Thursday, June 28, 2012

Film Review: Prometheus

Prometheus directed by Ridley Scott; written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof (Brandywine Productions, Dune Entertainment, Scott Free Productions, R, 124 minutes)

Starring Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron, Logan Marshall-Green, Michael Fassbender, and Guy Pearce

Ridley is Back

Ridley Scott’s Alien trilogy is now over three decades removed, but nearly everyone knows it in reference at least. I still am completely freaked out by the original trilogy, as I watched it in my teenage years. A lasting scar emerges in the franchise’s wake. Ridley Scott blended space travel and horror in a unique way, forever enshrining himself into the media hall of fame. Prometheus is the famed director’s attempt to continue the franchise by explaining its origins. But, the movie falls short.

In the prologue, set sometime in Earth’s past, an alien that looks somewhat human drinks some black ooze on the edge of a high precipice somewhere in Scotland in the planet’s distant past. The alien falls into said water, and his DNA is reassembled—presumably seeding the human race. Later, in the year 2089 at the same location on earth, we meet biologists Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) when they find a cave painting supposedly pointing to the origins of the human race. Enthralled that they may have finally answered the question, “where did we come from?”, they embark on a scientific voyage to a distant planet (drawn in the cave paintings of course) that may hold an answer to who engineered the human race.

Elizabeth and Charlie are joined by a somewhat lugubrious android (Michael Fassbender), a corporate crony (Charlize Theron), a badass captain (Idris Elba), and some people that barely take up fifteen seconds in the movie. On the spaceship Prometheus they journey in stasis, and once arrived begin the scientific expedition. Meanwhile, they are located in one of two places: either the ship or a dark-lit cavern where the alien race is supposedly found. Much like the Alien movies of old, the team hopes to find answers but soon they find more than they bargained for. No real plot surprises within. It’s an entertaining film, and visually stunning. But, the music throughout the movie kept playing, and I found myself more and more distraught.

Seeing Versus Hearing

Prometheus looks claustrophobic and gloomy. But, the soundtrack inside is a hopeful, modal tune repeated over and over...and over. The music doesn’t align with the striking visual effects.

Marc Streitenfeld, composer for the movie, has worked in such films as Hannibal, Kingdom of Heaven (another Ridley Scott flick), and Mission: Impossible II. So, his resume is stocked. In talking to a film-scoring buddy of mine, what Mark Streitenfeld has done is write something a little outside of the film-scoring norm, and in order to talk about the norm, I need to go back in time.

Leitmotif and Film

Richard Wagner is specifically known for his work in Opera and Drama. His most famous opera is a cycle of four operas, Der Ring des Nibelungen (or The Ring). If one goes to see The Ring, it lasts for a grand total of four days with a playing time of fifteen hours (I've been. It's even longer than it sounds).

But, it isn’t the length that is important, it’s the concept he developed in the cycle called leitmotif. In leitmotif, there is a Grunthema (basic idea), as well as several other ideas that accompany various characters. It’s usually a short melody or chord progression that is altered every once and a while.

The best known example in film is by the great John Williams. Think back to the Star Wars films of old. What music comes to mind when you think of Darth Vader? Luke Skywalker? The songs that come to mind were specifically written for every time you saw the characters, and they’re memorable. The song for Darth Vader has become synonymous with evil.

Back to Disappointment

Now, to link the music back to Prometheus. In a dark, cavernous world with doom ever looming on the horizon, one would expect something like this to occur: Man goes into tunnel, creepy music plays; man meets alien, creepy, but different music plays; android tries to muck about in the scientific expedition and screw everything up, music designed for the android plays.

But instead, what the listener finds is a beautiful modal melody played with an oboe (many times during the movie), strings gently backing, and eventually horns loudly blaring. When both the plot line and visual effects point to something harrowing, the music is epic and hopeful. Take a listen.

So, in closing, my main problem with the movie wasn’t the plot (albeit farfetched) or even the acting. My problem was that my visual senses were seeing things with which my auditory senses weren’t agreeing. A film is good based on what it does to all the senses, not just the visual ones. The movie could have been much more memorable, and much more frightening had the film score gone along with the visual sense. Prometheus was a fantastic film, in all ways but one: the music frankly sucked to the point of distraction.

Verdict: 3.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Television Show Review: Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm: Season 8 created by Larry David (HBO Films)

Starring Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, and Susie Essman.

The Arid Wasteland of Network Television 

Seinfeld is brilliant television. Now fourteen years removed from the last episode, Seinfeld receives regular air time on multiple channels. Its staying power is uncanny. Seinfeld’s jokes and awkward situations are countlessly retold in friend groups nationwide.

In all honesty, I am surprised at Seinfeld’s staying power. With quirky writing a shade toward highbrow, I find Seinfeld’s stay on network television remarkable. The 2000s, to an extent, represent a failure of mimicry. Even though the networks endlessly search for the next smart hit comedy, the drive for profits and viewership causes plugs to be pulled. Notably, Arrested Development seemed like a show closest to carrying the Seinfeld mantle, but it lasted only three seasons.

Why did Seinfeld make it? I have no clue. But the fact that the show succeeded despite its quirkiness is laudatory.

Interestingly, with the arid wasteland of network television consuming pilot after pilot, cable television has emerged as an avenue for well-crafted television. Without the burden of high viewership requirements, cable shows realize success marketing toward a smaller target audience.

Given Larry David’s history as the co-creator of Seinfeld and his successful run on HBO with Curb Your Enthusiasm, the inevitable question arises: which David-inspired show is better?

