Monday, November 30, 2009

A Trader Joe's Crash Course for the Uninitiated

With new Trader Joe's Supermarkets popping up weekly 'round these parts (there are at least 4 within 5 miles of me), I thought I'd take some time to impart a sampling of the knowledge I've accrued being a regular Trader Joe's shopper to make the transition for the Whole Foods/Foodmaster regulars as smooth as Trader Joe's White Bean and Basil Hummus. Before I get into the culinary/strategy nitty-gritty, there are a few things you should know about what will furthermore be referred to as TJ's.

1. Trader Joe's almost exclusively sells items from their own Private Labels. This means, you won't be finding Cheerio's or Oreo's. Instead you'll have to settle for Joe's O's (delicious) and Joe Joe's (heavenly). This allows Trader Joe's to save lots of money by cutting out the middle man, while at the same time allowing them to oversee the quality of the ingredients.

2. Speaking of Quality ingredients, Trader Joe's has this to say about the products they sell:

Our logo assures that the products it is on contain NO artificial flavors, colors or preservatives; NO MSG; and NO added Trans Fats. In addition, ALL Trader Joe's private label products are sourced from non-genetically modified ingredients. 

3. Finally, if you enjoy trimming coupons and slogging through newspaper inserts for sales flyers, you will also be disappointed as Trader Joe's does not offer sales. The good news is, that their prices compare quite favorably to Market Basket are light years better than Whole Foods, especially considering that many of Trader Joe's products are organic and none contain any artificial ingredients.

Now that you've read all that and are sufficiently intimidated, take my hand and let me bring you to a place of PUUURE IMAGINAAAATION. At least that's the song I hear when I go inside a Trader Joe's, but maybe that's just me.

Here are a couple pieces of advice to make your grocery transportation as painless as possible:

-Trader Joe's parking lots are heinous. They are tiny and they are incredibly busy. Thusly, I bike whenever possible. I know this isn't feasible for everyone, but understand that you will need a hearty dose of ruthless to find a parking spot.

-Do not get a grocery cart under any circumstances (unless of course you are buying alcohol, more on that later). The aisles are narrow and choked with people and you will bring nothing but carnage and frustration
upon yourself if you try to scoot around with one. Use a hand basket and thank me later.

-Finally, you're going to want to bring your own bags. Trader Joe's does offer paper bags if you forget, but I think they are manufactured in hell.

As you can probably tell from the picture above, you can't carry more than a bag of tortilla chips without the flimsy handles tearing off and sending your perishables on a parking lot adventure. Don't say I didn't warn you.

With all that out of the way, let's get down to brass tax. Because all of the food is "Trader Joe's" brand, it is incredibly overwhelming setting foot into one for the first time. Probably akin to going to a supermarket in a foreign country. The good news is, almost everything is delectable. And I have tried everything, believe you me. Here are some of my favorite items, and a few items that didn't tickle my fancy.


Trader Joe's Pita Chips/Trader Joe's Hummus - Less than $2 each, and both are incredibly delicious. The Chipotle Pepper Hummus does not last 24 hours in my house. MMM!


Trader Joe's Tamale's - $2.29 for 2. If you have ever had these, you will know why I bring them lunch every week without fail. Shredded beef and soft masa in a corn husk. So simple, so PROFOUNDLY DELICIOUS.

Trader Joe's Tomato and Roasted Red Pepper Soup- Sounds a little bizarre, but out of this world awesome. I also love the creamy tomato soup, but the red pepper adds a little extra tang and flavor. I like to put TJ's Oyster crackers in it. So delicious and less than the cost of a crappy can of Campbell's soup. SERIOUSLY.

-DESSERT Before I go any further let me just say that I don't really care for dessert. I like ice cream from time to time, but as far as cakes and pies go, I can take it or leave it. That was before I started sniffing around at TJ's. I cannot tell you how many time's I've had something in my hand, being all wishy-washy and then I remembered the last Trader Joe's dessert I had and it immediately goes into my basket. I am not a huge fan of the MOCHI like SS is, (maybe he isn't either and just likes to say it/yell it to/at Katie), but from the Sorbet to the Creme Brulee', C'est MAGNIFIQUE.


-WINE/BEER Finally, last but not least is alcohol. Mind you, not every Trader Joe's carries alcohol, but when they do, hold onto your butts because you will be 30 minutes late to whatever you have planned and adding a cool $50 to your grocery bill. The good news is that $50 in Trader Joe's booze goes a LOOOOONG LOOOONG way. Don't believe me? Might I interest you in some 3-buck-chuck? In addition to this, Trader Joe's carries it's own brand of wines and beers and hundreds of other varieties, many for less than $6 a bottle. That is obscene. And they are largely fantastic. $5 for a six-pack of TJ's beer? Yes please. $4 for some Riesling? Why not. Just practice that response and you'll be just fine.

The Less Good

Here are a few Trader Joe's offerings that you should stay away from, or at least follow my instructions diligently.

- Produce. Apples = Good. Oranges = Good. Frozen Veggies = Super. Bags of lettuce? Liquefy 6 hours after you open it. Unfortunate, but them's the rules in the little town of "No Preservatives".

