Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Psychopaths and Philosophy (otherwise known as House M.D.)

I’m a big fan of House, and although its “case of the week” format can be repetitive at times, I like the way the writers use the cases to talk more concretely about philosophical issues. This week we were introduced to a psychopath who apparently had a copper deficiency (to which I say, can we cure all psychopaths with copper? For real?). At one point, House is talking to said psychopath and in the middle of typical House/patient banter, the psychopath says something to the effect of “a conscience is just an instinct.”

Now, if the following ranting doesn't prove my brain works way too much on pop culture, I don't know what will, but my brain has been stuck on this random line of dialogue for two days. Because, if a conscience is an instinct, why does it seem like I’m often surrounded by people who don’t have one? Is it some weird genetic deficiency (that can be cured with copper!)? And if it is an instinct, that doesn’t mean I have to act on it, which means I could act against it. But when challenged, we revert to instincts, so wouldn’t everyone naturally act with a conscience if that was that case?

I guess I’m having trouble getting my head around this because I had a conversation with someone recently that went, “yeah, I made this choice because and in the end it was the wrong choice and hurt a lot of people but I don’t feel bad about it.” And I just don’t get that. I feel bad about choices even when I make the right choices, let alone the wrong ones. So either I have some weird biological makeup that makes me interpret the world this way, or it’s the Catholic guilt thing socially constructed over time. Or I could be an alien. It’s possible.

Sorry this is SO not like my usually insightful and directed posts. It’s Wednesday, and my brain hurts. If you can help me clarify any or all of the above randomness, please comment.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

American Idol is Back!

At this point in pop-culture history, I’m apparently really, really old. American Idol is consistently appealing to 30+ year old people like me and 8-12 year olds. Anywhere in between, and this show just doesn’t register on the radar. Which is a little odd for me, because I’ve always been able to talk AI with my students, and now they are oddly curious as to why I watch what they perceive to be an antiquated bunch of nonsense for old people. Because, at some level, they still think I’m cool, and not old. Which is sweet, and not entirely accurate – because I am old, and I am a dork.

Anyhow, audition season is back. I rarely watch the audition section of AI because in the past few years, it has continued to disappoint in disastrous proportions. It started as a way to introduce major players to the competition, but in the last few years, the “let’s make fun of idiots” took full control of these shows to the point that you were lucky to see one good audition in an entire hour. And in many ways, let's make fun of the queerest of the odd balls, which really, really irked me. I think after the criticisms last year, they’ve adjusted by cutting the tapes more equally – so we’ve seen some fairly balanced coverage of the fantastic and the abhorrent, most of whom are not exhibiting what we would call stereotypically queer mannerisms.

So far, my take is this – Paula is not missed at all. Kara is less annoying and makes sense sometimes because she doesn’t have Paula to look equally annoying and crazy with. Simon is being nice…maybe because he’s out of here? Randy is losing more and more vocabulary by the year. There seem to be an awful lot of country singers making it through with golden tickets – time for the show to find Carrie Underwood #2? And next week Neil Patrick Harris guest judges, but apparently splits time with one of the Jonas brothers. I cannot, cannot quite get my head around how that’s going down.

But my favorite part of AI coming back is not the show, the competition, or whatever else FOX tries to cram down my throat – it is my folks over at Television Without Pity who never fail to disappoint by providing hysterical recaps on the show. It’s a carefully balanced love of pop-culture and all things fandom with a critical, cynical vision of the entertainment industry and what it does to people. Needless to say, I can spend hours enthralled on that site, but the AI recaps are by far my favorite. I look forward to them every season! Check them out - see if they recap your favorite shows.

Monday, January 18, 2010

To Twitter or Not to Twitter?

I finally got my first official invite to Twitter -- from my sister-in-law, a woman who rarely answers her cell phone and doesn't use the internet for much other than email. It's odd she would be the first person to ask to "follow" me. But here's the thing - I don't have a Twitter account and it just seems like one more thing to keep up with that I will ultimately fail, dear readers, what's the point? What benefit do I get from Twitter that I don't get from blogging or Facebook or email or any of the other technologies that have taken over my life? Discuss.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Holiday Films: Take Three!

Finally, after weeks of waiting through this “limited release” crap, Up in the Air appeared in theatres. I’ve been looking forward to this film for several reasons – most notably, it’s directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed Thank You for Smoking and Juno) and okay, sue me, George Clooney’s in it. The man is too charming for words when he’s on screen. And if you haven't seen it yet, there are major spoilers in this review.