Faux Reality Television Meets a Sit-Com 

For those unaware, Curb Your Enthusiasm follows Larry David as himself, Larry David. Somewhere between a faux reality television series and a sit-com, Larry David navigates an easy post-Seinfeld life. Flush with royalties from syndication, Larry is free to pursue and invest in anything.

Spending most of his days in the company of his agent, Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin), Larry meanders into comedic situations through his incessant need for proper behavior. If you double park, watch out because Larry David will get you. If you want Larry to serve at a benefit for Children’s Hospital, expect a lame excuse.

In fact, this very scenario in Season 8 forces Larry to a 3-month sabbatical in New York City. Instead of a Saturday hanging out with sick children, Larry David would rather rent a lavish apartment in Manhattan for 3 months.

Much like Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm possesses no major plotline. Each episode explores a humorous topic and usually features a guest star. This year’s highlight episodes include Larry and Rosie O’Donnell competing over a bi-sexual girlfriend, Bill Buckner illustrating his butterfingers, and a feud between Larry and Michael J. Fox where the two bicker regarding the merits of Parkinson’s disease fasciculation.

In Praise of Seinfeld 

Curb Your Enthusiasm is hilarious. Since Season One, Larry David has manufactured brilliance season after season. I highly recommend it. However, David’s work with Curb Your Enthusiasm impresses me less than his work with Seinfeld.

For starters, HBO allows David to shock in ways the FCC would never permit on network television. The salty language and adult topics, in all honesty, make for easier humor. When all else fails, swear and sex!

Additionally, the premium nature of HBO gives Curb Your Enthusiasm a longer leash. I didn’t start watching the show until Season Four and I assume there are many like me who jumped into the back catalog through Netflix. Had this show required a large audience quickly, I doubt it would have survived.

For this reason, I am still floored with Seinfeld. The show beat the odds and now exists as the bedrock of American culture. Is Curb Your Enthusiasm less funny than Seinfeld? I think they are equally funny, in truth. I just find Seinfeld the more impressive show given all the variables.

Having spent some time comparing these two shows, let me end by saying Curb Your Enthusiasm is worth your time. It’s a brilliant show for fans of Seinfeld or awkward humor—think The Office. If you’re looking to rent a television series over the summer, check out Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Verdict: 4 out of 5

What about you? Are you a fan of Seinfeld? How do you think it compares to Curb Your Enthusiasm?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Book Review: The Age of Miracles

The Age of Miracles: A Novel by Karen Thompson Walker (New York: Random House, 2012. 269 pp)

Karen Thompson Walker is a graduate of UCLA and has received the 2011 Sirenland Fellowship as well as a Bomb Magazine fiction prize. She is a former editor for Simon & Schuster. The Age of Miracles is her first novel.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Random House Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”

The End is Nigh!

The year is 2012, and, as many have heard, the world is going to end, or so the Mayans predicted. Nostradamus also proclaimed something similar, didn’t he? When you think about it, some Bible-thumping nut far too “knowledgeable” in the ways of eschatology is predicting the end of the world seemingly every five minutes. Even crazy zealots once predicted that the end was nigh when the the Hale-Bopp comet graced the night skies. But, we will never really know when the end of the world is going to occur—a thought perhaps more frightening for some than the end itself. Karen Thompson Walker, in her first novel The Age of Miracles documents the tale of a young eleven-year old girl and what happens as the world begins to end.

On a seemingly ordinary sunny day in a small Californian suburb, eleven-year old Julia is encountering the pains of growing up. Coping with the everyday disasters and transformation of the teenage years, she struggles with her parents’ marriage, her emergence into adulthood, and her own first love. But, her life isn’t the only thing transforming, so is the world around her.
“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it. We did not sense at first the extra time, bulging from the smooth edge of each day like a tumor blooming beneath skin” (3).
A Slow Change

Photo by NASA
The rotation of the earth has begun to slow. The days become longer and longer, and if that shift wasn’t disturbing enough, the social and ecological ramifications are many. What piqued my interest in the novel is that the author chose to focus deeply on how the world would change socially if the earth slowly stopped rotating. She describes the change in such harrowing, sorrowful detail in a way that makes the story feel strikingly real.
“In the hours that followed, we would worry and wait. We would guess and wonder and speculate. We would learn new words and new ways from the scientists and officials who paraded in and out of our living room through the television screen and the Internet. We would stalk the sun across our sky as we never had before. My mother drank Scotch over ice in a glass. My father paced in the living room” (17-18).
Unnoticed Changes

Photo by Justin Berger
As the hours slowly and painstakingly add themselves onto the earth’s day, the effects of the slowing are many. Some however, are unnoticed. Some around her, including her own mother, begin to suffer from an unnamed illness called the syndrome, a byproduct of a change in gravity. As the world constantly changes, the old earth seems like a thing of fantasy to the eleven year old girl, something that could never exist outside of a dream.
“Some say that the slowing affected us in a thousand other unacknowledged ways, from the life expectancy of lightbulbs to the rate at which ice melted and water boiled and human cells multiplied and human cells died. Some say that our bodies aged less rapidly in the days immediately following the start of the slowing, that the dying died slower deaths, that babies took longer to be born...All the while, the clocks continued to tick. Wristwatches went right on beating faint beats. My grandfather’s antique clocks chimed their ancient chimes...How quaint the old twenty-four-hour clock began to look to our eyes, how impossibly clean-cut, with its two twin sets of twelve, as neat as walnut shells. How had we believed, we wondered, in such simplistic things” (69-70).
Unnerving Prose

As little Julia grows up through the novel, the reader experiences her world; she goes to soccer practice, meets boys, and goes through moonlit strolls at the “noon” hour. Though The Age of Miracles is a coming-of-age story, it’s only so in the simplest sense. More than a girl growing up, the novel acts as a requiem for a lost world, a thing of memory. The author juxtaposes the pains of growing up with the pains of a dying world, and the unknown in both circumstances.  

