Saturday, January 17, 2015

2014 in Review: Television

This is part five in a series reviewing 2014. Previous entries include those on books, food, movies, and music.

2014 was a crappy year for network television, but living as we do in an age when almost every TV show ever made is available at any time to be watched on thousands of devices that aren’t even televisions, it hardly matters. There is no longer a good excuse for not devoting some of your time to quality television. Melanie and I did our part. Here are the hits and misses along the way from our 2014 television journey.

Fox's Mulaney proved a crappy piece of crap.
I’ll start with the misses so we can end on a high note—and yes, there were misses aplenty. I think this is the first year in recent memory when I didn’t become attached to any new network television programs. A couple were okay (which I’ll discuss below), but some were downright terrible. I could only tolerate one episode of Mulaney, a show I watched with some hope due to the talent involved. Well, that might be overstating things just a bit, but stars John Mulaney and Nasim Pedrad both had connections to Saturday Night Live that buoyed my interest. Pedrad was a solid performer on SNL while Mulaney was a writer. As an actor, Mulaney proved absolutely terrible, which is a key reason that Mulaney the show just was not watchable. Acting was not the problem with Selfie, an ABC sitcom that has thankfully been canceled. Don’t get me wrong, the acting wasn’t good, it’s just that the characters themselves were so unappealing. Karen Gillan starred as a self-obsessed woman who enlists the help of a marketing man (played by John Cho) to become more likable. Eh, that’s sort of an inadequate description, but the thought of devoting more of my time to the show sickens me. Let’s move on.

Neither Here Nor There
A lot of shows were fairly middle of the road. They didn’t garner enough interest to keep us watching. Red Band Society is among the best shows that we didn’t stick with. It’s a drama about critically ill children who live in a hospital. It, too, has been canceled, but we didn’t even finish the initial run. It’s good enough that I haven’t completely disregarded the idea of watching the remaining episodes if ever I find myself with a lot of time on my hands and nothing better to do—which is highly improbable. A to Z is another show we didn’t keep up with, although we also haven’t deleted it from our Hulu queue just yet. The gimmick of this sitcom is that it’s supposed to chronicle the two leads’ entire relationship over the course of the series. You don’t know if they end up together or apart at the end, which supposedly is meant to keep you in suspense. But it’s not suspenseful enough, I guess, because A to Z is yet another show that has already been canceled. For me, the problem is that the main characters aren’t fleshed out enough for us to give a rat’s ass as to whether or not they end up together.

Some of the shows we tried are rather popular but failed to win us over. We watched a few episodes of House and were adequately entertained, but Melanie and I just don’t much care for TV shows that are so darn … well, episodic. (Ironic, right?) If the main story doesn’t continue from episode to episode, we lose interest, and that was the case with House. Boardwalk Empire, on the other hand, definitely has a continuing storyline, but after having it on my must-see list for years, it didn’t draw me in. It’s baffling, really. Steve Buscemi? Check. Mafia storyline? Check. Produced by HBO? Check. I don’t know why I didn’t get into it enough to continue, but maybe I’ll check it out again someday.

Melanie and I did watch the entire series The Riches, about a con-artist vagabond family who take over a classy suburban house when the legal owners (who have not yet moved in or met their neighbors) die unexpectedly. The series lasted only 20 episodes and was so-so. In the role of the main character, Eddie Izzard struggled with his American accent, which was both strange and bothersome. He was one of the show’s writers and executive producers, but he wasn’t ideal for the part, in my opinion.

And finally, Melanie and I actually have stuck with Marry Me, a new sitcom starring Casey Wilson and Ken Marino. The first episode was so much better than any other show to debut on the Fall TV schedule, but it has quickly become mediocre. The fact that we’ve stuck with it thus far isn’t saying a lot. I’m a fan of Marino, which is one reason I wanted to watch it, but even he seems to be doing very little here.

The Hits
I’ll start with some soft hits, by which I mean shows that I am giving only a tentative thumbs-up. Two political cable shows fall into this category, one serious and one comedic. The Newsroom is a critically-acclaimed drama about a controversial anchorperson, Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels), whose news program strives to be both no-holds-barred and non-biased. It’s a quality show, but it’s rather dry. Each hour-long episode feels very drawn out. The news stories covered in the show are actual historical events, but while this might prove educational, it’s not exactly exciting. There’s a reason nightly news programs don’t show reruns.

If you like humor with your politics, you might try Veep. Julia Louis-Dreyfus stars as Selina Meyer, the ambitious but ever-exasperated Vice President of the United States. Based on that description alone, you will probably imagine something a lot more lighthearted than Veep actually is. It’s rather acerbic in tone, with a documentary-like cadence and filming style that more closely approximates The Office than Seinfeld, and the humor is more naturalistic than slapstick. Admittedly, I sometimes find the show too dry and/or too caustic. Selina is not a likable character—which, of course, she isn’t meant to be—but neither are her colleagues. It makes it hard to get super excited about watching.

When it comes to the more surefire winners, we don’t escape Washington D.C. just yet. Netflix’s original series House of Cards, starring Kevin Spacey as a morally bankrupt politician, is very gripping. Meanwhile, The Americans, starring Keri Russell and Philip Jennings as Russian spies posing as a typical 1980s American family, is my very favorite television discovery of 2014, at least when it comes to shows that are still in production.

Based on our 2014 TV-watching, you’d think Melanie and I really like politics. That isn’t true. We largely eschew straight-up political drama, even when it’s of high quality (The Newsroom), we tolerate politics when the real purpose is situational comedy (Veep), and we embrace thrillers even when they are political (House of Cards, The Americans). In fact, thrillers make up a good chunk of the shows I would unhesitatingly endorse. In 2014, Melanie and I watched all eight seasons of Dexter, about a serial killer who works as a blood splatter analyst for the Miami Metro Police Department. We never got through the pilot episode when we first tried this show a couple of years earlier, but after much word-of-mouth endorsement, we decided to brave it again. We are glad we did. While the debut episode starts off very harsh and disturbingly, and while the entire show contains a fair amount of gore, it is an absorbing show. It helps immensely that Dexter, the title character, is a serial killer who preys on violent criminals. That leaves the door open for some sympathy, and at times for Dexter to be a genuine anti-hero.

