Media Review 3/17-3/23 II

Movies:

Chronicle: You can’t throw a rock in the movie business these days without hitting someone’s handheld camera.  I loved Blair Witch Project, never saw Cloverfield, and Paranormal Activity scared the crap out of me.  Then came the next two Paranormal Activitys, and Project X, and The River, and I was ready to say it’s getting out of hand; then I saw Chronicle.  And I’m still ready for Hollywood to stop pretending it’s low-fi, but this movie wasn’t made by a pretender.  Director Josh Trank is low-budget for real, and his focus is on the story and the characters and not on exploiting a trend.

Chronicle is the story of three high school students who stumble upon something in the woods that gives them the ability to move things with their minds.  It sounds like less than it is; I didn’t expect a movie this intense and this real.  The reason the movie is handheld is because Andrew (Dane DeHaan) has started filming his life.  The movie never tries to explain why, but Trank uses it to comment on a variety of timely issues: our addiction to social media, bullying, domestic abuse.  The three main actors fit their roles perfectly.  DeHaan has been compared to a young DiCaprio, and it’s an accurate comparison.  He’s moody and intense.  His foil is a charismatic, likable Michael B. Jordan as Steve, the class president, and their third partner-in-telekinesis is Andrew’s cousin, Alex (Matt Garetty).  Garetty will be the most underrated player here; his character is the least flashy.  But his insecurity and sincerity is real, and he’s the movie’s anchor.

Great movie- endlessly creative with very little, but always to serve the story.  Thank goodness for people who still let effects serve their stories and not the other way around.

One Day in September:  If you didn’t know that at the 1972 Olympics 11 Israeli athletes were held hostage by Palestinian terrorists, then this is a good movie for you to see.  It’s informative and interesting and provides all the particulars necessary to have a good understanding of the event.  However, I think this movie has some awkward sequencing, and it doesn’t quite capture the full impact of the event, even though it interviews many key players.  This lack of an emotional connection to the tragedy is a real flaw in this kind of movie.  If you want to truly wrap your mind around the effects of this event, then watch Steven Spielberg’s Munich, a great movie that gets far closer to harnessing the feel of the tragedy.

An okay movie- I recommend seeking out Munich instead.

Books:

House of Prayer, No. 2 by Mark Richard: I believe in a God that knows our lives before we’re even born, but it’s still hard to fathom that when faced with as full a life as Mark Richard’s.  Richard starts his life story from the start, chronicling his childhood with his parents in the American South.  People saw him as a “special child,” but he was really just smarter than everyone around him.  The doctors told his parents he would be in a wheelchair for the rest of his life due to bad hips, but he managed to walk long past that and travel America, becoming an acclaimed but financially unsuccessful writer.  He meets a wide variety of people who shape his life in countless ways.  The key to this book is that he tells it all in second person, forcing you to put yourself in his shoes.  It’s a good book, full of the stuff that makes up a man’s life.

Albums I Liked:

Season One by All Sons & Daughters:  I’m always open to alternative worship music sources, and I’m ready to embrace this duo from Tennessee.  There’s been a boom in honest lyrics in the worship music scene, and I’m thankful for that, but not many groups are turning those lyrics into dynamic music.  All Sons & Daughters are a great example of the range worship music is in need of.  It helps that their voices are interesting, both the guy’s and the girl’s.  The album is a little longish, but it’s worth seeking out.  Favorite songs: “All the Poor and Powerless” “I Am Set Free” “Buried in the Grave”

Wounded Rhymes by Lykke Li: Lykke Li is compared to a lot of artists: M.I.A., Santigold, ’60s girl groups.  But after listening to Wounded Rhymes, I can see she’s her own unique musician.  She’s like M.I.A. and Santigold, because she’s a female artist making dark, alternative pop music that draws from reggae and hip-hop, but she really doesn’t sound much like either of them.  Lykke Li is more content to embrace her softer side, more willing to be vulnerable, and by doing so, she’s created some great pop music.  Favorite songs: “Youth Knows No Pain” “Love out of Lust” “Unrequited Love”

Songs I Loved:

“All the Poor and Powerless” by All Sons & Daughters:  A good introduction to all All Sons & Daughters’s songs.  It starts out quiet, inviting “the lost and lonely,” “all who feel unworthy / and all who hurt with nothing left” to praise His name.  The song builds to an invitation to shout it out to the mountains and the masses.  The effect is hard to resist.

“Buried in the Grave” by All Sons & Daughters:  Here, once again, All Sons & Daughters show how they’ve mastered the worship build.  Start soft, crescendo to an emotional climax, lead us into true worship of the Son.  What sets this song apart is the reconciliation of Christ’s grave with God’s grace, showing us that “grace was in the tension of everything we lost /standing empty-handed, shattered by the cross.”  That and the sweet moment when the banjo takes the forefront.

“I Am Set Free” by All Sons & Daughters:  A moving reminder of the freedom that Christ offers us.  It builds much like “All the Poor and Powerless,” but the key moment in this song is in the first chorus and the first bridge, when the instruments cut out and the duo’s voices pulse with passion.

“Youth Knows No Pain” by Lykke Li:  This song is full of awesome hooks.  The backup synths, the handclap drums, the opening verse, “Come on get down,” and that sick chorus.  This is the best pop music that sounds like it’s sung by a sleepwalking girl since…ever.