Karen Thompson Walker truly takes the reader on a fantastical journey, so fantastic that the reader is unnerved at every turn. The prose is so poetic and poignant that you are forced to lament with Julia as the requiem unfurls throughout the book, pointing the reader to a future that is frighteningly realistic. The Age of Miracles hits shelves today, and you should get a copy very soon.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Monday, June 25, 2012

Book Review: Dumb History

Dumb History: The Stupidest Mistakes Ever Made by Joey Green (New York: Plume, 2012. 256 pp)

A former contributing editor to National Lampoon and a former advertising copywriter at J. Walter Thompson, Joey Green is the author of more than forty-five books.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Plume Publishing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”.

Mistakes Make Brilliance 

Everyone makes mistakes, even smart people. To a certain extent, brilliance is a product of multiple failures. It’s easy to credit an inventor with a dazzling idea which benefits society. But we often don’t realize the many failures it took to create such an idea.

This principle caused intrigue in Joey Green’s latest book, Dumb History. I wanted to discover the failures behind the brilliant people in history through humorous short stories.

High on Low Brow Humor, Low on Substance 

Sadly, I found Dumb History lacking. While I don’t want to reject it completely, this book did not live up to my expectations. Granted, I have no previous history with Joey Green and a quick examination of his back catalog supplies evidence of Dumb History sidling up next to the rest of his canon—coffee table books high on low-brow humor and lacking substance.

Dumb History contains no thesis; it meanders through short paragraph stories sharing stupidity as its only connection. For example,
“In ancient Greece, affluent women colored their cheeks and lips with rouge and lipstick from cinnabar, a poisonous red sulfide of mercury” (219).
Supposing this fact is true (I’ll give Green the benefit of the doubt, he does list sources in the back of his book; although without a citation, I don’t want to wade through them), the reader can laugh at the stupidity of others and revel in superior intelligence.

We Need Reason! 

Photo by Carlos Cappaticci
But, I’m not convinced that Green’s reasoning is sound.

In one vignette, Green writes of the stupidity in which the Red Sox engaged when they sold Babe Ruth.
“In 1920, Boston Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees for a reported $100,000 and used the money to finance the Broadway musical No, No, Nanette. Although No, No, Nanette became a hit, the Yankees won four World Series during the fifteen years Babe Ruth was in their lineup. The Red Sox did not win the World Series until 2003” (3).
The Red Sox did indeed sell Babe Ruth; the Yankees then won multiple World Series; the Red Sox encountered a century-long championship drought.

However, one fact does not lead to another. Yes, Babe Ruth is a legendary player. But his absence does not guarantee a century of failure. Was it stupid to sell Babe Ruth? Perhaps. Does the trade explain 100 years of failure? No!

A Poorly Reasoned Coffee-Table Book 

I wanted Dumb History to humorously explain how even the brightest people make mistakes. Such a book would inspire people to continue creativity and the pursuit of brilliance. Instead, I found a poorly reasoned coffee-table book.

To a certain extent my disappointment in this book emerges from my unfounded expectations of the book. But, I don’t recommend this book. There are better coffee-table books. There are funnier takes on history.

Verdict: 2 out of 5
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Review: The Lacuna

The Lacuna: A Novel by Barbara Kingsolver (New York: Harper Collins, 2009. 507pp)

Barbara Kingsolver (b. 1955) is an American novelist and essayist. Her best known works are The Poisonwood Bible, and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life. All of her published books have been on The New York Times bestseller list, and she has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner award.


Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible has often been described as a book club classic. Ten years later, Barbara Kingsolver has released The Lacuna. As a piece of historical fiction, I expected something behemoth, something filled with wonder, something akin to the masterpiece that is The Poisonwood Bible. The Lacuna came close, but it left something behind for me. Perhaps my expectations were too high based on Kingsolver’s past.

A Nobody in the Presence of Somebodies

Photo by Fisita
The Lacuna documents the journey of a young boy, Harrison William Shepherd from 1929 to 1951. When we first meet him at twelve years of age, he’s living on a hacienda with his over-dramatic mother who is a gold-digger, to say the least. Ever on the prowl for a richer husband, she is never content. His father is American, and is the dull-witted type we’ve come to know in sitcoms like The Simpsons or Family Guy.

Harrison is an accidental onlooker to some important history—he runs into Frida Kahlo at a market, and returns home with her to help her with his baking skills. Frida’s husband is the famed muralist, Diego Rivera, and their marriage is somewhat volatile. Soon, Harrison becomes a baker and typist for the household, leaving his own capricious home behind.
“It was like mixing the flour for pan dulce: how could it be so different? The powder they called cal has the same fine grind, floating up in white clouds around the boys when they dumped bags of it into the mixing buckets. Their eyelashes and the backs of their hands were white, and the edges of their nostrils, from breathing it. They were dumping powder into water, not the other way around” (71).
Using his baking skills, Harrison begins mixing plaster for Diego Rivera’s murals. Soon after  establishing himself as a plaster mixer, who joins the household? None other than communist Leon Trotsky. If you know your history, Trotsky finds an untimely end by one of Stalin’s agents. Harrison witnesses the murder. Throughout all the history-in-the-making scenarios of which Harrison is a part, he keeps a journal. His journal (you guessed it) becomes the novel, The Lacuna, which he tries to publish as an adult later in the book.