Another thriller I very much enjoyed is Fargo, based on the 1996 Coen Brothers film but following a completely original storyline. 30 minutes into the debut episode, I was leery and somewhat bored. The quirkiness of the movie felt gimmicky and forced when translated to the small screen, in large part because the acting just couldn’t compare. But all of that changed by the end of the first episode, when things got so downright intense that I couldn’t wait to see more. Fargo is going to be one of those miniseries-type TV shows where each season features a completely new set of characters (à la American Horror Story). That means the season 1 storyline plays out in its entirety by episode 10. It’s a briskly paced show, but persistently riveting after those initial 30 minutes.

True Detective is another miniseries-type thriller. Season one features Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as two homicide detectives on the trail of, what else, a serial killer. This show has been wildly applauded by critics and viewers alike. I wasn’t nearly as smitten with it as they were, but it is a very good show. Despite what my viewing habits suggest, I don’t like to watch things that get too dark. True Detective was almost too gritty for my tastes, and the occult elements certainly didn’t help matters.

And finally, switching gears entirely, we watched the first season of Showtime’s Masters of Sex. Masters of Sex is based on the real-life sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Michael Sheen, who plays Dr. Masters, is superb, per usual. Much to my surprise, Lizzy Caplan—whom I previously associated with lowbrow comedies such as Hot Tub Time Machine and TV’s Party Down—does a terrific job in the role of secretary turned research assistant, Johnson. It’s a shame that American culture compels me to explain that a drama revolving around sex research can appeal to more than prurient interests. Masters of Sex is character driven and features a great deal of social commentary. Looking back on what has made us uncomfortable in the past, and continues to make us uncomfortable today, can be a very eye-opening experience.

That’s it for TV. I’m surprised how boring it was to write about it. It’s probably not much more entertaining to read it. The good news is, you’re done.  As am I.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

2014 in Review: Music

This is part four in a series looking back on 2014. Previous entries discussed books, food, and movies.

In hindsight, 2014 seems like a very uneventful year musically. I’m inclined to say I listened to less new music in 2014 than I probably have in any other recent year. Lifestyle changes account for much of that. We moved across the country, and since then I haven’t been spending nearly as much time working at my computer, which is where I do most of my music listening. And living in someone else’s home, I think I’ve been less inclined to have music blaring than I was back in Tallahassee. Those two factors alone have taken a lot of steam out of my music listening. Additionally, there’s the financial shift that has made me less able to purchase new music, although truth be told, I think this has had very little impact on what I’ve been listening to. I don’t recall there being as many new albums in 2014 that piqued my interest.

So, did I discover any music in 2014 that is particularly noteworthy? Indeed, I did. If for no other reason, I am grateful to 2014 for introducing me to Dum Dum Girls. Released last January, the album Too True is fantastic from start to finish. I’m not sure how the band is billed, but I’d call them new wave, albeit a darker, moodier, more haunting type of new wave—somewhere in the ballpark of The Church, The Cure, or New Order. For a while there, I couldn’t stop listening to their album. Something in it really resonates with me. I’ve heard plenty of newer bands that remind me of the 80s, but despite my never hearing them before, Dum Dum Girls make me feel truly nostalgic. Like, in an extremely visceral sense. I doubt I can put it into words. It’s far beyond merely reminding me of the 80s. It’s like emotions are conjured that I haven’t felt since I was a child. I wish I knew how to describe it. Anyway, I suppose the best thing to do is share some of that music. It’s hard for me to settle on a favorite, but here’s one of several tracks that have the described effect on me (the song is called “Rimbaud Eyes”):

Another band that is entirely new to my ears in 2014 is Lily & Madeleine, a pair of sisters who offer gentle, piano-driven folk music with their harmonious vocals as icing on the cake. It’s a rather reverential sound, if I may say so. Here’s a taste of something from their eponymous 2013 album, the song “Devil We Know”:

The bulk of good music I heard in 2014 came from artists I’ve known and loved for quite some time. At the top of the list is The New Pornographers, who released the album Brill Bruisers in August. I had the good fortune of attending their concert in October. I wrote about that on my blog and included several videos of their music, including tracks from the new album. I’m tempted to repost the video for “War on the East Coast,” because it’s a song that Creegan latched onto and would ask me about the lyrics. However, I included that video on the post about the concert, so you can always find it there. Here, I’ll include a song from Brill Bruisers that I very much like but that wasn’t performed at the concert. The song is titled “Wide Eyes.”

Speaking of Creegan latching onto music, he does it more and more as he gets older. Thus, some of the music that stands out to me from 2014 is the music that Beegy liked a lot and would request to listen to. One song he quite liked is “Bulletproof Picasso” from the album of the same name by Train. Train isn’t among my very, very favorite bands, but I enjoy them well enough and found the album Bulletproof Picasso to be pretty good. Another of Beegy’s 2014 favorites is “Earthquake Driver” by Counting Crows, the second song on their recent album, Somewhere under Wonderland. The chorus of the song concludes with the line “I just don’t want to go home.” Singer Adam Duritz drags out the word “home,” which Beegy finds amusing and likes to mimic. However, Beegy is also rather intrigued by the lyrics themselves. He has asked numerous times, “But where does he want to go?” You can listen to both “Bulletproof Picasso” and “Earthquake Driver” here:

I splurged a bit in October, what with it being my birthday month, and purchased a few CDs. Weezer released Everything Will Be Alright in the End, and Billy Idol released Kings and Queens of the Underground two weeks later. I also picked up Lullaby and … the Ceaseless Roar by Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters, which had been released in September. Although I’m not overly fond of a couple of Weezer’s earlier albums, and even though the last few albums have felt somewhat redundant, rare is the Weezer song that isn’t pretty darn catchy. I don’t think there’s anything on their latest album that I absolutely love, but overall it gets a thumbs-up from me, in part for songs like “Go Away,” which is featured below. Meanwhile, Robert Plant continues to spend the latter part of his post–Led Zeppelin career dabbling in folk rock imbued with both tribal and 1950s sensibilities. I highly enjoy several songs on Lullaby, including “Rainbow,” which is featured below. And finally, Billy Idol’s latest is a tad bit disappointing. When he ended a 12-year recording hiatus by re-teaming with guitarist Steve Stevens for 2005’s Devil’s Playground, the result was outstanding. It took nine years for the follow-up album, and it’s nothing special. There’s not enough diversity among the songs, and I daresay that “Postcards from the Past” is a thinly-veiled rearrangement of “Rebel Yell.” (Given the song’s title, maybe it’s meant to be.) It’s not a terrible album, but I had hoped for more. “Save Me Now” is among the better tracks on the album, although that’s not saying a lot. Have a listen to Weezer, Robert Plant, and Billy Idol below.

Beck released Morning Phase in February 2014. It’s marketed as a “companion piece” to 2002’s Sea Change, which is an absolutely amazing album. Even if it hadn’t been marketed as such, the similarities would be apparent. The song “Morning,” which opens Morning Phase,1  could easily be mistaken for the opening song of Sea Change, “The Golden Age”—if you aren’t paying close attention. Listen closely, however, and you’ll recognize “Morning” as the inferior song. Don’t get me wrong, “Morning” is an incredibly good song. But it’s nowhere near the caliber of “The Golden Age.” The entire Morning Phase album follows that trend: it’s like Sea Change, but not as mind-blowing. Very good, yes, but a distant runner-up.

Foster the People and Coldplay both released albums in 2014. I couldn’t get enough of Foster the People’s debut album, Torches, but I haven’t devoted much time to their sophomore effort. I think any individual song on Supermodel sounds pretty good in and of itself, but as a whole, the album lacks pizzazz. I also haven’t spent a great deal of time on Coldplay’s Ghost Stories despite thinking it’s a nice addition to their catalog. It’s a decidedly more subdued album, even for Coldplay. It has a kind of cerebral, dreamy quality to it. Not in a lullaby type of way, nor in a psychedelic type of way. There’s a stillness to it, but one that pulls at you on an almost subconscious level. Like it’s distant, and yet somehow internal. Can you tell I’m struggling to put my experience into words? Like if you were fading out of consciousness and hit this almost euphoric plateau of indifference, you’d find that this music has probably been playing very quietly inside your mind all along and you just never knew it. That probably doesn’t sound like a recommendation, and truth be told, it’s neither a compliment nor a complaint. It’s just a description. Anyway, I like the album. You’ve probably heard “A Sky Full of Stars” on the radio, so I’ll showcase a different song here. Below is Foster the People’s “Coming of Age” and Coldplay’s “Another’s Arms.”

Some 2014 releases that failed to grip me include Jack White’s Lazaretto and the posthumous Michael Jackson album Xscape. Jack White baffles me a bit. I absolutely love The White Stripes, but his solo work and work with other bands hasn’t really clicked with me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I dislike his other stuff, but it doesn’t compel me to listen. I feel the same about Michael Jackson’s Xscape. When Michael’s first posthumous studio album (called Michael) was released in 2010, I quite liked it. But of course, as I understand it, Michael himself would’ve been more intimately and thoroughly involved with what became Michael than he was with Xscape. All I know is that I listened to Xscape three times and don’t really remember anything about it, other than vague recollections of a so-so song based on America’s “A Horse with No Name.” I won’t bother sharing anything from these albums, because I don’t feel that attached to them. Likewise, I won’t share anything from U2’s Songs of Innocence, the album that was automatically downloaded as a free gift to anyone with an iTunes account—much to the chagrin of many a people. I listened to it and thought it wasn’t half bad, but that’s about as far as my opinion goes.

I’ll mention one final 2014 release: “Weird Al” Yankovic’s Mandatory Fun. As a kid, I was a big fan of Weird Al, so a part of me has always felt compelled to keep up my collection. I don’t own all of his albums, but I opted to download Mandatory Fun when it temporarily became available to me for a mere four dollars. I enjoyed it. There, I admit it. And you can bet I’ve listened to it more than I’ve listened to any of the albums in the preceding paragraph. I quite like his parody of Imagine Dragon’s “Radioactive,” which gets the Weird Al treatment as “Inactive.” It’s one of few songs from the album not to be turned into a music video during Weird Al’s eight-music-videos-released-in-eight-days promotional stunt. Of the songs that were turned into videos, my favorite is “Word Crimes.” It is a parody of “Blurred Lines” by Alan Thicke’s kid, but I had never (and still have never) heard the original. The good news is, familiarity with Robin Thicke’s song doesn’t seem necessary for appreciating Weird Al’s. And so, here it is:

Thank you and good night.

1 “Morning” is the first full-length song on the album.  There is, however, a 40-second instrumental piece that precedes it, titled “Cycle.”

Saturday, January 03, 2015

2014 in Review: Movies

This is the third in a series of blog posts reviewing 2015.  Previous posts in the series discuss books and food.

