Saturday, October 31, 2009

C'est L'Halloween

I realized something strange today, besides the fact that I still somehow have a very good working memory of topics I have blogged about in the past five and a half years - often I can pinpoint a post to within a month of when I wrote it - but I digress. In my years of blogging, I have not written about Hallowe'en at all. It took me off guard at first to think that I hadn't, but then when I thought about it I realized how little Halloween (I will bypass the now-superfluous apostrophe) has meant to me. I enjoyed it as a child - although my choice of dressing up as Herb Tarlek from WKRP in Cincinnati in Grade 4 still makes me shake my head - but it was not a huge deal in my family or my general existence. I remember that in Grade 10 I had a girlfriend at a friend's Halloween party: our "relationship" started the day before Halloween and consisted of us holding hands and me stealing glances at her low-cut witch costume; I ended it a week later when I realized I didn't want a girlfriend, and she moved onto the next band geek for whom she had the hots. True story. It is perhaps ironic that someone like me who loves dressing up and keeps a "tickle trunk" for school spirit days does not like Halloween, but I think it's the same sort of aversion I have to "holidays" like Valentine's Day: they are crassly commercial, and the expectation to be creative is more of a deterrent than an inspiration for me. I think part of the problem is that I always think of the best costume ideas right after Halloween, and then I forget them before the next year. One of these years I'll make the A-Team happen; I love it when a costume comes together! I also think that I am so repulsed by so much of what happens on Halloween from a spiritual perspective that I cannot help but lack in enthusiasm for the event itself. It has become a celebration of dark and evil; some would argue it has always been such, but it seems to be worse now than when I was a kid. It was witches and ghouls and black cats then; now it's demons and death and makeup imitating suicide head wounds. It makes the time between Thanksgiving and the end of the month horrible for arachnophobes and people who are sensitive to dark images; but lately, even I have become more sensitive to the growth in general disregard for common decency with this so-called "celebration." I won't go so far as to say that it's not Christian to observe Halloween; I just think that it is becoming increasingly difficult to observe it in a way that does not threaten the integrity of one's faith. Thankfully, it all goes away pretty quickly after the 31st, because stores slash the prices on candy to start marketing Christmas goodies on November 1. And I will be getting my candy directly from the retailer again this year - perhaps my only lasting Halloween tradition.

Friday, October 30, 2009

In a little while...

We had some friends who stayed here last night after being in Vancouver the previous night to see U2 at BC Place. I was happy for them - as I am for anyone who has the chance to see them in concert - but I could not help feeling a little twinge of sorrow mingled with regret that I could not go to see them, especially when they were only a ferry-ride away. My lament intensified when I viewed the set list and realized that they played an encore of "Ultraviolet"-"With or Without You"-"Moment of Surrender", and that they included a few songs from Achtung Baby in the concert. I was glad to hear that these friends were fans of the band (and not just people that liked how they sounded on the radio), and that they could really value the experience. But talking to them made me think about how meaningful of an experience going to a U2 concert can be - there is something almost transcendent about it. We, the initiated, can talk about when we saw them - which tour, which location, which songs stuck out that night, something memorable that Bono did; and though we always want to share that experience with others, we are slightly jealous when they go and we don't. But it never leaves you, and I knew when I saw them that anytime they were on tour that I would want to see them again, and I would always be able to relive that night in April 2005. On the concert night (Wednesday the 28th), it was exactly four-and-a-half years since I made the trip to Vancouver to see the Vertigo tour, but I could still remember almost everything about it. I guess there's always next time to see U2 again, or the concert DVD in a few months. In a little while...

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Thoughts after the BC Teachers' Institute

One of the reasons I have been incommunicado for the last half of the month is that I spent most of that time preparing for, attending, and recovering from an intensive four-day conference at the BC Legislative Assembly (though the building, in true egotistical British Columbian fashion, is named the Parliament Buildings). I, along with just over a dozen other teachers, had the chance to see a bit of what happens "behind the scenes" of the political engine; of course, I might argue that the veneer was never truly lifted by the politicians, but it was refreshing to see some of them squirm in a roomful of social studies teachers. The conference included sessions on the role of the Lieutenant-Governor, the Speaker of the House, how legislation is written and comes into effect, the role of cabinet, the electoral system, the media, party politics, the judicial system, backbencher MLAs, and watching Question Period. Although I am no less cynical about partisan politics than I was a week ago - I am arguably more so now - I was impressed with the level of discourse that we had with the power players, and that many of the MLAs made themselves available to us to talk. It was refreshing to be reminded of the human side of all of the debates, and to have the experience firsthand. I am certainly still not sold on the greatness of parliamentary democracy, particularly after repeatedly hearing the mantra "it's not always great, but it's the best we've got" from various civil servants, but it was great to get to know more about our system of government, fatally flawed though it may be. Plus I got some awesome food and beverages all week - go government spending on me!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