- Another rule is that your cheese and breads will sprout unsightly mold spots faster than you can say "Who wants some crackers and EWWWW." Fine if you are having a dinner party and will use it all at once. Otherwise, no amount of Tupperware/Vacuum Sealer can keep your refrigerator from making a sacrifice to the Mold Gods.

- I had some Trader Joe's Tuna thing about a year ago that was very strange and blechy. I think this is a picture of it.

- They have really cheap ($1) chocolate advent calendars for Christmas every year that I always buy, but the Chocolate always tastes like it should have an MSDS. I bought one again this year too and brought it to work. Oh well, they eat it early and out of order so serves them right.



Hey, they should put that on their ads. If they had ads. Which they don't.

For the Star Wars Geek in your Life

After initially offering it as an April Fool's joke, somehow gained the approval of Lucasfilm and are now legitimately manufacturing the Tauntaun sleeping bag for the masses. The response from their April Fool's joke was apparently so incredible that they had no choice but to try and get the thing made. If you aren't familiar, this is a play on the iconic Empire Strikes Back scene where Han Solo places Luke inside of a dead Tauntaun to keep him warm during an ice storm. The scene is re-enacted hilariously below WITH a Tauntaun sleeping bag. As you can probably see, the sleeping bag has a Lightsaber zipper and is lined with Tauntaun guts, of course. It's $99, and available for preorder at Unfortunately, the chances of a Star Wars nerd actually using it for camping are slim to none.

If you're on a budget, might I direct your attention to the equally hilarious Yoda backpack. Perfect for Jedi Training and only 34.99 at thinkgeek.

Review: New Moon

Since I know Mike won't review it, I will. This Saturday I sat through the amazingly entertaining New Moon, the second installment in the Twilight saga. Though I have not read the Twilight books, I've heard about them all from my girlfriend and I've read all there is to read on Wikipedia. I'm also a sucker for stories, lore, and mythology so I have to admit I would have seen this movie even if my girlfriend hadn't wanted to go. Note: my girlfriend is not a 13-year-old although about 95% of the people we saw the movie with were 13YOG's.

To start, let me say that this movie was unintentionally hilarious and worth seeing. I would rate it a -7 on JL's Absolute Value Movie Scale which ends up being a solid 7 (out of 10). For someone unfamiliar with New Moon I would explain it by saying that watching it is like watching a soap opera about vampires. The score is intermittent at best so there are long silent shots of people staring at each other longingly/lovingly/hungrily. The "hungrily" comes because some of the characters want to alternately eat each other and make love with each other and it's often hard to tell which. This is but one of the reasons this movie is very funny. The barely-restrained kissing/biting is a fantastic metaphor for abstinence. This lack of sex makes (and biting) fits in nicely with the movie as well as with Meyer's Mormonism.

The soap opera feel pervades the entire movie which actually felt long at times. The use of CGI was fine but at this point, acceptable CGI is more of a hygene factor (see A Sound of Thunder). In my view, the best parts of the movie surround the extremely buff werewolves.

As you can see in this promotional photograph, these dudes love to run arond in board shorts and not much else. This picture is entirely true to the movie in that they only wear board shorts in the movie as well! Somehow no one questions their lack of clothes, as when the big one (pictured above) runs out of the woods carrying the main character, drops her off at a police barricade, and retreats back into the woods. No questions are asked of this big fella.

In all this was an extremely entertaining movie and I would recommend it. It's much more fun than hanging out in the freezing woods with no clothes on.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Sweet Indie Band of the Week: The Middle East

The Middle East are a talented music troupe hailing from Townsville, Australia. Their songs are equal parts folky and dreamy, and regularly feature mixed harmonies and ambient noises to supplement traditional orchestration. The track Blood, off their EP The Recordings of the Middle East, is a perfect encapsulation of their sound. It has finger-picking, a delicate piano/xylophone part, and ghostly vocals that intersect at harmonies and fall away again. Check it out.

'Blood' The Middle East

the middle east | MySpace Music Videos


Thursday, November 26, 2009


Driving back and forth to New Hampshire is not my preferred method of burning four hours, but the experience does afford one a unique opportunity for reflection, something I otherwise take great pains to avoid. There's something about putt-putting down familiar streets and queuing up a few forgotten songs that gets the mind a-wandering. In my case, it precipitates the humbling realization that I am supremely lucky. Not to wax existentially, but although I have yet to accomplish anything of merit in this life, I feel as though I've been acquiring the necessary tools from those around me until that day comes.

We are nothing if not a reflection of our parents love and sacrifice, so I suppose my happiness and ambition is the best compliment I can bestow upon my parents. The moral compass and humility that they instilled in me through their words and actions is something I grow more grateful for everyday.

However, I would be remiss if I thought that devoted parents alone are what it takes to fashion a decent human being. This is the part where I thank every friend for simply being that. Someone to talk to, someone to see a movie with, someone to offer advice, experiences or just a new perspective that makes the day-to-day a little bit easier and in the process shapes your character. The role that friends play in one's life cannot be overstated. To paraphrase Clarence from It's A Wonderful Life, "No man is a failure who has friends."

Lastly, I am thankful for my career which has indulged my scientific mind while providing me a steady paycheck and coworkers that I respect and admire. To have a job that you enjoy AND pays the bills is no small feat these days.