In 2014, I saw 147 movies that I hadn’t before seen.  In terms of quality, with four stars being the best and zero stars being the worst, here’s the breakdown of my assessment of those films:

**** : 12
***½ : 15
*** : 44
**½ : 24
** : 32
*½ : 10
* : 9
Zero : 1

Average movie rating: **½

The average is the same as last year, which suggests I am consistent.  However, in 2014 I saw more three-star movies than anything, whereas in 2013, two-star films were most prevalent.  I didn’t see as many extremely good films (***½ – ****), but I also didn’t see as many mediocre to poor films.

As I did for 2013 films, I will break up my discussion of these films primarily by genre, though I will also save a spot for those films I found most overrated, underrated, or that otherwise took me by surprise.

No surprise, the bulk of films to which I gave four stars came from the drama category.  Among those excellent films are a handful of 2013 films that I hadn’t managed to see before 2013 ended.  At the top of the list for films seen in 2014 but actually from 2013 would be Captain Phillips, a thriller starring Tom Hanks and based on the true story of Captain Richard Phillips, whose cargo ship was hijacked by Somali pirates.  I also very much enjoyed Her, the futuristic tale of a bashful man who falls in love with a computer operating system whose artificial intelligence makes “her” the ideal mate—sans having a body.  With Spike Jonze as both director and writer and Joaquin Phoenix as the lead actor, you know you’re in for some quirk.  It could have been overdone, but it wasn’t.  It was thought-provoking, engaging, and surprisingly subtle.

Captain Phillips and Her were both 2013 Oscar Best Picture nominees.  Most of their fellow nominees I also didn’t see until 2014.  Included in that bunch are The Wolf of Wall Street, Philomena, and Dallas Buyers Club.  I did give the former two four stars, and the latter three-and-a-half stars.  The Wolf of Wall Street certainly isn’t for everyone, but it’s excellently crafted and very funny at times.  Philomena barely got four stars from me, as there were a few plot developments that moved too quickly or weren’t adequately explained.  Dallas Buyers Club featured some knockout performances by Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto, but considering it is a movie about AIDS, it lacks the emotional impact that it should have had.  The supporting actors also seemed to contribute little to the film.

Among the top five films I saw in 2014 would be 2013’s Short Term 12.  You probably haven’t heard of it, and that’s good reason to go out and rent it today (or stream it, or however it works nowadays).  Short Term 12 is one of those independent films that revels in realism and natural performances.  You feel like you’re watching real people in real circumstances.  The movie follows the employees of a facility for troubled youth.  It’s powerful and makes you realize how many unsung heroes must exist in the world doing jobs like this.

Reaching back into the pre-2013 archives, 2006’s Little Children was one of the absolute best films I viewed in 2014.  Movies that deal with infidelity and suburban angst are often a turn-off for me, but this one was very good, even despite the somewhat obnoxious narration.  The film, which stars Kate Winslet, Patrick Wilson, Jennifer Connelly, and Noah Emmerich, manages to play on our expectations in ways that can surprise us.

My very favorite film of 2014 proper is The Theory of Everything, which portrays the real-life relationship between genius physicist Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde, the woman who became his wife.  Because the film centers primarily on his relationship with Jane, Hawking’s scientific accomplishments become somewhat peripheral.  If I had to lodge a complaint, it might be that one gets the impression Hawking did little more than write a brilliant doctoral thesis, come up with one other really cool idea, and then write a popular book.  Heck, the movie almost implies that he rarely did any actual work.  But aside from that, the movie is phenomenal, and Eddie Redmayne delivers one of those rare performances where anything short of an Oscar trophy will be an insult.  Most Oscar nominees are iffy, so it’s worth noting when the inevitable nomination is truly, truly deserved.  In this case, it’s an absolute must.


There is only one comedy I viewed in 2014 to which I would give four stars, and that would be The Grand Budapest Hotel.  While I would barely give it four stars, I’m happy to say it’s the best Wes Anderson film of the past decade.  (Confession: I found The Darjeeling Limited absolutely tedious.)  I think Anderson is a love him or hate him type of director, but nobody can deny he’s got a signature style.  You can often identify a Wes Anderson film from a single frame of the movie, what with its hyper-symmetry and all.  (Seeing Jason Schwartzman onscreen is also a pretty big clue.)

A quirky comedy I saw only recently is The One I Love.  In fact, I’m not entirely sure if it should be categorized as a comedy or a drama or what.  It stars Mark Duplass (of whom I’m a fan) and Elisabeth Moss as a couple whose marriage therapist sends them on a weekend getaway that becomes very strange.  I don’t know if I should say more than that.  If you like sort of strange films and you like romance, this might be a good choice for you.

There are a couple of other comedies I ranked highly but that I no longer remember much about.  I gave both 2013’s I Give it a Year and 2011’s Dark Horse three-and-a-half stars.  The former I saw on January 2, 2014, so it’s technically been over a year at this point.  I don’t remember anything other than being surprised at how funny it was.  I think it’s a more straightforward romantic comedy, although of the British persuasion.  Dark Horse, on the other hand, is more oddball.  Not silly, mind you, but about some eccentric people.  In brief, an immature guy in his thirties becomes enamored of a super depressed woman and tries to woo her.  It’s a very funny film, but its coherency seems to dissipate near the film’s end.

I’ll make mention of two more comedies, which although I didn’t rank them above three stars, are quite funny and are the kinds of films I can imagine watching over and over again.  (Often, I think it is the solid three-star films that have the most replay power.)  The first is 2014’s Life After Beth, starring Aubrey Plaza as Beth, a girl who dies and miraculously comes back to life.  Although her parents try to keep her return a secret, her boyfriend (played by Dane DeHaan) soon discovers her and tries to rekindle their relationship.  Only Beth now seems a little … impaired.  Life After Beth is consistently laugh-out-loud funny, and I was impressed at how the first third of the film balanced a realistic reaction to Beth’s return with absolute hilarity.  The other film I highly recommend is 2014’s They Came Together, starring Paul Rudd and Amy Poehler.  I admit, part of the appeal may have been that I had no idea what I was getting into.  All I knew about the film ahead of time was that it is a romantic comedy.  I didn’t know that it is actually a parody of romantic comedies, following every goofy formulaic play in the book.  It’s a spot-on parody, so much so that I think the joke is lost on many people.  The reviews it received from critics and moviegoers alike are quite horrendous.  But I think it’s comedic gold.  And Melanie agrees with me.  In fact, Santa gave it to Melanie for Christmas, so I’ve already seen the movie a total of three times.  I laughed aplenty each and every time.

