Friday, September 26, 2008

Picking "my teams"

After much haranguing and consideration, I have decided that I will follow only two sports teams: the NHL's Toronto Maple Leafs and the CFL's Saskatchewan Roughriders. I have flirted with the idea of trying to follow basketball, American football, and baseball more closely, but I don't have the time and I could never settle on a team - and sports are not as interesting without following a team. Sure, I could have just picked teams, but I felt like there had to be some kind of emotional connection to a team. I think if I were to pick teams, I'd go with the Minnesota Twins in baseball (I'm just not a Jays fan), the Green Bay Packers in the NFL, and who knows in the NBA. But the fact is that it would take so much to follow those teams and sports, and there just is not the kind of return from such a pursuit that would justify the time and energy I would spend. I will keep up with the sports on a casual basis, as I still want to keep some level of credibility as a sports guy, but unless something really changes I will keep only two teams in my constant radar. And since the only thing to cheer for the Leafs is that they lose enough games to draft John Tavares, the Riders get way more of my attention right now. Go Green and White!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Reviews: Delirious?, Dragonforce, Deas Vail

Delirious?, Kingdom of Comfort - The pioneers of the contemporary arena worship movement released one last album before calling it quits, and it shows that there is still life not only in their artistry, but also in the genre. Though at times their sound is derivative of other artists (Radiohead, U2, Newsboys, early Delirious - the usual), there are some songs that are truly inspiring and worshipful. Comfort is a fitting end to a strong career, and an epitaph for one of the more creative artists in worship music. 3/5

Dragonforce, Ultra Beatdown - No surprise here, just more metal-meets-Nintendo-on-speed in eight-minute increments. There are a lot of solos, a lot of guitar and voice wails, and arpeggios aplenty, and not much variation from previous albums. But really, how many of these songs does one need? I'll venture that "Through the Fire and the Flames" is probably enough for most people, but diehard fans will buy into this album. 2.5/5

Deas Vail, White Lights EP - Deas Vail's All the Houses Look the Same, one of 2007's more original albums, receives a much-needed follow-up EP to bridge the gap until the release of the next full-length album sometime next spring. The EP demonstrates more melodic creativity and anthemic awareness than before and proves that Deas Vail is an artist to observe over the next year. 4.5/5

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Review: Burn After Reading

Have you ever been in a conversation with someone who starts chuckling at what they think is a shared joke, only to realize awkwardly that you had no idea what they were talking about? Or have you ever been with people who start laughing, and when they try to explain why they are laughing, it just is not that funny? Or when someone tells a story that starts to go somewhere but just ends up leaves you wondering about the point of what they were trying to say? Burn After Reading is all of these things simultaneously, providing a mildly entertaining yet ultimately forgettable experience. (For an accurate perspective, read Rick Groen's review of the movie.)
Reading is set-up as a farce, and all the pieces are in place for a Coen-style comedy: some wacky characters; a need for money; some random coincidences; and a random played-up ethnic stereotype (Russians). It tries to bring everything together in a comic explosion, but the self-proclaimed "screwball comedy" tries vainly to live up to its own billing, but the story never gains the momentum to be able to do so. There are certainly some chuckles (and a few outright guffaws), but most of the film seems to consist of situations that are not funny in themselves but that provoke laughs because it's a comedy and it's time to laugh. It seems like the movie just does not quite succeed, so perhaps the best review is to look at how the movie does not do what it sets out to do.
The characters are a little too thin. The Coens are known for writing parts for actors, and the star wattage is here: Clooney, Pitt, McDormand, Swinton, and Malkovich. Clooney is very enjoyable as a suburban lothario, and Malkovich spews forth frustrated expletives as no one else does, but Pitt and McDormand are too over-the-top; more understated performances may have helped bring the viewer in more, but they are just too far removed from reality. Though J.K. Simmons steals the show - as he always does. The circumstances that bring everything together are also too coincidental. Sure, comedies like this thrive on coincidence, but there comes a point at which there can be too much random happenstance. And besides, not everything fully comes together - several stories are left hanging, and there is not the kind of resolution required of a farce.
But perhaps the most unsatisfying part of the film is the fact that it ostensibly has no point - not even the characters figure out what's going on (even the smart ones). The viewer just scratches their head and wonders if what they saw had anything to do with anything. Of course, that might be the point, knowing the Coens - maybe the point is that things just happen and stories go on and in the end it amounts to nothing. But even if that is their point, it doesn't quite work the way it should.
Finally, much has been made of how this film is the Coens' next cult film, a la The Big Lebowski. Though there is a cult-ish quality about the movie, I doubt Reading will achieve the same legacy. Lebowski worked because of the cluelessness of The Dude as he weaves his way through a web of intrigue that is really, at its core, about a soiled rug. The humour comes primarily from watching the Dude because he's a really likable guy. But Reading lacks that charm and that sense of purpose; it features mostly unlikable people doing unlikable things in an unlikable way without having that centre character to bring it all back in. Maybe this is the Coens' way of subverting the genre; again, if it is, it still doesn't work.
So despite some gamely performances and some great set-ups, Burn After Reading collapses under its own attempts to eschew convention and try something a little different. It will undoubtedly have its proponents, and Coen fans will find a way to make it fit into the Coen canon, but the result is weak, even for Coen fans - an inside joke that nobody's in on, and an unfortunate waste of a great premise and trailer.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Mini-reviews: Cooper, Superchick, ADM, Dylan

