Thursday, April 29, 2010

IFF Boston Round-Up Pt. 2

Wednesday's closing night film Micmacs (replacing James Franco's Saturday Night at the absolute last minute for "legal reasons" that are still unclear), the 8th Independent Film Festival of Boston drew to a close in a packed Coolidge Theater. This year featured more than 100 films, of which I managed to view 8 between my two volunteer ushering shifts and my 25th birthday (!!). The festival itself was an incredible amount of fun, and volunteering allowed me to appreciate even more the amount of work that the 6 founding members of IFFB put in every year to make a mammoth undertaking like this possible. Feel free to check out their website or follow them on Twitter/Facebook to make a donation and to stay informed about their regular film screenings during the year. A 100% volunteer run non-profit, they really are in it for the love of movies. Here are my quick reviews of the last four films I saw at the festival. 

The Freebie - Katie Aselton
Stemming from the naive premise that a one-night stand could serve to strengthen a struggling relationship, Katie Aselton directs and stars-in this journey into the emotional, tenuous core of relationships. What could have easily have been another mumblecore, unscripted, cliche snooze-fest, actually goes some interesting places and deftly dances around convention. I was especially impressed with the editing here, with scenes of linear plot development are sandwiched between scenes of the couple in bed, snuggling and joking about the terms of the one-night stand. As the plot careens into darker territory, the contrasting scenes of the loving couple in their marital bed serve to reinforce what a foolhardy decision it was. Aselton also brilliantly uses ambiguity as a tool to build dramatic tension and to share the characters apprehension and shame with the audience.

The Elephant in the Living Room - Mike Webber
The Elephant in the Living Room investigates the rampant and inexplicably LEGAL practice of keeping exotic animals as pets. By exotic I don't mean iguanas and parrots, I mean lions/tigers/bears/OMG. Webber splices newsreel footage of exotic pet escapes/attacks while documenting the day-to-day of Tim Harrison, police officer in Oakwood, Ohio who once raised wild tigers and now spends most of his days tracking and capturing escaped exotic pets. He recounts stories of 20-foot pythons and coming face-to-face with mountain lions, taking the director into the seedy underground of animal auctions and trade shows. Webber also spends  a portion of the film profiling Terry Brumfield, the owner of two African lions he loves like his own children. The conflict between Harrison and Brumfield regarding what is best for the animals is central to the story and what makes it so compelling. There are no easy answers here, as we see Harrison lamenting the fact he is both the hero and the villian in his narrative, and that regardless of his efforts, the animals caught in this tug-of-war always lose. I had a chance to speak with Mr. Webber during the festival about his film and how he was able to make what seemed like a one-sided issue so balanced and complex. It is a fascinating and sobering look at something much more prevalent than anyone would like to believe.  

Solitary Man - Brian Koppelman and David Levein
In Solitary Man, Michael Douglas plays Ben Kalmen, a pompous car salesman who used the prospect of a health problem nearly seven years ago as an excuse to devolve into a miserable human being. He womanizes shamelessly, can't be bothered to make time for his family, and engages in unsavory business dealings. Of course, these situations come to a head when he sleeps with his girlfriend's teenage daughter, loses his car dealerships and is forced to borrow money from his daughter to pay his rent. This sets him up for a heart-warming redemptive third act, that simply doesn't work. Michael Douglas is a fantastic actor, but by the time this film tries to flip our opinion of him, his character is entirely too far down his shallow, pathetic path to simply show up with a bouquet of flowers and have everything fall back into place. I'm all for redemptive story lines, but this film did too little too late. Or rather, dug itself a such a hole that not even David Mamet could write his way out of it.

MICMACS - Jean Pierre Jeunet
MICMACS or Micmacs a tire-larigot as it is known in France, roughly translates to "A shitload of trouble", which is pretty spot-on. The most recent offering from acclaimed French director Jean Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, Delicatessan) after 2004's fantastic A Very Long Engagement. The plot revolves around Bazil (an awesome Dany Boon), a video clerk who is hit with a stray bullet that becomes lodged in his brain. Having been orphaned at a young age when his father was killed by a landmine, Bazil (after being adopted into a rag-tag gang of misfits) makes it his mission to undermine (LOL) the two weapon companies responsible for his tragic life. Visually thrilling and whimsically hilarious, I could best describe Micmacs as Ocean's Eleven reimagined by Michel Gondry starring Charlie Chaplin. It has an incredible blend of slapstick comedy, mischief and heart that is impossible to resist. When you delve into revenge territory in films, you often run the risk of alienating your audience by being too mean-spirited, but Micmacs never approaches that point, and whenever it seems to, it is simply a means to deliver another clever sight gag. I've never been a huge fan of Amelie (it was a bit too cutesy), but Micmacs succeeds in every measurable way. Nearly the best film I saw at the festival, and almost surely better than anything Saturday Night could have brought to the table.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Gear Review: Nike Plus Sportband

Inspired/duped by SS's kitchen-themed "gear" review this afternoon, I thought I'd offer a REAL piece of gear review and poach most of his readership in the process. Also, he never does that Blazing Saddles bit that he references in his post, and I've known him for ten years. Some people just have a blog persona to uphold I suppose. I try to keep it real here at Lollipops and Crisps.

