Monday, February 08, 2016

We Interrupt This Program…

I’ve yet to finish my review of 2015, as if anybody notices or cares. Life has been so hectic lately, I just haven’t found the time to write. About anything. And a lot has been going on. Most of it is very good news, so I’m going to jump in and share some of the basics.

The biggest news is that I am starting a new job on February 16th. I am going to be an “email specialist,” which is something I’d never heard of but which, so far as I understand it, involves being on the more technical side of creating emails. In my particular case, it is my HTML skills—which are minimal—that will be put to use. Getting this job is a big deal for many reasons. One reason is that I haven’t worked in almost 10 years. Okay, that’s not quite true. I worked aplenty as a graduate student, and not just as a student but as an instructor of college-level courses and as a TA. I got paid for that, so it was all legitimate work. But it wasn’t traditional work. I also had a brief stint as a tour guide in Nauvoo during the summer, but that didn’t feel so much like getting a job as participating in some neat opportunity that happened to include an income. My email specialist job will be the first “normal” type of job I’ve had since I was a customer service representative in the summer of 2006. And I’m stoked, believe it or not. I’ve applied and been interviewed for a few positions over the last couple of months, and this job has been the most appealing by far. The rapport I felt with the people who interviewed me was off the charts compared to any of the other interviews I’ve had. The job sounds the most intriguing of any job I’ve applied for. The pay is better than any other job I’ve applied for. As an added bonus, I have a couple of good friends who work at the same company (in other departments). It’s all shaping up to be a very positive experience. I really believe that. I’m hopeful, and even expectant, that this could be a company I’ll be happy to be with for an indefinite period of time, and maybe for decades. Crazy, right?

One of the biggest perks of getting this job is that Melanie and I can finally afford to move out of her parents’ house. I’m sure her parents will appreciate it as much as we will. I’ve actually been amazed at how positive an experience it’s been to live here. Overall, I haven’t minded it that much at all. But it will certainly be good to re-embrace adulthood and live independently. Melanie and I have spent the last several days doing quite a bit of house hunting. It’s already exhausting. And heartbreaking. We’ve found a few really promising homes in fantastic locations, only to learn they are already taken by the time we call on them. You can get a lot of bang for your buck if you’re willing to move clear to the other side of the valley and live in what feels like the middle of nowhere. We’ve driven to see some of the homes out that way, but we only get about halfway to them before our faces take on sour expressions and our hearts start telling us there’s no way we can really imagine ourselves living that far away from what feels like our world. I don’t want to settle for something that is merely tolerable, just to move out. I believe if we’re patient we will get something we are extremely pleased with. But it’s hard when you’re chomping at the bit. Perhaps it will cloud our judgment. I don’t know. I’ve got a couple of decent leads that we’ll be acting on, but we’ll see.

I also have good news when it comes to my health. After two months of near-constant illness, I am feeling pretty darn close to normal. To recap, I had strep during the second week of December, was bitten by a mystery bug the following week, came down with bronchitis the next week, and then spent all of January bouncing up and down with colds, sore throats, and even the stomach flu. Even when I felt relatively decent, my breathing was never okay during this time. Often when I’d breathe out, it would sound like coffee percolating. I had a wheeze and shortness of breath. I felt very asthmatic, or how I assumed most asthmatics must feel. I’d never been diagnosed with asthma, so I wasn’t sure. On top of all of this, a white cyst had appeared on my left tonsil and had remained for weeks. That was peculiar. And so, I finally returned to a doctor (at an urgent care facility) over this most recent weekend. They tested my breathing, gave me a breathing treatment they usually give to asthmatics, then re-tested my breathing and found that I had nearly doubled my lung capacity. (I think I just didn’t do the first breathing test very well because I didn’t know exactly what I was doing. But anyway.) They x-rayed my lungs to check for pneumonia, which came back negative. But, due to all of my symptoms, they gave me prescriptions for an inhaler, an antibiotic, and a steroid. Within hours of taking my first antibiotic and steroid, I felt immensely better. My breathing feels normal, and I haven’t wheezed or percolated since. However, the urgent care doctor said he couldn’t really say anything about the cyst on my tonsil. He told me to go to an ear, throat, and nose specialist. I did that this morning. Apparently, all signs point to it being no big deal. I’m just supposed to ignore it, unless something crazy happens like it starts growing or hurting. The doctor said it will likely fall off at some point, but that it’s likely benign. And that gives me peace of mind. I wasn’t too worried about it, but with a new job on the horizon, I didn’t want to find out I need to have my tonsils removed or start chemotherapy or something crazy. So, I’m pretty thrilled.

So, that’s where life is at today. We’re on the cusp of significant changes, and it’s mostly exhilarating, so I’m in pretty good spirits.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

2015 in Review: Television

This is the fourth in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include booksmovies, food, music, and more.

As I headed into 2015, I naively thought it unlikely that I would be exposed to very many new television shows over the course of the year.  I had my reasons.  One, like many people nowadays, I don’t watch any TV at its regularly scheduled time.  I stream everything, or binge watch on DVD.  Thus, it is incredibly easy for me to pick and choose what I watch.  Two, I thought I already knew of enough shows to keep me busy and entertained throughout the year without adding to the list.  But despite all of this, I ended up trying no less than 16 new (to me) TV shows during 2015, several of which I plan to continue watching with regularity—which probably means binge watching a new season every year or so.

Not every TV show I tried was a success.  Melanie and I watched one episode of Difficult People, a Hulu original series starring Julie Klausner and Billy Eichner as two cynical comedians struggling to hit the big time in New York City.  I was originally drawn to the show because I enjoyed Eichner in his relatively brief stint on Parks & Recreation and because so many top-notch comedians were slated to make guest appearances, from Fred Armisen to Kate McKinnon to Seth Meyers.  And maybe the show is good if you stick with it for a while.  I wouldn’t know.  I watched one episode and was so annoyed that I’ve tried to avoid so much as thinking about it ever since.  I just don’t find myself entertained by characters who are total jerks and absolutely full of themselves, which is basically what the plot of Difficult People is.  No thank you.

I also wasn’t wooed by the rather popular (and well-reviewed) Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee.  I guess CCGC (as I’ll call it) doesn’t rightfully belong on this list, since it technically isn’t a TV show.  It’s a “web series.”  Still, in our day and age, what difference does it make?  The setup of CCGC is rather simple.  Jerry Seinfeld spends the first few minutes of each episode showing off a classic car, then he goes in that car to pick up a famous comedian and go get some coffee.  The comedians toss around some witty banter and observations, and that’s that.  And really, that should be enough, if the comedians are likeable enough.  But from what I’ve seen, comedians who aren’t performing aren’t often that likeable.  It’s clear from the select handful of episodes I’ve seen that Jerry and his caffeine-imbibing companions greatly enjoy each other’s company, but playing voyeur to their outings isn’t as amazing as it sounds.  There is a certain degree of pretentiousness that permeates every episode, and I just don’t care for it.  I’ve found the show surprisingly boring, even when the guest comedian is someone I’m quite fond of.

There have been some wins throughout the year, however.   Netflix has hit a home run with Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.  Co-created by Tina Fey, UKS stars Ellie Kemper as Kimmy, a woman who has recently joined the real world after living for 15 years in a type of underground bomb shelter as part of a polygamous-like cult.  As you can imagine, hilarity ensues.  Kemper is perfect in the title role, a painfully naïve but resolutely chipper gal who finds herself living in New York City of all places.  If that doesn’t sound gripping enough, UKS’s über-catchy theme song is bound to leave you hooked.  Singing chirpily: dammit!

If drama’s your preferred genre of entertainment, another excellent show can be found via Netflix competitor Amazon: TransparentTransparent stars Jeffrey Tambor as Morton / Maura Pfefferman, a sixty-something (seventy-something?) retired college professor who finally reveals to her family that she is transgender.  This sends Maura’s three adult children—each of whom already struggles with a fair amount of dysfunction—reeling, some more than others.  As a viewer, I’m happy to see Tambor in a role that commands some respect.  I was quite a fan of Arrested Development, but Tambor was always my least favorite component of that show.  I didn’t like his character—not that you were supposed to—and I rarely found him funny.  Despite Transparent’s serious themes and very adult nature, I have found Tambor to be more likeable and funny here than in his previous show.