Animated Films

The Lego Movie is in my top ten films of the year.  Inconsistent and suffering from ADHD, I nevertheless found the film incredibly clever and funny, not to mention highly visually appealing.  It’s probably one of my favorite animated films of the last several years.  How to Train Your Dragon 2 didn’t rival The Lego Movie in terms of how much I enjoyed it, but it was the only other Hollywood animated film to get a very high rating from me.  Technically, it might even be a “better” film than The Lego Movie.  But why quibble?  They’re both great.  And I liked them both more than I liked 2013’s Frozen, which I also saw in 2014.  As good as I thought Frozen is, it is undeniably overrated.

The only other animated film worth mentioning is Penguins of Madagascar.  We got to see Penguins for free as part of a work event for Melanie’s school.  I have not much enjoyed the Madagascar films, but I very much enjoyed Penguins.  It wasn’t great or anything, but it was solidly enjoyable and funny.  I think it helps tremendously to have a movie devoid of the other Madagascar characters, all of whom I find rather annoying.  This is the first film in the Madagascar franchise that I flat-out liked.


I don’t think I saw as many documentaries in 2014 as I have in years past.  I don’t know that by looking at the numbers.  It’s just a hunch I’m not going to bother confirming.  One of those documentaries I did give a superlative four stars, and that is 2012’s Stories We TellStories We Tell chronicles actress Sarah Polley’s attempts to tell the story of her own immediate family.  It sounds simple, but there’s more to it than you’d think.  It’s hard to say more about it than this, but it’s a highly recommendable film.

No other documentaries I saw during 2014 come anywhere near the quality of Stories We Tell.  At best, they fall into the “pretty good” camp.  2011’s Pearl Jam Twenty is what I’ll call “documentary-lite” in that it’s not that investigative or informative.  It’s more a celebration of the band and their camaraderie than it is about songwriting or the band’s career.  James Franco’s Saturday Night is intriguing for fans of Saturday Night Live, taking a kind of fly-on-the-wall approach to watching how a single episode of the legendary sketch comedy show unfolds.  I wished there had been more in-depth conversation with members of the cast and crew of SNL, but the film is largely voyeuristic and the interviews as such often have a passing-in-the-hallway, “hey, can I talk to you for a second?” type of feel to them.  I also enjoyed, at least moderately, a couple of DisneyNature documentaries, 2012’s Chimpanzee and 2014’s Bears.  Melanie and I watched these with the boys, and I was pleased that they enjoyed them so much.  I preferred John C. Reilly’s narration of Bears to Tim Allen’s narration of Chimpanzee, and I’m especially bothered that they let Tim Allen throw in his signature man-grunt, a gimmick that has annoyed the crap out of me from the very first time I heard it.  But both films receive a lukewarm recommendation from me.

Franchise Films, Summer Blockbusters, and the Like

Though I gave nothing from this category four stars, there were some very good films.  X-Men: Days of Future Past was actually one of the best 2014 films that I saw.  I found it extremely entertaining, although it tapered off a bit in the end.  Regrettably, by the film’s climax, it had become pretty standard fare for this type of a movie—visually absorbing but nothing truly special.  I also quite liked The Amazing Spider-Man 2I’ve been pleased with Andrew Garfield in the title role, but rumor has it they are already working on rebooting this franchise yet again.  Hell, I’m surprised we’re not trying to reboot Hunger Games by now.  Might as well have the first film of the rebooted franchise compete with the final installment of the original franchise, right?

Speaking of which, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 was the first Hunger Games movie thus far that I didn’t love.  I actually found it somewhat disappointing.  I actually think it’s a necessary evil at this point.  If you read the books, you know that there is an abrupt shift in the tone and style at this point in the story, primarily because the actual Hunger Games themselves are over and done with at this point.  This affects the movies, just as it did the books.  Gone are the interesting dynamics that made the first two films so mesmerizing in comparison.  There’s still a lot of action, but without the underlying relationship dynamics, there’s relatively little suspense.  It’s just different.  It’s unfortunate.


The thriller genre is usually a favorite of Melanie’s and mine.  Our 2014 movie-viewing didn’t provide me with all that many worth mentioning, however.  Thankfully, there is one grand exception—Gone Girl.  (Okay, Captain Phillips probably belongs here, too, but oh well.)  Gone Girl ranks #2 on my list of best films actually released in 2014 that I’ve seen thus far.  It’s excellent, thanks in large part to the exceptional directing abilities of David Fincher, one of my favorite directors of all time.  It also provides one of Ben Affleck’s best performances, which may not be saying a lot, but it’s something.

2011’s The Grey is another thriller I’d highly recommend.  Liam Neeson (another actor who often rubs me the wrong way) stars as the de facto leader of a small band of oil workers trying to survive the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash.  There are some poignant moments and a lot of genuine suspense in this one.  A very realistic and believable portrayal of a horrific and terrifyingly possible situation.

On the lighter side, I admit it was fun to see the big-screen adaptation of Veronica Mars.  Melanie and I quite enjoyed the short-lived television series and thought the origins of the movie, which started as a Kickstarter campaign by show creator Rob Thomas (not the musician), made it a fun thing to support and celebrate once it arrived in theaters.  I only gave the film two-and-a-half stars; the plot wasn’t overly compelling, and many of the requisite cameos by former cast members felt more obligatory than entertaining.  Still, the film had its fair share of LOL moments and undoubtedly tickled dedicated Veronica Mars fans (or “marshmallows,” as I believe they’ve been affectionately nicknamed).