As I blogged about recently, I have been using the Nike Plus Sportband with my new Nike Moto 7's for nearly a month, and feel confident in writing a review of it. As you can see above, it is a stylish, dare I say, SEXY gadget. You simply put the little sensor in your shoe compartment and hold down the sync button when you are ready to run. After a moment, the band will prompt you to walk a couple steps (in order to establish the bluetooth connection with the shoe sensor) and will ask you to press the button again once more, and you're off! The most important step in using the Sportband is to make sure that you calibrate it with a few runs of "known" distances at your normal running pace so it can properly calculate your stride. I only had to do it once (it was nearly perfect right out of the box), and ever since it's been pretty much dead-on. In addition to simply measuring distance and current pace, there is also a "Calories Burned" screen you can toggle through, which may or may not be a gimmick. I did however tell Nike my age and weight when I set up the whole thing, so who knows! This precious data is a double edged sword for the mathematically inclined. First, it turns out that my runs aren't NEARLY as long as had thought they were (oopsie!), BUT I burn way more calories per mile than I thought, and frankly, that's more important. I'll spare you any more number crunching and get deeper into the nitty gritty.

I love that the sportband can be paused instantly with a press of a button and started again just as easily. I love that it has a separate button to toggle through all of your stats and that when you end your run it cycles through them and makes you feel like a trackstar. I love that you simply pop the chip out of the sportband and plug it into your USB port and it uploads your run information into the Nikeplus website. I have noticed that it measures downhill distances as longer than their uphill equivalent, but I suppose it's because my pace is different and because I calibrated it in New Hampshire (which is VERY hilly!). In either case, it isn't a significant difference, just curious. Maybe I should try recalibrating it. While the band itself is pretty awesome, by far the best part of the whole Nike Plus experience is using the Nike Plus website.

I've never been one for gimmickry, but just LOOK at that lil' guy! So adorable. Please, no snarky quips about how my eyes are usually more crazed or that he should be wearing hipster jeans. This is my Mini, and he is in the middle of a little jig that he does when I upload a run. You can also see some other panels that track my pace, my weekly distance and some goals I've set for myself. It is all personalized and updated whenever you upload a new run. It tells me my fastest mile, my fastest 5k, and I can join groups and compete against other runners. I can upload my favorite running routes and see ones that other people have added around my area. You can even use the "coach" setting to help you train. The website itself is very neat and clean, with a tabbed  dashboard to help you navigate. It's a really neat sense of community, and a great way to stay motivated. I especially like the "My Runs" panel that crunches all the numbers for me. (see below). Disregard the first few runs (I was calibrating it) and the tiny run from yesterday (it was raining and I turned around because it was my BIRTHDAY).
All in all, I can't imagine running without the Sportband and the Nike Plus website now. I hate to say it, but I am completely enamored with the little thing. It makes running fun and gives you something tangible to point to for all those days you didn't "feel like it". There's a sense of accomplishment and progress ingrained in this experience that's hard to maintain on your own. I still don't like running in the rain though, I don't care how user friendly your website is.

Monday, April 26, 2010

IFF Boston Round-Up Pt. 1

Being welcomed into the fold of IFF Boston volunteers this year affords a cinephile a glimpse at and a hand in the inner-workings of a week-long, 100+ film strong behemoth of a festival that is entirely volunteer-run and completely non-profit. It's a whirlwind to say the least. Among the spoils that come with this territory is carte blanche to enjoy as many these films as your gluttonous little eyes can handle. Never being one for restraint, I've had the pleasure of seeing several fantastic films thus far. Here's a rundown of a few, the rest to be inconcluded with Part 2 in the coming days.

Perrier's Bounty - Ian Fitzgibbon
Perrier's Bounty is an Irish telling of a familiar gangster tale. Michael McCrea (played by Cillian Murphy) owes a great deal of money to a Dublin crime boss (played by Brendan Gleeson), who is tired of waiting to be reimbursed. He sends in his cronies to shake the money out of McCrea, as McCrea tries to make himself scarce. Unfortunately, his quirky, aloof father and a love interest are making his escape difficult. The performances here are generally solid, but I grew particularly annoyed with self-imposed insomniac father (played by Jim Broadbent) and his redemption subplot. Additionally, the sloppy love story here is ineffective by any standards, and seems tacked on by some studio exec. When the film focuses on the gritty cat and mouse chase it hits most of the right marks, but the whole thing felt overstuffed with cliche subplots. Not a good sign when your film is only 87 minutes to begin with.

Cyrus - Mark and Jay Duplass
I don't think I watched the trailer (linked above) for this movie before I saw it, but if I had I probably would have had ridiculous expectations. With that being said, the film still probably would have surpassed them. What starts innocuously as the story of a lonely schlub John (John C Reilly) being dragged to a party by his ex-wife and best friend (Catherine Keener). Completely hopeless romantically, John makes a drunken fool of himself at the party (in one of the funniest scenes in recent memory), spills his guts to anyone who will listen, yet miraculously strikes gold and gains the affection of Marisa Tomei. John comes on absurdly strong and needy, making the audience grimace at the prospect at his inevitable crash and burn, but it doesn't happen. Instead, the story takes the hilarious route of introducing Tomei's 21 year old son Cyrus (Jonah Hill), who is less than willing to share his mother's affection. The tug of war between the equally needy/pathetic men is unpredictable and perfect, and can best be compared to a Judd Apatow film, but even that feels like a disservice to something with this much heart and laughs. If there is a god, this film will be a massive hit.    