AMC’s Better Call Saul is another winner.  Bob Odenkirk and the character of Saul Goodman gave me every reason to believe Better Call Saul would be a success, but spin-offs don’t have the highest track record and Better Call Saul’s parent show (Breaking Bad) is so iconic—I would call it the best show in all of television history—that screwing it up might seem the only genuine possibility.  Fortunately, show creator Vince Gilligan (along with co-creator Peter Gould) has given this prequel enough chronological distance from Breaking Bad that viewers will find themselves genuinely intrigued as to how the two shows ultimately intertwine.  You see, when Better Call Saul begins, Saul Goodman doesn’t yet exist.  Instead, he is Jimmy McGill, a reformed con-man working as a lawyer and, it would seem, sincerely trying to do his best.  Fans of Breaking Bad know McGill’s shady nature will re-emerge as McGill transforms into Saul, but how?  And when?  And why?  I can’t wait to find out.

The Affair is a drama/mystery that airs on Showtime.  To say the show is about a love affair between married writer Noah Solloway (Dominic West) and Montauk waitress Alison Lockhart (Ruth Wilson) is to grossly oversimplify.  It would spoil things if I said too much, but I will point out that one fascinating feature of the show is that each episode is divided into two parts, with each part representing a different person’s point of view.  The subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) differences in perspective draw the viewer more fully into the mysteries that unfold.  It’s a worthwhile show.

Showtime is also responsible for Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, a series that originally ran from 2003–2010.  I saw my first couple of episodes of this show in December, but I have since watched nearly the first two seasons via Amazon.  As Penn & Teller—well, Penn, since he’s the only one who ever talks—explain in the first episode, Bullshit! is the famous magicians’ attempt to follow in the footsteps of Harry Houdini, who devoted much of his later life to exposing frauds whom he saw as preying on the vulnerability of others—psychics, mediums, clairvoyants, and the like.   While Penn & Teller definitely address things like ESP, talking to the dead, and Ouija boards, they also come down hard on things like bottled water, the funeral industry, and health nuts.  While the show is unabashedly biased, the evidence seems fairly and reasonably articulated, such that I have been swayed on more than one issue.  Case in point: I’m not so sure I can support recycling anymore.  (What!?  Yup!  Go watch that episode and then get back to me!)  Bullshit! is laced with profanity, but it’s often as hilarious as it is informative.  I wish more people would watch shows like this.

Network TV was not without its charms in 2015.  I quite enjoyed the first season of Fox’s The Last Man on Earth.  Will Forte stars as Phil Miller, a man who finds himself all alone after a deadly virus wipes out all the rest of humanity.  Or almost all the rest.  By the end of episode one, after years of searching and leaving notes spray painted on highway billboards, Phil discovers he is not alone.  The show is a kind of post-apocalyptic Gilligan’s Island, and with Forte in the lead and Kirsten Schaal soon at his side, it’s no surprise it’s one of the better sitcoms to hit the network airwaves over the last few years.  That being said, the second season wasn’t nearly as funny as the first and it’s hard to see how the show will keep its momentum for very long.  I’m keeping my fingers crossed they can somehow make it work, but I’d be lying if I said I was entirely optimistic.

More recently, Fox gave us The Grinder, a sitcom starring Rob Lowe and Fred Savage as brothers turned partners-in-law.  Sort of.  Lowe plays Dean Sanderson, Jr., a famous actor who played an attorney in a wildly popular and long-running TV series (also called The Grinder) which has recently come to an end.  Savage plays Stewart Sanderson, an actual attorney.  Naturally, once Dean finds himself out of work, he believes his television credentials make him a perfect asset for brother Stewart’s law firm and, as much as Stewart resists it, continually imposes himself on the cases Stewart is handling.  It’s a pretty funny premise, and there’s something perfect in the pairing of Lowe and Savage.  Each plays his character well—Lowe as the blissfully naïve and outlandishly overconfident superstar, Savage as the disgruntled and serious family man who is ever stuck in his older brother’s shadow.  The pilot episode showed great promise, but sadly, the show has quickly become formulaic and I’m not sure it has what it takes to last.  It’s kind of a one-joke show.  It’s a good joke, mind you, but … yeah.

I’m on the fence about Superstore, a 2015 latecomer from NBC.  It’s about a group of employees who work at a Walmart-type store.  It doesn’t sound like much.  It’s a kind of ensemble comedy.  I don’t even know what to say about it.  Something right is happening with it—it has some pretty good laughs—but there is a pervasive sense of mediocrity that somehow underlies the whole thing.  It feels destined to be incredibly short-lived and remembered by no one.  I know I’m speaking vaguely, but I find it hard to articulate my impressions of this one.  There’s a spark in there somewhere, something I wish could survive and be refined.  But I don’t think it will.

I guess I should mention Inside Amy Schumer.  Amy Schumer has become something of a hot commodity in the world of comedy lately.  I hear a lot of people sing her praises, but I’m not completely sold on her.  She can be very funny, but she also finds herself too funny, and that’s unappealing in a comedian.  Her sense of humor is also a bit too juvenile for me a lot of the time.  I should clarify what I mean, because otherwise those who know me well will take me as a hypocrite.  For me, something is juvenile not just because it is sexually or scatologically explicit.  I can be as raunchy and boundary-pushing in my humor as anyone, though not everyone gets to know that side of me.  But I find it offensive and annoying when people act like something is funny merely because it is profane, or sexualized, or scatological.  And, in my opinion, Amy Schumer falls too often into that latter camp.  It just seems cheap and lame.  Anyway, if you’re wondering what Inside Amy Schumer itself is, it’s sketch comedy.  It’s not the kind filmed in front of a live audience—think Portlandia rather than Saturday Night Live—but each episode also contains snippets of Schumer doing standup and moments where she interviews real people on the street (usually about sex).  If you’re not afraid of hard-R comedy, you will likely laugh aplenty while watching the show.  But even I find myself offended—on behalf of good comedy, if nothing else—at least some of the time.

Friday, January 15, 2016

2015 in Review: Food

This is the third in a series looking back on 2015. Other entries will include books, movies, music, TV, and more.

When it comes to the world of culinary delights, there were certainly some hits and misses with the new things I tried in 2015. If you don’t count what was pretty much an extended working vacation in Nauvoo, Illinois during the summer, 2015 was the first complete calendar year I’ve spent living in Utah since 2005. That means plenty of exploring still needs to be done in terms of food. Much has changed about Utah in the past decade, after all, as has my lifestyle. And I’m not talking about the fact that I now consciously choose to eat a lot of fiber. I’m talking about my leaving the LDS Church and the dietary restrictions that go with it. That’s right, folks. 2015 is the year I started drinking those most evil of beverages, tea and coffee.

Tea has been the long-standing winner in the contest between tea and coffee. Melanie’s and my tea-drinking started around early February of 2015, with multiple trips to Teavana. It wasn’t long thereafter that we tried chai lattes and fell instantly in love. I am quite a fan of both the iced and the hot varieties of chai. For a while, we were drinking quite a bit of flavored iced green teas, courtesy of Lipton® and their powdered tea mix. All of these tea practices largely subsided, however, once we discovered the joy of a Green Tea Frappuccino® from Starbucks. That quickly became our go-to standard. In the spring of 2015, we had a tradition of getting a Green Tea Frap every Monday when I’d pick Melanie up from work. To this day, Green Tea Fraps have remained one of the most common tea drinks for us to get. For Melanie, it’s always the Frappuccino® version, but I’ve become partial to iced green tea lattes with sugarless vanilla syrup in place of the classic syrup Starbucks usually uses. It’s very similar to a Frap in terms of flavor, and also cheaper.

Coffee still tasted like garbage to me when I tried it in February for the first time since junior high. I didn’t try it again until August, when I experienced an impromptu desire for it while at a hotel in Laramie, Wyoming on our way back from Nauvoo. Being able to doctor the coffee myself, I had a much better experience, but I still drank hardly any of it before chucking it in the garbage. And then autumn arrived. I don’t know what compelled me to try coffee yet again, but Melanie and I stopped at a Starbucks one fall evening and I ordered a salted caramel mocha. Worried it would be too strong for me, I asked them to put only one shot of espresso in it rather than three as they normally would. The result? It was actually kind of good. It reminded me of these delicious caramel- and chocolate-covered pretzel sticks that we get every once in a very long while from a chocolate shop in the Avenues of Salt Lake City. Having enjoyed the drink, I thought I would try more of the seasonal specialty drinks Starbucks offered. And so, over the next few months, I tried several: Chestnut Praline Latte, Eggnog Latte, Peppermint Mocha, Pumpkin Spice Latte, and more. By far, my favorite was the Caramel Brulee Latte. In second place was the Holiday Spice Flat White. By the time I’d tried all of these drinks, I was no longer asking them to scale back the espresso. I was fine taking them full strength. I’d still say that I enjoy tea more than coffee, but coffee has its place. The last new coffee drink I tried in 2015 was a caramel macchiato that I got from a gas station (Maverik). It too was very delicious, although I’m not sure how high the coffee content actually is. It tastes so little like coffee to me that I’m skeptical. But maybe I’ve just developed a taste for it and can’t even tell when it’s there.