I hope that you too are reading this somewhere warm, surrounded by the ones you love. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Last Lil Wayne related post of the week (I promise)

Let's file this under 'Questionable Parenting'. Reportedly, Lil Wayne's daughter Reginae (also known as "Baby Carter") has teamed up with T.I.'s daughter Zonnique (known as "Star") to form the group 'OMG Girlz'. They have a song, titled 'Ain't Nobody', on their myspace here, and will almost certainly feature guest spots from their respective daddies, which is the only reason I'm remotely interested in this story. I can only hope that Reginae doesn't have her fathers flair for vulgarity and poo references. Wait that's only half true. I love the poo verses.

It's been a slow news week, I've been sickly, and one can't blog whilst driving back and forth to New Hampshire. This leaves precious little time for the blog posts you've all come to admire and expect. I'll promise to be a bit more thorough in the coming days. In the meantime, here are a couple cool videos.

Jimmy Fallon covering Neil Young covering Will Smith

Shaolin Monk balances on 2 fingers

Actual quote from the President's 'Educate to Innovate' speech earlier this week. Obama's the coolest:

Monday, November 23, 2009

No Ceilings/The Carter Documentary

Lil' Wayne is certainly making the most of his time before he is sentenced to jail in February. The past month has seen him release his No Ceilings mixtape (for free online) and The Carter Documentary, a film that chronicles his life in 2008, before and after the release of his critically-acclaimed smash The Carter III. Both of these feature Wayne in rare form, and offer fleeting glimpses into the life of a music icon and the pressure that goes hand-in-hand with fame.

As I've said before, Mixtapes arguably contain Lil Wayne at his creative peak, unadulterated by hooks and musical interludes. He simply borrows a great beat and unleashes himself upon it, and more often than not, eclipses the source material. No Ceilings is no exception.

Is there anyone else who can unflinchingly rap about Windows Vista, Michael Phelps, Cambridge, pet canaries and Alvin and the Chipmunks and still sound menacing? Lil Wayne does all of this on No Ceilings before he even INTRODUCES the mixtape itself. The rest of the mixtape is equally enlightened, as Wayne continues to find new euphemisms for shit and new ways to toot his own horn. As he has said before, he is not like us, he is a martian. I'm starting to believe him.

His only missteps on the album come when he attempts to inject some of his young money crew into the mixtape. While they rap admirably, they sound lazy and uninspired when sandwiched between Weezy's verses. But then again, who wouldn't. The entire mixtape is a bittersweet affair, as one can't help but feel a twinge of sadness when they realize the brilliant Wayne will spend most of his next year incarcerated.

The Carter documentary is a similarly bittersweet project, and among other things, it makes me downright frightened to envision Wayne in jail, stripped of the two things that give him purpose; syrup and a microphone.  While it has been said before, the documentary shows the massive role that drug-use and recording play in his life. He is rarely filmed without a styrofoam cup of syrup or more than 5 feet away from the microphone. Often sipping from the cup between verses, his eyes completely glassed over but his mouth continuing to rhyme like a man possessed. His addiction is even harder to watch when it follows interviews with his 10 year old daughter and his manager. How much his daughter understands is debatable, but his manager has the unmistakable look of a man defeated, as he details other times he's tried to help Wayne kick the habit. When you are one of the most powerful men in the world, you don't hear the word NO. Plain and simple.

The documentary has the voyeuristic quality of an episode of Intervention, but without the rehab and accountability. Just the slow, steady spiral of a man surrounded by loved ones, but wholly alone. I couldn't help but feel a bit personally responsible for the situation he now finds himself in. The public is sustaining his lifestyle, glorifying it, eating up every bit of it. We are completely willing to look the other way so long as he continues to put out new material.

I have no doubt that Wayne's substance abuse will result in his premature death within the next 5 years if he doesn't get clean soon. Who knows, maybe prison is the best thing that could happen to him at this point in his life, forcing him to face his demons and put his life in perspective. The demons that come with fame are many, and they can not be conquered alone. Until Lil Wayne stops self-medicating himself, they will only continue to grow. Just ask Kurt Cobain.

Saturday, November 21, 2009


Antichrist, where do I begin? If you travel in film circles, you've undoubtedly heard of Lars von Trier's 2009 film starring Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainesbourg as grieving parents struggling to come to terms with the death of their son. Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, the word of mouth, for better or worse, for this film has been all-encompassing. This buzz has less to do with the themes of the film and more to do with its INSANE 3rd act that throws all humanity to the wind.

Let's first address the film on its artistic merits. It is impeccably shot, melding super slo-mo scenes and black and white clips to establish an eerie grace and beauty in otherwise horrific scenes. The use of sound in this film is also exceptional, using something as simple as acorns rolling down a rooftop or a steady rain to elicit the paranoia and anxiety that one can feel in an unfamiliar, exposed environment.

The story of the film is simple. A couple loses their son in a terrible accident that they may or may not have been able to stop. The grief-stricken wife is nurtured by her psychiatrist husband who dismisses all medical treatment or mourning, instead forcing her to confront her fear of the woods at a time when she is at her most emotionally vulnerable. She resists, and slowly spirals into savage insanity. Dafoe's character is emotionless and sterile, treating his wife like a patient and addressing her as such and never allowing himself to engage in the grieving process with his wife. He pressures his wife to embrace aspects of nature she fears, while at the same time resisting her own. Needless to say, they come out anyway.