Foreign Film

If you like bluegrass (which, for the record, I don’t much) and somewhat preachy social statements, you can’t do much better than The Broken Circle Breakdown, a Belgian drama about two musicians who fall in love, have a daughter, and years later discover that the daughter is terminally ill.  As expected, this pushes the couple—one of whom is an atheist and one of whom is religious—to the brink of both their romantic and their professional relationships.  Again, if you like bluegrass, you’ll get plenty of great musical performances from this movie.  There are so many scenes of the musicians performing that the movie as a whole takes on a kind of montage-like quality.  I think this hinders the film, preventing its dramatic components from being as developed as they could be.  Still, for the type of film it is, it is excellent and I felt I had to reward it with four stars.

For a peek at cultural Judaism, I recommend an Israeli film from 2012 titled Fill the Void.  The film takes place within a Hasidic community in Tel Aviv and centers on the attempt to arrange the marriage of a young woman to her departed sister’s surviving husband.  If this and The Broken Circle Breakdown both sound a bit too heavy, you might go for the charming animated French film Ernest & Celestine.  It’s the story of a bear and a mouse who form an unlikely friendship.  Meanwhile, if you just want something weird, I’m learning that Greek film is where it’s at.  Dogtooth is an odd, mildly recommendable film about three grown children who are sheltered to a bizarre and perverse degree by their controlling parents, so much so that they don’t dare leave their yard for fear that they will be killed by a domesticated cat.  But don’t worry, sometimes their parents leave them little treasures, like toy planes that they claim are real planes that have fallen from the sky.  Yeah, it’s pretty cuckoo.

The Overrated, The Underrated

Let’s start with the overrated.  2014’s Birdman is getting rave reviews.  The film stars Michael Keaton as Riggan, a has-been actor whose biggest claim to fame is playing the superhero Birdman in a series of movies from several years before.  (Sound familiar?)  Riggan now hopes to make something of himself by directing his own stage play.  A clash of egos ensues and Riggan’s sanity may well be among the casualties.  I have mixed feelings about this movie.  On the one hand, I really do think it is among the best 2014 films I saw.  It’s hard to define why I liked it to the extent I did, especially given that it has the kind of “modern art” sensibilities that usually drive me batty and seem like complete B.S.  On the other hand, it is original.  As a case in point, the film is presented as nearly one continuous shot without any (obvious) cutting.  It’s intriguing if nothing else.  And yet as much acclaim as I might be willing to give it, I would say that the rave reviews make it fall into the overrated camp for me.  Not by a tremendous amount, but at least a little bit.

Probably the worst offender on my list of overrated films is Under the Skin.  I gave the film one-and-a-half stars, but it got rave reviews from critics, including a smattering of four-star reviews.  As summarized on the Internet Movie Database, the film is about “a mysterious woman [who] seduces lonely men in the evening hours of Scotland.”  It’s more sinister than that, and more of a sci-fi film than that description would lead you to believe, but the bottom line is that it’s boring as hell.  Forget Birdman, this is the kind of “modern art” filmmaking that makes me want to scream.  Thankfully, at least a couple of movie critics saw the film as I did.  As Lou Lumenick of the New York Post puts it, the film is “tedious and pretentious.”  I couldn’t agree more.  Sadly, whenever a film strikes me this way, I’m fairly certain the majority of critics will be singing its praises.  That definitely happened here.  My only consolation is that most people haven’t even heard of it.

The same cannot be said of The Fault in Our Stars, which was a big hit commercially speaking.  I also gave this film one-and-a-half stars, but people love it for whatever reason.  It’s supposed to be a romantic movie, but the main boy was so obnoxious and full of himself, I wanted to puke.  There was no spark between him and the main girl.  Their relationship felt completely empty to me.  Add to that a few absurd plot points, and I’ll happily recommend you avoid this one.

One of the Oscar contenders for 2013’s best film is on my overrated list: 12 Years a Slave.  I didn’t think the film was bad, but it was surprisingly dull and emotionally unmoving considering it’s a movie about slavery.  The problem is, the atrocities portrayed in the film are presented in slideshow fashion, devoid of any context other than the overarching context of American slavery itself.  You don’t really know the people being treated so poorly, and most of the time you don’t even know why they’re being punished or who is doing the punishing, so it’s just not as powerful as it could be.  I can’t help but assume that the filmmakers are letting the horrors of slavery as they already exist in the viewers’ minds do all of the work.  Like all they have to do is remind us of slavery, and of course by default, we’ll all feel like crap about it and feel sad, and then the filmmakers think they’ve made a powerful film.  It’s kind of a gimmick, I’m afraid.  Heck, even the main character is surprisingly flat.  It’s sad when a film about slavery manages to do a better job making a white slave owner into a genuine character than any of the slaves.  Do we really want the white guy to steal the show?  It’s embarrassing.  On a final note, the dialogue often felt awkward and clunky coming out of the actors’ mouths.  I almost wonder if my two-and-a-half star critique was being too generous.

And now for the film that I get the most flack for not loving: Guardians of the Galaxy.  Sorry, folks, but it was only so-so.  I didn’t laugh out loud a single time during the movie.  All of the funny parts were in the commercials (and weren’t that extremely funny to begin with).  I didn’t find the characters adequately fleshed out nor particularly likeable, and the storyline seemed less compelling than almost any other superhero movie that’s been made in the last decade or so.  A lot of time was devoted to action sequences, but they weren’t special or as visually stunning as most superhero action sequences are nowadays.  I just don’t get why this one has taken the world by storm.  But hey, it had a good soundtrack.