Okay, okay, this post wasn’t supposed to be all about coffee and tea! My taste buds have had other adventures over the past twelve months! One of the things Melanie and I have been the most desperate to discover in Utah is a really good Chinese restaurant. It’s funny, when we first left Utah in 2006, we complained about the lack of good Chinese food in the South. That complaint persisted until we discovered Tan’s Asian Café in Tallahassee, which remains my favorite Chinese restaurant of all time. Nothing we’ve eaten in Utah comes close to the quality of Tan’s. And believe me, we’ve tried. We’ve even looked at online reviews and tried to go to places only if they had decent feedback from consumers. It hasn’t worked out so well for us. Mulan Chinese was a disappointment, with thick and chewy (rather than crispy) egg rolls and pasty ham fried rice. Their dumplings and crab rangoons were actually good, but everything else registered as so-so at best. Fong’s Fine Chinese Dining is a step up from Mulan and was good enough that I wouldn’t be against trying them again. I suspect you could get an all-around pretty good meal, if you just knew which particular items to get. Our particular meal was hit-and-miss. The ham fried rice was pretty flavorless, as was the broccoli beef. The latter tasted “brown,” and that’s honestly all I can think to say about it. The egg rolls weren’t bad and had a very peppery flavor, while the mango chicken and pon pon chicken (the latter of which I’d never had before) were both good. The sweet and sour sauce they brought out with the complimentary wontons was very thin and watery, unlike any sweet and sour sauce I’ve had anywhere else in the past, and the Diet Mountain Dew I was so excited to see on tap was also quite watered down. The service was ho-hum. They didn’t clear things from our table when they could have, and it became a crowded mess. We also had a problem with our bill that had to be rectified. Fortunately, I did find a Chinese restaurant that I thought was quite good all around: Mandarin Garden. I went there for my birthday and was very pleased, although Melanie hasn’t been all that interested in returning since she and Peter both ended up puking the next morning. I don’t think it was related, but that doesn’t much matter. The damage was done.

We could always get some pretty good barbecue food in both Atlanta and Tallahassee, and 2015 saw us reaching out to some new (to us) BBQ joints in Utah. Dickey’s Barbecue Pit is not a place I’d go out of my way for, but it’s solid. We’ve eaten there a couple of times now, one perk being that they offer free kid meals—seven days a week at one of the locations we visited! For being a fast casual restaurant, I was quite impressed with their ribs. They weren’t amazing, but I’ve had tougher, less enjoyable ribs from full-service restaurants numerous times in my life. My biggest complaint about Dickey’s is that none of the BBQ sauce is available in a squeeze bottle that lets you easily apply it to your food. Instead, all of the BBQ sauce resides in a common area and must be scooped out of a vat using a ladle and poured into little plastic cups, such as you might use for dipping sauces. But unless you’re eating wings or chicken nuggets, who dips into BBQ sauce? You shouldn’t have to dip ribs or pulled pork. You can pour the sauce from the cup onto the food, yes, but it’s messier and harder to control. I think it’s annoying.

Wallaby’s is another BBQ place we tried last year, although I’m not entirely sure it’s a new place for us. You see, there used to be a Wallaby’s that served BBQ located maybe 30 or 40 minutes south of Salt Lake City. It disappeared many years ago, and now this new Wallaby’s has sprung up very near to where Melanie and I currently live. Is it the same? I’m not sure. The food doesn’t seem exactly the same—there isn’t the signature slice of white bread that accompanies your meal, for example—but how many BBQ restaurants named Wallaby’s can there be? We’ve only been to this new Wallaby’s once, but it was pretty good. I’d happily go there again.

The very best new restaurant I tried in 2015 is R&R BBQ. Word-of-mouth advertising is what drew me to R&R. One item in particular was receiving a lot of buzz: the Caveman Burger. I didn’t realize the Caveman Burger was a special item you could get only on Thursdays, but coincidentally enough, it was a Thursday the first (and thus far only) time we went. As described in a previous blog post, the Caveman Burger is “a yummy and indulgent burger featuring not only a ground beef patty, but butterflied links of smoked Andouille sausage and a helping of pulled pork, all topped with fried jalapenos, melted Monterey Jack cheese, and sweet BBQ sauce.” It’s exquisite, and everything else I tasted was also very, very good: the beef brisket, the mashed potatoes, the hush puppies, and even the French fries (which, let’s be honest, are not usually anything to crow about at BBQ restaurants). R&R is located in downtown SLC, which isn’t where Melanie and I spend a lot of time. That’s the only reason we haven’t gotten back to it yet, but we reminisce about it frequently enough.

Speaking of burgers, I tried some new burger places—or at least burger-friendly places—in ’15. I stuck to the grill side of the menu when my family visited Bumblebee’s BBQ & Grill. Bumblebee’s has a very high rating on Facebook, but I have to wonder if the votes haven’t been stacked. I’m hesitant even to say the food was fair. The hamburger patties looked and tasted like they had been frozen. Flavor was minimal. My burger purported to come with “blue cheese sauce,” but featured only melted cheese and was otherwise very dry. Only if you drizzled some BBQ sauce on something did it have much flavor. The fries were so-so. Melanie got sweet potato fries, and they also seemed like something that started off frozen and came from a package. The menu is divided into American and Korean cuisine, and maybe it’s the Korean side that is their specialty. I realize people have different tastes in food, but based on what I tried, I am sincerely baffled that anyone would consider this place better than okay.

Rich’s Burgers n’ Grub in downtown SLC was a winner. I’ve been only once and ran into a couple of snafus with them, but the food was high quality overall. I had the “Bacon Blue” burger, with gorgonzola (which was quite melted and oozy), bacon, and a squirt of blue cheese dressing. I threw on the tomatoes, pickles, and lettuce that came on the side. The result was messy, but tasty. On the side, my friend and I shared both the wings with buffalo sauce and an order of “Queso Fries.” The wings were unlike any I’ve had before, in that they weren’t wet at all but rather had almost like a dry rub to them. They were very crispy and tasted great. The Queso Fries had cheese sauce, diced tomatoes, and green chilis on them. Considering the toppings, the fries tasted fairly normal.

I’d put Citris Grill as my #2 discovery of 2015. A large group of us from Community of Christ went there one day after church services. Almost six months later to the day, I returned with a couple of friends. Both times I had the BBQ Burger, with BBQ sauce, smoked gouda, and bacon, all served on a rosette bun. I thought the burger was excellent, although I will admit that on my first visit, there was a very tiny piece of bone in mine. For many people, that would probably be a deal breaker. I assume (and hope) it was a fluke. I had no such problems on my return visit. You can tell that all of their food is very high quality just by looking at it, so I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt. I’d like to return here, not only for the burger but for some of the items listed on their breakfast menu, many of which sound absolutely delectable.

I should definitely mention Costa Vida in this post, since it’s the new place I’ve ended up eating at the most. You’d think that means I love it, but I don’t. Costa Vida is pretty much an exact knockoff of the monumentally popular Café Rio. How do the two compare? It depends on what you order. On my first trip to Costa Vida, I ordered nachos with steak. I’ve never had nachos at Café Rio—and I don’t think they even offer them. The steak nachos were very good and extremely filling. If nachos are your thing, Costa Vida is a good option. When it comes to anything else I’ve tried, Café Rio is the clear winner. And at this point, I’ve tried quite a bit of the Costa Vida menu—tacos, enchiladas, and burritos, with various types of meat. I’ve also had service problems on multiple visits. One location that we visited, in the middle of the day on a weekend mind you, was out of numerous items that we tried to order. Having been wooed on my first visit, I’ve since been repeatedly underwhelmed by Costa Vida. If you told me I could never eat there again, I would merely shrug.