It seems obvious that an animated film with a title like Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs does not fully take itself seriously; the surprise in Meatballs is how some deeper themes are evident, and how much fun it is along the way.
The story takes place in the town of Swallow Falls, a small hamlet in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean whose central economic livelihood, sardines, have fallen on hard times. The protagonist of this absurdist tale is the luckless inventor Flint Lockwood, who has been known for such hapless creations as spray-on shoes and a monkey thought translator. Lockwood's primary motivation seems to be to prove himself to his working-class father as well as to himself. Lockwood improbably creates an incredibly useful invention, the FLDSMDFR (an acronym played to much amusement), that is able to convert water molecules into food. An initial test goes awry, and the machine is launched into the atmosphere, setting the stage for the ridiculous events to come.
The plot thickens with a host of characters with different motivations. Lockwood is using his newfound fame to impress his dad and the new weather girl in town, Sam Sparks. Flint's father is unsure of his son's success and whether he is being responsible with his invention. The opportunistic mayor capitalizes on Lockwood's invention as a way to save the town by converting the town's economy to food tourism, and in the process causes the FLDSMDFR to start going haywire with disastrous results. Sure, the sequence of cataclysmic events which prolong the final solution to the problem are increasingly ridiculous, but they're fun. Throw in some comic relief from supporting characters, romantic tension between Flint and Sam, a self-searching inquiry by Flint, and some comedically placed food droppings, and that's the recipe for this movie.
The voice acting is also one of the more positive parts of the movie, as it contributes to, rather than distracting from, the action. Among the principal voices are accomplished comedians like Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, and Bruce Campbell, who play the voice to the character rather than to their celebrity. And any movie that features the voice of Mr. T is okay by me.
Meatballs is simple in theme and presentation; after all, it is a children's movie. But that does not mean that it is meaningless. The movie discusses issues like self-image, self-worth, loyalty, friendship, purpose in life, ethical decisions, and the role of the media. As expected of a movie of this type, it is accomplished at both a simplistic level for children, but the plot contains surprising complexity in some of its themes. When combined with the outrageous plot, the result is a ridiculous movie that is meaningful for all ages, as well as endearing, funny and visually creative. The forecast for this movie is fun!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Review: Zombieland

Vampires may be the hot trend right now, but zombies are comedy goldmines. In the spirit of films such as romantic comedy Shaun of the Dead, indie mockumentary American Zombie, and social satire Fido comes the newest entry from rookie director Ruben Fleischer, Zombieland, a tongue-in-cheek coming-of-age road trip movie with cannibalistic violent antagonists.
The movie follows the escapades of an obsessive-compulsive college student known as "Columbus" (based on his home town), and how he survives the unnamed virus that has turned the population into ravenous bloodthirsty freaks. He meets up with accomplished Zombie killer Tallahassee, and a troublesome pair of sister grifters who cause the boys no end of frustrated. Together, they form a sort of family and make their way through Zombieland, killing as many undead as they can in as many creative ways as possible as they go, informally competing for "Zombie Kill of the Week".
Zombieland succeeds largely because of the strength of the directing and writing. Newcomer Fleischer gives the perfect tone to the film; it's never too serious, but it takes itself seriously enough. He supplies visuals appropriate to the tone of the script, starting with the memorable opening credits. It should be no surprise that the writing is a strength, as the writers, Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, are most famous for their egregiously over-the-top experiments in reality TV show parody, the two seasons of the Joe Schmo Show and the William Shatner mini-series Invasion Iowa.
The movie is incredibly pop-culturally savvy, to its strength, as reflective of the protagonist, Columbus. As Columbus, Newcomer Jesse Eisenberg is doing his best to channel the social awkwardness of Michael Cera, and his slavish devotion to rules for survival is both comedic and practical. Woody Harrelson is infectiously gleeful in his his gap-toothed joy of dispatching the undead, and the smoky Emma Stone and sunshiney Abigail Breslin fill their supporting roles well. And there is that cameo that steals the show...
Despite the satiric and light-hearted tone of Zombieland, it is not without its significance. Although zombies have traditionally been used as a metaphor for commercialism to varying levels of success, Zombieland presents a fresh take on the idea and contributes to the overall themes of the zombie genre without becoming hackneyed and hammish. Plus, the zombies are as convincing as any in recent memory, and certainly as disturbing.
Zombieland is one of the most fun movies to come out this year. It is laugh-out-loud funny, and it is a must-see, especially for zombie fans. It is sure to become a pop-culture classic in the vein of Juno or Napoleon Dynamite, complete with quotable dialogue. Go see it if you can handle it, and remember: "It's time to nut up or shut up."