Photo by Luiz Fernando
Now comes the point where my disappointment surfaces. I completely understand Kingsolver’s motive in wanting a fictional “onlooker” to be the narrator and “writer” of the novel. However, the experiences of a fictional, shy, boring-as-watching-paint-dry, loner child are hard to merge with the experiences of famed artists and communist leaders. 

Should the novel have utilized the famous artists as main characters, perhaps even narrators, I would have found much more enjoyment in the novel. Harrison is frankly too dull to tell the tale. Moreover, juxtaposed against such vibrant, larger-than-life characters of history past, he fades into the background.

Though it would be easy to completely toss Harrison into the literary garbage can, he does supply some wonderful thoughts on connecting history. Through his eyes, we see richly imagined history in an epoch where circumstances and people were viewed in black and white. Kahlo was known to be unstable bi-sexual, and her husband a womanizer. As Harrison says, 
“What we end up calling history is a kind of knife, slicing down through time. A few people are hard enough to bend its edge. But most won’t even stand close to the blade. I’m one of those. We don’t bend anything” (360).
The point Kingsolver is trying to make is that the most unimportant people do affect history. Harrison Shepherd assuredly did make an impact (albeit fictitious) in the lives of the painters and communist leader. However, I have to agree with Harrison; he is unimportant and boring. He didn’t stand close to the blade from my perspective. 

While The Lacuna does recount some important history with larger than life people, perhaps the vessel telling the story could have had a bit more of a commanding presence. Harrison falls into the shadows. 
If you enjoy historical fiction, I still highly recommend this novel as it is illuminating to say the least. But, if you like compelling main characters, perhaps it’s best to try something else.

Verdict: 3 out of 5
What do you think? Does Harrison really fall into the background? Did you enjoy the history present within the novel? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Thursday, June 21, 2012

Book Review: Arcadia

Arcadia: A Novel by Lauren Groff (New York: Voice, 2012. 304 pp)

Born in Cooperstown, New York, Lauren Groff graduated from Amherst College and later earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was awarded the Axton Fellowship in Fiction at the University of Louisville, and has had residencies and fellowships at Yaddo, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Vermont Studio Center, and Ragdale. Groff’s first book, The Monsters of Templeton, was a New York Times Editors’ Choice selection and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for New Writers. She lives in Gainesville, Florida with her husband and two sons.

“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” Acts 2:42-47 
These words, written so long ago, represent the epitome of Christian living for many traditions. When people plant churches, when they imagine a bustling community, they cite these ancient words. Let’s eat together; let’s hold everything in common; let’s give to those in need.

Outside of the church, people feel the draw of community. For some, utopia is small-town USA; for others, it’s urban density.

In each of our unique ways, we’re all trying to relate

But is such a utopian community possible?

Results suggest not.

The Search for Peace in Western New York 

Photo by Christos Tsoumplekas
Lauren Groff’s generational narrative, Arcadia, focuses on a hippie commune named “Arcadia” located in Western New York. Much like the people in the Biblical book of Acts, the hippies of Arcadia desire to live wholly together. Bit Stone, the first child of the commune, lives with his Father, Abe, and his mother, Hannah under the leadership of hippie-musician, Handy.
“You were born on the Caravan, Abe says softly, when we were a bunch of groupies, following Handy around for spiritual food. Two dozen, max. Going to the concerts, staying for the meetings after. Everywhere we went, we saw communes, some that worked, others that didn’t Yurts and geodesic domes and sweat lodges and squatted-in mansions in the inner cities, and we started having an idea that even though everybody else was doing something along these lines, what we wanted to do was unusual. Pure. Live with the land, not on it. Live outside the evil of commerce and make our own lives from scratch” (14).
Cut into four separate scenes spanning Bit’s life, the reader gains a vision of “ideal” life and its emerging cracks in the foundation. As a child, during the first scene, Bit is a happy-go-lucky kid parented by a depressive mother and carpenter father with steely resolve.

A Fragile Utopia 

In scene two, we discover the early teenage years of Bit traversing the fully developed Arcadian commune. Close to a fully formed man, Bit begins to focus on girls, especially Helle, the daughter of the commune leader and emerging femme fatale.

As Arcadia develops, the fragile community strains with the weight of continued growth and invidious labor splits. Soon, this anti-capitalist utopia struggles to survive. In these years, Bit begins to understand imperfections in life. Reminiscing about a local Amish community, he ponders:
“The oldest Utopianists, Hannah said once, watching the Amish men who came to help with the harvest; for generations, they’ve lived the most perfect lives they can believe in. Bit imagines meals of animal flesh and hard chores and a huge family and girl cousins in demure frocks. What a relief it would be to live always among family. To be among people who all look like you, think like you, behave like you, have the same God to love and fear, a God angry enough to smite and loving enough to give, a God with an ear big enough to hold the secrets you whisper into it, who lets you empty yourself and walk back into your life, infinitely lighter. He feels loss for something he’s never known” (160).


Scenes three and four explore the ramifications of Arcadia, years after its demise. Having married and produced a child with Helle, Bit raises his daughter in New York City and teaches photography. With the utopian community scattered, Bit’s reflections on the purpose of life feel unmoored.