Winter's Bone - Debra Granik
Winter's Bone, 2010's Sundance Grand Winner (and deservedly so) is adapted from a book of the same name that describes a Missouri teenager who is desperately trying to keep her two young siblings and her incapacitated mother afloat as her drug addict/dealer father is on the run. Having placed her families house up as his jail bond, 17-year-old Ree is saddled with the responsibility of finding her father lest her family be thrown out of their home. Displaying incredible poise and determination in the face of hostile and evasive acquaintances of her fathers, Ree goes to incredible lengths to sift through mountain of lies and half-truths to save her family. The washed out and dilapidated landscape captured by Granik and her crew conveys the eerie mood of a small Ozark town, heightening the grave danger Ree is in as she pokes at some unsavory folks for information. Completely gripping with great performances and fantastic execution.  

Down Terrace - Ben Wheatley
Described as a British Sopranos, Down Terrace opens with father and son returning home from a stint in prison, hell bent on finding out those responsible. As the plot starts to take shape, director Ben Wheatley maintains a wry sense of humor, as the two men's bickering is refereed by the woman of the house (when she's not gazing forlornly into the distance). It's not long before the body count begins to rival that of a slasher film, as the two men bludgeon their way down their cast of acquaintances to find the one who wronged them. Needless to say, things take a decidedly dark turn with the characters only leaving their flat to get rid of the bodies. What is most striking about all of the violence is how brutal it is, never glamorized in typical Hollywood fashion with quick cuts and dramatic last words. Bleak and affecting, Down Terrace is a solid entry into the gangster pantheon and that of a supremely dysfunctional family.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Are Video Games Art?

Revered film critic and all around awesome guy Roger Ebert has found himself in a bit of a maelstrom in recent days after concluding via his blog that video games are not, and will never be, "art". He cites a speech from a Kellee Santiago who first attempts to define art and then define the current crop of video games as the early "cave scratchings" for something that will inevitably evolve into an accepted art form. She concedes that no game has remotely approached the level of aesthetic appeal to the works of Michelangelo and Da Vinci, and doesn't bother to try and theorize what it will take for a video game to get there. Her point is, if you agree that there is artfulness in a medium, it stands to argue that one day, a masterpiece will be created within it.

To Ebert's credit, he is as thoughtful and tactful as ever, but I've never seen him as dismissive and curmudgeonly as he seems here, and it saddens me. His arguments that the presence of "rules" and the limited artistic vision in video games keep it forever from rising above the level of chess and Yahtzee. I agree that "rules" seem to be a handicap, but what artist is without them? How many writers buck conventions and decide to write sentences from right to left or omit punctuations marks? How many beautiful songs are devoid of structure and melody? Ebert goes on to argue that because you can "win" a game, it cannot be art, and if it cannot be won, it simply becomes a representation of a "story". This to me, is the curmudgeon Catch-22. You belie games for having rules and structure, but those that have none must be "homages" to greater art forms and somehow lacking. To be fair, the games that Santiago speaks of in her lecture are terrible examples of video games as art. A Grand Theft Auto style FPS is not a productive example, and Ebert is right to deride her assertion that it is.

It seems as though Roger Ebert's evaluation of art is a function of the handicaps that the artist had in creating it. Melies' "A Trip to the Moon" is infinitely more artistic than a video game because it was made over a hundred years ago with limited resources but boundless imagination? I'm not sure if he thinks video games are cranked out in a factory with a press of a button, but he doesn't seem to fathom the attention to detail and creativity that it takes to create a fully-realized digital world. This is surprising, as he knows more about film and the painstaking process of making a film than anyone could ever hope to know. Perhaps he believes that the presence of a "player" in a video game devalues it as an art form because art should stand on its own and this limits the amount of introspection and meaning one can draw from it. I would argue that the act of playing a game is no different than absorbing a work of art through your eyes, and that regardless of the art form, a human element is requisite for it to achieve any meaning.  

For someone who plays no video games (except when SS "needs my eyes"), I am not writing this blog post as a jaded gamer, but simply as someone who is open-minded to the possibilities of a very new medium. In less than a generation, video games have evolved from Pong to this. For Ebert to definitively assert that video games can never dream of being an art form is more than just narrow-minded, it's unimaginative. Ebert is officially old.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010


I will not mention Trader Joe's in this blog post apart from saying that as a kid, I would probably have hated TJ's for two reasons. No Candy (there is candy but it is TJ's candy and a little scary) and crappy cereal. I didn't have my eyes opened to petrified fruit and granola until recently, though I was born with an affection for sugar. Short of pixy stix, children's cereals are the most efficient sugar-delivery system known to modern man, and I tried darn near all of them, thanks in large part to my sleight of hand (putting it in the grocery cart when mom wasn't looking) and my sister's shameless pouty face. This will not be a comprehensive ranking, but a synopsis of the best and worst. I should note that this is not a scientific study and the opinions represented in the blog are those of Michael Dunn and are not reflective of blogspot or pseudo-hipsters as a whole.

