Sunday, February 28, 2010

Palm-Lined Beaches of Dominican Republic: Here We Come!

With my first trip to the Dominican Republic three weeks from today, I took a look at The Lonely Planet's excellent coffee-table tome called The Travel Book: A Journey Through Every Country in the World.

When buddies Tim and Dan and I stay at Puerta Plata on the northern Atlantic side, it appears there will be no shortage of activities to keep us busy for four days of sun and fun.

Some notable highlights:

-- "Rugged mountain interior with world-class rafting, trekking, hiking, and bird watching in the national parks"

-- "Windsurfing in Caberete, the DR's hippest beach town," and whale watching

-- Drinking rum and the DR's Presidente beer

-- Eating sancocho, a "hearty soup with manioc, plantain, and seven types of meat"

-- Since I've already read the excellent The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz, next up should be Dominican contemporary classics, In the Time of Butterflies by Julia Alvarez and Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa

-- What to say?: "Que chulo" means great!

-- "Trademarks: Palm-lined beaches, plantains, merengue music, rum, cigars that are better but not as famous as those from Cuba, Sammy Sosa, parties"

-- The people?: "Dominicans are amazingly polite and tend to dress quite formally

The Blind Side Enters My List of Top 2009 Movies

Michael Oher went from nothing to making Old Miss's honor roll twice, graduating with a degree in criminal justice, and getting drafted in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens.

His story along the way is a touching one, and detailed in The Blind Side, based on a book by Michael Lewis of Moneyball fame. Sandra Bullock is said to be a front-runner for the Academy Award for best actress in her role as Leigh Anne Tuohy, the Republican socialite who took in young "Big Mike." This later results in NCAA investigations into whether Tuohy and her husband (played by a likable Tim McGraw) shaped Oher (played by an even more likable Quinton Aaron) into bringing glory to their beloved Old Miss team.

This movie has floated under the radar somewhat, but it's a quality addition to the best movies I've seen this year: Avatar, Inglourious Basterds, Julie and Julia, Drag Me to Hell, Up in the Air, Adventureland, Crazy Heart, Funny People, Bruno, Star Trek, Away We Go, and The Hangover (I still haven't seen Precious, A Single Man, Invictus, Where the Wild Things Are, Sherlock Holmes, Zombieland, The Informant!, Fantastic Mr. Fox, An Education, The Men Who Stare at Goats, State of Play, The Messenger, and The Hurt Locker).

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

Look for my own Academy Awards after the real ones are announced March 7.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Volume 16

Guided by Voices - Isolation Drills (2001)
Huge chiming crunch
Touchstones: The Who meets Cheap Trick
***** out of ***** stars

Ulysses - Ulysses (2004)
Perfectly melodic nuggets
Touchstones: Apples in Stereo meet XTC
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Trash Can Sinatras - I've Seen Everything (1993)
Sad morning sunshine
Touchstones: New Order meets The Style Council
**** out of ***** stars

The Mary Onettes - Islands (2009)
Jangly Swedish drama
Touchstones: The Smiths meet Shout Out Louds
**** out of ***** stars

The Flaming Lips - At War With the Mystics (2006)
Psychedelic symphonic cosmos
Touchstones: T. Rex meets Syd Barrett
**** out of ***** stars

Cornershop - Judy Sucks a Lemon for Breakfast (2010)
Groovy Indian indierock
Touchstones: Ravi Shankar meets The Beatles
**** out of ***** stars

The Kinks - The Kink Kontroversy (1966)
Invasion's abrasive rollick-ers
Touchstones: Herman's Hermits meet The Animals
***1/2 out of ***** stars

U2 - The Unforgettable Fire (1984)
Dramatic arena wave
Touchstones: Late-era Replacements meet Roxy Music
***1/2 out of ***** stars

Ugly Casanova - Sharpen Your Teeth (2002)
Experimental country punk
Touchstones: Modest Mouse meets Red Red Meat
*** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Secrets of Eden Provides Straight-Forward Storytelling

I began Chris Bohjalian's latest work, Secrets of Eden: A Novel, and will probably come back to it, so I wanted to jot down what happens in the first 25 pages so I don't have to re-read them later.

Rev. Stephen Drew leads a small Baptist congregation in southern Vermont. The night he baptizes Alice Hayward, she is murdered by her abusive husband, a handsome and well-respected retailer who then kills himself. This horrific act not only makes the reverend's town notorious, but leaves the couple's young writer daughter Katie without parents.