This is the overarching theme of this film. The pitfalls that arise from trying to harness and conquer nature, both tangible and within yourself. Several scenes depict terrifying events that occur in nature thousands of times a day, and the characters are aghast. Baby birds preyed upon by hawks, a partially-birthed stillborn fawn, a fox eating itself. All of these images underscore the emotionless rule of nature. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten, prey or be preyed upon. The characters project emotion and despair upon a world that knows none, and are consumed by it to equal and opposite measures. By rebuffing and challenging nature, the characters are denying a part of themselves. While this may be possible in a civilized society, this is foolhardy behavior to ascribe to a place in which only chaos reigns.

There are certainly more complex biblical, sexual, psychological themes here, but these are underdeveloped and in large part supplements to the thematic core of the film.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Sweet Indie Band of the Week: Yeasayer

I know Yeasayer has been around a couple years, but I haven't really given them the time of day until I heard their newest diddy 'Ambling Alp' on XM a few weeks ago. Starting like a standard Animal Collective jam with woodblocks and splashes, the song lurches into a tribal drumbeat and a spacey guitar parts before a deliciously poppy verse and chorus rises, challenging the listener to "stick up for yourself son, never mind what anybody else does". It sounds like syrupy mush, but it's the unique chaos of the production that really sets it apart from other Top 40 tripe. It even has a saxophone breakdown for chrissakes. If this is what we can expect from Yeasayer's sophomore album Odd Blood, Animal Collective may have some psychedelic competition. Give it a listen.


Thursday, November 19, 2009

Bob Dylan Gets Festive

When you're arguably the greatest songwriter of your generation, you're allowed a few artistic indulgences. More often than not, that usually means a Christmas album. Even the immortal Bob Dylan is not immune.

Christmas in the Heart is Bob Dylan's holiday gift to us all, featuring covers of Silver Bells, Do You Hear What I Hear? and Winter Wonderland, among others. Those who dismiss this as some sort of underhanded moneygrab be damned, as the proceeds benefit Feeding America, a hunger-relief charity.

To promote this album, Dylan has released a music video for the track "Must Be Santa" that features a holiday party and a teleporting, seemingly sedated/drunk Bob rabble rousing until the whole thing gets a little out of hand.

Bob Dylan's gravely growl may not seem the ideal vehicle for spreading Christmas cheer, and I'm not even going to speculate on who thought the world was clamoring to hear Bob Dylan eviscerate Little Drummer Boy. I'm going to simply assume this is Bob having a little fun in his old age and excusing it by donating the proceeds to charity. Fine by me.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

What Is Avatar and why so much hub-bub?

Avatar (Not to the confused with The Last Airbender, sorry SS) is an upcoming science fiction film directed by James Cameron (Terminator, Titanic) which promises to revolutionize the medium of film as we know it. The story involves a paralyzed marine who regains use of his legs by becoming an Avatar on another planet populated by the Na'vi (the blue things seen below).

As the story progresses, the Marine falls in love with one of the aliens and is understandably conflicted when Earth attacks this planet. Mixing part CGI, part Live-action and part Motion Capture, Cameron developed several groundbreaking technologies to put this story to film. If that weren't enough, the film will be released in 3D using the new Fusion digital 3D system, developed by Cameron himself. Unsurprisingly, this new technology does not come cheap. A recent article claimed that it's total budget was almost $500 million dollars, a serious amount of cash to pony up for an alien love story, but considering the fact that Titanic took in almost 2 billion dollars worldwide, I suppose there are riskier ways to invest $500,000,000.

Even though this film features no A-list actors and has a plot line that sounds like a video game, the buzz has been deafening since Cameron premiered 15 minutes of the film to the rabid masses at Comic-Con in July. Apparently what transpired on the screen was so awe-inspiring that some critics ranked these mere 15 minutes amongst their top 100 films of the decade. Many called it "the future", likening it to the first Technicolor film. Others claimed that it washed over them like a drug, stimulating parts of the brain that dormant during traditional films (seriously).

These facts certainly point to something special, but I've already expressed my skepticism regarding motion-capture technology in film and I'm having a hard time believing that a 3 hour Sci-Fi-Motion-Capture-Alien-Romance-Action-Epic will make a profit, let alone change film forever.

Avatar is released December 18th, 2009.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Inspired by Newsweek's list of 12 UNFUNNY Comedians, I'm going to try and offer a few talented comedians people can turn to when they are tempted by the open arms of a Dane Cook or Jeff Dunham. I'll admit that comedy is a very subjective beast, and I have no doubt that it is supremely difficult to both relate to people and do so in a unique way. Unfortunately, the aforementioned comedians only do one, or none. Here are some of my favorite comedians:

Paul F. Tompkins - Flat-out hilarious. Great delivery, great use of sarcasm. Talks about the most mundane things and makes them a complete riot.
Paul F. Tompkins - Phone Lover

Joke of the Day
Stand-Up Comedy
Free Online Games

Patton Oswalt- While certainly not accessible (or PC), he has unparalleled energy an a self-deprecating style that keeps his cynicism in check.
Patton Oswalt - Liquor Ads

Read Patton Oswalt's biography
Watch Patton Live at the New York Comedy Festival
Find more from this comedian in the Shop.

