Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Review: Teacher Man

Teacher ManTeacher Man by Frank McCourt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Frank McCourt was the kind of teacher I always wanted, and somewhat, the kind of teacher I usually got when I went to school--supportive, open, and revealing. It just goes to show that a truly great teacher cares more about the student's well-being than the lessons themselves.

Being a teacher, I saw a lot of my own faults while reading this book, which is both enjoyable and insightful. Having read Angela's Ashes, I already knew that Frank McCourt was a masterful writer, but I actually believe this book is even better. It's probably because I relate to the subject more, and can find ways to grow from it. Even when writing about his own life, Frank McCourt found ways to teach life lessons that truly resonated. And when reading his books, we see ourselves in his characters, who are actually real people. This just goes to show how alike we all truly are in the long run. McCourt was a genius in finding this out about people by finding it out in himself. That's incredible.

Teacher Man is an excellent book about learning by teaching others. It's fitting that the last book in his memoir trilogy actually leads him to thinking about writing Angela's Ashes, making it circular in its delivery. We lost a good soul when we lost Frank McCourt in 2009. This book is a testament to his talent.

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Thursday, August 14, 2014

Review: Rabbit Is Rich

Rabbit Is Rich (Rabbit Angstrom, #3)Rabbit Is Rich by John Updike
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(Spoilers of the first two books abound)

While reading Rabbit is Rich, I often wondered why this book won the Pulitzer Prize, especially since nothing major seemed to be happening in it. But by the end of the book, I think I figured it out, and it's BECAUSE nothing really major happened that it won the prestigious award. By this point in Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's tale, we've seen him desert his wife, lose a home, and even lose a baby. And in this third book, which deals with him in his mid-40s, I expected all the trappings of a midlife crisis novel. Getting the motorcycle. Shacking up with another hooker. That sort of thing. But what we get instead is a man who finally appears to be comfortable with himself and where he is in life, and why not? As the title proclaims, he's rich now. And like many of the circumstances of his life thus far, it seems unjustified. He really shouldn't be rich. I'm not going to go into why he's finally in a comfortable spot with his finances, but if you read the other two previous books, you can probably figure it out. It has something to do with a death in the family. I'll leave it at that.

Throughout the story, Rabbit is his normal, selfish self, but you actually don't hate him for it anymore. At least I didn't. There's growth in him, but it's a growth that I don't think the character even realizes, which is difficult as hell for any writer to do. Updike fully created a three dimensional character in Harry, whereas before, I think he kind of painted a facsimile of one in the first two books. This time, thought, I think I truly actually GOT Rabbit as a person, and that's why he is the way he is in this story. He's more a human being than he's ever been before.

There are also a lot of familiar faces from previous books in this entry, and it's both exciting and frightening to see them ten years older. One character in particular has changed a great deal (Nelson), and another, not so much (Janice). But in the end, I think the book paints a very intriguing story of growth and the lack thereof, and it works. Well, most of the time anyway. If there's one thing I didn't love about this book, it's that there really isn't any major event in the story to really push the characters to other places. Besides Nelson's story arc, the rest of the characters are pretty static. I'm sure that was the point--to paint middle age as not being a horror show, but rather, more like a nice settling in period if you allow it to be--but it doesn't make for the most interesting novel at times. That said, I enjoyed it for the most part, and I'm looking forward to the last official book, Rabbit at Rest. It's been an interesting journey.

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Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: teenage mutant NINJA TURTLES

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Since I was born in 1983, I wasn't really old enough to seriously get into Thundercats, G.I. Joe, or The Transformers. I mean, I knew about them, had toys of them, but I wasn't that big a fan of them. I actually got into The Transformers much, much later, so the Michael Bay movies never really offended me all that much, aside from being terrible movies in general. Every last one of them.

But while I wasn't old enough to appreciate the most popular boy cartoons of the 80s, I was old enough when turtle fever finally hit, which was around 1989. I was fanatical, and I ingested every last thing I could that pertained to the turtles. Unfortunately, a lot of that stuff was garbage ("AAAh, Skipping stones!"), so I'm used to getting burned when it came to my heroes in a half shell. None of the movies were really any good except for the first and the animated one that came out around 2007. So when this new movie was announced about a year ago, I didn't get my hopes up. And when the images finally came out of what the turtles looked like, it was settled in my mind. This movie was going to be awful.

So, after seeing it last night, I'm actually quite surprised that it wasn't as bad as it could have been. Don't get me wrong. It's not good, and you won't be saying "radical!" by the time you step out of the theater. But it could have been a lot worse, especially with all the problems they had with the script. I'll just say this--It's better than all of the Transformers movies combined. I really couldn't ask for anything better than that.