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Media Review 3/17-3/23 I

Due to a phenomenon known as “Spring Break,” I’ve seen too many movies and listened to too much music (and finished a book).  Therefore, I’m splitting this media review into two.  So beginneth number I:

Movies:

The Interrupters: Reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved and watching the first season of The Wire this semester have opened my eyes in a way to the reality of the atrocities that happen in this nation.  The Interrupters, a new documentary from Steve James (who made another great documentary in the ’90s, Hoop Dreams), has only deepened this understanding.  Set in Chicago, The Interrupters is about an organization called CeaseFire that employs “violence interrupters” in an effort to prevent gang killings.  These interrupters come from criminal and gang backgrounds; they use their experience to speak truth into the lives of endangered young men and women in Chicago.  The documentary focuses on three of the interrupters: Ameena Matthews, Cobe Williams, and Eddie Bocanegra, all three of whom come through as very sincere and good at their job.

I was drawn into this movie from the start; it doesn’t pull any punches.  Matthews is shown breaking up a knife fight.  Williams takes one of the boys he is helping to a barbershop he stuck up several years ago to apologize.  Bocanegra helps out at a school and listens to children talking about people in their lives dying.  It’s incredible what James happens to be around to capture on his camera; the implication is that these sorts of things are happening far too often.  At some point in early 2009, there were as many people killed on the streets of Chicago as soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Great movie- it’s a sad depiction of unbroken cycles.  Some of these people don’t get better.  Some don’t get out.  But then some do.  There is hope in the end.

Three Kings: Quick, name your favorite Persian Gulf War movie!  If you don’t know what the Persian Gulf War is, it’s that other war we fought in Iraq under the other President Bush in the early ’90s.  If you don’t have a favorite Persian Gulf War movie, that’s because there aren’t many.  Or because the ones that do exist, suck.  I’m willing to bet there won’t be any that top Three Kings– not only is it a great war movie, a great action movie, a great movie in general, it seems to sum up and represent America’s foreign policy in a lot of creative ways, if not subtly.

Director David O. Russell follows four American soldiers in Iraq (a noble cynic, George Clooney, who shines in an early, politically-charged role; a stern, religious Ice Cube; a young, naive Mark Wahlberg; a younger and naiver, and very funny, Spike Jonze) as they attempt to steal gold from the Iraqis.  This gold originally belonged to Kuwait, and Iraq has been ordered to return everything stolen from Kuwait- this is the pretense under which our American heroes retrieve the gold, though the soldiers have no intention of returning the gold when they obtain it.  Russell begins the movie like an adventure movie, and then detours it into a story of deep cultural conflict and moral ambiguity.  The effects of our presence in Iraq (the first time) complicate things for our heroes, and they must make decisions that funnily enough seem to be a microcosm* of the choices America has to make when it polices foreign countries.

Great movie- blatantly liberal at times. But at some points political sentiment goes out the window, and it’s just about ordinary people and the way choices made for political reasons affect their lives.  This movie may turn certain stereotypes upside-down.

*I hate it when big words are the most fitting, because I feel like a pompous jerk when I use them

Albums I Liked:

Break It Yourself by Andrew Bird: Bird’s been around for a while, but this is the first album of his I’ve listened to.  I knew of him as the guy who whistles and loops violins, but unfortunately I don’t have a context for this album.  All I can say is that it’s beautiful.  Each song has a definite and distinct texture to it, and it’s apparent that Bird has a unique creativity.  You can compare his sound to that of other musicians, but he seems intent on remaining his own artist and making music that refuses to fall under a certain label.  If I didn’t quite connect with it in a “love it!” sense, it may be because I respond better to more direct lyrics (see: the Boss, below) and less abstract arrangements, the same reason why I can’t really get into Beach House or Grizzly Bear and why the Shins only have one album that wowed me.  Favorite songs: “Near Death Experience Experience” “Danse Caribe” “Orpheo Looks Back”

Wrecking Ball by Bruce Springsteen: Sometimes it’s hard for me to figure out how Bruce Springsteen fits into the musical world of today.  God knows he won’t find any playing time on radio, though I, for one, am thankful for that.  Radioplay sure doesn’t mean anything these days.  Do you listen to the radio?  Do you like it?  If you answered yes to either of those questions, that’s okay, but I’m sad for you.

However, after having released his 8th studio album to reach number 1 on Billboard’s Top 200, and after he just gave the keynote address at South by Southwest, something about him must still be relevant.  Maybe it’s the fact that his songs are always either brilliant storytelling or indelibly relatable or both.  His more recent albums can add “urgent” to those superlatives, and none more so than his newest, Wrecking Ball.  Wrecking Ball is timely in its anger and in its hope.  Springsteen rails against politicians and bankers alike and stands up for the average American.  He does this through inspired storytelling and various kinds of instrumental backing, from folksy guitar to hip-hop-style drums.  He enlists help from his E Street Band, Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine, and a memorable Michelle Moore (on the track “Rocky Ground”), among others.

Full disclosure: Springsteen is my favorite musician ever.  More than the Beatles, more than any Christian artist or band, more than any folk musician.  His songs speak to me in a way no one else has ever been able to.  You may not have the safe affection for Bruce Springsteen, but try this new album anyway.  Wrecking Ball‘s songs reliably moved me, but more than any Springsteen album yet, Wrecking Ball engaged me past its stories and into the goings-on of the world around me.  Favorite songs: “We Take Care of Our Own” “Shackled and Drawn” “Land of Hope and Dreams”

Songs I Loved:

“Land of Hope and Dreams” by Bruce Springsteen: If you don’t want none of that newfangled production Bruce is using on his new album, then look to the song that he originated with his wonderfully blue-collar E Street Band.  Springsteen’s recorded this song before- live with the E Street crew in 2001- but in the context of Wrecking Ball it truly comes to life.  Perhaps the most unabashedly Christian song he’s written to date (though he’s never professed to believe in any particular faith), Springsteen invites saints and sinners, whores and gamblers, losers and winners onto a train going to a land where “dreams will not be thwarted…faith will be rewarded.”  I’m on board.