Zach Galfianakis- His casual, deadpan delivery was funny way before The Hangover and is still funny now.
Zach Galifianakis - Before the Hangover

Joke of the Day
Stand-Up Comedy
Free Online Games

Demetri Martin- While some of his songs are hit or miss, his one liners and notepad jokes are a incredible.

Demetri Martin - Rock, Paper, Scissors

Joke of the Day
Stand-Up Comedy
Free Online Games

Jim Gaffigan- If you don't laugh watching this Hot Pocket bit, you've probably never had a Hot Pocket. HOT POCKET!
Jim Gaffigan - Hot Pocket!

Joke of the Day
Stand-Up Comedy
Free Online Games

Jerry Seinfeld- The MASTER of the Comedic Domain. I've heard he's still performing new material, but his 'I'm Telling You For The Last Time' DVD is probably the best stand-up performance I've ever seen.

Dave Chappelle- Another brilliant, familiar name. While he has been funny on TV and in Movies, he's really at the top of his game with a microphone.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Pirate Radio....errr....The Boat That Rocked....errr.....Whatever

In The Boat That Rocked (hereby known by its American title Pirate Radio, don't get me started on that), a rogue group of radio DJs takes to the high seas to broadcast Rock and Roll to the UK in the 1960's, as it was illegal to do so on land. While it is said to be based on a true story, the creative liberties that Director Richard Curtis (Love Actually) takes with the story make it a far cry from a faithful retelling. Personally, I don't particularly care if the story is true or not, so long as it keeps me entertained. That is where the seas get a bit choppy.

Let's start with the good. The cast Curtis has assembled here is fantastic and includes Kenneth Branagh, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Bill Nighy and that guy from Shaun of the Dead (not Shaun) to name a few. They do well with what they are given, Branagh and Nighy especially. The soundtrack is great as well, using tracks from The Who, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones to great effect throughout the film, mostly in the form of montages. The real problem with this little movie stems from it's story.

I had read that Curtis was forced to trim 20 minutes off the film and slap a "Based on a True Story" sticker on the poster to make the story more appealing for American audiences. I'm here to tell you that he shouldn't have stopped at 20 minutes. At just a hair over 2 hours, the film feels painstakingly long. It takes less than half an hour for the major characters to be introduced and for the conflicts to be established, leaving the remaining 90 minutes to be spent chronicling women that are lured upon the boat and assorted displays of machismo by the DJs. Some of theses scenes work and elicit a chuckle, but none of them add to the overarching story in any way, shape or form. Comic relief is well and good, but when the film dances between music montages, boat parties and the stoic Branagh on the mainland over and over again, it grows stale quickly.

Ensemble pieces like this work best when everyone involved brings something unique to the table, otherwise none of the characters feel fully realized. While it's clear that Curtis attempts to do this, (one guy can't swim, another guy is dumb, etc) they all feel derivative and forgettable. With so many characters to satisfy there is also the risk of trying TOO hard, getting the story convoluted in a slew of sub-plots that distract from the real story. Also contained within this Good vs Evil tale is a coming-of-age story for a boy who never knew his father (Gee, I wonder if he'll find him), a tug-of-war between the two head DJ's (culminating in a lame climbing contest) and of course roughly 93 love stories. Curtis diligently skips back to the main conflict every few minutes, but these transitions feel more and more jarring as the other subplots attempt to take root.

This film, like the ship, has a lot of things going for it from afar: a great cast, an intriguing story, and a bitching soundtrack. Sadly, it takes on water from the start and even the capable hands of Curtis cannot keep her afloat. The only solution to a sinking ship is to ditch the dead weight and man the lifeboats. Instead, Curtis chooses to go down with the ship.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Cormac McCarthy

I know I don't usually address the written word in this blog, but I make exceptions for people like Cormac McCarthy. If you don't know Mr. McCarthy, he is the author of Blood Meridian, All The Pretty Horses and No Country For Old Men, among others. His most recent book, 2007's The Road has been adapted for the screen by director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) and is to be released November 25th. McCarthy is an incredible, minimalist writer who professes no interest in granting interviews or signing copies of his work.  Today's Wall Street Journal features an article that essentially eavesdrops on a conversation that John Hillcoat, Cormac McCarthy and the articles author John Jurgenson had on a Texas afternoon a few weeks ago. 

Something about aging authors makes them a fountain of brilliant, succinct advice that they deliver in a very impersonal way, as if emotions are something you grow out of. That's not to say they are curmudgeonly, but they have no interest in waxing poetic about things that are important to them. They just are. 

One example of this is a from recent interview with Maurice Sendak about the adaptation of his book Where The Wild Things Are: 

Reporter: "What do you say to parents who think the Wild Things film may be too scary?"

Sendak: "I would tell them to go to hell. That's a question I will not tolerate."

Reporter: "Because kids can handle it?"

Sendak: "If they can't handle it, go home. Or wet your pants. Do whatever you like. But it's not a question that can be answered."