Cinnamon Toast Crunch- I sincerely doubt I could choke down a whole bowl of these today, but in my youth, my taste for CTC was insatiable. Impervious to milk, completely saturated with cinnamon and sugar (The Taste You Can See!) and made the leftover milk taste like eggnog. Accept no substitutes.

Cheerios- I couldn't have given two craps about my cholesterol when I was 10, but there's a reason Cheerios are the most popular cereal in America. The complete antithesis of a children's cereal but still so good. Also a nice way to cleanse your palate between bowls of Cinnamon Toast Crunch. People will probably whine about Honey-Nut Cheerios but those people are dolts.

Frosted Mini-Wheats- Have you ever SEEN regular shredded wheat? They are HUGE, and probably taste like munching on a bale of hay. But SACREBLEU just shrink them and dunk them in frosted sugar and you have yourself a slam-dunk of a breakfast cereal. The true measure of a cereal is how it stands up in milk, and Frosted Mini Wheats are BETTER soggy, which tells you all you need to know. 

Magic Stars (Lucky Charms)
When supermarkets reverse engineer (steal) popular cereal formulae, you get Magic Stars, known by most children as Lucky Charms. While the name sounds like 'Lucky Charms' run through some crappy translation service, make no mistake about it, these are the same freeze-dried marshmallows you know and love. Lucky Charms can also be used as an educational tool, as they teach children the value of patience. Save the marshmallows until the end or you'll be left with a bowl of kibble . Also, who do they think they are fooling with NEW shapes?? Hourglass? Pot of Gold?? They all taste the same idiots.

Trix- Trix are cool but this is where caveats start to slip into the list. I have a hard time getting behind Trix because the kids in the commercials are such a-holes to the poor rabbit. C'mon guys, even Wile E Coyote gets closer to catching the Roadrunner than the miserable rabbit gets to tasting Trix. He's going to be so disappointed when he finally tastes it. Another reason why this is so far down the list is because this is my dad's favorite cereal and whenever Mom bought it he would get mad if we ate it so we didn't.  

Reese's Puffs - Reese's Puffs are incredible, and the only reason this is so far down the list is because this is the ONE cereal my mom refused to buy for us. But she couldn't stop my friend's mom's from buying it for them, muahahaha. By the way, more candy companies need to come out with cereals, it's a no brainer guys. Could you imagine Twix cereal? Snicker Puffs? Skittle Crisps? (gross)

Cap'n Crunch/Kix/Chex/Rice Krispies/Corn Pops - I'm lumping all these together because while great, they all have fatal flaws. Captain Crunch scratches the roof of your mouth. Kix is so perfectly spherical that its nearly impossible to eat a bowl without choking. Chex gets incredibly soggy/mushy/disgusting in 10 seconds. Rice Crispies are like eating insect larvae. Corn Pops get too slimy and slippery.

Cocoa Puffs- If any cereal is too sweet, it is Cocoa Puffs. The last thing I want to do after eating a bowl of chocolate balls is drink a glass of 10 Molar Chocolate Milk. There is a limit to sugar that children can handle and Cocoa Puffs found it.

Cookie Crisp- Cookie Crisp has a devout following but I have never seen a single person eat a bowl. Maybe it's a West Coast thing, or maybe Churches buy them when there are communion wafer shortages because that's exactly what they taste like.

Fruity Pebbles - In the land of cereal, Fruity Pebbles are the idiot cousin of Rice Krispies. Oh what's that you say? Let's take the single redeeming quality of Rice Krispies (taste) and replace it with syrupy sweet and strangely tangy fruit flavors that will make you want to brush your teeth and give the rest to the dog.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Review: The Tallest Man On Earth - The Wild Hunt

If you've ever spent time around babbling toddlers or non-native English speakers (I'm not equating the two), you probably know that amidst the wall of incoherence and formidable language barriers, they can stumble upon some pretty profound statements. It's as though their thoughts become distilled out of necessity, reduced to clean, simple declarations. Swedish troubadour Kristian Matsson who sings under the moniker The Tallest Man On Earth, is a master of these arresting phrases, made all the more affecting when you realize he's not singing in his mother tongue. You get the distinct feeling he learned English from watching Days of Heaven and listening to Woody Guthrie albums, assimilating their imagery and vernacular as his own.

This is not to say that his songs are simple. In fact, quite the contrary. Most are a tender whirlwind of finger-picking and his hoarse yowl that threatens to crack at any moment. While Matsson has often drawn comparisons to early Bob Dylan and certainly sounds (and looks) the part, Dylan was never this brazenly assured, preferring a more coy, passive voice that provoked thought over emotion. The lyrics in The Wild Hunt can be as obtuse as Dylan in parts, but are often flanked by a line like this delivered with gruff sincerity:

Cause I'll always be blamed for the sun going down with us all,
But I'm the light in the middle of every man's fall