“Near Death Experience Experience” by Andrew Bird: The most straightforward of the songs on Bird’s new album Break It Yourself.  It’s also the creepiest, musing on death and survival.  Bird’s lyrics describe someone who “dare[s] the plane to crash / redeem the miles for cash when it starts to dive.”  Bold words in this supersensitive, post-9/11 era, but Bird’s sentiment is strangely uplifting when he exhorts us to “dance like cancer survivors / like we’re simply grateful to be alive.”

“Shackled and Drawn” by Bruce Springsteen: A supreme example of Springsteen’s storytelling genius.  He’s a father singing to his son, teaching him the value of hard work.  He likens freedom to “a dirty shirt / The sun on my face and my shovel in the dirt.”  This is Springsteen’s ode to the working man, and yet it’s also a scathing kissoff to the rich.  Yes, conservatives, this is a liberal song.  But it’s the best dang liberal song of the year so far (with the exception of another Springsteen song- see below).

“We Take Care of Our Own” by Bruce Springsteen: Is there a more subtly seething song out there?  Amid happy chimes and hand-claps, the Boss calmly indicts everyone in power who has failed to help those Americans who needed it.  Upon first listen, “We Take Care” sounds like an inspirational, patriotic, American anthem, and it is.  But on further inspection, Springsteen has laden his best song since “Long Walk Home” with anger and outrage, asking “Where’re the eyes, the eyes with the will to see / Where’re the hearts that run over with mercy?”  Ultimately, he reminds anyone listening that we, each one of us, as Americans, should take care of our own.

Media Review 3/10-3/16

Movies:

Dracula: My sister has always loved vampires and other monsters, so we’ve watched this 1931 version of Dracula ever since I was little.  Watching it now, it’s frustratingly inconsistent, alternately corny and effective.  They’ve changed up the original plotline from the Bram Stoker novel, but no matter.  In this movie, Count Dracula comes to England with a realtor, Renfield, whom Dracula has driven insane.  The Count takes residence in an abbey near the sanitarium Renfield is placed in.  Dracula begins to terrorize the women who are staying with the head physician at the sanitarium, Lucy and Mina.  When one of the girls dies and displays the same symptoms as other deaths in the area, a certain Dr. Van Helsing is called in to figure out what the cause is.

All of this is presented by largely wooden actors in some flat scenes.  It’s kind of a static movie- director Tod Browning gives us a much more dynamic movie in Freaks, which everyone should check out for a creepy, creepy experience.  There are some great scenes between Dracula and Renfield and also between Dracula and Van Helsing.  Bela Lugosi in particular gives a classic performance that has been imitated and spoofed to no end.  Sometimes his acting is over-the-top, but I see that as more a product of the times than bad acting.  His Dracula has some awesome lines (“Listen to them. Children of the night.  What music they make!” “I never drink…wine.” “There are far worse things awaiting man than death.”) and Lugosi delivers them with dignity and passion.  The other standout actor is Dwight Frye as Renfield.  He’s really the most exciting part of the movie, after Lugosi of course.  His insane face is unforgettable, and he adds some spice into a movie that could use a little more.

Good movie- falls short of greatness because of some static writing and directing decisions.  The ending, frankly, sucks.  However, even if you don’t like old movies, this one’s worth checking out for some great bat effects.  Truly state of the art, don’t miss them.

Gods and Monsters: A masterfully constructed and beautifully acted movie.  Gods and Monsters, directed by Bill Condon (Kinsey, Dreamgirls), tells the story of James Whale, an openly gay man who directed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein in Hollywood’s heyday.  The movie takes place in the latter years of his life.  He’s had a stroke, and his mind is going, but the movie follows the new, enlivening friendship that he strikes up with his gardener, Clay.

In a more conventional movie, Clay would be totally accepting of Whale’s homosexuality, their friendship would blossom, and they would both learn something new about life.  Whale would then die happy.  Or maybe Clay would be gay, and it would become a love story of liberation for this old man.  It’s not that kind of movie, though.  Clay is straight, and Whale is passed liberation.  This is the kind of movie that is about Whale’s struggle to find joy in the midst of loneliness and a declining mind, and it’s about Clay’s struggle to understand manhood.

Ian McKellen (of Magneto fame) plays Whale, and it’s the best performance I’ve seen him give.  He’s funny and devastatingly real, often in the same scene.  Whale is dying, and McKellen gives him dignity in that process, but also an amount of desperation to hold on to the good things he finds pleasure in.  Brendan Fraser (you know, from The Mummy) gives his best performance ever.  He’s wonderfully more natural than you’d expect, and he communicates Clay’s conflict as this man’s man befriends Whale, drawn to the man for who he is as a person, though disgusted and confused by his sexuality.  Ultimately, his affection for Whale wins out over his opinions on homosexuality- people who have trouble loving gay people should watch this movie!  Lynn Redgrave steals several scenes as Whale’s disgruntled servant who thinks Whale is going to hell for being a “bugger” and is worried that Whale is “buggering” Clay.