But why is it bad? Well, it sucks for a number of reasons. The primary one is that it's slow. When I went to see it last night, a little girl who couldn't have been older than six whined about a quarter way through and said, "This is so BORING!" I couldn't have agreed with her more. April 'O Neill, played annoyingly by Megan Fox, takes up a huge portion of the movie as she's directly connected with the turtles. The turtles, I might add, don't fully appear for at least 15 minutes. So that sucks. And when they do appear, well, they're not so great. Leonardo doesn't really lead so much as he grimaces, Donny is made into an uber-nerd, but not in a good way (the kind you want to stick his head down the toilet and flush kind of way), and my favorite, Raph, is roid-raging and growling pretty much the whole way through. The only one with an actual personality is Mikey, and even he gets a bit annoying at times. Not good.

Also not good are the action scenes, which suck. There's one decent moment out in the snow that you've seen pieces of in the commercial, but other than that, the action is piss poor. It's cut too fast so you don't really see what's going on. And the Foot Clan is a joke. They're more terrorists than ninjas. What's the deal? Oh, and The Shredder might be the biggest offense of them all, as he has zero personality or backstory. His character could have been anyone. And...well, there are just a lot of problems with this film. The plot sucks, the characters suck, and even the music is annoying.

Buuuut, again, it could have been a lot worse. At least the movie was tolerable. I went into the film thinking, "If I was a kid and have never seen the turtles before, would I like this?" but I actually think I wouldn't. It was either too slow or frenetic fast. The only reason I didn't hate it might just because I still have a bit of the turtle fever in me yet, and it's nice to see my boys back in action, even if it's not the best showing it could have been.
Two stars out of four

Thursday, August 7, 2014

My Top Ten Favorite Music Videos

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So MTV doesn't really play music videos anymore. So what? That's what YouTube's for now. And with YouTube, I was able to find some of my favorite music videos of all time. Now, keep in mind, this list will not include Thriller on it. It's a great video to be sure, but I tend to find it a little overrated. Besides, this isn't a list of the BEST music videos of all time. Only my favorite. So now, on with the list!

10. "Candy" by Cameo

Vintage cheesiness. It features people making funny faces, a sick beat, and a red codpiece. It begs the question, what wouldn't Cameo do back in the day to get their music out there, and the answer is pretty uncertain. It's like CAHN-DAAAY!

9. "Paranoid Android" by Radiohead

I've never really been a fan of Radiohead's music, but this video alone got me to buy OK Computer. It's strange, intriguing, and even a little unsettling. Oh, and it was also a cartoon. I'm not really sure what the whole point of it was, but it certainly went along with the song, no question.

8. "Criminal" by Fiona Apple

This video truly, truly, truly made me fall in love with Fiona Apple. It was the kind of video you felt dirty watching, and then, you wanted to watch it a second time just so you could feel dirty again. What exactly was going on in this postcoital aftermath? Whatever it was, I couldn't look away. Damn, Fiona Apple. Damn!

7. "Come to Daddy" by Aphex Twin

A truly scary video from its opening shot to its last, "Come to Daddy" is like a fever dream riddled with Satanic drum beats and screaming. The very best part of the video is when the old lady gets yelled at by that hideous creature. A classic video. A scary one.

6. "Where It's At" by Beck

What starts out as a homage to Cool Hand Luke soon turns into a splash of images that only Beck could pull off. A robot, fat guys fighting, and line dancing round out the video. Only Beck could make all that nonsense work. Only Beck.

5."My Mind's Playing Tricks On Me" by The Geto Boys

If there was ever a video that truly matched the dark tone of its song, it's this one. What really sticks out to me is that one scene where the fist is punching the concrete over and over again. I'll never get that image out of my head, and I don't think I want to, either.

4. "One" by Metallica

The sheer definition of epic. Pulling scenes from the movie, Johnny Get Your Gun, both the song and the video chronicle the life of a soldier who's lost pretty much everything besides the ability to think. Trapped in a bed, the video is graphic and haunting. Oh, and you gotta love that thrashing and head banging at the end. There's nothing else like it.

3. "Buddy Holly" by Weezer

"Charming" is probably the best word I'd use to describe this video, which won scores of awards in 1994. Spike Jonze made a lot of videos back in the day, but this is my all-time favorite of his. Basically, it just puts the members of Weezer in an episode of Happy Days, and that's pretty much it. Is it simple? Yes, but also extremely effective. This video put Weezer on the map!

2. "Prison Sex" by Tool

It's really hard to pick a favorite Tool video, as all of them are visually dense and wrought with meaning. But "Prison Sex" is my all-time favorite of theirs, and mostly because it impacted me on such a visceral level. I literally got nightmares from this video, and I think it's because my brain was trying to wrap its head around its complex meaning, which I'm closer to understanding today, but it still eludes me to a certain extent (I know it's about sexual abuse and molestation, but what else?). A very disturbing video, and an excellent one as well.

1. "Triumph" by The Wu-tang Clan

I know it's silly by today's standard, but I don't think any other video has impacted me as much as this one has. "Triumph" pretty much MADE me fall in love with hip-hop music and the Wu-tang Clan in general. I actually once wanted to get a Wu-tang tattoo (I know, I know) back in the day. I'm dead serious.