The film chronicles the life of Ryan Bingham, a “terminator” (or career transition counselor), who spends his days flying into companies to deliver the bad news about layoffs to a variety of American workers. Given the current economic recession, it’s a timely topic that most viewers will be able to identify with. In the process, he trains a young protégé, Natalie, who is the HR director you’d never want to have – completely dependent on technology as a crutch to distance herself from interpersonal interaction. He also meets Alex Goran, a charming business woman who lives a fairly nomadic existence and seems to speak his language.

From the trailers, it looked like another romantic comedy in the vein of Juno, but this film is about romance sort of like Schindler’s List was about hope. It’s incredibly cerebral. The narrative conveys an omnipresent postmodern sense of alienation in an age where interpersonal relationships are messy and untrustworthy. Clooney’s character spends the film in pursuit of flying 10 million miles so as to reach elite customer status, the underlying tone of which screams “corporate America is the only entity that values honor and loyalty in relationships!” But just as you’re drawn in by this message, Clooney is out on prowl to downsize more people, most of whom weep about their loyalty to a company and its caviler dismissal of their self-worth.

I get the sense that Reitman is maturing or becoming more cynical, take your pick. His previous efforts offer at least some semblance of redemption for his leads (though not always for his supporting characters). There is no redemption for Bingham – he constructed his life with a series of choices, all of which led him to this particular path, and when he tries to break free of it, finds there is no exit ramp. He’s trapped within the confines of an existence separated from true emotional connection, and at the end of the day, instead of offering yet another representation of a man in crisis who is able to rise above and change, Reitman says, “you can want to change, but really, you probably never will.” It's a far more realistic take on understanding ourselves as actors within a social context. I mean, who hasn't spent hours or days or years thinking about changing to find that even if and when you do make changes, those around you already have fixed perceptions of you that are outside your realm of influence?

The film also functions as a metaphor for the ways we use technology to hold others at bay by culturally distancing ourselves from “unpleasantness” in relationships through whatever means possible. The characters routinely use technology to deliver to their bad news rather than dealing with the situation in person - breaking up or quitting a job through text messages, videoconferencing with employees you're firing, etc. It says a lot about conflict resolution in an age where interpersonal skills are lacking and in a culture that is over-litigious.

Certainly, there are criticisms – perhaps the biggest being the showdown scene between Ryan and Alex. It’s oddly cut for some reason, and given the chemistry between the two actors in all of the other scenes, doesn’t quite ring true. Granted, Ryan doesn't ask a single personal question of Alex the entire movie, so you can sort of see the bad news coming - but it also doesn't make a whole lot of sense that she rearranged her schedule to go to his sister's wedding. The only thing that really saves it is that neither party is really to blame (though the film, or just Clooney's likability, seems to paint him as the victim) – Ryan is led on, so we blame Alex, but really, one could say that Alex chose him because of the person he was...and Ryan at the beginning of the film was absolutely the cute guy you have an affair with, no strings attached. One person wants to change, the other doesn't. At the end of the day both parties are to blame. Oh, and that conversation takes place over a cell phone. Not in person. Go figure.

There are also some editing issues near the end of the film that simply don't work - it seems like they cut 15 minutes that seemed like it was a good idea, but in reality probably wasn't. The scene where Jason Bateman asks Clooney about a termination that results in the death of one of the employees let go was awkward and forced. And then of course, you have the suspension of disbelief thing – 10 MILLION miles? You assume he's working in the U.S., so stays in the U.S., and at best, a flight from New York to LA racks up about 3000 miles. He's stationed in Omaha, which is about equal distance from either, meaning his average flight can't be more than about 1500 at a time, one way. So if we work with the 3000 number (being generous), and assume he flies at least one round trip a day (which isn't realistic as most of his meetings must take a day or two), he'd need a good ten years to amass that number of miles. It's within the realm of plausible, but hard to fathom at the same time. As long as you go into it knowing it's metaphorical, it's enjoyable, but if you spend too much time thinking about the nuts and bolts of Clooney's supposed job, you'll end up seeing the trees and not the forest as it were.