Great movie- above all a great story told with professional lyricism by both the filmmakers and the actors.  There’s a whole wealth of plot and beauty in this movie that I haven’t even touched on.

Albums I Liked:

Beggars Banquet by The Rolling Stones: I’m trying to listen to all of The Rolling Stones’ albums.  I’ve been unimpressed by the ones I’ve heard so far; none of them really live up to the awesome quality on the only later record I’ve heard, Exile on Main St.  But Beggars Banquet is their first record I’ve heard that is great as a whole album with shades of the blues on Exile.  The Stones I know are made of blues- and country-tinged songwriting channeled into rebellious rock music, and I’m finally hearing that on this album.  Beggars Banquet is the first example of the Stones’ greatness.  Favorite songs: “Sympathy for the Devil” “Street Fighting Man” “Factory Girl”

Clear to Venus by Andrew Peterson: Peterson’s brand of folk music peaked in 2010 with his beautiful album Counting Stars, but my tour through his catalog is showing me that his introspective lyrics and country guitar have been high quality from the beginning.  Clear to Venus is no exception; Peterson sings about the trials of faith and the scope of God’s creation with an honesty befitting the folk genre.  Favorite songs: “Why Walk When You Can Fly” “Let Me Sing” “Venus”

Leaving Eden by Carolina Chocolate Drops: Remember O Brother, Where Art Thou? and that amazing soundtrack?  Would you mind another album just like it?  I thought you wouldn’t.  Here it is- the best old-timey folk since the Soggy Bottom Boys with added substance to boot.  You can’t get away with making music this old-school unless you make it incredibly well, and Carolina Chocolate Drops know what they’re doing.  Their main attraction is their instrumental prowess, but some of their songs are more than just showcases for their banjos and fiddles, such as the title track, which uses biblical imagery to chronicle a family displacing themselves due to hard times, or “Read ‘Em John,” which is basically a call-and-response celebration of a man’s ability to read.  Favorite songs: “Pretty Bird” “Leaving Eden” “Ruby, Are You Mad at Your Man?”

Young Man in America by Anais Mitchell: So I like folk music.  Young Man is an enjoyable folk album filled with songs that are almost otherworldly in nature.  Mitchell reminds me of Bjork, or at least Bjork’s less freaky songs.  There are Christian undertones to Mitchell’s lyrics, encouraging her friend in the song “You Are Forgiven,” questioning those who question God in “Dyin’ Day,” and crying for mercy on “Annmarie.”  She sounds like a broken spirit fighting to remain whole.  Favorite songs: “Young Man in America” “Ships” “Dyin Day”

Songs I Loved:

“Pretty Bird” by Carolina Chocolate Drops: The bulk of Leaving Eden is finger-pickin’ and string-playing accompanied by beautiful and strong vocals, but “Pretty Bird” leaves the instruments behind and just lets singer Rhiannon Giddens belt out an ode to freedom and love.  Her accompaniment- the sounds of nature, crickets chirping, frogs chirruping.  Giddens’s voice is soulful, transcending any sort of time period.

“Ships” by Anais Mitchell: A sad goodbye to someone she loves whose ship has just come in.  This song made me think of “Who’s Gonna Ride Your Wild Horses” (another moving farewell song, this one by U2) when Mitchell asks “Who’s gonna lay in a bed so wide?  Who’s gonna lay in your lonely bed?” reminding her love that she’ll be here, waiting for him, that no one would be as good for him as her.  Beautiful and devastating.

“Street Fighting Man” by The Rolling Stones: Did you ever realize this song isn’t actually about a guy who street fights?  Me either!  Mick Jagger actually wrote this in response to all the violence in American and Europe due to protesting at the time.  The lyrics to the chorus: “What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock-and-roll band / Cause in sleepy London town / There’s no place for a street fighting man”  Whether Jagger was saying we shouldn’t protest or decrying  most of London for not taking any action at all or making fun of the pointlessness of being a rock star, his lyrics are biting, and I don’t know about anyone else, but the song sure gets me excited.

“Sympathy for the Devil” by The Rolling Stones: I had heard this song before, but I’m going to take advantage of this week to write about it.  “Sympathy” is probably in my top 5 Rolling Stones songs, up there with “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and “Tumbling Dice.”  From the simply evil guitar solo to the chiming “woo-woo”s and the cleverest, most direct lyrics Mick Jagger ever wrote, “Sympathy for the Devil” is one of the coolest songs ever.  It was obviously just meant for fun, so don’t get caught up in lyrics that sound like they’re celebrating Satan- even Keith Richards and Mick Jagger don’t sink that low.

“Why Walk When You Can Fly” by Andrew Peterson: He begins the song with plaintive harmonies, singing a Mary Chapin Carpenter cover about the limits we put on ourselves instead of acting on our desires.  It’s Peterson’s best song on this album, because it best communicates the kind of hope that Peterson is in the business of spreading.  The implication is that you can fly, even in this harsh world, when you have Christ.  Stay tuned for the equally hopeful and insightful hidden track around the 3:40 mark about the kinds of people who are truly grateful for God’s creation.

“Young Man in America” by Anais Mitchell: It’s a little disconcerting at first to hear Mitchell sing about being a young man in america, let alone to hear her sing about her mother birthing her (or him, I suppose).  But Mitchell is singing from a man’s perspective, expressing what it means to be a man in this world, a man conflicted by sin and expectations.  She has her man “waiting on the kingdom to meet [him] in [his] sin, waiting to be born again,” effectively distilling the experience of growing up in a broken world into a 6-minute epic.