The husband, George Hayward "had come from Buffalo and saw that Manchester could use more than high-end designer outlets and shops that sold maple syrup."

There's really not much compelling me to continue with this book, but it seems to fall into the straight-forward storyteller tradition of Richard Russo and Ethan Canin. It depends what jumps ahead of this book on my reading list, but Secrets of Eden is probably a good candidate for light beach reading if all this snow eventually goes away.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Jennifer Egan's Gothic Illusions Continue Her Success Streak

Her recent short story in the The New Yorker called "Safari" got me inspired to read more of Jennifer Egan's work. Then I recalled that she also wrote a highly memorable story for the magazine in 2007 called "Found Objects."

By this time, I was psyched to dive into the San Francisco writer's 2006 best-selling novel The Keep. It's a modern gothic tale about Danny, who leaves his troubled past in New York City to accept an invitation to work for his estranged cousin Howard, a millionaire who is building a business around a dilapidated old castle somewhere in Eastern Europe. The problems begin when phone-addicted Danny is unable to use the telecommunications devices (including a small satellite dish) that he's hauled all the way there. Danny freaks out and begins to lose his grip on reality, exemplified by a run-in with an old (or maybe young and beautiful) baroness in the castle's tower "keep," a terrifying adventure in the castle's underground tunnels, and a fall from one of the tower's windows.

It turns out this entire story is actually a piece of fiction being written by a prisoner named Ray, who is in love with Holly, his writing teacher with a dark background of her own. These stories-within-the-story are certainly creative, although I think I feel a little cheated. Danny and Howard's story is so good that I didn't want it to get swallowed up by the others.

But there is no doubt that Jennifer Egan is one of today's top storytellers. In both her short stories and The Keep, she induces mouth-panting page-turning. The Keep features the talents of Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King's horror, Franz Kafka's gothic creepiness, and Chuck Palahniuk's modern technology and blended perceptions all wrapped into one great book.

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

Monday, February 15, 2010

Jeff Bridges' Top 11 Movies

Prediction: Jeff Bridges, the son of Lloyd Bridges, will win the Academy Award for best actor. Crazy Heart represents his fifth nomination for either best actor or best supporting actor, and there is usually some kind of rule about being nominated that many times. The person has to win, even if it's really just a replacement for a Lifetime Achievement Award.

11. Iron Man (2008)
10. Seabiscuit (2003)
09. The Contender (2000)
08. The Vanishing (1993)
07. The Fisher King (1991)
06. Starman (1984)
05. King Kong (1976)
04. Arlington Road (1999)
03. Against All Odds (1984)
02. Crazy Heart (2009)
01. The Big Lebowski (1998)

All kinds of caveats go into this list. As I was reading his bio, I realized that I haven't seen several movies that are considered JB classics. The Last Picture Show, The Last American Hero, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (starring another one of my favorites, Clint Eastwood), Stay Hungry (for which Arnold Schwarzenegger won a Golden Globe), Heaven's Gate, Cutter's Way, Jagged Edge, 8 Million Ways to Die, The Morning After, Nadine, Tucker: The Man and His Dreams, Fearless, How to Lose Friends & Alienate People, and The Men Who Stare at Goats.

Granted, as I embark on seeing those movies listed above, many will undoubtedly prove to be stinkers, as so many of Bridges' movies over the years have been (especially many of his countless romantic-comedy roles).

Final caveat: I love sci-fi, but I distinctly disliked Tron, which I saw at the Wildey Theater in Edwardsville, Illinois when I was 11 years old. Maybe I should revisit that one. Surely, all my media tech grad-school classmates at Georgetown would urge me to do so.

Feel free to let me know where I'm screwing up this list.

Crazy Heart is an Old Worn-Out Sock Worth Keeping

Jeff Bridges has definitely made it difficult to pick Up in the Air's George Clooney as best actor at this year's upcoming Academy Awards. My two favorite actors are up for the honor, but Crazy Heart has the weight of drama that the judges traditionally favor.

I saw it last night and loved it. A lot of people told me there wasn't much of a story, but that Bridges was phenomenal. But I didn't see it that way. Bridges, as Bad Blake, ambles through the southwest in old beat-up truck. He lives the life that anybody who ever wanted to be a rock n' roller dreams (at least sort of) about. Freedom. Peeing into the desert wind.

