithesis of Leeds United—sort of like the Red Sox free flowing attitude in comparison to the stuffy feel of the Yankees.

In Over Your Head 

Later, when Revie earns a promotion to the English National Team, Clough jumps at the chance of managing Leeds, even if his compatriot, Taylor, feels loyalty for a previously accepted offer. With the dynamic duo split, Clough’s time with Leeds suffers.

Ever the pugnacious personality, Clough welcomes the Leeds faithful by calling his players cheaters for their style of play and disregards the Leeds championships because they weren’t won with beauty. In short, Leeds aren’t champions because they don’t play like champions.

Of course, such statements do not win over his players. Still devoted to the managerial and personal style of Don Revie, the Leeds players rebel against Clough leading to the worst start in 20 years.

What follows leads the viewer to ask questions about the value of teamwork and the importance of communication. Clough is a brilliant manager but without the help of Taylor, he feels unmoored. When the Leeds players refuse to respond to his managerial style, Clough loses the locker room. In a personal vendetta against Revie, Clough finds himself over his head.

Filling in Some History 

As a soccer fan, I have heard of Clough and Taylor and the brilliance they enacted with Derby County and later with Nottingham Forest. But I don’t know many specifics. Even though I would not label The Damned United a masterpiece, I value it for its contribution to my understanding of soccer’s history. Even though it’s hard to think of a time before Manchester United, earlier eras held their fair share of unique narratives and dramatic personalities.

I enjoyed learning more about Brian Clough and Peter Taylor. If you call yourself a soccer fan, you need to watch The Damned United. It’s not the greatest film in the world, but it tells a fascinating story.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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