Maybe it is the blunt European personality that makes his music so honest and raw. Perhaps if Dylan had transcribed his songs in Spanish, they'd match the emotional heft of The Wild Hunt and Matsson's 2008 debut Shallow Grave. Where Dylan took great pride in his ambiguity, Matsson is disarmingly earnest, sometimes to a fault (see the song where he fantasizes about murdering his love's potential beaus and burying them under the garden). If he can make a triple homicide romantic, he's quite the wordsmith. The most rollicking and accessible track 'King Of Spain', finds him weaving a case of misinterpreted love between stories of bullfights and flamenco, furiously strumming throughout. You can't help but wonder: has he even been to Spain, or did he just watch an Almodovar film? The reality is, when it's this great, it doesn't matter.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The subject of child prodigies is an endlessly fascinating one. To be clear, by child prodigy I don't mean child actors. Talented yes, but prodigies they are not. I mean kids like Saul Aaron Kripke who mastered mathematics in grade school and was propositioned to teach his Modal Logic theorem at Harvard while still in his teens. Children whom, for reasons that still confound scientists, master a sophisticated skill set far beyond that of a normal adult. How a five year old Picasso could paint Le Picador while his peers struggled to write their own name is something that defies explanation. Child prodigies are exceptions to the "10,000-Hour Rule" Malcolm Gladwell theorized in Outliers, the assertion that greatness requires ten thousand hours of commitment and "concerted cultivation". Instead, it is as though these children are born with a tremendous reservoir of fully realized talent that is tapped the moment they touch a piano or pick up a paintbrush.

For some scientists, the key to unlocking this mystery lies within the relationship between working memory and the cerebellum, the portion of the brain responsible for development of motor skills. When the cerebellum models an action in the brain of a prodigy, it is quickly looped back into the memory areas of the cortex, creating an unending feedback loop and accelerating the development of these skills. What originated as faulty brain circuitry, instead creates the human-equivalent of a supercomputer, learning and growing exponentially faster than a normal person. For a small portion of prodigies (see: autistic savants), these skills come at a steep cost as they are often accompanied by impaired social skills or other developmental disabilities.

Despite the incredible head start in life that these young geniuses are allotted, happiness and success are far from assured. For every Mozart, there is an Alissa Quart or Bobby Fischer. No less brilliant, but withdrawn from society due to domineering parents and more hours in the studio than on the playground. If anything, the existence of child prodigies reinforces the importance of a balanced life, lest you risk being chewed up and spit out by the only thing you know.

All seriousness aside, some professions are criminally absent from wikipedia's list of child prodigies. Are you telling me the are no 8-year-old dental whiz-kids performing root canals somewhere in Kuala Lumpur? No pint-sized air traffic controllers? No precocious defense attorneys? At least I tracked down the next Iron chef.

Edit: I found the baby lawyer.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Price of Tea

Forgive me for wasting any more bandwidth on something that has already been covered thoroughly by the lamestream* media and is at the end of its newscycle, but someone needs to put these tea-baggers to task. If you aren't aware, yesterday the Queen Bee herself joined thousands of Palindrones** in Boston Common to protest what they profess to be a threat to the very core of Democracy: Barack Obama.

I'm sure they claim to have a platform and issues, but make no mistake about it, the frothing mass of Tea-baggers are not the patriots they claim to be. As the above cartoon so brilliantly lampoons, Tea-baggers have no ideas, as constructive ideas are hard to fit on signs and chant on Capitol Hill. More likely, the 10% of Americans who consider themselves "Tea Party activists" are simply angry, and looking for a cause to channel their fury. What harm could come of that? Well, when many of these "activists" are also racist, sexist bigots  what was once an assembly of "Good Ol' Boys" takes the shape of thinly-veiled KKK rally. The OG tea-baggers would scoff at what is being perpetrated under the guise of "freedom" and "love of country" today.

Perhaps most unsettling through all of this is the calculated way that politicians (primarily GOPers) are becoming ensnared in the movement, hoping to ride their enthusiasm to a win in November, whatever the cost. Many refuse to denounce the reprehensible actions of Tea-baggers at rallies, for fear that retribution will derail their election bids. The parasitic nature of politics has never been clearer than in the slippery words coming from Republican camps when asked if the Tea Party movement may be a little too venomous. They hem and haw, crunch some poll numbers, and then issue a mealy-mouthed statement about "civil disobedience and public unrest", closing with a wink-wink jab at Nancy Pelosi or Barack Obama, the Republican equivalent to the terrorist fist jab. Sadly, until those in positions of power denounce the Tea Party movement as the dangerous and radical mob that they are, weaker politicians will continue to gravitate towards the promise of an easy electoral boost, consequences be damed.

*Seriously Tea-baggers? That doesn't even rhyme.

**THAT is how you do it. And I just made that up out of thin air***

***Copyright MPD 2010.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Consolations of Philosophy

I have a secret. I've been cheating on TBC this month and engaging in some non-required reading. It's nothing serious, and I still have every intention of finishing our "assigned" book, but sometimes a guy just needs to exert some free will and read something that he wasn't ordered to by a group of his peers (ie TBC).  Call me old fashioned, but I've always been a one book kind of boy. I've known folks who can juggle 3-4 books at various stages of completion, but that has always felt cheap to me, as though I owe a book my undivided attention. Maybe this is because I can scarcely focus long enough to read more than ten pages in a sitting, but I'll pretend there's a nobler reason. As such, I've been reading "Consolations of Philosophy" by Alain De Botton with a mix of guilt and defiance.