But Bad Blake's troubles gather throughout the movie, as his constant smoking and whiskey-drinking lead him into injuries of the body and the heart. He finds a woman in a young reporter (a blushing and lovable Maggie Gyllenhaal) who eventually leaves him over a mistake Bad makes with her young son.

Until Bridges tries to redeem and repair himself at the end, there is almost no reason to care much about his character. However, Bridges sings all the songs and they're as instantly classic as any George Jones or Merle Haggard drink-along. His "new country" competitor, played by Colin Ferrell, also does a good job of singing his own tunes. These song cycles are the moments that build a relationship between the audience and Bridges' terrific performer/miserable human persona.

By the end, you finally love Bad Blake as a person. And, like that old thermal sock that is a little worn-down but you can't get rid of because there's still snow on the ground, you love this movie.

****1/2 out of ***** stars

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sold! The Goods Provides a Slight But Funny Diversion

The pure idiocy of The Goods: Live Hard, Sell Hard ensures that nobody is going to take this film too seriously. And because of that, it's actually pretty enjoyable.

Jeremy Piven plays the leader of a group of hired guns who get called in to sell cars when dealerships are in dire straits. This core (Ving Rhames, David Koechner, and Kathryn Hahn) is very funny and has strong chemistry. They are, of course, successful in saving the day. They also foil a cross-town competitor, whose arrested-development son is played by the always-hilarious Ed Helms, aspiring to be part of the next great boy band.

Ken Jeong and Charles Napier are also wacky as fellow salesmen who once might have been rivals in a world war (there is plenty of delusional behavior). And Will Ferrell makes a cameo in the funniest scene, which involves a failed parachute, lots of sex toys, and the pivotal plot point.

That plot is what can only be described as Ferrell/Adam Sandler formulaic, but The Goods is a minor silly comedy that is well worth watching for people who enjoy that type of juvenile entertainment.

*** out of ***** stars

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sarah Palin May Be Entertaining, But Is She Really Rogue?

The most cheesy politicians are stuck in a catch-22. They're popular because they're cheesy. But they just make themselves look even worse when they cater to that cheese by inevitably releasing a self-help-styled autobiography.

And who could expect anything less from the fascinatingly popular Sarah Palin and her new book, Going Rogue: An American Life?

I dared to dip into this scatter-brained, fourth-grade level life story, which begins predictably with the former vice-presidential candidate's ambition to fight "'the good ol' boys' who lunched with oil company executives and cut fat-cat deals behind closed doors."

She continues: "I didn't necessarily get into government to become an ethics crusader. But it seemed that every level of government I encountered was paralyzed by the same politics-as-usual system." If we each could have a dollar for every time a politician promised to change this unfortunately eternal situation, we each could earn enough money to say the same things, run for office, and proceed to similarly get nothing accomplished.

Some moments in the book that add to her litany of cheese:

- Palin prayed that a ringing phone was her son Track calling to talk about his upcoming deployment to Iraq. But instead it was Senator John McCain offering her the role of his VP candidate. "Please, Lord, just for an hour, anything but politics," she claims to have thought as the phone rang.

- She rambles on about her passion for reading as a child, almost as if to prove that Katie Couric messed with the wrong woman when she asked Palin which newspapers she likes to read (to which she cryptically replied that she reads them "all"). Palin glosses over her affection for Jack London, who lived in the same Alaskan area as the politician's family. Her dad was "called north" by the inspiration of London's novels.

- Further proof of her talents: In third-grade, Palin won the VFW's annual flag poetry contest. Her poem was about Betsy Ross and, "years later, when I won that patriotic group's annual college scholarship, [I] was just as proud."

- When she was pulled over by a state trooper for "snow-machining" down a road, "I couldn't help wondering about [the policeman's] priorities. Looking back, maybe that was my first brush with the skewed priorities of government."

So I guess one policy to alter business-as-usual politics would include fewer police on patrol. Maybe Sarah really is pretty rogue. Here is a full list of her policy positions. I promise, this is entertaining stuff. You decide if it would change business-as-usual D.C.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Barton Fink: Great Noir, Could Be Funnier

With a cast of John Goodman and John Turturro and direction from Joel and Ethan Coen, the formula for Barton Fink is perfect. But I'm not entirely sure what the Coens are after in this 1991 cult classic. The L.A. pulp noir and Hitchcockian elements are here in spades. That part of it is great.