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Mini-reviews: Muse, Thrice, Crowder, Mika

September was a busy month for CD releases for me, and here are some of my takes on the new albums I've listening to over the past month.

Muse - The Resistance: The British prog-rock-meets-symphonic-Armageddon trio are back with their fifth release, picking up where 2006's Black Holes and Revelations left off. The Resistance is full of the sort of anthemic, fist-pumping, anti-authority choruses for which Muse has come to be known, especially the Queen-esque "United States of Eurasia". But Bellamy and company have balanced their grandeur with a softer side, and several of the songs on this album focus on love and personal relationship. The Resistance is a worthy addition to the Muse catalog, especially the final three tracks that form the "Exogenesis" symphony. I am concerned that if they continue with this level of bombast that they will become a self-parody; I am heartened, however, to know that Matt Bellamy is aware of this issue and is working through it. The Resistance is a must-own for Muse fans, a must-listen for rock fans (especially of Queen), and they are still the number one band I want to see live.

Thrice - Beggars: Thrice has progressed significantly over the years: they started out as a post-hardcore punk/thrash outfit, then progressed into more melodically-based hard rock, then into ambient and alternative-country on their experimental set of elemental EPs, The Alchemy Index. Beggars is the product of that progression, and it is a worthy successor to the band's previous efforts. The album follows the style of the latter half of the Index, taking its style more from the guitar-riff-driven rock of Earth rather than the screaming guitar chords of early Thrice. Guitarist Teppei Teranishi is allowed more freedom to elaborate on his work than in previous efforts, and Dustin Kensrue's lyrics are getting better all the time. Their intensity is not subject to their style; this may be their most intense effort yet, though it is also their least heavy record to date. Beggars shows that there's a lot of life left in this band, and that they have a lot left to say; it's a mature record, and it's a sign that they are moving in the right direction.

David Crowder Band - Church Music: I tend not to like "church music", but Crowder is one of the few contemporary worship artists whose work I follow closely. He is so creative and inventive with his music, and he pushes the boundaries of the "worship" genre (argh). The simplistic yet enigmatic title has become a staple of Crowder's work, and judging by this album, it is meant ironically; this album is primarily an electronic dance "rave", and it seems far from the image conjured from the phrase "church music". The album does feature a few songs that are more in keeping with the contemporary worship mode that will become standards in many evangelical churches, but even those tunes are still creative enough to engage the listener and not succumb to the dreaded "A-G-C" chord format of most contemporary adult-pop-worship. I know that there are many people who may be turned off of DCB by this album, but I really enjoy it, and I think it's among the group's best work.

Mika - The Boy Who Knew Too Much: Mika was a fresh voice when his debut album produced several of the biggest pop hits of 2007; he was energetic, fun, and likeable, and I enjoyed his album perhaps more than anything else released that year. The question was whether he and his music would mature, or whether he would try to duplicate the success of Life in Cartoon Motion. On his second album, the 80s-influenced British-Lebanese pop star again channels artists like Freddie Mercury, George Michael, and David Bowie in his poppy self-searching ditties, but he does not exactly copy his first album. There are the upbeat songs, but the majority of the album has a more reflective, and at times, somber, tone; even the title reflects a different sensibility toward life. His musicianship is still not in question; the uses many of the same styles of pop hooks, and his unmistakeable falsetto emerges at key moments, even if it is less danceable than Cartoon Motion. It seems like this album is more mature, and it shows growth from the first album, and it may, in the long run, be a better album; it is hard to tell this early into listening to the new one. It may, ultimately, be an exercise in futility to compare his two efforts; they show different sides of Mika's personality and life, and they seem to work together well. The Boy Who Knew Too Much is a strong album on its own, and it is a welcome addition to the Mika catalog; I suspect that most people think they know fairly quickly if they like Mika or not, but I think this album may give skeptics second thoughts.


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