It takes years for Bit to comprehend the differences in culture. “Fat” and “pale” people are normal. Arcadians were the ones undernourished and overly tan due to time in the sun. Nevertheless, Bit marvels at the complexity of the real world—the fragile balance between peace and the sword.
“It leaves him breathless at times, how much faith people put in one another. So fragile, the social contract: we will all stand by the rules, move with care and gentleness, invest in the infrastructure, agree with the penalties of failure. That this man driving his truck down the street won’t on a whim, angle into the plate glass and end things. That the president won’t let his hand hover over the red button and, in a moment of rage or weakness, explode the world. The invisible tissue of civilization: so thin, so easily rendable. It’s a miracle that it exists at all” (203).
Photo by Andrew Mace
Despite the pursuit of peace and happiness everlasting, Arcadia failed to produce utopia. But, Bit’s odd upbringing does not hinder him in the slightest. In fact, his draw to the city surrounds the need to be in community, albeit New York City is a community 8 million strong.

Does the Community Succeed? 

Even though I appreciate Groff’s attempts at sketching the desire for utopian community and the lengths by which we manufacture it, I did not overly enjoy Arcadia. Most importantly, the writing style felt stunted. While I often enjoy quick chapters because it keeps me head in the game, the staccato nature of Groff’s sections made Arcadia difficult to follow.

The desire for community is a deeply felt human wish. Arcadia explores these notions in great detail, yet I found the writing style detracting. If you want to dive into a character-driven plot set in a hippie commune, you might enjoy Arcadia, but I don’t necessarily recommend it broadly.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

What is utopia to you? Could it exist in real life? Do you try to create utopia in your life?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Book Review: Uncorked

Uncorked: My Journey Through the Crazy World of Wine by Marco Pasanella (New York: Clarkson Potter, 2012. 224 pp).

Marco Pasanella is the proprietor of Pasanella and Son Vintners, which opened in south Manhattan in 2005. The shop has been included in top-ten lists in New York Magazine, Food & Wine, and Elle. He has written for Esquire, GQ, Vogue, and The New York Times.

Pretentious or Accessible?

Photo by Derek Gavey
Most often, wine is viewed as the beverage of choice for the snobby and elite. You can picture an Italian scoffing at lesser folk while he sips a nice chianti. Or worse, a Frenchman who fails to admit that any other country could possibly produce a good wine. However, as of late, wine represents the beverage of the everyman. 

Wineries give tastings to all who come in an attempt to educate people about the glorious world of wine. Myself, I was bitten by the wine bug several years back, and absolutely love the stuff. Marco Pasanella, in his memoir Uncorked, describes how he fell in love with the beverage and how he chose to open a wine shop appealing to the masses.

Marco Pasanella decided in his early forties to open a wine shop with his wife. But, unlike so many wine shops, Marco wanted to do something different. 
“Wine, I also realized early on, appeals to people who like secrets. Whether it’s hedge funders determined to be more inside than their peers or the people who like The Da Vinci Code, wine aficionados tend to like mystery. And whine seems to demand a special knowledge. But the truly devoted seek more: the want to be clued into the stories behind the labels...Think Thomas Pynchon with a little Umberto Eco thrown in. It’s a seductive brew of fact, legend, and gossip” (8).
The Mystery and Setup

Photo by Angela Rutherford
Realizing the mystery of wine, and the vast gamete of people it attracts, Marco and his wife brutally labored over the operation of their shop. Should they do something traditional, or different? The couple tried a wine library, a wine “museum”, and a handmade/homemade feel.
“I didn’t want the store to feel like a museum lesson or an elegant warehouse. I wanted it to evoke the part of my life that I remember from my summers at Villa Cannizzaro, our family’s seventeenth-century stone house in Camaiore, a small town outside of Lucca in Tuscany” (31).
Once the theme was set, the next step became supplying the wine. There is a three-tiered distribution system in New York. Officially, wine can only be sold through wholesalers in New York, which caused a problem for the small wine shop. They had to find a way to actually sell the wine. After the selling kerfuffle, with a little insider decoration help from some famous folk (Martha Stewart) and some random tips from folk that love wine (a cheese seller from a local grocery store) the wine shop became a hit. Well, it wasn’t that simple, far from it.

Why It’s Good

Photo by Andreas Levers
But, it isn’t the frantic, fast-paced evolution of his shop that makes for a good read, though the risks he and his family took financially do compel. Marco tells of the various people that came to work with them in the throes of wine-selling battle. He tells of dinner parties with ample amounts of wine. 

Marco also details, quite painstakingly, the wine making processes, the theories of what makes a good vintage (or a good vintner for that matter). As the book progresses, you’ll find yourself loving the world of wine, and lamenting alongside Marco as hard times fell across the shop. 

If you’re a complete newcomer to the world of wine, you’ll find informative tidbits that don’t come across as demeaning or pretentious (like random recipes lining the pages of the book). If, however, you’ve been a wine lover for some time, you will find the book equally accessible. Uncorked provides a spectacular journey through to the world of wine, and if you’ve been bitten by the wine bug, you’re sure to enjoy it.

Verdict: 4 out of 5
Have you been bitten by the wine bug? Do you love the mystery of wine? Or is it just a beverage for you? Did you enjoy Marco's book of his tiny, yet successful wine shop? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Film Review: Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close directed by Stephen Daldry; written by Eric Roth and Jonathan Safran Foer (Paramount Pictures, Scott Rudin Pictures, and Warner Bros. Pictures, PG-13, 129 minutes)

Starring Thomas Horn, Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, and Max von Sydow.