The film leaves me a little cold though. And I think it's the lack of humor. Goodman is plenty creepy, and Turturro turns in a performance which no doubt left him physically exhausted, despite not really having all that many lines.

The three-time Oscar-nominated story features Turturro as a successful New York writer who is convinced by his manager to go make the big bucks in Los Angeles writing film screenplays. The action takes place at the time of Pearl Harbor, so lots is going on in the world, but the story revolves around what's going on inside Turturro's creative mind.

The supporting actors shine (especially in the humor department): Veteran bit-parter Michael Lerner as the head of Capitol Pictures and a producer played by Tony Shalhoub (Monk). Steve Buscemi's role seems to be wasted as the infrequently-appearing hotel man Chet. And I'm not entirely convinced that John Mahoney (Frasier) and Judy Davis turn in convincing performances as a William Faulkner-like drunk and his beaten-around girl.

Because of these problems, Barton Fink (surprisingly, at least to me) stays just outside of my top 9 Coen films.

***1/2 out of ***** stars

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Winter Wonderland Hits D.C.; Hoyas Smack #2 'Nova

I enjoyed the biggest snow storm in D.C. since moving here in 1999. The craziness began when I ventured out at 8 p.m. Friday to help DJ my friend Jason's birthday party at Yanni's Greek Taverna in Cleveland Park. It was already blizzard-like on my walk to the metro. By the time I arrived at the party, I had heard it reported that there were hurricane-like winds (which we could see out the front window of the bar along Connecticut Avenue) and "snow thunder!"

We had a great time celebrating with Jason and the turn-out was impressive (everyone loves Mr. Gallo). Several of us waited as long as possible to get to the metro. We caught the last train around 3:30 a.m. I spent the night at Dan's house since I needed to get to the Georgetown hoops game on Saturday at noon against #2 Villanova. The walk from Farragut North to Dan's apartment in Thomas Circle was intense, with bitter winds blowing in our faces and a fallen tree slicing a snow-drifted L Street in half.

Peter and I walked to the Hoyas game which, although I was beyond exhausted from the night before, was one of the season's best (and that's saying a lot because it's been a great season). Georgetown won 103-90, although it wasn't necessarily that close, in front of a surprisingly near-full arena.

Looks like we'll end up with somewhere around 18 to 20 inches over the past 36 hours or so. In places, it seems we may have actually gotten quite a bit more. Fun stuff. There hasn't been nearly enough snow over the years in D.C.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Music Reviews in 3 Words or Less: Volume 15

Dinosaur Jr. - Green Mind (1991)
Super-catchy punk guitarfest
Touchstones: Violent Femmes meet Jimi Hendrix
***** out of ***** stars

Hedwig and the Angry Inch - Soundtrack (2001)
Best soundtrack ever
Touchstones: Roxy Music meets Green Day
***** out of ***** stars

Vampire Weekend - Contra (2010)
Layered, impressive island-pop
Touchstones: Pavement meets Fela Kuti
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Bash & Pop - Friday Night is Killing Me (1993)
Rollicking bar drunkenness
Touchstones: The Rolling Stones meet The Replacements
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Electric Light Orchestra - Greatest Hits Disc One (2008)
Classic synth-y power-pop
Touchstones: The Beatles meet The Cars
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Elton John - Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (1973)
Undeniable piano party
Touchstones: Ben Folds meets Paul Simon
****1/2 out of ***** stars

Boo Radleys - Giant Steps (1993)
Upbeat psychedelic trance
Touchstones: Teenage Fanclub meet Eggs
**** out of ***** stars

Genesis - Genesis (1983)
Nutty driving power-pop-prog
Touchstones: Rush meets Supertramp
**** out of ***** stars

David Bowie - Heroes (1977)
Painful ambient misstep
Touchstones: Brian Eno meets Flight of the Concords
*1/2 out of ***** stars

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Is Time Travel Only For Sixth Graders and Egomaniacs?

This is the third part in a series about Chuck Klosterman's new book Eating the Dinosaur.

Chuck Klosterman loved The Time Machine by H.G. Wells when he was a sixth grader. When he reread it in 2008, "it was (predictably) a wholly different novel that now seemed fixated on archaic views about labor relations and class dynamics, narrated by a protagonist who is completely unlikable."