As a scientist with all the mental trappings that come from a life grounded in physical laws and immutable facts, philosophical constructs have always been difficult for me to wrap my head around. Philosophy is not a discipline that a scientific mind can dip into superficially, wading into some heady concepts but getting out when things get too deep. The very fact that one needs to reach their own 'conclusions' (and I use conclusions very loosely when it comes to philosophy) when it comes to the fundamental questions of life is an intimidating proposition when 98% of what I had learned prior was via textbook and classroom. This is the part where I  play the philosophical Goldilocks. Diving into the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche wasn't especially appetizing, but neither was the spiritual hogwash of "The Secret" and its ilk. Was it too much to ask for a dose of philosophy with a side of practical application? Maybe that's the connection I am supposed to make as a attentive reader, but in all honesty, I needed some training wheels.

Consolations of Philosophy has fit this bill admirably. Not only does it offer thorough biographies of its subjects, De Botton weaves the development of their philosophies and his own confessions into something relatable and fresh. While chapters titled "Consolation for Unpopularity" and "Consolation for Frustration" scream self-help book, the content therein is much subtler than that, preferring to delve into the human condition rather than offer commandments of happiness that you can read in Cosmo. For example, the chapter on frustration invokes the philosophy of Seneca, who acknowledged the fundamental feelings of persecution and injustice whenever the ideal is not met. Instead, stoicism is offered as an alternative, challenging humans to chose 'reason' over 'passion', by understanding that unforeseen things happen, but not resigning yourself to this fact. A utopian view of the world sounds nice on paper, but leads to a blind rage when everything that goes wrong is viewed as a personal affront. In the words of De Botton "We will cease to be so angry once we cease to be so hopeful." It may sound like a defeatist strategy, but in practice it is a liberating realization to know that you are guaranteed nothing but what you do yourself. These are the truths I was hoping philosophy could offer me, and I'm happy to report that this is what Consolations of Philosophy offers in every chapter.  

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review: MGMT - Congratulations

Let's get this out of the way first. Depending on how much Sega Genesis you played in the 90's, you will find the album cover for Congratulations "totally rad" or "laughably bad". I could be even more specific and say that if you've ever reached a "Special Stage" in Sonic the Hedgehog you've probably had nightmares resembling this album art, but I digress. How you respond to this artwork is likely how you will respond to this album when you realize there are no discernible singles to be found here. No 'Kids', no "Time to Pretend" and DEFINITELY no "Electric Feel".

The sophomore album is a complex beast. Bands of every genre have struggled with the age-old question: embrace the elements that brought you critical and commercial acclaim and risk becoming pigeon-holed or defy critics and jump into the abyss on your own terms? I can count on one hand bands who have managed the latter, but they do exist. Arcade Fire expanded their sound on Neon Bible and managed to reinforce what attracted people to them in the first place. The Strokes changed very little with Room On Fire and while it was well-received, the taut formula became unraveled as they tried to break out of it on their third album. Indie darlings Clap Your Hands Say Yeah defied critics (and their fans) most resolutely on Some Loud Thunder, burying the opening track under so much distortion and fuzz that they were nearly DARING you to keep listening, hoping to shake off fair weather carpet-bagger hipsters in the process. Those who persevered were rewarded with a charming album, but the stakes were clear from the first note. You like us, or you don't. If you don't, there's the door. If you do, buckle up.

That seems to be the ride that MGMT are going for here, and the results are as frustrating as they are fleetingly exhilarating. Perhaps the best microcosm of this fact is "Someone's Missing", a 2 minute 30 second piece whose calculated buildup is as thrilling and satisfying as anything The Magic Kingdom can offer, but no sooner does it reach the groovy chorus does it fade out into next track. This mind-boggling abridgment is made even more bizarre when you come across the 12-minute turd "Siberian Breaks" two songs later. Songs that have legs and a direction have said legs cut off before they can even stand, and meandering songs are allotted as much time as they need to stretch out and reach their illogical ends. It's a curious decision, and one that in all likelihood did not come easy.

There are supremely successful (and respected) bands who have embraced the psychedelic in their music (See: Animal Collective, Flaming Lips), so there is certainly room for MGMT to make a career out of their trippiness. Not only do they seem to have no interest in this, if this album is any indication, they seem utterly repulsed by the idea. As I said before, I have no problem with bands taking creative risks with their music, as long as I trust that they know and are confident in what they are doing. Judging from this half-baked mess, I'm not convinced MGMT is drinking their own Kool-aid.      

Monday, April 12, 2010

On Repeat: Big Boi - Shutterbugg

For someone who still gets a lot of mileage out of Speakerboxxx, Big Boi's half of Outkast's 2003 album (Ghetto Musick and Bowtie have managed to wriggle onto every party playlist I've made over the last 7 years), I've been desperately waiting for Big Boi's rumored solo album to see the light of day. While I'm not one to look a gift horse in the mouth, at my count Shutterbugg is the 4th single to come off Sir Luscious Left Foot, which is a little ridiculous. First came Royal Flush well over a year ago, followed by 'Fo Yo Sorrows' and the immensely entertaining 'Shine Blockas'. If the singles weren't so awesome, I would probably be worrying that we had another Rebirth-esque situation (FREE WEEZY), wherein the artist responsible pushes back a turd of an album 5 times until he opts to go to prison to avoid going on tour in support of it.

