Saturday, April 12, 2014

Mind Bending Among the High-School Cheerleaders

Being a reader of lots of classics and most recently a somber tale of laborious life in North Korea, it's necessary to break it up with some good old-fashioned trash every once in a while.

Dare Me by Megan Abbott is actually relatively high-minded writing and in many ways a psychological tour de force. Because it's billed as "Lord of the Flies cheerleader-style," it also qualifies as a trashy novel about high-school life.

The common-sense-stoked person in the video above describes the story well. I particularly like how she notes that Gillian Flynn of Gone Girl-fame recommends the book and that fans of the classic 80s movie "The Heathers" (ha) will approve.

I'll contribute: Addy and Beth are leaders of the cheerleading squad and their BFF status comes under pressure when Beth becomes jealous of Addy's relationship with their young new coach named Colette. A very bad thing happens (actually, lots of bad things happen, soccer and tennis were never this interesting) that nearly unravels the team and certainly unravels the ties between Addy and Beth. The tables get turned again and again and Abbott (pictured) does a good job of keeping the reader on edge, uncomfortable, and in suspense of what will happen next throughout the nearly 300 pages of the novel.

There is a lot of cheerleading lingo and action that could be trimmed from the story, although Abbott is clearly using it to metaphorical effect and to describe the shifting mindset of the squad girls over the course of the novel. I'm not sure if this book would have been as brilliant without that lingo, but either way, this one is a keeper that will be tough to beat for "best cheerleader book, like, evah."

On a rating, I agree with the reviewer above: **** out of ***** stars

Monday, April 7, 2014

Ratatouille Makes Me Want to Eat Food Cooked By Rats

The filmmakers at Disney have always been brilliant, but they outdid themselves with 2007's Ratatouille, which I thought I had seen long ago, but realized I hadn't upon starting it with Jackson last night.

Its "universal acclaim" status with critics makes total sense since the prototypical Disney evil villain is the food critic Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O'Toole). 

The hilarious script and excellent plot is such a relief in this day-and-age of maximum-overdrive stimulation with most things animated. The film is gorgeous but also simple and elegant.

Remy is a rat with a heightened sense of smell and taste who learns how to cook by watching the most famous chef in Paris on TV and reading his cookbook. He and his rat friends end up engineering the rare feet of pleasing critic Ego with a dish of "peasant food" ratatouille. Linguini and Colette are the chefs who give the film its human elements.

Also quite a feat: Even as I ate dinner while watching, all the rats in Ratatouille didn't ruin my appetite.

***** out of ***** stars

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In a Past Year of Powerful Films, Dallas Buyers Club Stands Strong

Matthew McConaughey may have seemed a bit of an egotistical jerk lately, but if Dallas Buyers Club is an indication, his acting is high art, and he deserves to be a show-off showman.

I would argue that Chiwetel Ejiofor of 12 Years a Slave was royally ripped off for losing the best actor Oscar to McConaughey, but that really shouldn’t take anything away from his performance as Ron Woodroof, a real-life AIDS victim in the 1980s who started a club in Texas for patients seeking an effective drug smuggled in from Mexico that the FDA refused to approve.

The actor’s performance is so powerful because of the transformation he makes from a rodeo-riding, racist drug and sex addict to a compassionate and successful businessman. He lives much longer than he is supposed to, and in that extra time, he forms a deep bond with best supporting actor Jared Leto’s Rayon, a weird transgender woman with advanced AIDS and just enough secret money to help make the Dallas Buyers Club the place to go for sick patients shunned by the mainstream medical establishment.

The story is fascinating, and it’s unbelievable that the script wallowed in Hollywood for years. At one point, Woody Harrelson was going to play the lead role. But once it was green lighted, the actors were all in, with Leto and McConaughey again going beyond the call. McConaughey stayed in his Texas mansion for six months to get pale and weak. Leto stopped eating at points along his way to losing 30 pounds.

I really love this movie. You could say it’s one of the many arguments for universal health care, and that it’s yet another emotional plea from Hollywood for the medical establishment in the U.S. to get its act together.

***** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

John Lennon's "Woman" Kicks Off New Takoma Park Music Meetup

Here's my take on one of my favorite John Lennon solo songs, "Woman" from 1980's tragically concluding Double Fantasy.

I learned it to play for a new meetup group that has formed here in Takoma Park. We bring our instruments and go around the room playing a song with a certain theme.

The first session last Friday was supposed to be a song from 1984-1986, but I didn't get the memo. But I also didn't get kicked out for playing "Woman," which only missed the mark by a few years.

It was a blast, as we drank chocolate wine and sang along to each other's covers, which also included "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," "(Don't You) Forget Abut Me," "If Ever I'm In Your Arms Again," "Karma Cameleon," "Cherish," and "Legs."

I totally think we should do "We Are the World" and each be a different superstar from USA for Africa!

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Deciding What to See? Peabody or Lego Movie?

My six-year-old Jackson and I have started our regular movie adventures recently with The Lego Movie and Mr. Peabody and Sherman. So it only makes sense that he helps me write this double review.

I wasn’t sure if he liked Peabody and Sherman more than The Lego Movie simply because I liked it more, but he genuinely said he appreciated that “they went to all the places around the world” and he likes learning about history.

The general manic level is much lower with Peabody, which my adult brain appreciated. And the humor is wittier, with a deadpan Ty Burrell from Modern Family in the voice role of Mr. Peabody the dog.

About the only thing that’s changed since the skit’s origination on one of my favorite cartoons of all time, Rocky and Bullwinkle, can be summed up in the first thing Jackson looked up and said to me when the movie ended:

Jackson:  "How come Mr. Peabody didn't have that cigarette?"
Me: "You mean his pipe?"
Jackson: "Yeah."
Me: "Pipes used to be good back then, but they're bad now."