Alice Cooper, Along Came A Spider: Cooper's 18th album brings the familiar snarl of the shock rocker, along with the twist of perspective to address issues of morality from the point of view of a killer named Spider. Although it is impressive that Cooper has been making albums for forty years now and that there is still some creative fervor in his new work, Spider is not anything new or really interesting. 2/5

Superchic[k], Rock What You Got: Grrl power is back with a harder edge than previous efforts, perhaps in part due to popularity of aggressive female-fronted acts like Paramore and Flyleaf. The message of empowerment and believing in yourself is as strong as it ever was, but the playful sense of the band's early albums has been replaced with the feeling of having the message stuffed down your throat. There are one or two catchy new songs ("Hey Hey", "Hold"), but it's a tired schtick. 1.5/5

Austrian Death Machine, Total Brutal: For all of those metalheads lamenting the lack of comedy-thrashcore, this album is for you. ADM is the brainchild of Tim Lambesis from As I Lay Dying, and it combines his love of the Arnold Schwarzenegger and some really heavy metal riffs. The result is both hilarious and hardcore, and fans of the band will smile as they bang their heads. "Rubber Baby Buggy Bumpers" will never be the same. 3.5/5

Jakob Dylan, Seeing Things: Dylan's debut solo album is mostly acoustic, mostly folk, and mostly brilliant. He sounds a lot like The Nightwatchman (Tom Morello) and his dad - both of which are good things. Dylan's album is honest, vulnerable, and simple, and one of the best albums of the year so far. 4/5

Life after God

"Now - here is my secret: I tell it to you with an openness of heart that I doubt I shall ever achieve again, so I pray that you are in a quiet room as you hear these words. My secret is that I need God - that I am sick and can no longer make it alone. I need God to help me give, because I no longer seem to be capable of giving; to help me be kind, as I no longer seem capable of kindness; to help me love, as I seem beyond being able to love."

-Douglas Coupland, Life After God (p. 359)

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

A different type of election

Well, it's voting time again. There are so many familiar parts to this election, like the sounds of politics: mud being slung; promises being uttered; retractions being muttered; and caterwauling the norm of all candidates. But I think this election will be different from the last few for me after moving from Saskatchewan, a place that is either highly Conservative or extremely Socialist - and sometimes paradoxically both simultaneously to Victoria - a rather Liberal place. It will be interesting to see how media coverage is different here, and how the election plays out here on the Island. Also, I will be interested to see how much Harper wins his majority by; I don't necessarily like him or his policies, but he really seems to be the only candidate who could win, and I think the voters will be sick of minority governments. Maybe he and Barack could make nice-nice, too. But there is one big downside to the election being called now: I made the unfortunate decision of delaying teaching Social Studies until next semester in hopes that the Canadian election would be called then. Oh well.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Media in Sept. and Oct. 2008

I will admit it: free time will be at a premium for me over the next few months, what with a new wife and a new job in a new city and all. But what spare moments I do have will very possibly be devoted to keeping up with some of the following music, movies, and television coming out over the next two months. Here is a list of the media I am planning to watch, listen to, and experience in September and October.