Thankfully, Shutterbugg is an absolute monster, and is the perfect fix for someone having Speakerboxxx withdrawal. The beat Scott Storch has assembled here for Big Boi is an embarrassment of riches. Booming, chest-rattling bass, twinkling synths and a looped guttural blurp are the ideal conditions for Big Boi to do his verbal double-dutch. Everything you like about Big Boi is on full display here. You love how he spells out G-H-E-T-T-O-M-U-S-I-C-K on Speakerboxxx? He does that here. You love when he channels his inner conductor and pulls the e-brake on the song for no reason whatsoever? That's here too, followed by a hilarious Soul II Soul sample. If this isn't enough for the discerning Big Boi fan, the song finishes with the metallic soul of a vocoder, perfectly complimenting the robotic belches of the bassline. Something for everyone, that is what you can expect from someone like Big Boi, and that is exactly what 'Shutterbugg' delivers.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

How to Win a Cook-Off

As I mentioned last week, I was boycotting the appetizer cook-off, but once word got out that MT (the three-time reigning champion) was not participating and that there would be PRIZES (Starbucks gift cards), I couldn't help but channel the knowledge I had learned from previous failures into one final Herculean push. Come cook with me.

Step 1. Find a good recipe. This sounds simple, but it's actually the hardest part. You want something familiar yet creative, spicy yet flavorful, daring but accessible. I failed miserably by making pumpkin chocolate chip cookies because they were too 'edgy', my soup was delicious but lacked a kick. With this being an appetizer cook-off, the stakes are considerably higher because there are NO RULES. Maybe someone will go insane and make something fancy with salmon or some French word no one can pronounce correctly. Maybe someone will make a hummus that would end the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. My only hope was to find something that played to the lowest common denominator: BACON. The recipe was called Bacon and Tomato Cups, but they may as well had called them 'Bagel Bites for Adults', because that is what they are. It was love at first sight.

Here is what you need:

Bacon, Swiss Cheese, Bruschetta, Flaky Dinner Rolls, Onion (not pictured), some Mayo. It does not look like much, I will concede you that.

Shred cheese and put in bowl. I don't like Swiss cheese, but I followed directions like a good boy because this was serious business. I could not resist sprinkling in some Cheddar, because Cheddar improves everything and we own a bag of shredded Cheddar so big that we could make nachos for everyone within Arlington city-limits. 
This is the bag. See JL for scale. Also, you can't tell from the picture, but his arm is trembling from its weight. 
Then make your bacon. I have never made bacon before. I should have used the microwave, and a lower setting, because bacon grease is hot. Long story short, cook in pan until bacon looks like bacon should look like. Like this:
Once you have cooked all your bacon, it is imperative that you practice due diligence and make the bacon-paper towel sandwich to remove the grease from this animal product that is 87% fat already. I usually scoff when people do this to slices of pizza (HELLO. YOU ARE EATING PIZZA. GREASE IS EXPECTED). I think this is done purely for peace of mind, but I have captured a photograph of it for prosperity.
See. And yes that is a Mojito tool, but I was not drinking. I have never seen that used in my apartment but it is always in the dishwasher or in the sink. It must do other things I am not aware of. That's what she said.
From here you essentially make your own bacon bits. Why didn't I simply buy bacon bits may you ask? Because I'm 'In it to win it', as they say. That and last time LK cooked maple-cured bacon it smelled like bacon in the apartment for the better part of two weeks. It was awesome, but also sad, because every morning I thought there was bacon. 
 Add bacon to cheese. Add Bruschetta and diced onion. Mix until it looks like this. And yes, I know you can see my toe in this picture. 
Beginning to look gourmet. Kind of like an Italian version of Salsa con Queso. If only Italians had chips to dip in it. Get with the program Italians. Hispanics have tortilla chips, the Middle East has pita chips, the US has potato chips, Asia has wontons (do these count?). Get on the chip train Italy. 
Here is where things get real fancy real fast. You cut the biscuits in half horizontally, and then massage and stretch them into a thin circle. Basically pretend you are a giant working in a pizza shop. That's what I did. Once this is done, place the dough into a mini-muffin tin and spoon in a generous portion of the bacon/cheese/bruschetta topping. Not too generous however, because things expand during heating, especially dough (DUH.).
Adorable. And off-center due to yours truly trying to hold the camera with his wrists to protect it from his doughy fingers. Sigh, the things I do for this blog.  

15 minutes @ 375F or 190.5C or 463.65K (if you must) and you will have these cheesy golden brown morsels. They will probably still be ~375F so I recommend waiting a few minutes. I'm not sure if they will win, but I know I will beat MT and honestly, that's all I REALLY cared about the whole time. 

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Classic Movie Review: Paths of Glory

1957's Paths of Glory, one of director Stanley Kubrick's first feature films, tells the story of a French army unit ordered into a 'suicide' mission to take a German command post during WWI. This mission falls to Colonel Dax (played by Kirk Douglas), who vehemently opposes the strategy, but is left with no choice by his superiors. The mission ultimately fails miserably, with a large portion of the French battalion refusing to leave their trenches and be mowed down by German artillery. Infuriated by the 'cowardice' of these men, General Mireau insists on executing a member from each company to serve as an example to the others. Colonel Dax unsuccessfully attempts to defend his men at their court-martial, but they are ultimately executed via firing squad. The film ends with Dax being offered a promotion by his superiors, which he furiously refuses, lamenting the comfortable distance they have from the battlefield.