In all, it’s worth seeing. It will have you thinking long into the next day about the current state of our culture and wondering what choices you've made that cause alienation in your own life.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #1

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#1 – David Gray: Draw the Line

A lot of waiting, but here we are at the top of my list for 2009! Words simply cannot describe how much I am in love with this album. I’m by no means a die hard David Gray fan. I was enamored with White Ladder and somewhat underwhelmed by his subsequent albums, which seemed more one note and less complex in terms of a holistic narrative. Draw the Line explores memory, time, relationships, and the connection we feel to the present even when we’re bound by the past. The songs are serious narratives about the dangers of relying too much on ones' own perception, the joys and heartaches of living for the moment and the potential for transcendence. In a way, each song functions as a turn of the kaleidoscope - Gray is always looking at the same end, but the paths leading toward and around it are varied, depending on the moment. It’s the kind of album I can listen to five times in a row without being bored of the material, and every listen provides a new turn of phrase or interpretation.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “I am a sudden and quite unexpected twist.”
  2. “Moses had his tablets, yeah. Noah had his ark. But all I’ve got’s a haystack needle, stabbin’ in the dark.”
  3. “We can rise above our pettiness and love like we ain’t loved before. Free on this earth as the surf that rolls, crashing on the shore.”
  4. “Names beneath the lichen on these cemetery stones, and carnivals of silverfish waiting to dance upon our bones.”
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Jackdaw 
  2. First Chance
  3. Breathe
  4. Stella the Artist

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #2

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#2 – Train: Save Me, San Francisco

I’ve always had a soft spot for Train, but I’ve always wanted them to make an ALBUM – not trade on several good singles with some so-so filler. This album is what I always thought they could do from the brilliance of popular singles like Drops of Jupiter and Meet Virginia to lesser known gems like I Am and Save the Day. Through a variety of styles (from simple acoustic guitar in Marry Me to the brilliant mash up with the Doobie Brothers’ Black Water in I Got You), it paints the many facets of love on the canvas of San Francisco – the bay, the food, the wine, the cable cars. Maybe that's why it rose so high among my favorites this year since I'm convinced that San Francisco is the most romantic place I've ever been (screw Paris, they got nothin' on San Fran).

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “An open bar can open your mind.”
  2. “We were way before our time, as bold as we were blind. Just another perfect mistake, another bridge to take on the way to letting go.”
  3. “I never knew all that I had, now Alcatraz don't sound so bad…at least they'd have a hella fine merlot.”
  4. "You throw me in the fire just to save my life a pretty little liar, when I call you out you'd rather put up a fight than just come clean."
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. This Ain’t Goodbye
  2. Marry Me 
  3. You Already Know 
  4. I Got You

Monday, January 11, 2010

I <3 Neil Patrick Harris

It’s hard to believe my favorite little sitcom is airing it’s 100th episode tonight. Here's to many, many more!

*updated after viewing* 

Brilliance. Sheer brilliance. I do feel bad for Hannigan since she's clearly NOT a vocalist (it's not really Radnor's cup of tea either), but how awesome was it to see the Glee influence here?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #3

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#3 – Dave Matthews Band: Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King

To be honest, I thought DMB was over. Absolutely defined a lot of my undergraduate years (Under the Table and Dreaming, Crash and Before These Crowded Streets were party favorites regardless of the personalities in attendance), but recent efforts after the turn of the century like Busted Stuff and Stand Up failed to capture the "GrooGrux." So, I wasn’t going to buy this album, but then after a couple reviews from trusted music friends, I did – and boy am I glad. DMB is back in true form on this album, with emotionally charged lyrics and complex musical layering. Tim Reynolds returns for the first time since Before These Crowded Streets, and it's obvious his presence impacts the quality of what shows up on this album. The energy and passion in upbeat tracks such as Shake Me Like a Monkey and Why I Am is carefully balanced with the soothing comfort of the slower tracks like Lying in the Hands of God and Dive In. It’s a wonderful tribute to LeRoi Moore, who is missed but not forgotten as part of this collection.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “I like most liquor, but I don’t like gin.”
  2. “Confess I'm not quite ready to be left, still, I know I gave my level best.”
  3. “Though we would like to believe we are, we are not in control, though we would love to believe.”

Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Alligator Pie
  2. Dive In
  3. Time Bomb

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #4

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#4 – Kate Voegele: A Fine Mess (Deluxe Edition)

Like many, I discovered Voegele through my obsession with One Tree Hill. Her first album, Don’t Look Away, released in 2008 was one of my favorites – perhaps because its messages about messy relationships, struggling to find oneself, and inevitable heartache spoke to where I was at that point in time. She captured the same with this album, a smooth transition from the angst of the first album into a more detailed look at relationships gone wrong and the identity crisis that ensues in their demise. The upbeat pop tracks are fun, but Voegele is at her best when the bluesy tone of her voice shines through in the tracks that will clearly never make it to radio play. It's introspective about the past, mournful of what we've lost, while at the same time hopeful for the future and what it might hold.

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. “If fear was money you’d be a millionaire, all alone in a leather swivel chair counting stacks of gold.”
  2. “This is so you, this is what you do – You'd rather make do than make a move.”
  3. “Those who get to know our hearts the most, they always seem to be the ones we'll never hold.”