This makes sense since Wells was often described as "an egomaniac who attacked every person and entity he encountered throughout his entire lifetime."

But Klosterman does give Wells credit for creating the since-popularized cliche of time travel by machine. Previously, time travel had been around in literature (including the 1733 Irish novel Memories fo the Twentieth Century, Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, and 1892's Golf in the Year 2000), but "it just sort of happened inexplicably, a person exists in one moment and they're transposed to another."

He goes on to list a litany of problems with time travel that art about time travel has often conveniently managed to avoid noting. For instance, "you also exist in the recent past," so how could there be two of you, and "before you attempted to travel back in time, you'd already know if it worked."

So maybe sci-fi time travel is a difficult subject to convincingly convey to an educated adult. It will be interesting to see if the creators of Lost can pull it off as they spiral into the final 15 episodes of the show. If this week's season premiere is any indication (which they have begun to unravel by explaining that two John Lockes can perhaps be in the same place at the same time), then viewers are in for a let-down ending to a great show.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why Bob Marley Stayed in the Hell of Trenchtown

This is the tenth installment in a series about a book I'm reading called Stories Done, which is a great collection of tales of excess from counter-culture leaders.

Bob Marley, nicknamed "Tuff Gong," loved running with the Rude Boys while growing up in Trenchtown, in Kingston, Jamaica. But it wasn't because he wanted to work for these tough thugs.

"Marley (pictured, in blue shirt) found qualities of ruthless honesty, courage and rough beauty in the tenement-yard community, and he didn't necessarily want to transcend or escape it. He wanted to describe its reality and to speak for its populace."

When he briefly moved to Delaware in 1966, he "didn't like the pace of life there, nor the circumscribed job opportunities available to black men." Much of his thinking along these lines was shaped by Jamaican Marcus Garvey, who espoused the Ethiopian "living god" Haile Selassie's encouragement for "blacks to look at their African heritage and to create their own destinies apart from the ones imposed on them by America and by European colonialism."

Marley stayed true to his Rastafari beliefs, even dying because the religion did not allow medical help, despite cancer ravaging his body. He was a vegetarian because meat was not allowed. His late albums all had titles with religious imagery: Exodus, Kaya, Babylon, Uprising. These were all central themes that the singer needed to explore by staying in the place he knew, and which greatly helped give Jamaica a voice on the world's cultural stage.

* Bob's birthday is this upcoming Saturday, February 6.

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Coen Brothers' Top 9 Films

The Coen Brothers have recently solidified their legend in the Parthenon of great movie directors. It probably doesn't hurt that they are said to have identical visions for their film work, and tell actors the same answers to any questions.

This list was seriously difficult to rank. There's no doubt that The Big Lebowski is my favorite, but many of these others could be shuffled depending on which way the wind is blowing. OK, now my job is to finally watch Barton Fink and The Hudsucker Proxy, which (I know, criticize me now) I still have yet to view.

09. A Serious Man (2009)
08. Burn After Reading (2008)
07. O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
06. Miller's Crossing (1994)
05. Blood Simple (1984)
04. Raising Arizona (1987)
03. Fargo (1996)
02. No Country for Old Men (2007)
01. The Big Lebowski (1998)

The Coen Brothers Return with A Serious (as in, Seriously Odd) Man

The Coen Brothers are the masters of the story without a story, and A Serious Man is a raging success by these standards. The movie is at its funniest in its first half, but maintains some outrageous Lebowski-like stories-within-the-story throughout.

Michael Stuhlbarg plays Professor Larry Gopnik, a nerdy professor who is trying to win tenure at his school in the Twin Cities when all begins to go wrong. His son constantly smokes marijuana leading up to his bar mitzvah. His daughter obsesses about getting a nose job. And his wife wants to leave him for a warm, caring flake of a guy, who ends up dying after he's helped Larry's wife drain the Gopnik bank account. Larry attempts to get help in three hilarious scenes from three different rabbis. By the end, it looks like things are finally getting better for Larry, but then a flurry of potentially bad news hits the family before a sudden ending leave us to only wonder about this odd family.

Stuhlbarg, mostly a stage actor, deserves his Golden Globe nomination for best actor. Other than that, this is far from Ethan and Joel Coen's best movie, but it's still one of the best things to get released in 2009.

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