This film, like Citizen Kane and other masterpieces of the black and white era, feel completely timeless in its scope and execution. As Orson Welles premiered several revolutionary film techniques in Kane, Kubrick is equally innovative here, bringing his camera into and through the trenches, tracking backwards through the narrow corridors. He also engineers ingenious shots with both foreground and background action, much like the frame below:

Say what you will about Kubrick's notorious perfectionism and his short temper, but the proof is in the pudding when something like Paths of Glory is as fresh nearly 60 years later as it likely was in when it was released. Unsurprisingly, the film's negative portrayal of military personnel and the shallow decision making process that was more rooted in the strategy of scoring a promotion than winning a war was not well-received  throughout Europe. It did not premiere in France until 1975, and Francisco Franco of Spain managed to keep it out of Spanish theaters until 1986. These days, it is regarded as one of the most accurate and affecting portrayal of war ever made, and is preserved in the National Film Registry.

In less than 90 minutes, Kubrick achieves what films like Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line only hint at in nearly double the running time. The utter absurdity of war and the disconnect between those giving and those carrying out orders. The pawns of war are human lives and this disconnect only grows larger today. Superiors never see the effect of orders on their troops and troops themselves rarely see the consequences of their own actions, often firing ballistic missiles remotely, leaving others to survey the carnage. While Kubrick doesn't specifically indict the blood lust that accompanies war, he certainly condemns the 'just following orders' defense, as a heroic character refuses to fire on his own men after direct orders from a furious General Mireau. It is this abandonment of principles that Kubrick is most disturbed by and where his sharpest critiques lie. While order and obedience are valuable qualities in a military, what good are your values if you stifle them when you need them the most?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Periorbital Hematoma

As of Saturday morning, I have been the proud owner of my very own periorbital hematoma, or 'black eye'. The circumstances surrounding this black eye are embarrassing and irrelevant. It was an unfortunate accident that could have happened to anyone*. Long story short, I boinked my head on the edge of a bathroom mirror. What I am interested in is why such an innocuous event that maybe, MAYBE would have left a bruise anywhere else on my person has bloomed into something that looks like I was curb-stomped by Lady Gaga in these.

Wikipedia says that a black eye is bruising around the eye due to an injury to the face and then name is due to the color of the bruising. WOWEE!! It's Wikipedia articles like this that keep High School teachers from allowing kids to cite 'Wikipedia' in their term paper bibliographies. The article goes on to say that the reason a black eye looks so horrifying is two-fold. One, because your eyes are so fatty (not mine because I work them out 5x a week) and two, because of GD gravity. Gravity pulls blood down into your eyelid allowing it to accumulate. When this blood is reabsorbed, you get the beautiful black+blue. Does this mean that astronauts cannot get black eyes? I've never seen one with a black eye, but maybe that's because they are so disciplined/can't drink on the spacecraft.

Wikipedia also claims that black eyes go away in about a week. Amongst treatments for black eyes, Wikipedia had this to say about pressing raw animal flesh into your eyeball. Here is the exact quote:

"Putting a raw steak on a black eye (an old wives' tale) has long been known to have medicinal value. Putting potentially bacteria-laden meat on a mucous membrane or an open skin injury is fully advised."

Hmm...kind of counter-intuitive, with all the diseases in raw meat these days and that your eye is pretty much a direct line to central nervous system, but I'm sure Wikipedia did their research.  As it turns out, the linked source for this information on Wikipedia has this to say:

"Do not put a steak or a piece of raw meat on a black eye. No scientific evidence supports this treatment. Putting potentially bacteria-laden meat on a mucous membrane or an open skin injury can be dangerous."

This is why I have health insurance and don't get medical advice from community-maintained encyclopedias. Thanks Wikipedia, for nearly giving me Eye-Coli. ;)

*anyone half-drunk at 5am looking for a bathroom in a dark apartment

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

On Repeat: Darwin Deez-Radar Detector

If there were ever a case where I would implore you not to judge a book by its cover, it is with Darwin Deez. Yes, I agree he looks like one of those kids who grew a mustache before anyone else in High School with a bunch of curly parsley affixed to his head. And don't even get me started on the music video for 'Radar Detector'. It features every hipster requisite in spades. Oversized old Sweaters? Check. Green Screen Dancing? Check. Junk-Heap Inventions? Check. TYPEWRITER TYPING ITSELF?!?! Check. You will want to hate Darwin Deez, but you can't.

However insufferable his shtick may be, he sells it with genuine and enthusiastic naivete. It doesn't hurt that the song is one of the catchiest I've heard this side of Lady Gaga. Great chord progressions, great interlude, brisk pacing. There's no denying the comparisons to early-Strokes, but where The Strokes were steeped in everything New York City, I'm not sure Darwin has ever left his apartment. His music is all the more endearing for this, more interested in constellations and scuba-diving than scoring drugs and chasing tail. Different strokes for different Strokes.