That led to a discussion that will hopefully keep him away from smoking for many if not all his years. Between the after-movie discussion and the actual content of the movie, Peabody is certainly far more educational than Lego.

The Lego story revolves around Emmet, an ordinary Lego construction worker who lives by the everyday credo of “Everything is Awesome,” the earwig soundtrack tune by Teganand Sara. Punk girl (and girlfriend of a jerky Batman) Wildstyle mistakes Emmet for someone who can help her save the world from Lord Business’ plan to freeze the world. The movie is enjoyable enough as an action flick with lots of appearances from Star Wars and Superhero characters.

But the treks to hilarious scenes involving the Trojan War, Leonardo da Vinci’s painting process with Mona Lisa, the cake-marauding Marie Antoinette, and King Tut’s unnecessarily violent wedding vows highlight the time-traveling detours towards understanding Peabody’s motivations for adopting a boy and Sherman’s coming-of-age exploits with the barely-likable Penny.

The Lego Movie: *** out of ***** stars
Mr. Peabody and Sherman: **** out of ***** stars

Thanks to Jackson for helping me with his first blog post.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Classic Reads: The Ancient Mariner Turns On Generations of Fantasy Readers

If you’ve ever heard the phrase, “an albatross around one’s neck,” which pertains to certain levels of guilt, then you’ve been touched by one of the most famous long-form poems in history, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The 1798 poem was released to mixed reviews but has since become a staple of high-school and college classrooms. Some of the popularity for that age group is no doubt due to Coleridge’s opium addiction and the wild, fantastical, even trippy visions he presents.

Opium was a difficult topic for Coleridge, who probably wrote the Rime in response to his feelings of haunted remorse from his addiction, which he initially picked up as a pain reliever in a hospital stint.

His high-seas tale is a quick read and was well worth revisiting for me all these years later. It’s the story of an old-gray haired mariner who stops three young men on their way to a wedding to tell them his tale.

The old man and his crew leave port without a care in the world when the wind soon grabs the ship and forces it towards the South Pole. However, a bird, the albatross, appears and seems to guide the ship out of its southerly current and back northward.

The mariner grows tired of the bird’s presence and shoots it, which leads to a feeling of great loneliness in the man. Once the ship reaches the equator, it again stalls. The crew becomes famished and thirsty, and angrily hangs the albatross around the mariner’s neck as a symbol of his guilt.

Still stranded, a mysterious skeleton ship pulls alongside their own and Death boards, killing more than 200 men, all but the ancient mariner, who has to live on to contemplate his sin against nature. 

The dead crew haunts him until, one day, he comments about the wonders of the animals he watches from the ship. The spell is broken, the crew reawakens, and the ship resumes its journey. Another round of fantastical mysticism occurs - arguably not necessary - but eventually the ship is destroyed and the mariner is saved by another boat.

Find the other parts of this ongoing series of "Classic Reads" in the Books section.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

North Korea's Alien Tentacles Illuminated in The Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master’s Son is the best new novel I’ve read in a few years.

Its disorienting series of flashbacks and flash-forwards is like the movie Memento, and the surreal feeling of being in alien North Korea is overwhelming in an almost science-fiction, 1984-like way.

The 2013 Pulitzer Prize winner starts out a little slow. At parts during the first 100 pages, I wasn’t sure I would make it through all 450 pages. But it picked up quickly as the protagonist Pak Jun Do leaves the orphanage where he’s grown up to become a radio operator on a ship that plucks people off Japanese beaches to torture or kill.

An alleged battle at sea with a group of Americans results in a great national tale of how Pak Jun Do fended off a shark while trying to save one of his shipmates. This heroism leads Pak Jun Do to be selected for a diplomatic mission to Texas, and he later becomes one of the few North Koreans to have a knowledge that what it’s like in the U.S. is quite a bit different than what the loudspeakers regularly report to the citizens.

This is the point when the novel truly becomes a page-turner. The Texas mission is deemed a failure and Pak Jun Do’s fellow diplomats are disposed of in a torturously violent fashion that is typical of this often cringe-worthy tale. Pak Jun Do is allowed to live but sent to work in an unbearably harsh prison mine.

Adam Johnson and the cover of his book
He survives this episode and his toughness is noted, as North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Il, summons him to transform into Commander Ga, who was the country’s tae kwon do hero but has gone missing. Ga’s wife is Sun Moon, the country’s most famous actress, and Pak Jun Do/Commander Ga finds himself in a new, again, surreal world. Sun Moon is initially not happy to have a “replacement husband,” but she eventually accepts that it is what the Dear Leader and her country need from her.

Ga, because of his experience with the Americans, is called upon again in a hostage situation in which an American rower has been plucked from the seas by North Korea. Ga finds a way to outwit the Dear Leader during the handoff of this prisoner, who has been tormented by Kim Jong Il in unimaginable ways.

But then again, the unimaginable becomes the horrific stuff of every few pages in The Orphan Master’s Son. By the end, the weirdness of the country is almost laughable, although in reality it is Holocaust-level heart-wrenching. 

Author Adam Johnson has done a brilliant job of capturing the most unknown country on the planet. The Stanford professor visited Pyongyang and a few other parts of the country while doing his research. Even he admits that it’s tough to know too much about the country since ordinary citizens are never allowed to speak to foreigners. But he has gotten us closer to an understanding, and closer to knowing what a strange, different, fascinating, and seemingly harsh place it is.

***** out of ***** stars