Now let’s talk underrated films.   Maleficent was panned by many critics.  The website Metacritic, which provides a quantified average of a movie’s critical reception, gives Maleficent a score of 56 out of 100.  Not terrible, but decidedly mediocre.  I, however, thought the film was quite good.  I’ve never before thought Angelina Jolie was a good actress, but she was a perfect fit for this one.  The movie was also very visually engaging, and there is a nice twist to the story that is so familiar to many of us.  I recommend it.

Noah wasn’t as universally panned as word-of-mouth led me to believe.  It seems all I heard of the film was that it was downright terrible.  I kind of liked it, though not wildly so.  At the very least, I found it an interesting (if not sometimes head-scratching) take on the familiar Bible story.  That being said, if you weren’t coming to the movie already incredibly aware of the Noah story, I highly doubt the film would do much for you.  I don’t think it can stand on its own merits.  You have to know the ways in which it differs from the traditional Bible story in order to find it interesting.

I managed to see The Interview a few days after it was released.  After all the hype, I had heard that it was a pretty lame film.  Thus, I was taken by surprise when I found the movie to be quite funny.  James Franco can be a bit grating to me, and I hate when actors come off as thinking they’re so cute and funny, and Franco does that.  But this was a much better film than last year’s Franco / Seth Rogan team-up, This is the End.  If you like outrageous, raunchy comedy, I think The Interview is one to see.

If I were to get slack for saying a film is underrated, it would probably be in regard to Winter’s TaleWinter’s Tale got a couple of zero star reviews and currently averages 31/100 on Metacritic.  Critics would have you believe it sucks.  Now, I’ll agree that the film is rather hokey.  But there is such an earnest and relentless romanticism to the film that it can win you over if you don’t get too cynical.  It is a love story heavy on magical and fairy tale elements, stretching across time.  Considering how easily this film could’ve gotten downright campy, I have to say that Colin Farrell and Russell Crowe both did a pretty good job.

Surprises and the Just Plain Overlooked

Woody Allen is a hit-and-miss filmmaker for me.  He gets a bit tedious, and sometimes he is downright unbearable.  For that reason, I was pleasantly surprised by 2013’s Blue Jasmine, which I’m tempted to say is one of the better Woody Allen films I’ve ever seen.  Much of the credit must be given to Cate Blanchett, who plays the lead role of Jasmine, a narcissistic socialite who falls on hard times and must rely on the generosity of her working class sister.  The subtleties of Jasmine’s psychological state—her vulnerabilities, frailties, denial, etc.—are deftly communicated by Blanchett.  By the end of the film, you’ll want to applaud her performance.

The independent film Chef doesn’t jump out on my radar as an exceptional film, but it’s one of those rare films that truly stands as little more than an ode to living passionately.  And in that regard it can be very refreshing.  Jon Favreau writes, directs, and stars as Carl, a chef who loses his job after publicly exploding at a popular online food critic.  Unsure of what to do next, Carl buys a food truck and spends the summer touring the country with his son, cooking up delicious food all along the way.  Like an overstuffed burrito, the film is bursting with joie de vivre.

I’m a big fan of the movie Once, which stars two bona fide musicians, as musicians, who play songs they really did write.  Despite its having the same writer and director, I greatly feared that the musical film Begin Again would be a huge disappointment.  A kind of cosmic sequel to Once, Begin Again is about a struggling music producer who latches onto an aspiring singer-songwriter after hearing her in a bar.  Here’s the problem: the music producer is played by Mark Ruffalo, whom I’m not too fond of; the aspiring musician is played by Keira Knightley, whom I dislike even more; and of course, Knightley isn’t really a songwriter or a musician.  All of that being said, I quite liked the film.  If you don’t compare it to Once—because that would be a big mistake and grossly unfair—Begin Again is an enjoyable film with good music.  Sure, you can tell Keira Knightley is faking it on the guitar, but this is fiction, folks.  Take it for what it’s worth.

A little-known romantic comedy released in the USA in 2014 is What If, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as good friends who fight the inevitable urge to become something more.  Admittedly, the general setup is rather familiar, but damn if that Daniel Radcliffe doesn’t manage to be more engaging and likeable than you want him to be.  His on-screen chemistry with Kazan is believable and sweet.  There’s a surprising degree of charm here.  While I only give it three stars, I think it’s a very satisfying film and I’d recommend it.

On the more dramatic side of romance, I’d also recommend About Time.  I enjoyed this one more than expected, and although I’d only give it three stars, I think it is a real crowd-pleaser type.  In fact, that seems to be writer-director Richard Curtis’ specialty, although despite their large appeal, I usually find his films to be rather crappy.  (Last year, I deemed Curtis’ Love Actually to be among the very worst films I watched in 2013.)  If you don’t know, About Time is about a man who discovers he can rewind the clock on his own life and uses the ability in an attempt to win over the love of his life.  It’s a sweeter and more satisfying film than you’d think.

The Worst of the Worst

When it comes to films actually released in 2014, I saw only a couple that I would qualify as outright bad or worse.  One of those films is Neighbors, starring Seth Rogan and Rose Byrne as parents of a newborn who find themselves rattled when a hard-partying fraternity (led by Zach Efron) moves into the house next door.  Truth be told, I don’t know if Neighbors is objectively as bad as my reaction to it was.  I know I laughed a few times, but overall I found the film depressing.  It struck me as vulgar, immature, and unintelligent.  Now, you may wonder why that bothered me with this film and not with something like The Interview, and I’m not quite sure what to say.  For me, it’s not about how graphic or explicit something is, it’s the manner of presentation and hence the attitude that seems to come across.  For whatever reason, Neighbors didn’t sit well with me.  I was bothered by it.