Kneaders is another restaurant we’ve now tried a few times. Some of their stuff has been quite good, some of their stuff has been fine, but none of it has blown my mind. Someone told me the French Dip at Kneaders was the best sandwich in the world. It’s the first menu item I ordered from Kneaders, and I’m here to tell you, no, it absolutely is not the best sandwich in the world. It was just okay. There was not much meat on the sandwich at all—with a single, paper-thin layer of meat in some spots. The sandwich itself was also very dry. With a French Dip, crusty bread is great, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. It just seemed kind of old and stale, and the roast beef itself was not juicy. I’ve had more success with their soups. I can’t verify the exact name of their soups because they aren’t listed on the Kneaders website (fail!), but I’ve tried their loaded baked potato soup, their asiago soup, the red pepper gouda soup, and one called Autumn Bliss. I very much enjoyed the latter three. The potato soup was okay, but I’ve definitely had better.

I’ll conclude by talking about donuts. (Yay!) Back on National Donut Day (June 5th), Melanie and I decided to go out for donuts and chai lattes in the morning. The place we visited was called Zam Donuts. Their selection behind the counter was very, very slim, but I can only assume it was because of the “holiday.” The available donuts were almost all very basic, so I got a glazed (which was fine, nothing more) and a chocolate raised. Photos of their other donuts looked promising, but I don’t feel compelled to return—which is probably good, because the place has since gone out of business.

On the other side of town is a place called Fresh Donut & Deli. It’s a lame name, but it matters not. The donuts here are the best I’ve found in Utah. My family was quite in love with Donut Kingdom in Tallahassee, and I’m not sure Fresh Donut & Deli rivals our Florida favorites. But they come pretty damn close. Of special note are the glazed donuts. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Some people look at glazed donuts the way others look at vanilla ice cream—as inherently boring. And I grant that if a glazed donut isn’t excellent, it’s often not worth your time. But when you get a really good glazed donut, they are among the best donuts that will ever hit your tongue. The glazed donuts at Fresh Donut & Deli are of this caliber. It’s not just the flavor, it’s the texture. Words escape me. They are perfection. It’s a good thing they aren’t more conveniently located, or I’d be in some serious trouble. Seriously.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

2015 in Review: Books

This is the second in a series looking back on 2015.  Other entries will include movies, music, food, TV, and more.

Compared to the year previous, my reading totals took a severe hit in 2015.  Of course, 2014 was a remarkable year in which I read 58 books and nearly 14,000 pages.  For 2015, my total (according to Goodreads) was 31 books and 8,468 pages.  Yikes!  I’m not sure what happened, to be honest.  I was going strong during the first half of the year, but I feel like things slowed down dramatically after I returned from my summer stint in Nauvoo.  August and September won’t so bad, but I completed only two total books between September 22nd and December 31st, one of which was rather small.  I’m appalled.

Moving on, let’s take a look at what kinds of books I was reading in 2015.  Of the 31 books I read, half (15 of them) were fiction.  Of the 16 non-fiction books I read, 9 were books on Mormonism, broadly construed.  I say “broadly construed” because one such book was on RLDS / Community of Christ history, and these people do not view themselves as Mormon.  But you get the idea.  This reveals yet another drastic shift in my reading habits—only 29% of the total books I read, or 56% of my non-fiction selections, were on Mormonism.  This may have something to do with my conversion to Community of Christ, but was likely further influenced by my participation in a book club during some months of 2015.  I wasn’t always choosing, in an explicit sense, the books I was reading.

10 of the books on my list are books that I read with my children, not including picture books.  This also represents a slowdown in reading to my kids, which is sad.  After reading the Bunnicula series and some of its spin-offs in 2014, we’ve struggled to know what to read together.  For 2015, we latched onto the Fudge series by Judy Blume.  The boys quite enjoyed the books, but Mom and Dad did not relish them nearly as much as we did the Bunnicula series.  In fact, I gave two of the four Fudge books we read just two stars, and the other two I gave three stars.  (Bear in mind that, unlike movies, I rate books on a five-star system so as to coincide with Goodreads).  The best of the bunch was Superfudge, which we finished back in April.  I had the impression Blume is supposed to be a great author, but I didn’t think her writing was all that great.  Sometimes it was even on the poorer side.  This is certainly true when it comes to narrative flow.  One problem I had with the books was how episodic each of them felt.  It may be that Blume captures something about child psychology, and captures it well, but the characters themselves are rather flat.  I deem them fluffy entertainment.  My kids seemed to enjoy them, which is great, but I wouldn’t recommend them per se.

Aside from Blume, only two authors showed up on my annual reading list more than once.  One of them is another author of juvenile fiction, Louis Sachar.  With Melanie and the boys, I read both Holes and Sideways Stories from Wayside School.  Both were quite good.  We read the latter, which featured some very off-the-wall humor, while in Nauvoo.  I associate the book with sitting in the upstairs loft / bedroom of the Sidney Rigdon house, all three boys nestled into a single bed.  Sigh.  The other author to appear twice is Samuel Morris Brown.  He wrote one of three books I read last year to which I would give a superlative five-star rating.  That book is In Heaven as It Is on Earth: Joseph Smith and the Early Mormon Conquest of Death.  Published by Oxford University Press, In Heaven as It Is on Earth explores the influence of death on founding Mormon prophet Joseph Smith’s developing theology.  Brown argues that many developments in early Mormonism arose as the prophet Joseph both responded to and sought to overcome the prevalence of death around him—his brother, his own children, and so on.  It’s a captivating read.  Impressed by Brown’s earlier work, I excitedly picked up a copy of First Principles and Ordinances: The Fourth Article of Faith in Light of the Temple.  Even having left the LDS Church, I continue to find LDS temple theology and the development thereof to be quite fascinating.  Thus, I was quite disappointed by Brown’s book, to which I gave a low three stars.  My main beef was that the concepts Brown presented were not fleshed out enough to appreciate or make complete sense of.  As I said in my Goodreads review, “Brown draws some broad strokes with this book. They are intriguing enough that I want to stop and look at the picture he is painting, but I also wish he would come back and paint a bit more.”

Continuing with the theme of Mormonism, three of my favorite reads from the year dealt heavily with the issue of polygamy.  Richard S. Van Wagoner’s Mormon Polygamy: A History was originally published in 1986 but remains an excellent and extensive overview of Mormonism’s most infamous spiritual practice.  The book had quite an impact on me.  Prior to reading the book, I knew that Joseph Smith himself had practiced and yet publicly denied polygamy.  I knew he was, sadly, rather deceptive to his legal wife Emma regarding his polygamous relationships.  But I was shocked to learn just how pervasive and long-lasting the dishonesty surrounding polygamy was.  Extensively lying to the public, and even to their own church members, about polygamy continued with several of the LDS Church Presidents that followed Joseph.  I was also surprised to realize just how much of LDS culture today is influenced by its polygamous past.  Several times during my reading of the book, I saw connections between the behaviors being encouraged in the polygamous heyday of the 1800s and the modern Mormon mindset.  To cite just one example, the perpetuation of polygamy relied on convincing prospective plural wives that they should obey a church leader’s counsel no matter what, even if it didn’t sit well with them or they couldn’t understand why such a thing would be required.  I find it interesting that such a mentality continues quite strongly in the LDS tradition and yet is starkly absent from Community of Christ, which has always decried, and in fact owes its existence in large part to its denunciation of, polygamy.

Another great read is Linda King Newell and Valeen Tippets Avery’s Mormon Enigma: Emma Hale Smith.  Also written in the 1980s, Mormon Enigma remains the preeminent biography of Joseph Smith’s only legal wife, Emma.  As one would expect, polygamy factors heavily into the book.  I’d deem the book a must-read, even though the writing sometimes annoyed me.  The content itself is excellent, but things aren’t always communicated clearly, and sometimes stories are thrown into the mix that seem like asides and not entirely relevant to the discussion at hand.  On very rare occasions, the authors also appear biased toward a pro-LDS interpretation of events that isn’t adequately supported by the text.  You may also find it interesting to know that, if you go to Nauvoo and take a tour of the historic sites owned by Community of Christ, a great deal of what you’ll hear can be found in Mormon Enigma.