A Grief Observed 

Grief is a difficult concept. It defies reason; it reacts in the visceral regions of the body. Some people immediately return to work in order for the dark feelings to subside. Others need weeks, months, and sometimes years to restore their soul. No matter the method by which people work through pain, grieving is a process we all must endure. With Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, we gain access to a particular way toward managing grief.

Adapted from the eponymous novel by Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close focuses on nine-year-old Oskar Schell (Thomas Horn). An amateur inventor, Francophile, and pacifist, Oskar searches for meaning in the wake of the death of his father, Thomas Schell (Tom Hanks).

Thomas and Oskar possess a special bond. Partly due to the void his father (Max von Sydow) left in Thomas’ life, Thomas and Oskar are inseparable. Sparking Oskar’s immense imagination, Thomas tells of New York City’s fantastical sixth borough, which disconnected from Central Park and floated away. To encourage sociability—Oskar always had shy tendencies, Thomas devised a scavenger hunt for Oskar to discover the remnants of the lost sixth borough.

But, this relationship vanishes underneath a toppled skyscraper on September 11. While in a meeting at the top of the World Trade Center, Thomas is situated above the airplane strike zone, marooned and waiting for rescue. With only a phone, Thomas calls his wife, Linda (Sandra Bullock), at work and tries to connect with Oskar at home, assuming classes have been cancelled.

After six messages, Thomas disappears among the thousands who perished in the tragedy. For young Oskar, those messages were marinated in panic, and as a result, fear represents the last connection with his father.

Unlikely Exploration 

One day while exploring his father’s untouched closet, Oskar finds a key in an envelope labeled, “Black”. Supposing this key represents a clue from his father to a lock owned by a person with the name “Black”, Oskar methodically plans a cross-borough adventure in search of every person named “Black” in New York City.

Afraid of public transportation, Oskar peregrinates from borough to borough meeting new people, explaining his search for meaning after the death of his father, and receiving much affection in return. In an unexplainable way, Oskar believes his last scavenger hunt will bring closure to his grief.

Artful & Grating 

Despite the mixed reviews from critics, Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close succeeds in its depiction of grief. For the most part, I felt as if the movie artfully portrayed a family coping with the effects of September 11.

However, I found Thomas Horn’s depiction of Oskar rather grating. Of course, I must mention the difficulty of this role. Jonathan Safran Foer’s Oskar in the novel is incredibly intelligent for his years and immensely imaginative. To successfully act this character is a remarkable feat for a person of such a young age. Sadly, Thomas Horn’s attempt falls short. Too often, it felt as if Horn’s performance hindered the power of the story.

Even though the acting performance provides copious amounts of doubt, the themes of this movie are strong. If you desire to watch a unique take on grief and the September 11 attacks, check out Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. If grief isn’t your thing or if you find grating acting unbearable, I suggest you pass on this movie.

Verdict: 3 out of 5

Have you seen this movie? What about the book? How do you deal with grief?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Monday, June 18, 2012

Album Review: Strangeland

Strangeland by Keane (Island Records, 2012. 45 minutes)

Keane is a piano-driven pop band lead by front man Tom Chaplin. Formed in 1997 in East Sussex, England, the band has achieved wide acclaim. Their most successful album is Under the Iron Sea, which topped charts and peaked at number four in the Billboard 200 in 2006.

Melody Is Dead

Melody is dead. Extinct. No more. It’s pushing up daisies. Melody takes up residence in the great musical beyond. The culprit? You. That’s right, you are solely responsible for grossly mangling melodic content to the point where it simply gave up and breathed its last.

It’s sad really—mostly because you had no idea you were doing it. The current shift in quality melodic content—what I’m going to call the “pop snippet”—has been so glacially paced you never noticed. In fact, you rather like the poppy tunes of late don’t you? 

In all truthfulness, melody isn’t dead. Melody, however, is a rarity. Melody, as I’m choosing to define it, is a musical phrase or motif which stands out at the forefront of a song, and has considerable shape, distinction, and length. Pop tunes only have the former part of the definition: a motif which stands out at the forefront of a song. Without the latter part of the definition, it’s just something that’s catchy. The “pop snippet” has no substance. 

The pop snippet emerged because record companies wanted the radio quickly to court you to love a song. Think of Katy Perry or Rhianna and how catchy their tunes are. However, there is no lasting substance. When you think of it, there is one little part of the song that repeats over and over again in repetitive motion. A good melody, however, lasts for a while, takes up considerable real estate in a song, and even though it’s long, you could sing it back. There is substance. If you want an example of a current good melody, think Gotye. If you want an example from longer ago, think Stevie Wonder, or better yet, Elton John.

There is no substance in Keane’s Strangeland. How do I know this? It’s boring as hell.

Silenced by the Night

Here’s a classic example of why this Keane album is awful: “Silenced by the Night”. In taking a listen to the verse structure of the band’s latest single, the melody does the same thing over and over. If you assign the melody numeric value representing distinct tones within a key, it goes like this: 2-3-2-1 (repeat ad nauseam). In listening to the chorus melody, it’s slightly more interesting! 6-4-2-3-2-1, (once again, repeat). In truth, you will never forget the “melody” of the song, because it’s terribly repetitive. Notice that both the verse and the chorus melody end in 2-3-2-1. 

