Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dancing

Dear October 2011 weddings,



I plan to be able to step on the dance floor and not look completely white when we meet. See you then.



Cordially,

-Joe



Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Movie Reviewed - No Strings Attached

You might be shocked to find out that No Strings Attached is one of only three movies I've seen in the theater this year (the others being Super 8 and the final Harry Potter movie). Less shocked when I tell you I saw it with a girl. The thing is...it might have been the best of the three (we can get together and talk about how disappointed we were in the final Harry Potter movie some other time).



The movie stars Natalie Portman and Ashton Kutcher, and the premise is simple enough to ascertain: they want to bang, no strings attached. Or at least, things start that way. It wouldn't be a movie if it worked out, so obviously someone starts getting, well, attached. Then there's romance and sweet moments and humor. I mean, it's a romantic comedy, you basically know what it is before you start watching it.



Part of what made this movie really good was that I didn't have any sort of expectations of it being anything spectacular, precisely because it was a romantic comedy. But Portman and Kutcher are equal parts adorable and hilarious, and the supporting cast is phenomenal. I'd cite specific examples, but to mention everyone who contributes positively would take several more pages than I'm comfortable writing in a single blog. Suffice it to say, all of the ancillary characters serve their purposes beautifully, from comedy to companionship to the necessary frustrations of any film romance.



The one thing that detracts a little bit is that Kutcher doesn't do a great job of convincing the audience that he's weighed down with his emotions. He's romantic, but mostly just in a casual, friendly, funny kind of way. I don't ever feel like he's losing himself in the romance; he's just a willing participant. So when the story has its more poignant moments, they're carried by Portman's character, which isn't a bad thing (more screen time for her is always good), but makes you care a little less about whether or not they get together at the end of the movie.



Kutcher's lack of depth aside, though, this is a very, very funny movie. I'd recommend it to anyone who likes romantic comedies, or anyone who likes comedies and can at least stomach some romance. I haven't seen Friends With Benefits yet (like I said, three movies in the theater), but my exceptionally positive experience with No Strings Attached has me thinking I'd better find a way to watch it.



The Last Word: Funny, funny, funny. Oh, and Natalie Portman looks GOOD.



Monday, August 15, 2011

Movie Reviewed - Rock Star

I remember seeing commercials way back when this movie came out, and thinking it'd be fantastic. I've never really been one to go to the movies much, though, so I never ended up going to see it. Time passed, and someone gave it a fresh and emphatic recommendation when I came across it as an available movie to watch instantly on Netflix. So on a lazy Sunday, I gave it a chance.



It was...fine?



Mark Wahlberg plays Chris, a singer in a tribute band who gets the opportunity of a lifetime when he's extended an offer to join Steel Dragon, the band to which he played tribute. It's a fairly pedestrian story that we've seen a few dozen times: the rise to fame, falling into bad habits, losing touch with loved ones, suffering disappointment, and later finding some level of redemption. There are precious few surprises to be found in this film.



That doesn't make it bad, though. Wahlberg really is quite a good actor, and he again does well in Rock Star. Jennifer Aniston plays Wahlberg's girlfriend/manager, and she does very well at capturing both sides of her character's feelings towards the protagonist: she loves him and helps him harness his talent, but also gets frustrated with his foray into the prototypical "rock star" lifestyle. The secondary characters are useful, but usually a little over the top. It came across a little spoofy, but still entertaining.



It was perfectly fine, and interesting enough to keep my attention for the duration. I don't know how my friend watched it and felt so strongly about it, but that's neither here nor there. The end result was a solid movie, though not spectacular. I don't regret putting the time in to watch it, which is as much as you can hope for out of a random movie.



The Last Word: Fantastic? No. But entertaining enough to kill a couple hours.



Friday, August 12, 2011

Movie Reviewed - Visioneers

Within the first few moments of this movie, I knew it was going to be weird. It's set in a mostly modern but slightly futuristic America, where a particular company holds vast influence over its employees, and in fact most of the country. The company pushes for productivity above all else, telling people that they'll be happy if they're productive.



Zach Galifianakis plays a middle manager named George Washington Winsterhammerman, who comes in to work one day and discovers that one of his employees exploded. Yeah, kaboom. Turns out, he's not the only one, though. There's an epidemic of explosions going across the country. The explosions seem to happen to people who have trouble staying "stable" within the rigidity of the their super-structured lives.



GWW notices that he's experiencing some of the same symptoms that are being reported as precursors to explosion (things like dreaming or over-eating), and he tries his best to quell them, but he finds that he can't overcome these "symptoms," and starts to re-evaluate his whole existence.