The final book on polygamy that I read is The Polygamous Wives Writing Club by Paula Kelly Harline.  Harline’s book, published in 2014, offers a fascinating peek into polygamy as it was lived among the average—that is to say, non-elite—members of the early LDS Church.  The book is comprised largely of diary entries and the like from the plural wives of rank-and-file LDS men.  These are not the women who were married to apostles and prophets, but those married to normal folk.  By reading this book, you get an idea of what it was like for those women who practiced “celestial marriage” as part of an otherwise very normal, very routine life—which is not to suggest that these women were content in their situations.  Despite being published by Oxford University Press, The Polygamous Wives Writing Club is a very approachable read, suitable for non-scholastics as well as those with a more academic bent.  Early in the book, I feared a little too much speculation was creeping into the commentary supplied by the author, but it’s easy enough to overlook such things as one wishes.  It’s a very worthwhile read.

I mentioned above that I was part of a book club in 2015.  More specifically, it was the Salt Lake City congregation of Community of Christ book club (not an official title).  I haven’t read every month’s selection, and I’m uncertain I’ll continue with the club at this point in time, but book club accounts for four of last year’s reads, plus one book that I read most of during December but didn’t officially complete until after the new year (disqualifying it from this list).   The first such book I read was Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I got the impression that everyone else in book club had gone goo-goo ga-ga over this book, but I found it rather middle of the road—for the same reason, I think, that two other hugely popular book club selections didn’t really resonate with me.  They feel like fluff pieces to me.  There really isn’t much depth to them at all.  They might contain a handful of quotes worth remembering, although even those are often only the caliber of something you’d see on a motivational poster or passed around on Facebook as part of some feel-good meme.  And that seems to be the aim of these books: to make you feel good and motivated.  Problem is, they seem to rehash their own ideas over and over and over again without ever diving too deeply below the surface.  The other books that fall into this category are The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown (which I enjoyed even less than Pastrix) and the book I finished last week and so can’t officially count (Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor).

Two of the book club selections I read were actually pretty good.  I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, which tells the story of The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (as the subtitle reminds you) is undeniably engaging.  How can you not be pulled into such a story?  And yet the writing itself is not particularly memorable.  There were moments when it seemed obvious the reader was getting much more of Lamb’s journalistic voice than Malala’s own.  There were also moments when the things being said felt obligatory, motivated by public relations, and/or otherwise mildly contrived.  You can’t go wrong reading it, but it’s not a story that’s worthwhile because of the way it’s told.

My favorite book club selection of 2015 turned out to be Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk who argues that, at their core, Buddhism and Christianity are really teaching the same things.  I’m very much drawn toward ecumenical and interfaith types of ideas, and I’m a universalist at heart.  It’s easy to see why I would like this book better than some of the others.  There is also a great deal more wisdom—honest-to-goodness wisdom, folks—packed into this book, gems like:

To “love our enemy” is impossible, because the moment we love him, he is no longer our enemy.

And here is, I believe, an excellent and beautiful defense of religious pluralism:

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango.  The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits.  Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them.  Only their manifestations are different.  Authentic experience makes a religion a true tradition.  Religious experience is, above all, human experience.  If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love.  The similarities as well as the differences are there.  They differ only in terms of emphasis.  Glucose and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ.  We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not.

Now let’s move on to the best of the best, from both fiction and non-fiction.

My absolute favorite read of the year, which also happens to be non-fiction, is Joseph Smith III: Pragmatic Prophet by Roger D. Launius.  I finished Pragmatic Prophet in early May, shortly after I had officially become a member of Community of Christ.  I wanted to learn more about the first president of the church after the death of founding prophet, Joseph Smith (Jr.).  I had grown up accepting Brigham Young as Smith’s rightful successor, but the more I’ve learned about Young over the years, the more horrified I’ve become.  Reading Pragmatic Prophet was an eye-opening experience, not only because I knew next to nothing about the so-called succession crisis or the early days of what became known as the RLDS Church, but because Joseph Smith III provides such an astoundingly stark contrast to the man I had always believed rightfully held the title of prophet and president after Joseph Smith’s death.  The difference between the two men is truly astonishing.  I fell in love with Joseph Smith III while reading this scholarly work, published by University of Illinois Press.  He was a humble and sincere man who sought to do only what he truly felt God wanted him to do.  Especially powerful to me were the dreams and/or visions of Joseph Smith III that seem so clearly to foretell of the two distinct paths that the LDS and the RLDS churches would take.  Pragmatic Prophet solidified for me the notion that God is and always has been a part of the RLDS / Community of Christ tradition, no matter how much God has also been involved in LDS history.  I’m not the type of person that would want to limit God’s influence to only one of the two churches, but not everyone would be as generous as I.

Other highly recommendable works of non-fiction:
  • The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
  • Yes Please by Amy Poehler
  •  Standing Apart: Mormon Historical Consciousness and the Concept of Apostasy by Miranda Wilcox and John D. Young, Editors

The best work of fiction I read in 2015 is Brady Udall’s 2001 novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint.  It’s a quirky, depressively humorous book that features a catchy story and an even catchier voice in main character and narrator, Edgar Mint.  Edgar is the perpetual victim who never sees himself as such, even when a mailman accidentally runs over his head with a mail truck at the age of seven.  Edgar is, understandably, a little odd from that point forward, but he’s someone you’ll love spending time with.  Now, it’s true that Edgar spends some of his time in a Mormon foster-family, but I promise that’s not the only reason I liked this book.

Other highly recommendable works of fiction:
  • The Boy Who Drew Monsters by Keith Donahue  (One of the most genuinely creepy “scary” books I’ve ever read!)
  • Heroes of the Dustbin by Tyler Whitesides
  • Finders Keepers by Stephen King

Friday, January 08, 2016

2015 in Review: Movies

This is the first in a series looking back on 2015.  Other entries will include books, music, food, TV, and more.

In 2014, I saw 147 movies I hadn’t seen before.  In 2015, I saw a whopping 182.  Here is a breakdown of how many movies would receive how many stars, if I were to rate them using a standard four-star system where four stars is the best and zero stars is the worst:

**** = 9
***½ = 20
*** = 41
**½ = 40
** = 42
*½ = 14
* = 10
Zero = 5
(Unreviewed = 1)

Average movie rating:  **½

Despite watching nearly 24% more movies this year than last, I saw 25% fewer four-star movies.  On the other hand, I saw 400% more zero-star movies.  Perhaps I was being extra judgmental.  More likely, I was not being picky enough in what I watched.

Like last year, I will now revisit the highs and lows (and a few in-betweens) of my 2015 movie-watching experience, based on genre.


Drama

One of the top five films I saw in 2014 was Short Term 12 starring Brie Larson.  The best 2015 film I saw (although not necessarily the best film that I saw in 2015) also stars Brie Larson and is called RoomRoom is the story of a mother and her young son (played by Jacob Tremblay), who have spent the last several years—the entirety of the boy’s life, in fact—locked in a kidnapper’s shed.  The boy doesn’t even know that a world beyond the interior walls of the shed exists.  While elements of Room may strain credibility, Larson’s and Tremblay’s performances are mesmerizing and the film grew more impressive and nuanced upon reflection than I first gave it credit.  What initially struck me as shortcomings of the film I now believe were purposeful and brilliant.  Without giving too much away, I believe the filmmakers wanted the viewers, like the boy at the center of the film, to have a confined experience of the world within the film.

I was also captivated by The Stanford Prison Experiment, a dramatization of the infamous psychological experiment of the early 1970s.  Critics weren’t wild about the film, but I found it harrowing and engrossing.  Some might complain that, given the subject matter, this movie doesn’t plumb the psychology of its characters enough.  But I thought the objective, empirical—call it cold if you like—approach was very effective.  This is a story that doesn’t require a heavy-handed musical score or an eloquent speech in order to convey the gravitas of the situation it portrays.  The facts speak for themselves.

Love & Mercy is another 2015 release, a biopic about Beach Boys genius Brian Wilson.  Calling the film a biopic may be a bit misleading, since the film revolves around two fairly limited timeframes in Wilson’s life: the writing, recording, and release of Pet Sounds, and Brian’s romance with Melinda Ledbetter in the 1980s, a relationship nearly suffocated by Brian’s abusive psychiatric caretaker, Dr. Eugene Landy.  The filmmakers chose to cast two different actors to portray Brian in these different eras: Paul Dano as 1960s Brian, and John Cusack as 1980s Brian.  Dano is brilliant, but Cusack—whom I once considered a favorite actor but who has starred mostly in duds over the last couple of decades—is also commendable.  I’ve now seen the film twice, and while I worried Cusack’s version of Brian was too opaque upon my first viewing, my second viewing convinced me that this is one of the best films of 2015.