Media Review 3/3-3/9

Movies:

The Insider:  A taut thriller grounded in realism, which is helpful since it’s based on a true story. (What does taut even mean?  How is a movie pulled tight?  No one says that.  Whatever.  It was taut.)  Director Mann shows his mastery of mood in a movie that overflows with suspense and shady characters.  The Insider follows Al Pacino’s character, Lowell Bergman, a 60 Minutes producer, who tries to get an exclusive interview about big tobacco from a former tobacco company research, Jeff Wigand, played with perfect tension by Russell Crowe.  Wigand has secrets to spare, but the tobacco company makes it hard, putting pressure on everyone involved, and in the process drawing out moral questions about honesty and journalistic integrity.

If that sounds boring, let me assure you, Mann does create a taut world, asking us to question how free the press really is in a nation ruled by money.  He is fortunate to have a fantastic cast.  Al Pacino, so good at chewing the scenery in recent years, here is wonderfully sincere and understated.  His character may come across as unrealistically idealized (how common is journalistic integrity these days?). But Pacino makes it work by portraying him as a man who feels like a kid with his thumb in the dam trying to build the dam at the same time.  He coaxes Wigand into a revealing interview and desperately fights tooth and nail to get it aired.  Russell Crowe’s Wigand reminded me of his John Nash character from A Beautiful Mind, but less neurotic, and his love for his children is more front and center.  He’s a matter-of-fact man, but Crowe shows the conflict as he feels compelled to blow the whistle even while it may mean trouble for his family.  Christopher Plummer plays Mike Wallace, the 60 Minutes anchor, with a certain amount of arrogance befitting a TV star, but also makes it clear that he cares about the stories he does and about the reputation of his profession.  Mann gives him some great, explosive scenes.

Great movie- but did the outcome even change anything?  Look around- people are still smoking, even though we know cigarettes are full of poison and addictive substances that lead to cancer.  The press still makes compromises with their integrity.  But it is worth it to know that somewhere, sometime, people stood up for the moral right.

The Talented Mr. Ripley:  This 1999 movie has a great cast, an intriguing plot, a beautiful locale, a jazzy score, but, well…it’s boring.  It’s billed as a thriller, but it takes too long to really become a thriller.  The first half, while seemingly set up to help us get to know Ripley and his situation a little bit better, never lets us in on who he is.  He’s a cipher, and while that’s good for some characters in some movies, it’s not good for this one in this movie.  Considering he’s the protagonist, this means the audience has no stake in the plot at all.

Speaking of the plot, it’s a good one.  Matt Damon’s Tom Ripley is hired to fetch a man’s son, Dickie Greenleaf (Jude Law, the best part of the movie), back from Italy, but when Ripley arrives, he falls in love with both the man and his lifestyle.  I won’t reveal how, but Ripley ends up impersonating Greenleaf and living off of his money and reputation.  Talented is genuinely suspenseful and at times succeeds as a thriller, but too much is left uncovered about Ripley.  I like ambiguity in movies, but this felt more like they were afraid of making Ripley one thing above another.

Okay movie- squanders a great cast in a film that isn’t sure what it wants to be and never succeeds in becoming the thing a movie needs to be above all others: interesting.

Books:

Beloved by Toni Morrison:  I’ve never read a book quite like this.  This book was intense on a whole new level.  The atrocities that the characters endured are way over my head and out of my scope of knowledge and experience.  I don’t know if these things really happened in America, but I suppose I should not be so surprised.

Beloved follows an African-American family escaped from slavery to Ohio just before the Civil War.  The family consisted of a mother and father and four children.  The father did not escape with the family, but the rest of them found the father’s mother and lived with her.  Aside from the absence of the father, things were okay until their former owner showed up to reclaim them.  The mother (and this isn’t a spoiler) attempted to kill her children to spare them from becoming enslaved again and encountering the same terrible treatment she received.  She only succeeded in killing the oldest daughter.  The book is set about 20 years later; the two sons have left their mother and sister and grandmother, and the dead daughter’s ghost haunts their home.  This is a twisted setup for an incredible story.  I haven’t even begun to unearth everything the book contains.  That would spoil the experience.

I am white- I cannot relate to or understand this book the way a black man or woman would be able to.  I think Americans (white ones) tend to water down the crime we committed against the Africans we brought over to own and enslave, and then against the children they bore on American soil that we treated just the same.  I think we forget that this consisted not only of ownership of other human beings, but of rape, torture, murder, pedophilia, and other inhuman acts.  Morrison doesn’t water this down.  She gets at the heart of what enslavement was and what it did to human beings mentally, emotionally, even spiritually.  This story (based on a historical event in which a woman killed her 2-year-old daughter to protect her from enslavement) is riveting, from the plot to the characters to the beautiful prose.

I’m grateful to Morrison for opening my eyes to the true level and impact of what happened in slavery.  Beloved may appear on the surface to be a ghost story, but I guarantee it is grounded in the truest of feelings and emotions.  Morrison exposes the broken families, the emotional turmoil, the loss of identity, the rape, assault, murder, tyranny of slavery that you can’t get from history books.  This book may never be one of my favorite books (there are others that I simply relate to better and respond to with more passion), but it’s one of the best written and the most affecting.  Keep in mind, The New York Times conducted a survey in 2006 naming it the best work of American fiction of the last 25 years.  It’s a weighty book, but so worth it.