Favorite Tracks: 
  1. Manhattan from the Sky
  2. We the Dreamers
  3. Sweet Silver Lining

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Top Five Albums of 2009 – #5

*This is part of a series of posts, please refer to the parent post for context*

#5 – Patent Pending: Attack of the Awesome

I happened on this album from a student recommendation – we were chatting about music and I mentioned that I like what I call "pop-punk" to which he said, have you heard of these guys? I hadn’t, but I’m SO glad I know about them now! This little album runs under 30 minutes, but it’s a great 30 minutes. Patent Pending reminds me of some of the earlier pop-punk bands that had something to say, cut out a sound and ran with it (think early Fall Out Boy before they entirely sold out to mediocre writing designed for the lowest common denominator of radio play). It’s fun, catchy music that has something personal to say about life in your early 20s without being glossy and overproduced. I really enjoy how they tell emo stories in a way that transforms generic anger and angst into something upbeat and sarcastic (Dear Stacy I Hate You is probably the best example of this).

Favorite Lyrics:
  1. "You always let me down with such grace and precision."
  2. "She's giving up her motivation for a black backpack full of her frustration."
  3. "So what's another word for I hate you? What's the right pronunciation for complete abomination?"
Favorite Tracks: 
  1. The Way You Make Me Shake
  2. Hey Six
  3. Anti-Everything

Top Five Albums of 2009 – Intro

I’m a little late getting to my yearly review of music, mostly because I’ve been debating the finalized list. In general, for me to consider an album one of my best of the year, it must meet some criteria: A) it has to be released in the year I’m reviewing and B) I have to like the WHOLE thing – appreciate the story the artist is trying to tell and fall in love with it. I’m an album purist. You might have a track or two that isn't the greatest, but if it works with the story okay, none of this cutting out singles with crappy lyrics that don't make sense together (I’m looking at you Kris Allen – how could you be so disappointing?). Or situations where there is clearly a single or two that makes no sense with the tone or style of the rest of the album but is marketable enough to sell your album (Duffy, you are the quintessential example of this).

I was going to do this in one installment, but after working on it for a week, it’s way too long for a single blog post, so I’m breaking it up over a series of posts. Here we go!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Holiday Films: Take Two!

Everyone’s talking about it. It was all over Facebook updates. Of course, I’m talking about Avatar, James Cameron’s first full-length feature film since Titanic – which, no joke, is pretty awesome. It’s taken me a few days to think about what I want to say critically about the film. Here are the basics – it’s Dances with Wolves in space. Not that I expect much from Cameron in terms of dialogue and story…in fact, the story was probably better on the whole than I expected. There are guys searching for something called “unobtainium” which they find on a planet with an indigenous people. Of course, the largest deposit of this mineral is underneath the site where they live. High-tech battles over the resource ensue, issues about biology, the environment, technology and humanity are called into question. The ending is feel good, and leaves itself open for a sequel. Basically everything an action film is supposed to do – this film does it REALLY well.

The film is enjoyable and impressive. Up until now, I’ve sort of taken the whole 3D thing as a gimmick to impress kids and jack up ticket prices. Now I’m thinking it might actually go somewhere. It’s not perfect, and it still gave me a headache afterward, but several scenes were enhanced by the depth perception. I also sort of want to see it again to see if your placement in the theater impacts this (I went with my seven-month pregnant sister, which meant we had to sit on the aisle). The acting was pretty good given the confines of the script, with Giovanni Ribisi turning in what I thought was one of his best performances ever. The second to last new episode of Bones this fall made WAY more sense when I realized that Joel Moore is in the film.

My qualms are minor – but of course I have them, because I can’t just enjoy a feature film for what it is. I think my biggest issue was that I wanted more information. There are scenes that talk about the biology of the planet and what not, but don’t go into depth (I mean, seriously, “unobtainium”? Apparently I'm not the only one that thought this was ridiculous...). Similarly, the technology behind the avatars isn’t quite fleshed out, but couldn’t have been written the way it was even five years ago with the increase in avatar gaming and what not. My sister’s biggest problem was the, “how are they going to write their way out of this?” – but the scene where Grace is presented to Eywa solves the problem (she turned to me at this point in the film and said, “Oh! I know how this ends. We can go home now.”)

Overall, it was a great film experience. I would be shocked if this film doesn’t totally sweep every technical category at the Oscars this year. I feel bad for J.J. Abrams. Star Trek probably won’t win any special effects awards against this film…which is unfortunate, because it really was one of the better films of the year in that respect.