When it comes to more mainstream filmmakers—those whose films have broad appeal and tend to be released by the big studios—Robert Zemeckis has long been a favorite of mine.  He’s the man behind such classics as Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Contact, Cast Away, and the Back to the Future trilogy.  In 2015, Zemeckis gave us The Walk, a dramatization of high-wire artist Philippe Petit’s unauthorized tightrope walk between the newly opened World Trade Center towers.  This stunt was the topic of the excellent 2008 documentary Man on Wire, where Petit himself told the majority of his own story.  Zemeckis attempts to replicate the documentary feel by having Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s version of Petit narrate the film, often speaking directly to the camera.  In the case of The Walk, it is a hindrance.  I found the constant interruptions and shifts in narrative tone distracting as they repeatedly pulled you out of the story.  As a result, the film was less dramatic than it should have been.  That being said, I have never experienced so much anxiety watching a movie as I did during the final act of The Walk.  It was almost unbearable, and credit must be given to Zemeckis.  In the end, I gave it a very hesitant ***½.

Some of the very best dramas I saw in 2015 were released in previous years.  Per usual, I spent the early part of the year catching up on the critically acclaimed and awards-nominated films of the previous year.  I was not disappointed.  2014 Best Picture nominees Boyhood, Whiplash, and American Sniper were all four-star movies in my book.  Foxcatcher was an eerily despondent film that garnered Steve Carell a Best Actor nomination for his portrayal of real-life multimillionaire John E. DuPont.  As powerful as Foxcatcher was, I think the Best Actor nomination should have gone to Jake Gyllenhaal for his performance in the superior film Nightcrawler.

2014 also gave us Wild and Calvary.  Critics weren’t as unanimously impressed with these two films, but they were among the top 10 or so films I saw within the last year.  Meanwhile, I wasn’t quite as enamored of 2014 Best Picture nominee The Imitation Game as my fellow moviegoers seemed to be.  I thought it was very good, but didn’t strike an appropriate balance between what became the two central plots of the film.  The ending felt, to me, as though the movie veered off in an entirely different direction, and not in a surprising or good way.


Comedy

The best comedy of 2015 was Spy.  I was shocked at how much I enjoyed the film, which received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Comedy.  It is the only straight-up comedy that I saw in 2015 to which I would give more than three stars.  However, I found myself smitten by several comedy-blends, as I shall call them—comedies that quailed just as much to fit into other categories, such as action or horror.  Kingsman: The Secret Service struck me as James Bond meets Kick-Ass, and it was only after I made this comparison that I learned Kick-Ass was brought to you by the same writers and director as Kingsman.  The film contains rampant and comically gratuitous violence, with Samuel L. Jackson as the lisping super villain who projectile vomits at the sight of blood.  How can you not love it?  In a similar vein, American Ultra is essentially a hard-R, stoner version of the NBC series Chuck.  In the lead roles are two of the most one-note actors in existence, Jesse Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, and yet they seemed perfectly cast here.  (This is probably the only time I’ve enjoyed Eisenberg outside of The Social Network, in fact.)  Neither Kingsman nor American Ultra received much love from critics, especially the latter, but I loved them.  Slightly more mediocre was the horror comedy Cooties, the joint creative effort of Ian Brennan, writer for TVs Glee, and Leigh Whannell, who wrote several of the Saw films.  Cooties is everything you’d expect from such a whacky combination of writers, and it provides persistent campy fun.  I wouldn’t give Cooties more than three stars, but something tells me it has a high replay value.

If you’re looking for something a little more cerebral and kooky, might I recommend Frank.  I gave Frank three stars, but there is something surprisingly deep and poignant about this bizarre film.  It is the story of Jon, a keyboardist who joins a band headed by lead singer Frank, a man who wears a giant papier-mâché head almost 24 hours per day.  Like I said, it’s kooky.  But Frank speaks to more issues than meets the eye—it is an examination of celebrity, of creativity, of self-esteem and self-doubt, and maybe even of religion.  It’s a very engaging piece of independent film.


Animated Films

It used to be that animated films were often among the best films of the year.  That just isn’t the case anymore.  I saw several animated films in 2015, but only two garner a solid recommendation from me.  One solid three-star film is Shaun the Sheep Movie, a big-screen adaptation of the stop-motion animation TV series, brought to us by the same folks who did Wallace & Gromit and Chicken Run.  While it may not be the funniest film these people have done, it was an improvement over 2012’s The Pirates! Band of Misfits.  The other animated film I gave three stars, though barely so, was The Book of Life.  It had a few solid jokes, and its unique animation style was both captivating and fun—albeit at times it was visually much too busy.

I saw a bunch of animated films I’d give two-and-a-half stars, which makes them minimally recommendable.  They include The Boxtrolls, Hotel Transylvania 2 (which I slept through much of, so take my recommendation very lightly), the CGI/real-life hybrid Paddington, and Home, which was much less annoying than I expected it to be.  I was disappointed with The Peanuts Movie, to which I gave two stars.  The film was simple and sweet, which is refreshing in this day and age, and I loved the blend of computer animation and what appeared to be hand-drawn facial features of the Peanuts gang.  But the sweet simplicity and classic Peanuts feel were largely accomplished by recycling old bits from past TV specials and consistently failing to tread new ground.  There wasn’t much to the film at all, really, and so it was kind of boring.


Documentaries

I didn’t see any absolutely outstanding documentaries in 2015, but I saw some good ones.  One of the best is I Am Chris Farley, about the rise and fall of the beloved comedian and Saturday Night Live alumnus.  One could argue that the film is more of a eulogy than a documentary, but it’s a touching and sensitive one, and fans of Farley are sure to appreciate it.  To be fair, the film must be faulted as a documentary for not veering into the dark side of Farley’s life.  The movie practically avoids saying what Farley’s actual problem was, relying (it seems) on viewers to bring that basic understanding with them.  Questions are raised and things alluded to, but the film fails to explore them.

My favorite documentary that I saw in 2015 was 2007’s Young@Heart.  It follows the Young at Heart Chorus in Northampton, MA, a group of enthusiastic, geriatric crooners whose average age is 81.  But these folks aren’t singing show tunes.  They’re singing punk rock songs from The Ramones and The Clash, belting out James Brown, and doing their best to wrap their minds, ears, and vocal chords around the weirdness of Sonic Youth.  It’s a must-see.

Other recommendable documentaries include 2014’s An Honest Liar and 2015’s Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.  The latter is biased and not a terrific documentary, but it is eye-opening and compelling.


Thrillers

Nightcrawler, which I already mentioned in the drama section above, is the only thriller I saw in 2015 to which I would give four stars.  However, there were some superb thrillers that came just half-a-star shy of a perfect score.  Blue Ruin is an exercise in patient intensity, the story of a man who seeks revenge for the murder of his parents and ends up at war with another family.  The film is both powerful and original, if not a bit light on actual story.  I also found The Drop—featuring one of James Gandolfini’s final screen roles—to be a very strong film, though critics found it only mildly recommendable on the whole.  Locke is another great thriller.  Actually, I’m not sure it is a thriller in the proper sense.  Pretty much the entire film takes place inside a car with only one character visible onscreen, Ivan Locke, who receives phone call after phone call after phone call that fuels his anxiety and ours.  The tension that mounts is palpable, and given the film’s narrative monotony, it is surprising just how effective, gripping, and poignant it turns out to be.


Foreign Film

The Swedish film We Are the Best! finished in the top ten of movies I saw in 2015.  The story is set in 1980s Stockholm, where a trio of teen—maybe even preteen?—girls decide to form a punk band.  The film is do damned earnest and the characters so genuine, you’ll think you’re watching a documentary half the time.  It’s a great coming of age story, far from the typical fare, and well worth your time.  I implore you to check it out.  You’ll find yourself cheering for the would-be anarchists by the end of the movie.

Also hailing from Sweden, 2014’s Force Majeure is a deft, hard-hitting examination of human psychology.  On a ski trip to the French Alps, Ebba, her husband Tomas, and their children are nearly swept away by an avalanche.  When the near-disaster subsides, Ebba and Tomas remember the incident differently—and are haunted by the potential ramifications.  It may not sound like much, but Force Majeure is in the top 6% of movies I saw in 2015.  Pensive, if not a bit slow, the film is so realistic in its exchanges and humanity that you’ll fear what it reveals about you.  It also features some powerful cinematography.  Check it out.