Albums I Liked:

Tramp by Sharon Van Etten:  Some of the most interesting folk music I’ve heard recently.  Van Etten’s lyrics tend to deal with her own complex identity, dissecting her multi-faceted personality.  I have to wonder who the title is referring to; my guess is herself, based on the self-deprecating bent of her songs.  At least in these songs, she judges others, makes terrible decisions, supports the wrong men, and doesn’t trust her own judgment (see: “I’m Wrong”).  Even through all this, Van Etten manages to walk the line of dark lyrics and intense arrangements without becoming depressing.  Tramp is actually strangely empowering.  Favorite songs: “Serpent” “Leonard” “All I Can”

Animal Life by Shearwater:  Is there such a thing as quiet bombast?  If so, then Shearwater’s got it.  No one would accuse them of being subtle, but Shearwater is good at sneaking up on you, even while banging on your head with overenthusiastic production.  Their music is theatrical, and on this album they include a lot of metaphors about animals that don’t always make sense, but whatever- the music is affecting, singer Jonathan Meiburg sings with operatic passion, and what do you know, I got swept up in it.  Next album please.  Favorite songs: “You as You Were” “Pushing the River” “Breaking the Yearlings”

Songs I Loved:

“Serpents” by Sharon Van Etten:  One for the wronged-woman annals.  I’ve never felt like there were serpents in my mind, have you?  Apparently Sharon Van Etten has, when a man betrayed her, failed to take her seriously, killed her dreams (“You enjoy sucking on dreams/so I will fall asleep/with someone other than you”).  She gets straight to the point, and the driving beat in the fastest song on the album carries her bitter anger to the end, where she expresses some semblance of hope that he’ll change eventually.

“You as You Were” by Shearwater:  Nowhere are Shearwater’s theatrics more stirring than on “You as You Were.”  I have no clue what it’s about, but Meiburg sings with conviction about rocks and a river and the loss of civilization and whatever, the cool thing is the churning percussion instruments and driving piano building on Meiburg’s soaring voice.

Media Review 2/26-3/2

I’m gonna start doing this from Saturday to Friday.  It just makes more sense if I’m going to write it on Saturday.

Movies:

Project Nim:  A documentary that asks intriguing questions about human nature vs. animal nature.  Made by the same filmmaking team that made Man on Wire (another potent, fascinating watch), Project Nim is structured around the life of a chimpanzee named Nim, chosen by scientists for an experiment conducted to determine if chimpanzees can learn language and communicate with humans.  You can imagine the trajectory the movie takes (chimpanzee is cute, chimpanzee grows up and becomes dangerous), but you cannot predict the human-interest side of this.

Documentaries are largely only as good as their subjects.  Luckily, Project Nim follows people that are almost more fascinating than than the chimpanzee at the center of the movie.  If the scientists (and I use that term loosely) in this movie are trying to answer questions about nature vs. nurture in chimpanzees, the lives and desires of the people keep getting in the way.  They constantly want Nim (Nim Chimpsky is his name- a play on the linguist Noam Chomsky’s name) to be more than a chimp, to fulfill roles in their lives that an animal can’t fill.

Very good movie- what’s interesting is that we find ourselves as the audience humanizing Nim.  I had to remind myself that he’s just an animal.  Does he have feelings?  It sure seems like it in this movie.

Albums I Liked:

Interstellar by Frankie Rose:  Can we agree on something?  Pop music sucks these days.  There are exceptions, to be sure, but pop music has steadily declined from people trying to make music to people trying to get famous.  So why not listen to some pop music you can truly get lost in?  Frankie Rose’s Interstellar is the kind of album that has hooks to draw you in and creative instrumentation to make you stay.  She isn’t saying much with her music, but the atmosphere she creates is ethereal in the best kind of way.  Favorite songs: “Pair of Wings” “Had We Had It” “Gospel/Grace”

Songs of Praise & Scorn by Christopher Paul Stelling: There’s a feeling fans get when they feel like they’ve discovered someone, a possessiveness mixed with sheer delight every time you hear that artist.  That’s how I feel with Christopher Paul Stelling.  I can’t tell you much about him for sure (his backstory is kind of ambiguous), but I can tell you that his style of folk music draws you in to a different time and place.  His old soul comes through in his voice, even in the moments where he begins to shout out of some deep emotion, whether it’s pain and anguish or desire and passion.  Favorite songs: “Mourning Train to Memphis” “Ghost Ship” “Solar Flares”

Songs I Loved:

“Mourning Train to Memphis” by Christopher Paul Stelling: “Mourning Train to Memphis” is a window into all of Stelling’s songs.  He grapples with tough subjects and finger-picks his heart out.  In “Mourning Train to Memphis” Stelling is fed up with the inevitability of death.  He knows it’s coming for those he loves, and that it’s supposed to, but there’s nothing like acceptance in his voice as he shouts out the chorus, “Ain’t it a shame all the people on this earth they have to die.”  Could be depressing, but in Stelling’s capable hands, it’s empowering.

“Pair of Wings” by Frankie Rose: While many of the songs on Interstellar are quick and catchy, Frankie Rose’s best is her most subdued.  “Pair of Wings” merely repeats the same thing over and over, but the building background synths combined with the desire for freedom and connection in her lyrics lift this song off the ground.