News outlets were up in arms with his response, but he is doing nothing but answering the question brusquely, and sparing everyone else the BS. Cormac McCarthy is the same way, though perhaps a bit more tender.

In the wide-ranging interview in the WSJ, McCarthy addresses his next book, the apocalypse, Greek tragedies, his young son, and his interest in theoretical science. I highly recommend it if you are interested in Cormac McCarthy or simply getting inside a great writer's head. The life-lessons that he casually dispenses in it really make you re-evaluate the nature of good and evil and what's truly important. Check it out here.

Sweet Indie Band of the Week: Fanfarlo

I apologize in advance, but this blog post is going to have to be uncharacteristically terse due to extenuating circumstances (Comcast internet that makes me long for dial-up).

Fanfarlo is a London-based band who love their instruments. Their wikipedia page lists violion, mandolin, trumpet, sax, keys, accordion, SAW and GLOCK among their repertoire. Having not been exposed to the smooth stylings of the saw and the glock previously, I can only assume that they are classical instruments and not their traditional forms. This hot mess of a resume makes for gypsy, carnival music that sound virtually indistinguishable from the band Beirut. Which is great, because I LOVE Beirut. I've been told that the rest of their album invites comparisons to The Arcade Fire as well, which has me chomping at the bit to get my hands on it. In the interim, here's their video for The Walls Are Coming Down off their debut album Reservoir.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Wale:Attention Deficit

After releasing 2 fantastic mixtapes (2007's 100 Miles and Running and 2008's The Mixtape About Nothing) and the mixed bag of 2009's Back to the Feature Mixtape, Wale is finally releasing his formal debut album, entitled Attention Deficit. Featuring collaborations with Bun B, Gucci Mane, Pharrel and even Lady Gaga herself, Attention Deficit hopes to simultaneously cement Wale's reputation as an elite underground artist and seamlessly inject him into the pop culture vernacular. Unfortunately, the record feels like Wale forcefully trying to do the latter, rather than allowing his talent to speak for itself.

Several rappers have made careers solely out of tooting their own horn (see LIL WAYNE) and have enough analogies and metaphors backlogged to never need to change the formula. Wale is at his best when he stops worrying about his perception and what is "real" and simply offers engaging wordplay. This is what made 100 Miles and Running and The Mixtape About Nothing so successful. Even though the songs featured a healthy dose of ego, it was balanced with a levity that is missing on Attention Deficit. Maybe that is the culture of mixtapes, and it's over my head, but mixtape's sound infinitely more fun than albums. Relieved of the pressure of coming up with a catchy beat or stuffing in guest verses, Mixtapes allow artists to showcase themselves and be judged solely on their lyrics, for better or worse. Because mixtapes are such a new phenomenon, it will be interesting to see if artists that have enjoyed unprecedented mixtape success (see Wale, Drake, Gucci Mane) are able to translate it into mainstream fame.

Attention Deficit starts promisingly enough with the shimmering Triumph and the jazzy Mirrors, but it isn't long before R&B breakdowns and precious production begins to weigh the record down. While the subject matter on tracks like 90210 (eating disorders) and Shades (dark skinned vs light skinned African Americans) is engaging, they come off sounding like Top 40 ballads, without a single memorable Wale verse. Chillin ft. Lady Gaga offers a refreshing change of pace before the album takes a complete nosedive into the finish line, degrading into Wale sulking over a nameless R&B hook. Wale is at his best when he lets go of his apprehension and has fun, and for whatever reason (pressure? too many guest spots? crappy beats?), this is sorely missing on Attention Deficit. In the meantime, here is W.A.L.E.D.A.N.C.E from 100 Miles and Running.

Happy Chairsday (Thursday)

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Lil Wayne As An Educational Tool

After hearing that my friend CM had worked a Lil Wayne song into a probability Powerpoint Slide, I couldn't help but wonder if Mr. Carter had any other useful nuggets of information to educate our youth through song. As it turns out, there is a WEALTH of valuable lessons to be found in Wayne's discography, and I will share them with you henceforth:

The Alphabet
the hater's on their face and in their ass is a shoe,
faster than you,
badder than you,
radder than you, etcetera
I told you I get paid by the letter like

1,2,3 way
4 4 makes 8
9 times out of 10
It's 11 or a 12 gauge
Friday the 13th
That's the day hell raise
But y'all too weak
Like 14 days

Safe Sex
Safe sex is great sex
Better wear a latex
Cause you dont want that late text
That, "I think I'm late" text

Wait, as I put the light down his throat,
His blood starting to flow,
His lungs starting to grow
This one's starting to show, strong signs of life.
Where's the stitches? Here's the knife.
Smack his face, his eyes open.
I reply with a nice,
"Welcome back Hip Hop, I saved your life." 

I like my tugs baggy and my turf clean.
Check my pattern scheme, 
I probably have on rocks from the moon and Saturn's ring.

I'm probably on a boat feeding a bitch grapes, and crepes.
By the way thats french pancakes.
Da palon france, Tre bien, cason a dor, chor le bien.