Sci-fi, Superheroes, and the Like

Maybe my memory is faulty, but science fiction seemed to have greater representation among movies I watched in 2015 than it has in many years previous.  Thankfully, many of those films were quite good.  Ex Machina is one of the top two or three films of 2015 that I saw and is within the top ten films of any year that I watched during the past twelve months.  The basic storyline is nothing new, centering on the possibility of human-like consciousness in androids run on artificial intelligence.  But writer and director Alex Garland manages to give this familiar motif a very fresh coat of paint.  It is a subdued, engrossing, stylish, and thought-provoking film.

The Martian was among 2015’s strongest Hollywood movies, meaning a movie with big-name celebrities, a large production budget, and that thrives on mass appeal.  While I gave the film three-and-a-half stars and ranked it among the top five 2015 films and top fifteen overall films that I saw last year, I must admit I am surprised by its slew of award nominations, including three for the Golden Globes.  Many scenes felt pandering, and there was one moment in particular that struck me as so absurd and unbelievable that it almost ruined the whole movie.  Nevertheless, it is a highly entertaining flick.

Just a notch below The Martian, I ranked 2014’s Interstellar.  While it isn’t my favorite Christopher Nolan flick, I was impressed.  Further down the list you’ll find I Origins and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, two solidly commendable three-star films from 2014.  2015’s Chappie warranted only two-and-a-half stars from me, but it leaves a lasting impression.  It was Short Circuit meets Robocop, and everything good and bad that you can imagine of such a thing.  The plot and supporting characters could’ve been more richly developed, but Chappie himself was a well-developed and engaging character.

A lot of big films fell disappointingly flat in this category.  Most of them were mildly enjoyable but far from being the epic films we’ve come to expect of superhero and franchise films.  I’m thinking here of Jurassic World, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Ant-Man.  All of these were decent, but that’s about as enthusiastic as I can get.  Fortunately, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 proved an exception and brought its franchise back to form after a very disappointing Part 1.  I still gave the second Mockingjay installment only three stars, but it provided a satisfactory conclusion to the immensely popular series.


Classics

I branched out a bit more in 2015 than I typically do in terms of seeing older films.  It’s not that I purposely avoid older films, but it’s true that I see them only somewhat rarely.  Several of the classics I saw were very good or better.  Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver is deserving of its four-star reputation.  From 1957, Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal was interesting.  I thought it was extremely good, but I’d like to see it again to see if I can appreciate it even more.  It wasn’t quite what I thought it would be.  1989’s Crimes and Misdemeanors was just one of several Woody Allen films I saw this year, and certainly the best of the lot.

Another well-reviewed classic I saw for the first time in 2015 was 1958’s Vertigo.  I have to say, as good a film as it was, it is undeniably dated.  And by “dated,” I mean there are elements of it that simply are not holding up well.  This doesn’t happen with every old movie.  It isn’t unavoidable.  Another Hitchcock film, Psycho, remains one of my favorite films of all time, and I think it is one of the most perfectly made films I’ve ever seen.  In contrast, I felt very iffy about Vertigo, which at times is downright melodramatic.  This is another one I wouldn’t mind re-watching and seeing if I find it any better.

I also saw a couple of “second tier classics,” as I’ll call them.  They weren’t as strong as the films above, but they were good.  Included here is 1971’s The French Connection.  It wasn’t all that strong on plot or character development, but you can see in retrospect how it was influential.  I think that’s why it’s so critically acclaimed, but watching it in 2015, it’s nothing amazing.  There is something very organically gritty about it, but the machismo feels passé.

The other good but not terrific classic I saw was the 1960 version of The Little Shop of Horrors.  It was both clever and funny, and I was impressed by how much I enjoyed it, considering it is 55 years old.  I guess I don’t expect comedies to hold up nearly so well over time.


The Overrated, The Underrated

There are always several movies per year that I watch only to be baffled by the critical reception those movies received.  Sometimes I cannot understand why a movie was given such high praise, and sometimes I don’t understand why a movie went so unappreciated.  As a policy, I look at the critical reviews only after I’ve assessed and rated the film according to my own standards.  Usually, I am not too wildly out of synch with the critical consensus—which, for the record, I am basing on the website Metacritic, which provides an aggregate score between 1 and 100 that averages the major critic’s reviews.  If a movie receives a Metascore of 50, that means that on average, movie critics placed the film right in the middle of whatever their ranking system happens to be: two out of four stars, two-and-a-half out of five stars, 5 out of 10, etc.  The films I discuss below were overrated or underrated based on comparing my review to the film’s Metascore.  It’s worth noting that I do not mention in this section any movie that I gave one star or fewer, since pretty much all of those were overrated in my book.  I’ll discuss those movies in the next section of this post.

The Disney musical Into the Woods received a Metascore of 69, suggesting a consensus of mildly favorable reviews.  I gave the film one-and-a-half stars.  I didn’t know it was based on an actual stage play until after I watched the movie, but that’s where the troubles begin.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, stage plays turned into movies all too easily suck.  That’s because there is a difference in style between a stage play and a movie, and if your movie feels too much like an actual stage play, it comes across terribly.  Into the Woods is a great example.  You can tell they got nothing extra out of it by turning it into a movie—in which case, why bother?  The onscreen scenery is mostly just people surrounded by trees, looking at each other as they sing.  Pretty boring.  And the songs were both incessant and meandering.  Not a memorable melody in the bunch.  It sounded like songs that someone with modest talent might improvise on the spot.

Also overrated was the film sci-fi action thriller Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson who turns into something like the Bionic Woman when a bag of strange drugs inadvertently gets into her system.  Though the film featured some interesting philosophical elements, it was embarrassingly ridiculous at many parts.  I gave the film one-and-a-half stars, a far cry from its Metascore of 61.

One of the most baffling movies to make this list is Snowpiercer.  This futuristic, dark, dystopian film where the planet’s only remaining human beings live and die in a caste system society housed entirely on a continuously moving train—no joke—has a Metascore of 84.  This means the film averages nearly a three-and-a-half star rating on a four-star rating scale.  This means that many critics gave the film four stars, finding it excellent.  I thought it barely warranted two stars, noting that it is “stylistically melodramatic” and “often rather ridiculous.”  This one is a head-scratcher for sure.

Listen Up Phillip has a solid Metascore of 76.  It is the story of a bitter, self-absorbed writer.  It is extremely dull and tedious, and I couldn’t give it more than two stars.  I struggle to articulate why it is that some movies that excel in realism and don’t have much going on can be so damn good while others seem like pretentious BS.  Listen Up Phillip is more the latter, unfortunately.  I’m sure it didn’t help that the film had a very dry tone, complete with bland, matter-of-fact narration, all too reminiscent of 1970s educational filmstrips that people my age had to endure in elementary school.

Yet another highly overrated movie is Two Days, One Night, which received a whole slew of awards nominations (and wins), including a Best Actress Academy Award nomination for Marion Cotillard.  The film centers on the character of Sandra (Cotillard), a woman who has lost her job to a vote.  It seems her coworkers would prefer a pay raise to keeping Sandra around.  With limited time to reverse the decision, Two Days, One Night follows Sandra as she goes about town, hunting down her coworkers and begging them to reconsider.  It is quite literally as interesting a movie as watching someone go door-to-door trying to get people to sign a petition—because that’s almost literally what the movie is.  Were there good performances?  Sure.  But it’s not as if there’s enough character development for us to care or even feel all that invested in Sandra’s campaign.  She doesn’t even seem that passionate about it herself.  And the interactions she has quickly feel like a broken record, with almost every conversation going through the exact same routine and pattern of comments.  I don’t get the hype.  At all.  Somehow this movie has a Metascore of 89.

And of course, I must mention Mad Max: Fury Road.  It has become one of the most acclaimed films of 2015, with award nominations aplenty and an impressive Metascore of 89.  I concur that the film had some absolutely spectacular visuals—but that’s where my praise ends.  Fury Road is a lobotomizing film that made me question the consistency of the movie critics who sung its praises with such enthusiasm.  I could easily see a movie just like this being absolutely panned if it came from a director critics weren’t too keen on.  Stylistically, I saw Fury Road as a cross between the films of Baz Luhrmann and Rob Zombie.  Curious, I looked up old reviews of Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge, and some of the complaints lodged against it seemed entirely fitting of Fury Road.  Why certain things are ingenious in one movie but dead weight in another, I shall never know.  I give Fury Road a very high two-star rating, but can’t say I’d recommend it.