At this point, it must be noted that I’m not trying to discredit the musicianship of the band, but rather of their compositional style. Keane has phenomenal musicians, to be certain. However, the lack of variation and substance on the album isn’t sustainable for a lasting future as a band.

You are Young

To the band’s merit, they have interesting hooks. However, that’s where the pleasantries end for me. At the band’s conception, I was intrigued by a fully-keyboard-driven band, and the lead vocals are quite good. In the song “You are Young”, the listener once again runs into the same barricade. The verse repeats one theme constantly, as does the chorus. The vocals, however, carry the track well; they are powerful and meaningful. The keyboards, however, only do the same percussive quarter note rhythm the whole time, and the drumbeat has little variation. 

Now, in the end, if it’s catchy, you can feel free to have a listen. I cannot dissuade a listener from what they like, or what they perceive as quality. Music is somewhat relative, but I firmly believe that a good melody makes a good song. Little pop snippets don’t make a good song, and songs made up entirely of said snippets do not make a good album. I’ve found a lack of quality in Keane’s Strangeland especially in regard to melody, and I urge you to find a better record with which to spend your time if at all possible.

Verdict: 2 out of 5
What do you think?  Is melody truthfully dead or dying?  Is there a difference between melodies of old and current ones?  Conversely, do you still like Keane, or like me have you become less enamored over time? Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Andrew Jacobson

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Friday, June 15, 2012

Television Show Review: Mad Men

Mad Men: Season Five created by Matthew Weiner (Lionsgate Television, Weiner Bros., and American Movie Classics)

Starring Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Vincent Kartheiser, Christina Hendricks, January Jones, John Slattery, Kiernan Shipka, Robert Morse, and Jared Harris.

Recommended, Highly 

In replacement of a spoiler warning, if you haven’t watched Mad Men, stop reading this review and rent Season One. Actually, before you do so. I need to make sure you'll like it. There’s nothing worse than highly recommending something that someone doesn’t like. Mad Men is a slow-boiling character-driven drama. If you need a fast-paced plot, death, mystery, and explosions. Steer clear!

If you like complex characters, though, you need to watch Mad Men. For Matthew Weiner and company, Season 5 represents their best work yet. At a time when most television shows start to fizzle as ideas wane, Mad Men gave us the most consistent season of the hit drama to date. More specifically, Mad Men continues to set the bar through its use of symbolism, accidental progressiveness, and the continued development of compelling characters.

Mad Men as Symbolic 

First, Mad Men has always been a series surrounding symbols. From both the falling advertising executive denoting the downward spiral around the pursuit of happiness to the lounging man smoking a cigarette illustrating the laissez-fare attitude of the era in the opening sequence, the 1960s on Madison Avenue acts as a placeholder for the deeper issues we face in life.

With each episode standing alone as its own short story, the narrative arcs in Mad Men proceed through short vignettes. In Season 5, we find some iconic episodes. In one instance, the employees of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce awkwardly socialize at a party we would now label the epitome of 60s swag while Don Draper’s (John Hamm) new wife, Megan (Jessica ParĂ©), croons a sexy French pop song. In another, Joan (Christina Hendricks) prostitutes herself for the firm to gain the Jaguar account and to obtain a 5% stake in the company.

Whether depicting the power struggle between husband and wife through a French pop song, or the lengths we’ll take to gain financial security, the symbolism in these stories resonate deeply because they are human stories.

Mad Men remains at its best when it uses symbolism to comment on culture and the hollow lives of people pursuing happiness.

This second point on happiness—one to which Weiner returns time and time again—influences every character and action in the season. Don, now 40, finds himself in a funk. For the first time, he feels old. Where in the first few seasons Don keeps his finger on the trends influencing the youth of the nation, the summer of 1966 introduces a new wave of youth, a shift he no longer understands best referenced by his interactions with fans backstage at a Rolling Stones concert or his inability to enjoy Revolver by the Beatles.

Mad Men as Accidental Progressiveness 

Additionally, Mad Men tends to focus on the ways in which Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce falls into progressive stances. In previous seasons, hiring Peggy (Elisabeth Moss) as a copywriter and refusing to do business with the cigarette industry represented impressively forward thinking actions, yet the characters never represented this liberal mindset. This year, Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce continues to champion progressiveness by accident.

We find the firm employing African Americans after the firm made a sarcastic jab in the papers about a rival company. Additionally, Joan, as a woman becomes a partner in a male-dominated profession. Yet, to do so she had to resort to scurrilous actions with a Jaguar executive.

Mad Men as Character Development 

Finally, Season 5 continues to add complexity to the characters we know, love, and sometimes hate. Our protagonist Don, in addition to dealing with his advancing age, interacts in a power struggle with his new and youthful wife.

While Don expects submission as his previous wife, Betty (January Jones), allowed, Megan will not tolerate his power grabs. Whether by asserting her will at work, at home, or in the bedroom, Megan considers herself an equal to Don. To a certain extent, this power struggle fuels their relationship, but it also manifests itself in physical forms as their fights often become violent wrestling matches.

Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), the ever punchable junior executive, is following the Don Draper path to a tee, just one generation behind. Now with a lovely wife, child, and home in the suburbs, Pete’s realized dreams now feel shallow and he desires the ever-present urge to find new women, new business accounts, and new thrills. Nonetheless, he never finds happiness.

Mad Men as Remarkable Television 

Mad Men Season 5 is remarkable television. It represents talented writers and actors functioning at the top of their collective game. Each episode illustrates multiple themes worth pondering, and, on the whole, the television show is profound. In particular, Season 5 offers beautiful illustrations of progressiveness, symbolism, and character development. For all that is good and holy, please watch Mad Men, it will assuredly warm your soul.