“Comeback Kid” by Sleigh Bells: Though Sleigh Bells’s Treats was critically acclaimed, I just couldn’t really dig it (except for the sweet song “Tell ‘Em”).  I feel the same way about their newest, Reign of Terror, but once again there’s a standout track.  This time, it’s “Comeback Kid,” their powerful, punchy pumpup single.  The mix of Alexis Krauss’s voice with the pulsing beat makes for an encouraging, exciting song.

Media Review 2/19-2/25

Movies:

ContagionThis movie is interesting as a factual look at an epidemic and the measures taken against it, the consequences of the disease and the measures, and the moral ambiguities involved.  It’s pretty standard stuff- disease starts infecting people, people die, people react badly, society begins to crumble- but I found it as more than just a disaster movie.  For one, director Steven Soderbergh treats his subject with documentary-like storytelling.  He wants us to get exactly how this disease spreads, to understand what precautions and reactions our government would actually have.  He wants it to seem real.  What’s brilliant though is Contagion‘s flashes of emotion.  Soderbergh’s main focus is the facts, but he allows his characters’ humanity, both moral and immoral, to peek through.  Maybe what he’s trying to say is that even with something as amoral as a virus, we humans still have to make moral sense of it.

The performances are solid, especially Matt Damon’s and Jennifer Ehle’s.  Damon is the key everyman figure here, our anchor to the overarching story.  His concern for his daughter and conflicting emotions over his wife’s death are easy to relate to- the scene when he is told his wife is dead is perfect.  Jennifer Ehle plays a scientist working on a vaccine for the virus.  Her performance is subtle, and its full power doesn’t become apparent till near the end in a scene with her dad.

Very good movie- would have been great except for Jude Law’s poorly written character and the distracting storyline he inhabits.

Magnolia: I’ve never seen a movie quite like Magnolia, a movie about coincidences.  Most movies that employ coincidences as devices to link a lot of characters together are usually making the point that everyone’s connected, or something like that, but Magnolia seems to be saying more that sometimes strange things just happen.  It follows a bunch of different storylines and characters who are connected together by coincidence- a misogynistic motivational speaker (Tom Cruise) avoids his dying father (Jason Robards), attended to by his nurse (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his trophy wife (Julianne Moore).  The dying father happens to be the producer of a kids’ quiz show hosted by Philip Baker Hall.  The movie follows a current contestant and his overbearing father, as well as a former contestant (William H. Macy) in love with a bartender who doesn’t see him.  John C. Reilly plays a cop who tries to help a cocaine addict who happens to be the daughter of the quiz show host.  I promise you I haven’t even broken the surface of this plot yet.

Roger Ebert wrote a fantastic review on Magnolia, and you can find it here.  In it, he claims that Magnolia is about the sins we inflict on children and the consequences that manifest later in life.  He argues that Paul Thomas Anderson, the director, shows us that the majority of people are hurting, in pain from others’ mistakes or their own.  Some people are meant to be the helpers to the hurting, showing them compassion when they need it most.  This does seem to be how life works, doesn’t it?  Some people have a lot of awful things happen to them, and rarely do they escape the awful cycles of sin in their lives.  And then there are those more fortunate individuals who are gifted with compassion, doing what they can to help them.  Often the change they effect is minimal, too little to be appreciated.  But still, their compassion drives them to keep trying.

There are two such characters in Magnolia, the nurse played by Hoffman and the cop played by Reilly.  Their performances are the most intriguing- they don’t seem to be conflicted in their motives, they just want to help the people around them.  The best performance among a heap of great performances is Tom Cruise’s.  It’s the best performance of his I’ve seen.  He’s wildly varied, but always true to his character.  Subtle isn’t the first word that comes to mind, but there’s a moment where his chauvinist is discovered as a liar and Cruise quietly conveys judgmental anger.  Later, Cruise collapses in manic rage and desperation at his character’s father’s deathbed.

Great movie- even after this long-ish review, I still haven’t conveyed to you what all this movie contains.  I haven’t even gotten to the cast singalong and the raining frogs.

Albums I Liked:

Fall, Winter, Spring, Summer by Jon Foreman: Switchfoot is a great rock band, but Jon Foreman shines creatively in these four EPs.  Simple but creative, Foreman’s songs here address more complicated themes than Switchfoot.  His themes seem more personal, and the music reflects that.  It feels like he was bursting to express these ideas, but Switchfoot just wasn’t the right venue.  Foreman has created his own venue, a distinct sound all his own.  We can relate to this conflicted faith that Foreman brings to the forefront of his lyrics, as well as the genuine efforts to praise God with that flawed faith.  Favorite songs: “Your Love Is Strong” “House of God, Forever”

Devils & Dust by Bruce Springsteen: Soft and understated, the Boss owns the traditional folk song on this album.  He’s been here before on albums like Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad, but while those albums feel dark and dangerous, Devils & Dust feels more hopeful, more ready to believe in the good in people.  Favorite songs: “Devils & Dust” “Maria’s Bed”

Songs I Loved:

“Southbound Train” by Jon Foreman: I’m a sucker for harmonica, and when the harmonica came in halfway through this song, I was sold.  Foreman sings about a journey (life, maybe?), but he eschews the cliches inherent in songs about journeys by constructing his song around a personal relationship with a woman.  His home isn’t the same as it once was, but the presence of his girl is enough to keep him hopeful.  Like many of the songs on his Seasons EPs, “Southbound Train” feels real and lived-in.