When it comes to underrated movies, Jason Reitman’s 2014 film Men, Women & Children carries a Metascore of 38, suggesting it warrants one-and-a-half stars on a four-star rating system.  I gave the film three stars.  As a cautionary tale about the dangers of social media, the movie is perhaps a bit too bleak and pessimistic.  I could see some depressing plot developments coming from a mile away.  And yet, despite its depressive myopia, Men, Women & Children remains believable and features very strong performances from its large ensemble cast.

Including Men, Women & Children, I saw more Adam Sandler movies this year than I probably ever have.  I’ll discuss several of them throughout this blog post.  One such movie is The Cobbler, with Sandler as a shoe repairman who discovers a magical relic that allows him to take on the appearance of any other human—provided he is wearing the other person’s shoes.  (Deep stuff, man!)  It’s a bit hokey, and for being a fairytale, it’s a bit dark and amoral.  But all things considered, Sandler gave a decent performance and the movie was surprisingly enjoyable.  I can only assume critics were all too eager to dump on anything involving Sandler, and I can understand why that would be a matter of habit for them.  But for all this film’s flaws—and I admit that the weak yet overdone ending was a major one—it wasn’t that bad.

I promise I didn’t realize when I started writing this that the first three underrated films of the year would star Adam Sandler.  But the next film on my underrated list is Pixels.  Now, I didn’t think Pixels was a cinematic masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination.  But a Metascore of 27 suggests the film is outright bad from start to finish.  And it was better than that.  For those of us with a soft spot for 1980s arcade games, it could even be sort of fun.  Dumb, yes, but fun.

Moving away from Adam Sandler, I thought Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was an okay popcorn flick.  Sometimes I think it helps when you go into a movie with very low expectations, as I did with this one.  Could it have been better?  Undoubtedly.  Could the turtles have had more personality?  For sure.  But goodness gracious, what can you really expect of a movie like this?  I think critics had already decided it was a piece of crap before they watched it, which explains the movie’s low Metascore of 31.

Quality wise, the 2014 version of Annie was pretty much on par with TMNT.  Thus, I considered it mildly recommendable, while critical reviews resulted in a Metascore in the low 30s.  As a kid, I was quite a fan of the 1982 film starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett.  I honestly don’t believe any of that carried over into my lukewarm appreciation of the 21st-century reboot, however.  This latest big screen adaptation is Annie for the auto-tune generation, featuring new, modern-sounding songs (that I could have done without) in addition to the slightly hip-hop-ified classics.  The biggest problem for me was that neither Annie nor Will Stacks (re: Daddy Warbucks) were as lovable as they could’ve been, and Annie’s time with Stacks didn’t come off as being as magical or significant to her as it should have.  All of that being said, I think the film is bound to resonate with younger audiences—and maybe even a few adults.



The Worst of the Worst

If you’re an avid movie watcher, seeing a bad film now and again comes with the territory.  But there’s a difference between a bad movie and an absolutely terrible one.  Every year, I see one or two movies that leave me sincerely baffled as to how something so awful can exist.  2015 was no exception.  I saw five total films that I gave zero stars, which is a 400% increase over my 2014 viewings.  Not good.  Sadly, I also saw ten one-star films, which is one more than 2014.  That’s a lot more crap than I’d prefer, but at least it gives me something to say at this point in my blog post.  In the interest of time, I will limit my discussion to five films: the worst film of 2015, and the four worst films I saw in addition to that (regardless of year).

Based on the limited number of 2015 releases that I saw, my vote for the absolute worst film of 2015 is Vacation.  I have to admit, I was kind of excited at the idea of a Vacation reboot, and I appreciated that the reboot wasn’t actually a remake but a legitimate sequel focusing on an adult Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) taking his own family on a road trip to Walley World.  Sadly, the film was awful.  It was vulgar, offensive, and unfunny.  It felt like a collection of brainstormed skits held together by the thinnest of plots.  I don’t know if it made enough money to warrant a continuation of the series, but at this point, I’m sincerely hoping not.

The absolute worst films I saw were not released in 2015.  I gave Vacation one star, but the remaining films in my list were given zero stars.  They are as follows:

Brother’s Justice.  Dax Shepard tries his hand at making a mockumentary, and he does a terrible, terrible job.  This movie was extremely, extremely boring.  It follows Shepard as himself, shopping around the idea for an action movie (also titled Brother’s Justice) wherein he will be the star.  And that’s the joke, folks.  If you’re not laughing already, seeing the movie won’t help.  Shephard apparently finds the idea that he could be an action star quite hilarious, since that is pretty much the only joke this movie makes.  Again and again and again.  Too much of the film is spent talking in earnest about making Brother’s Justice (the one you’re not actually watching), as though that idea alone is supposed to entertain us.  There aren’t jokes being made, per se, which means Shepard honestly thought the proposed film within the film, and the very thought of him starring in it, was hilarious enough on its own—which it absolutely isn’t.

Adam Sandler’s Eight Crazy Nights.  You knew Adam Sandler would have to show up again, didn’t you?  Well, here he is.  Sort of.  Eight Crazy Nights is an animated holiday film from 2002, a film that exists presumably only because Sandler was quite the box office success at the time.  And what do you do when you’re a box office success and can do whatever you want?  Make an animated movie, I guess.  All I know is the movie doesn’t exist because it had a funny script or a clever plot.  Anyone capable of writing a screenplay could’ve written this.  It is all so obvious and easy and unimaginative and juvenile.  Rare, if ever, is the humor not scatological or offensive and at the expense of some group of people—fat people, epileptics, the transgendered, etc.  Per usual, we’ve got chauvinism, with female characters being incredibly flat (except for their breasts).  We’ve got scenes of deer defecating, explicitly and with a straight-on view of stools exiting the body.  We’ve got scenes of people covered in feces, or farting, or with snot all over their faces, or peeing their pants, or literally eating jock straps.  It’s a smorgasbord of weak, adolescent humor that I’m not sure even adolescents would find all that amusing.

Maps to the Stars.  Strictly speaking, this one is actually the most overrated movie I saw in 2015.  While I give it zero stars, it has a Metascore of 67.  Now that’s some batshit craziness right there.  I don’t even know what to say about this movie.  An anonymous person summarizes the movie at IMDb as follows: “A tour into the heart of a Hollywood family chasing celebrity, one another and the relentless ghosts of their pasts.”  Great, I have nothing more to add.  This is one of those weird independent films that seems so pretentious and full of crap, and yet many critics eat it up and beg for more.  I don’t know what to make of it.  I honestly think some critics think something is brilliant if it just doesn’t make much sense.  That’s what we’ve got here.

And the absolute worst movie I’ve seen in the last twelve months is Open Windows.  The thriller stars Elijah Wood as Nick, a devoted fan of movie starlet Jill Goddard (Sasha Grey).  Nick wins a contest that is supposed to result in having dinner with Jill, but while getting ready in his hotel room, the dinner plans are canceled via phone call by Chord, a man identifying himself as Jill’s manager. As a consolation prize, the questionable Chord explains that he can hack into Nick’s laptop computer and livestream footage of Jill in her own hotel room.  Nick is unsure at first, but eventually accepts the offer.  And from there, things spiral out of control, with Nick becoming a pawn in a game of life-and-death.  It sounds much more promising than it is.  It’s incomprehensible to me that anyone would give this film more than one star.  It’s truly one of the absolute shittiest films I’ve ever seen.  It is so unbelievably outrageous and absurd, and the acting is atrocious.  I felt like I was watching a video game from the early 1990s, one that was really high-tech at the time (with real actors and everything!) but is just embarrassing now.  Everything about the movie seemed so incredibly staged and choreographed and, in the case of dialogue, pre-recorded.  Rarely did anyone sound like they were really talking to another person rather than reading something off of a piece of paper, alone in some isolated sound booth somewhere.  It was just unbelievable.  And so excruciatingly convoluted.  Like I said, it’s one of the worst films I have ever seen.  Ever.  I’m in disbelief.  Utter and total disbelief.


Here’s to the hope of good movie watching in 2016!