Business (Supply & Demand)
And we sell 'em, I know you smell 'em
So if you want it, you could just yell it
Be in the morning at your tele,
Whole keys go for twenty, 

half a key go for eleven, 
after me there will be nothing,

puttin’ it down like gravitys pullin’
puttin’ it down like gravitys pullin’
puttin’ it down like gravitys pullin’ me to the ground

Plea Bargains
And I'll take probation
I dont want that T.I and Vick vacation 

Man, I got Summer hating on me cause I'm hotter than the sun
Got Spring hating on me cause I ain't never sprung
Winter hating on me cause I'm colder than ya'll
And I will never, I will never, I will never Fall

US Presidents
And the bank is here
Lincoln's here, Grants is here
Jackson's here, Franklin's here 

Military Strategy
Salute to all the veterans
And girl your love's like a nuclear weapon
I'm a five star, purple hearter, purple sparker, camouflage
Follow my every command and order
You can just call me Captain Carter
So let the missiles rain on your parade
Cause my love is a soldier
and my heart is a grenade, kabloom
I'll bomb any platoon, just call me World War tune

Who'd've thought that buried betwixt lyrics of women and drugs could lay such valuable information? If only I had a mentor like Weezy when I was a whipper-snapper I could have been something special. 

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Go Forth

COME my tan-faced children,
Follow well in order, get your weapons ready,
Have you your pistols? have you your sharp-edged axes?
Pioneers! O pioneers!

For we cannot tarry here,
We must march my darlings, we must bear the brunt of danger,
We the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

O you youths, Western youths,
So impatient, full of action, full of manly pride and friendship,
Plain I see you Western youths, see you tramping with the foremost,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

We debouch upon a newer mightier world, varied world,
Fresh and strong the world we seize,
Pioneers! O pioneers!

Levi's has been hawking their jeans lately in a series of ads that pair 19th century Walt Whitman verses with images of youthful exuberance. Levi's has never shied away from using art and sex to sell their jeans, having contracted Brad Pitt, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry to direct and star in their commercials over the years, but this ad campaign feels like a shift in philosophy.

Gone are the preening models, alt-rock soundtrack and sexual underpinnings, the antiquated staples of "edgy" advertising, instead replaced by a campfire and general frolicking. That's not to say there aren't troves of shirtless models, but overlaying a crackly, stirring recording over modern imagery allows it to elicit a feeling of empowerment and timelessness. This ad has feels like the modern day equivalent to the Kodak Carousel ad featured on Mad Men during the first season. Mesmerizing, nostalgic, universal.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Mad Men: The Best Television Has To Offer

Mad Men is the coolest show on TV. Sure, that's probably a given from the picture above. It's also the best-written, most consistently riveting and strongest-acted show on TV. I realized this during last nights season-finale that involved major players jumping ship and starting their own advertising firm from a hotel room. Almost every loose end and underdeveloped character is resolved in this process, laying the groundwork for a whole new set of questions.

This episode was everything that a longtime viewer of a series wants to see in a season finale. Things that typically take half a season to develop are solved in a single scene and strained, frayed relationships are rejuvenated in a simple phone call. People who have found themselves being pawns or worse yet, doormats, for much of the series find the strength to stand up for themselves and reap the rewards in a single episode. Surely not every episode can be this compelling, but an episode like this makes you appreciate the methodical pacing of the rest of the season.

The early sixties were a time when the American Dream of a white picket fence and a yard was beginning to fracture, much like the old boys club that had ruled Sterling-Cooper. With the JFK assassination, you could see the ancient walls come tumbling down in the characters faces. Unable or unwilling to change, many will go down with the ship, but the resourceful will find themselves afforded a fresh start from the rubble of their former lives.

Scrooge Revisited

I've been asked to write a clarifying blog post to address what may seem like a hypocritical stance in regards to A Christmas Carol. On Thursday, I wrote a less-than-flattering post that described motion capture technology as fundamentally flawed and that it would "never rise above the sphere of the console." Not three days later, I had shelled out 12.75 to see it in IMAX 3D. You may be asking yourself, (and rightfully so) "What gives Mr. Fancypants?". Well, I'll tell you what gives:

It was my friend MT's birthday and we wanted to surprise her.

That's all she wrote. No wavering feelings about Motion Capture, no uncalibrated moral compass, no loss of integrity. The movie still stunk and I still think motion capture is going nowhere fast. But hey it made 31,000,000 this weekend, so what do I know? We now return you to your regularly scheduled air of superiority.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

A Christmas Carol: A Review

At it's core, A Christmas Carol has always been a story about redemption. A miserly, crotchety old man is forced to come to grips with his shortcomings with the help of three ghosts, conveniently representing his past, present and future. We all know this. We have seen the story told in so many incarnations and permutations over the years, that it is nearly impossible to fathom a new reimagining bringing anything new to the table. That was before IMAX 3D. As I addressed in great detail a few days ago, Robert Zemeckis is processing this familiar tale through his Motion-Capture meat grinder, hoping to enrich the story for a new generation as well as make an exorbitant amount of money. While I'm sure the latter will come to pass, I'm not so sure on the first point.