“All I’m Thinkin’ About” by Bruce Springsteen: Springsteen has written bigger and better songs, but few of his songs are this content.  Interestingly, he tackles simple themes as Foreman’s “Southbound Train”- his girl keeps him going, his life isn’t the same as it used to be.  He keeps the volume down, but the background singers give the song weight, and Springsteen’s finger-pickin’ guitar sound makes it sound old, wise, carefree.  A perfect song for a stressful weekend.

Media Review Week 2/12-2/18

Welcome, faithful readers (aka mom).  I would like to write a post each week in which I can write about the movies and music I’ve experienced over the past week.  Maybe sometimes I’ll include TV shows and books I’ve finished.

I like looking at all this media I consume critically.  I enjoy being entertained, but I don’t see much point to my watching a ton of movies and listening to way too much music if the majority doesn’t make me think, and I don’t then apply it to my life..  So here will be where I put my thoughts!  Enjoy.

Movies:

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Thelma & Louise More than a great road movie and especially more than a great women’s buddy movie, Thelma & Louise pulls off something special.  Director Ridley Scott manages to shift tones seamlessly from scene to scene and even within scenes to create a movie that functions as comedy, drama, action, thriller, romance, and, in one scene, horror.  That you don’t notice the changes as you’re experiencing them is a testament to the skill of Scott and his cast.  Interestingly, Scott’s other great movies (that I’ve seen) are Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, movies that really have one prevailing mood for the whole movie. Thelma & Louise stands out as a patchwork quilt of great genre movies.

Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon are thrilling to watch.  Geena Davis makes us believe the change in Thelma over the course of the movie, but she maintains her character’s naive optimism.  Susan Sarandon shows us the increasing desperation in Louise’s mannerisms, replaced later in the movie by a strong resignation to their plight.  Harvey Keitel isn’t very believable in his role as the cop pursuing the ladies, but Brad Pitt shines in a small role as a hitchhiker they pick up on their trip.

Great movie- not realistic, maybe, but it works as a fable for the seeming futility of women trying to make it in a corrupt world, a man’s world.

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Chariots of FireI enjoyed this movie.  Chariots of Fire is a fascinating character study of two British men preparing for the 1924 Olympics, one a Jew and one a Christian.  The Jewish man, Harold, is driven by the need to rise above the (sometime subtle, sometimes not) anti-Semitism in Britain and achieve something unexpected of him.  The Christian man, Eric, is driven by a desire to please God.  These performances aren’t flashy, but they’re effective.  Ben Cross as Harold sells his character’s need to prove something, and Eric’s quiet devotion is affecting.  When his sister objects to his decision to compete in the Olympics, Eric explains himself, “I believe God made me for a purpose, but He also made me fast.  And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”

It’s a joy to learn about these characters, and there is one race that is particularly exciting near the middle of the movie.  However, the movie runs out of steam at the end, and the final races aren’t as effective.  The movie is perhaps too studied and slow in its storytelling.  It benefits from the presence of Ian Holm (you may know him as Bilbo Baggins) as Harold’s coach.  He’s lively and spontaneous in a movie that could use some more entertaining characters.  Holm’s best scene is when he discovers that outcome of one of the matches and punches a hole through his hat.  You would have too.

Very good movie- as a sports movie, it drags near the end when it should be peaking.  But as a movie about why these men have to run, it’s fascinating.

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The Vow: Okay, okay, I know I shouldn’t have liked this movie.  Maybe I was taken in by the real chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Channing Tatum as Paige and Leo.  Maybe it’s because I went with my girlfriend.  Maybe I was just in a sappy mood that night.  Whatever the reason (and believe me, I’m confused), I really enjoyed this movie.

Tatum and McAdams do have chemistry, and unlike many mainstream rom-coms, The Vow has doesn’t settle for an easy outcome for its characters.  There are cliches, which I can deal with, and one-dimensional characters, which are to be expected, though all of them are secondary.  The reason The Vow maintains credibility is its commitment to the main characters and the key players in the plot.  Tatum’s Leo fights for his marriage in realistic ways, and McAdams’s reactions to her plight (while maybe not medically plausible) are believable.  Leo’s pursuit of his wife is the cornerstone of this movie.  It was an inspiration to me, and I hope other people see it and think about their own commitment.

Very good movie- forget the haters.  I’m sold on this movie, and you should give it a chance.

Albums I Liked:

Two Lefts Don’t Make a Right…but Three Do by Relient K: I know I’m late to the Relient K train, but ever since my girlfriend, Vicky, gave me their album Forget and Not Slow Down (which I love), I’ve been trying to listen to their older stuff.  I don’t usually like this pop-punk sound, but Relient K redeems it with great lyrics, a sense of humor, and creative arrangements.  Relient K wasn’t that great, but Anatomy of the Tongue in Cheek showed flashes of both musical and lyrical brilliance (see: “Sadie Hawkins Dance”, “For the Moments I Feel Faint”, “Failure to Excommunicate”).  Two Lefts doesn’t quite reach the heights that Anatomy did, but it stays high longer.  Favorite song: “Getting into You”.

Songs I Loved:

“Wedding Song” by Bob Dylan: I love Bob Dylan, and I’ve been trying to listen to his whole catalog over the last six months or so.  I just got to Planet Waves, his first full-length collaboration with The Band, another favorite of mine.  The album was just fine, but this cut is sublime.  It’s an ode to full-on commitment to love, even at the expense of one’s own self-destruction.  I’m not saying I agree with his sentiment, but the melody is haunting.  Married love doesn’t seem so cushy when linked to a song this open and honest.