Verdict: 5 out of 5

What about you? Are you a fan of Mad Men? What are your thoughts on the current season? Do you think the characters will ever obtain happiness? What does the show tells us about our culture? Our hopes? Our pursuits?
Share your thoughts below.
Posted by: Donovan Richards

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Thursday, June 14, 2012

Book Review: Started Early, Took My Dog

Started Early, Took My Dog: A Novel by Kate Atkinson (New York: Reagan Arthur, 2011. 371 pp)

Kate Atkinson (b. 1591) is an English author. She won the Whitbread Book of the Year award for her first novel, Behind the Scenes at the Museum. Her most recent novels, Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News?, feature her most renowned character Jackson Brodie. She lives in Scotland.

Psychological Crime Drama & Mystery

A fan of psychological crime drama, at least in regard to film, I rarely read the books of the same genre. That’s mainly because I enjoy the fast paced nature of film when it retells a story related to crime, partially because the mystery is always alive. In novels, however, I find mystery somewhat lacking. J.J. Abrams, director of the famed Lost television series famously stated in a TED talk,
“Mystery represents infinite possibility. It represents hope, it represents potential. Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. There are times where mystery is more important than knowledge.” 
However, I’ve always been a fan of Kate Atkinson, as she uses legitimate, nearly poetic prose with her stories, as well as ample amounts of mystery. Her novels are normally witty, suspenseful, and a combination of both literary brilliance and a crime drama. This is no less true in her most recent novel, Started Early, Took My DogPerhaps more to the point, Atkinson uses each character in a way that further enriches the mystery within. Each character is related to the others, in ways that are fairly mind-bending. For this reason, and with a desire not to remove the blindfold to reveal the mystery, I’ll introduce you to the main characters of the crime drama.

Character #1: Tracy Waterhouse

Newly retired from the police force, Tracy Waterhouse works at a shopping mall. She’s over 50, overweight, and unhappy.
“Tracy had retired with a shell so thick that there was hardly any room left inside. Vice, sexual offenses, human trafficking—the underbelly of Drugs and Major Crime—she’d seen it all and more. Witnessing the worst of human behavior was a pretty good way of killing off anything soft and fluffy” (16).
While performing her routine, extremely boring patrol, she notices a thug from her police days, someone she doesn’t trust carrying a screaming child.
“Kelly Cross was the reason for the screaming child. No surprise there. Kelly Cross. Prostitute, druggie, thief, all-round pikey. A scad-end of a woman. Tracy knew her. Everyone knew her.  Kelly had several kids, most of them in care and they were the lucky ones, which was saying something” (21).
What happens, however, is not completely normal, nor does Tracy expect it. She offers to buy the screaming infant, named Courtney, for £3,000. Even stranger, the woman is happy to unload the child. Now desirous of a new future, Tracy begins to make plans to leave the country, change her name (along with her new acquisition), and vanish into a brilliant new beginning. Tilly, an out-of-work actress, is a witness of the acquisition. So is Jackson Brodie.  Their lives begin to intertwine.

Character #2: Tilly

Tilly is a superannuated actress who is fighting the effects of old age. The mother in a TV soap opera, she has recently learned that her character will be killed of soon due to her senility.
“They’d brought Tilly in to play Vince Collier’s mother because they wanted to make the character ‘more human,’ more vulnerable. Tilly had worked before with the actor who played Vince Collier, when he was a teenager, and she kept calling him by his real name—Simon—instead of Vince. Seven takes today just to say good-be to him on a doorstep” (28).
Now completely befuddled and depressed, the narrative frankly and beautifully talks of her path down old age, losing a job, and senility.

Character #3: Jackson Brodie

Jackson Brodie is a private eye, now fifty years of age. His current job is to find the parents of Hope McMaster, an adopted woman living in New Zealand. During his investigation, he uncovers an unsolved crime from the 1970s. As he investigates, he begins to learn that the past never really stays in the past. Also, while investigating, he acquires a small dog (hence the name of the novel). Ever the scruffy gentleman, Brodie rescues the dog from a man who is abusing it.
“The dog was still cowering in the boot. He could hardly leave it there, so he picked it up and was surprised to find that it was warm even though it was shivering all over as if it were frozen...He turned round the tag on the dog’s collar so that he could read it. ‘Let’s see if you’ve got a name,’ he said. ‘The Ambassador?’ Jackson said, looking doubtfully at the small dog. ‘What kind of a name is that?’” (41).
Jackson is an appealing sleuth, especially to women. He has a scruffy, chiseled look about him, with a smile that will melt a woman at forty paces. His love of the poet Emily Dickinson certainly doesn’t dissuade the kinder gender away from his pursuits.

The Characters Intertwined

Now, if you’ve ever read a Kate Atkinson novel before, you know that she has a penchant for connecting random characters in the most unusual of ways. Atkinson intertwines the characters in a tincture of romance, melancholy, and whimsy in a way that is near impossible to describe without providing a whole manuscript of the novel while ruining the mystery at the same time. The author employs both the past and present of the character’s lives as well as the crime scene of the 1970s to pull off a mind-bending plot line.

The peripeteia within Started Early, Took My Dog completely surprises, much like film genre of the psychological crime thriller. If you enjoy the type of movie that surprises, and enjoy mystery, Started Early, Took My Dog is assuredly for you.

Verdict: 4 out of 5