What's so great about this video is that it showcases every last member (And Cappadonna!) of the group, and puts them in incredibly cool situations. ODB jumps off a building, Inspectah Deck catches him, and then, he erupts into flames and now Method Man is riding the charge on motorcycles. I mean, it's never-ending. It will always be my favorite music video, whether you find it stupid or not, and it will always hold a place in my heart. It's still awesome.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Review: Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I've had more people recommend Ready Player One to me than probably any other book. And while I enjoyed it quite a bit, I don't know if I'd say it was one of the best books I've ever read, no matter how geeky it got. It fact, I think it got a bit too geeky at times. That's not to say that there's anything wrong with extreme geekiness. But it's just such a PERSONAL geekiness that it's a little off-putting. You can tell the author, Ernest Cline, had a good time reliving some of his favorite childhood memories while writing this book. They're just not MY memories, which is why I couldn't really connect with the book as much as I wish I could have.

Bummer, dude.

And while this sounds impossible for any author to really capture the things in my own life that made me into the geek that I am today, I think he could have accomplished it by focusing on either video games, like Wreck-It-Ralph did, or movies. But not both. It just didn't seem to work for me. Is it selfish of me to wish that Cline wrote about more of the things that I enjoyed growing up with? Sure it is, but there's a difference between reading a story about video games and movies from the 80s that I liked, and reading a story about video games and movies from the 80s that the author liked, if that makes any sense.

I'm not sure that it does.

I don't know.

Maybe if the references had taken place in the 90s I would have connected with it more. It's a petty complaint, I know, but it kind of hurt the book for me.

Other than that, it's a pretty original story. On the version I got, the cover has a quote from USA Today that says, "Willy Wonka meets The Matrix," and I think that's a pretty apt description. The story takes place in a virtual world called OASIS and it involves a hunt for an Easter Egg, which is a secret in a video game that is hidden for players to stumble upon. I really dug the quest itself, but wasn't too into the relationships of the characters all that much. Also, some of the dialogue felt forced. Again, maybe if I connected with the time period, I would have enjoyed it more. As it stands, it had a pretty good pacing, especially toward the end, and I enjoyed it. But is it a game-changer like Slaughterhouse 5 was for me the first time I read it? No. Not at all. It's a good, nerdy diversion, but nothing more than that. Unless, that is, you were born in the 70s and remember the 80s really well. Then, you will LOVE this book.

PS. I wrote this review while listening to the Battletoads soundtrack.

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Saturday, August 2, 2014

Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (Spoiler free!)

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Guardians of the Galaxy is both unlike anything Marvel/Disney has ever done before, and also exactly like everything Marvel/Disney has ever done before, making it feel both unfamiliar and familiar at the same time. And it works! By being less grounded than its predecessors, but still retaining that jokey, brightly colored Marvel aesthetic and feel, GotG manages to have a funky, out-there vibe that plays well when set in the Marvel cinematic universe. It also doesn't hurt that the characters are relatively unknown to the general public (As a comic book nerd, even I knew very little about them before the movie was announced), and it actually works in the movie's favor. Here we see Marvel's vast potential at unloading even more of its obscure characters and making it gel. Could a Moon Knight movie be that far off into the future now that we've introduced Peter Quill and his merry band of intergalactic misfits? Well, a boy can dream, can't he?

That said, for all the movie's strengths (genuine humor, excellent pacing, and gnarly special effects), the movie stumbles a bit. One of the main misfires is that the movie actually has two main villains. Sort of. The problem with this is that the main antagonist is kind of overshadowed by the other villain, who isn't really in the movie all that much, but since it's his first speaking role in a Marvel movie, you kind of have more of an interest in him. This takes potency away from the main antagonist, which is a shame because he's pretty cool and scary. They should have just stuck with him. But given that all Marvel/Disney movies are meant to be a bridge between the last one and the next, I understand why they made the decision. Without this other villain, a lot of fans would probably wonder how this movie connects to The Avengers, which all Marvel/Disney movies seem to have to do these days. It's a small problem, but a problem, nonetheless.

Another small issue is that not all of the humor hits. Most of it does, and Rocket, Groot, and Star Lord are all major highlights. But Drax the Destroyer is kind of corny after awhile, and Gamora, while cool, doesn't really have a lot of great lines. She does move the story along, though, so she's definitely essential to the plot. In fact, all of the characters feel essential. Even Drax. Warner Bros. and DC should take note. When it comes to ensemble pieces, Marvel/Disney really knows how to make every character feel necessary to the story. They did it with The Avengers, and now, they've done it again with GotG. If Warner Bros./DC could do the same with their future Justice League movie, then it might actually work. I didn't think it could, given that there are so many characters they still haven't built up yet (Aquaman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, etc). But Marvel/Disney did it with these relatively unknown characters, so DC should have a less difficult time as most people already know characters like Green Lantern and Aquaman. But I digress.

Overall, GotG is a enjoyable romp that feels fresh and yet familiar at the same time. Marvel/Disney has done it again, and if this film is successful, then the possibilities for them are endless. Good for them. They've earned it.

Three and a half stars out of four