As I've said before, in order for a movie to be a success, it must tell it's story effectively. By borrowing from such inspired source material, this film is alloted a great head start, so long as it doesn't fall flat in the telling. Casting Jim Carrey as Mr. Scrooge is an obvious decision. Who better to play a rubber-faced looking character than the most famous rubber face in the industry? Credited with playing 8 parts on the IMDB page, he harumphs and scowls his way through each character (with the exception of the younger Scrooge), building the monster that is Ebenezer Scrooge before our very eyes. This is where motion capture as a film device shines. By slapping the rubberized, gruesome layer of motion capture detail over Jim Carrey's familiar mug, a new Scrooge is born. The familiar deadened, glossy eyes that come with Motion Capture somehow add to his character, extinguishing any semblance of humanity or compassion we would certainly see in a live-action rendition of the story. The story is also quite effective in it's action sequences, a portion of this is certainly due to the use of 3D, but credit should also be given to some inspired choreography and imaginative sequencing. Unfortunately, when the film attempts comedy or emotional gravitas, it feels slight.

This is the inherent problem with Motion-Capture technology. It looks too cartoonish to carry emotional weight, but at the same time too realistic for much of the physical comedy to hit home the way it wants to. This is a real problem when the third act of your film needs to pull at the heartstrings and you cast a master of physical comedy as your lead. The technology that was such a strength in painting Scrooge as a face of evil and establishing an eerie atmosphere, now makes the emotional scenes feel like watching wax museum mannequins try and perform Hamlet. Everything looks and sounds real from a distance, but loses credibility the closer you get.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

First In Line: The Carter

So apparently a Lil Wayne documentary was filmed last year, hoping to shed some light on the enigmatic rapper via his own words. The trailer offers traditional glimpses of rap star life, showing hordes of cash and drugs, but matched closely with some sobering imagery of Wayne's demons. Culled from multiple interviews and live recording footage, it seems as though this documentary cuts through the aura of Lil Wayne and drives to the heart of the matter. Shown at Sundance and several other film festivals, it has received glowing reviews thus far. How this wasn't on my radar already is beyond me, but I will be first in line to see this. Check out the trailer below:

Friday, November 6, 2009

Sweet Indie Band of the Week: The Antlers

Taking a page out of the Bon Iver handbook, The Antlers are the once-solo project of Peter Silberman, taking the vocal formula that made Bon Iver such a smashing success and adding a bit more ambiance and if you can believe it, an even higher falsetto. Singing so close to the microphone that you can hear him breathe and his lips open to speak, The Antlers have produced a fantastic, sobering record in Hospice, wrought with emotion and musings about mortality. Below is the music video for their single Two.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Why I Will Not Be Seeing A Christmas Carol

As you've probably already noticed if you have watched live television this year or been to the movies, Robert Zemeckis, the mind behind Back to the Future, Forrest Gump and Castaway, has remade A Christmas Carol this holiday season. Others can debate the merits in remaking a story that has no fewer than 20 IMDB entries to its credit, I'd like to address the use of Motion Capture as a viable film technique.

Two prior films have been released using the "MoCap" process in recent years, starting with The Polar Express (2004) and most recently, the big screen adaptation of Beowulf (2007). Motion Capture involves the filming of live actors performing scenes, and then translating that movement onto a digital model. Different than Rotoscoping (used often by Richard Linklater in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly and those stupid Merril Lynch commercials), the movements of the actors are translated into a purely computer generated model, whereas rotoscoping uses the captured movements as a guide for the hand drawn animation overlayed upon it.

Motion Capture has been the gold standard in videogaming for years because it has several advantages. First, it can capture results quickly, allowing videogame manufacturers to save time and money associated with employing an entire team of CGI engineers. Secondly, and most important for videogaming, Motion Capture technology does a tremendous job recreating facial features and a wide array of lifelike movements which traditional CGI has a very difficult time replicating. This is vital when you are creating a sports game and the athletes need to look and move exactly like they do in reality. However, when motion capture technology goes beyond the realm of videogames, it markedly loses steam.

Issues that you wouldn't typically notice in a videogame, really begin to stand out when you attempt to make a feature length film using motion capture. Most glaringly are the eyes of the characters. I never realized how expressive eyes were until I looked into the eyes of the CGI Tom Hanks in the Polar Express and felt pure terror. For some reason, when you slap CGI skin onto a computer model, the eyes become dulled and hollow, looking eerily like revived dolls hell-bent on killing you and your family. Not a great attribute for a children's film. I think the people involved may have realized this, as they made significant strides in Beowulf, but the facial characteristics still felt a little "off". With A Christmas Carol, it seems as though they gave up completely on recreating faces, instead attempting to make Scrooge look "cartoonish", but really just making him look gruesome. Secondly, every film featuring motion capture has been an adaptation of a book, taking fantastical stories that were successful because they allowed children to employ a little imagination and attempted to root them in reality. In a desperate attempt to reconcile destroying childhood memories, the films have been released in 3D, and feature plenty of gimmicks to distract you from their shortcomings.

There are new film techniques coming out every other week, but at the end of the day a film needs to tell a story effectively. If you want to use professional actors, film the film and use CGI when it's appropriate. If you want it to be more lively, use CGI and let your imagination run wild. Unfortunately, Zemeckis and company have their hands so completely tied trying to make plastic actors look human that they have no choice but to adapt a book and use 3D gimmickry rather than come up with an original, thoughtful story. Until motion-capture can change course, it will never rise above the sphere of the console.