Movies:
Burn After Reading (Sept. 12) - The Coens' new movie has been compared to The Big Lebowski. That's a good thing, especially with a delightfully manic Brad Pitt and John Malkovich involved.
Slacker Uprising (September 23) - Michael Moore takes a page out of Radiohead's book and releases his new movie - about the upsurge in 20-something voting in 2004 - online for free, ostensibly to motivate the kind of people who would only download movies to vote in November.
Body of Lies (October 10) - Ridley Scott has not had the greatest track record lately, but this thriller is written by William Monaghan (The Departed) and stars Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio. It could be good, or...
W. (October 17) - Oliver Stone's supposedly inflammatory view of George W. Bush's presidency, with a star-studded cast and Josh Brolin as W. Whether you agree with Stone or not, this will be a hot-button movie.
Passchendaele (October 17) - Paul Gross brings one of the greatest times in Canadian military history to the big screen. Finally.
Synecdoche, New York (October 24) - Philip Seymour Hoffman stars as a manic director in Charlie Kaufman's newest film and debut as director. It will be interesting, at least.

Television: The big question is whether TV-dom can recover after an overall weak year because of the writer's strike. Some of the shows I'll be watching for include:

Chuck (September 29) - One of the few bright lights last year; but can they keep up the spy-nerd show feel as successfully this year?
Dexter (September 28) - S2 took viewers through a cat-and-mouse chase with an FBI agent abd deeper into Dexter's twisted psyche, and ended with a newly resolved Dexter. If S1 was about his childhood, S2 was his adolescence, and now he is an adult. Scary.
Friday Night Lights (October 1) - NBC and DirecTV begin the great experiment of sharing a show between mainstream and cable. FNL's fans might just make it work - especially with Janine Turner joining the cast. But there needs to be more football!
Heroes (September 22) - Volume Three: Villains will improve on Generations. It has to.
My Name Is Earl (September 25) - This season's promo is "Back to the List", which makes me wonder why they ever got away from it in the first place. Earl should regain its step this year, especially with guest stars like David Arquette, who plays a person with no memories who Earl needs to make up to.
The Office (September 25) - S4 ended on a high note, but the looming spinoff series might interfere with the show. And something needs to happen with Jim and Pam!
Survivor (September 25) - the show goes back to Africa
30 Rock (October 30) - By far the best comedy on TV last year, but can it keep the laughs coming? Let's hope!

Music: 2008 has been a really weak year for music. Really weak. But I hold out hope for a few releases coming out in the next few months.

Jonezetta – Cruel To Be Young (September 16)
Anberlin – New Surrender (September 30)
Keane - Perfect Symmetry (October 13)
Bloc Party – Intimacy (October 27)
Snow Patrol – A Hundred Million Suns (October 27)
Dido – Safe Trip Home (November 3)

Throw in the NHL premiere on October 4, the American election, and trying to catch up on Battlestar Galactica, and I'll be a busy guy. Ah, the life of a culture vulture.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Life on the Island

I am now three weeks into my life on the island, and there are a few oddities that I have already noticed in my time here. Some products are more readily available - fruit and fish, for example - but some are strangely rare, such as stir fry mixes. (I was confused too.) Milk is ridiculously expensive - twice as much as in Saskatchewan. But since Wal-Mart carries Dairyland products, we can still get Saskatoon Berry yogurt! Fruit is very cheap, but it spoils much more quickly.
There is a refreshing lack of fast food in Victoria, except for two: Tim Hortons is everywhere, and the Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets here are old school. "Island time" is fairly relaxed, which has been convenient so far for us. And there are thrift stores everywhere - perhaps because nothing really leaves the Island, even though people leave all the time. But I stand to get some pretty good stuff out of the deal, so it's alright by me. But I do miss my socialist paradise - car insurance and health care cost money here. Seriously, what is that nonsense. But that's life on the Island.

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