It's a difficult movie to describe, because it's kind of funny, but doesn't really make you laugh. And for certain the creators of the movie had some kind of real-life critique in mind, but the metaphor is a little fuzzy. On a vague level, it's obviously about resisting conformity, but it's done in a kooky enough way that you're not sure if that's the actual intention of the film.



Still, Galifianakis is entertaining, and utterly believable, and the rest of the cast is strong and effective as well. And as I said, it does have a good humor to it, despite a lack of real "jokes." And the end, while a little confusing, does leave you with a sense of hope, or happiness, or some other positive feeling that is, as of right now, indescribable.



The Last Word: I don't think I'd go out of my way to watch it, and I'm not at all surprised that it wasn't widely released in theaters, but it's a solid movie for a Tuesday night if you've got nothing better to do.

Book(s) Reviewed - Shadows's Edge and Beyond the Shadows

I learned a little something as I tried to start writing my review of Shadow's Edge; it's tough to create distinction in your discussion of books in the same storyline by the same author. The Night Angel trilogy (which began with The Way of Shadows) has three books, like most trilogies. But the second and third books are just sequential progressions from the same original story. The writing styles are identical, the characters are mostly already developed, and neither can be good (or bad) without the other also being good (or bad).



As it is, they're both pretty good. The original story focused mostly on the main character, Kylar Stern, and while his story was compelling, I think stories do well when you care about many characters, not just one main guy. In that regard, the second book and particularly the third offered a considerable upgrade. I'll now talk about them individually.



Shadow's Edge



The second book was exactly what you'd expect out of a second book. We learn much, much more about the ancillary characters who seemed interesting but about whom you didn't learn anything in the original book. We also see Kylar develop from his panicked, nervous youth into a formidable (but still pretty emotionally unstable) adult. And maybe most importantly, we have three villainous "entities" (you'll understand if you read it) developed for us who take us through the remainder of the series.



Like most middle issues, the main characters face considerable hardship and sorrow over the course of this book. The author does a good job of making you a little bit incredulous at what happens. Like, "Hmm, I wonder how they're gonna get out of this...OH. They're not." And though some of the deaths are definitely disappointing, they add a degree of unpredictability to the book, and they're all useful for pushing the story forward.



One thing that struck me as strange, though not necessarily in a bad way, was that this book could've been an ending, rather than a transition. The story culminates in a pair of great battles, and a crucial character is slain. But the story leaves enough unresolved that a third book makes good sense.



Speaking of...



Beyond the Shadows



The most satisfying part of the third book was the three...well, I don't know what you'd call them, but they're these three guys who are all incredibly powerful, and only get minimal exposure in the first two books. They remind me of that Simpsons episode where the Italian mob gets in a fight with the Asian mob, and there's the little guy in the white suit who's just standing there until the Simpsons go inside, and Homer's like, "But the little guy hasn't done anything yet!" Well, the little guys end up pretty damn big when this trilogy comes together.



Kylar Stern ends up being marginalized a little, because the grand scheme is so, well, grand. But he plays his part well, and the book becomes more of an orchestra of events, rather than a trio as the first two play out. Without reading the first two, you'd be completely lost and mostly apathetic about the characters, but with the long buildup, the last quarter of the book is a frenzy of excitement, drama, and emotion.



Overall Thoughts



If I had one complaint, or not so much a complaint but a slight drawback, it's that for the first half of the first book, there's almost no mention of "magic" or anything supernatural. Then you get hints and references, but nothing overwhelming. But by the last book, everything is magically charged, half of the main characters are casting spells, and you get the impression that anybody who isn't magically talented is kind of useless. Things don't necessarily play out that way, but it feels weird when anyone "normal" is able to contribute.



Don't get me wrong, I have no problem with magic. The Harry Potter series is one of my favorites (or rather seven of my favorites), and my movie and video gaming preferences include plenty of spells. I just prefer that magic be more balanced, less powerful, or more costly. It basically ran things after the first book, and that was somewhat frustrating at times.



Overall, though, I enjoyed the series a lot. It wasn't a cathartic experience like Harry Potter or Hunger Games, but it was entertaining, and it helped me get back into a mindset where I want to read books. And what else could you ask for out of a book?



The Last Words: Both books were compelling, and by the third book there were many characters who you really did care about. The second book was a little more depressing, and the third was a little too "epic," but neither to the extent that it wasn't well worth the read.



Top 500 Songs - Dave Matthews Band

This was always going to be the hardest of my band lists, because I like so many of DMB's songs, and have liked them so differently over...