Without question, however, the worst 2014 film I saw is Need for Speed.  I didn’t think the film looked very promising, but I wanted to see it because I loved Aaron Paul so much in the TV series Breaking Bad.  Unfortunately, my faith in him as an actor is nearly undermined by this piece of garbage.  In the film, Paul plays Tobey, a competitive street racer who enters an exclusive race after being released from prison for a crime he didn’t commit.  The movie is basically a two-hour car chase, and a very outlandish one at that.  It’s banal, way too long (at 132 minutes), and absolutely predictable.  The characters are trite and demonstrate an utter lack of moral responsibility throughout the entire film.  It’s absolutely terrible.

Pre-2014 movies that were stinky or worse include the following: 2010’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, whose production value—including the choreography of the fight sequences, the special effects, the cinematography, and even the editing—made me feel like I was watching an old episode of Goosebumps; Church Ball and Suits on the Loose, two of the Mormon-themed movies I’ve watched since returning to Utah because my curiosity always gets the better of me—they have terrible acting and are an embarrassment to Mormons everywhere; 2010’s Grown Ups, Adam Sandler’s virtually plotless, misogynistic, and intellectually and morally bereft “comedy” that expects us to enjoy watching several not-very-funny guys hanging out doing nothing; 2013’s G.I. Joe: Retaliation, a film that nearly makes you choke on the amount of machismo and general absurdity it possesses, such as when the character of Snake Eyes uses a fully-automatic machine gun to shoot down the Chinese stars that are thrown at him but somehow manages not to shoot anything else in the process; and 2012’s Passion, a Brian de Palma thriller about the deadly rivalry that exists between two women in the workplace—a film that is stiff, meandering, vapid, and pretentious, with a musical score to match.

The next-to-worst movie I saw in all of 2014 goes to 2008’s Speed Racer.  If your kids didn’t need Ritalin before seeing this movie, they almost certainly will afterwards.  It’s a schizophrenic, seizure-inducing mess.  I’m sure it’s trying to capture something of the original animation style—at least I hope that’s what’s happening—but I can’t help feeling like I might get in trouble for child abuse for letting my kids watch it.  It’s lobotomizing.  And the problem is, it’s not even entirely appropriate for kids, whom I can only assume are the target demographic, given the film’s rampant ADHD visual style.  For one thing, it’s just too bloody long—it’s over two hours!  For another, there is some surprisingly crass language in the film, and the violence often seems a bit too sinister for kiddos.  If Hell is a drive-in movie theater, it will be playing this and Need for Speed back to back for eternity.

As for the very, very, very worst film seen in all of 2014, and the only one to which I’d give zero stars, I now introduce 2012’s Cosmopolis.  I could just as easily have put this film in the overrated camp, as it currently has a Metacritic score of 58/100.  That’s not fantastic, but it’s way higher than it should be.  The film deserves nothingNothing, I tell you.  It is shockingly bad.  The writing, the acting, the set design, and the special effects are all absolutely atrocious.  I’m talking pinch-me-am-I-awake level bad.  Granted, I think the film is supposed to have something of a surreal quality to it, but all I can say is that it’s surreally stupid.  I can’t believe it exists.

The end.

Friday, January 02, 2015

2014 in Review: Food

This is the second entry in my blog series reviewing 2014. Click here to see my previous entry on books.

My life situation changed dramatically in 2014. Financially, geographically, and otherwise, 2014 ended with me in a very different place than I was when the year began. Because of this, there wasn’t nearly as much discovery in 2014 as there was in other recent years. When I wrote my food review of 2013, I mentioned that Tallahassee, Florida didn’t have a lot of enticing options. Moving back to Utah has been a net gain in the world of dining out, and yet we are less financially able to eat out than we were when we lived in Florida. That means we’ve yet to reap the culinary rewards of living here, at least to the extent that we someday will.

Although there were only a few eateries in Tallahassee that Melanie and I truly loved (or maybe even really liked), I feel I should present a kind of “In Memoriam” to those establishments whose cuisine will never again grace our taste buds. One of the saddest losses of 2014 is Bagelheads, the Christian bagel shop that featured the best sandwiches I’ve eaten outside of Utah. In my 2013 food review, I lamented the day I would move away from Tallahassee and no longer be able to patronize Bagelheads. Little did I know that Bagelheads would permanently close its doors just a few months later, with March 29, 2014 marking its final day in business. Melanie and I had to spend a sad three months in Tallahassee without our favorite bagel shop. The other restaurant we will truly miss is Tan’s Asian Café. Tan’s was about the nearest restaurant to our Tallahassee apartment, literally about a block away, and had the best Chinese food we’ve tasted outside of Utah. In fact, we now think it might be the best Chinese food we’ve had anywhere. We invested a great deal of our eating-out money to Tan’s, and I will miss them dearly. I will also miss Sonny’s and their barbecue food. I wouldn’t go so far as to say Sonny’s was amazing, but they were yummy and I’m not really sure where to go for my barbecue fix now that I’m back in Utah. Maybe I’ll know by the time I do my 2015 food review.

Moving back to Utah, I’ve actually been surprised to learn what restaurants from Tallahassee we won’t be missing. Marco’s Pizza is a chain restaurant, but they had become our favorite pizza place while living in Tallahassee. We were sad to leave Tallahassee, knowing Marco’s didn’t exist in Utah. Shortly after moving here, however, we saw that a Marco’s was being built not far from my parents’ home. We considered it a small miracle, one worth cheering about. Not long thereafter, I discovered a Wingstop here in Utah. Wingstop was another chain restaurant in Tallahassee that we quite liked but didn’t expect to find in Utah. I think the Wingstop here is quite new, and I couldn’t believe our luck. If we had had to choose two chain restaurants from Tallahassee that we’d want to take with us to Utah, Marco’s and Wingstop may very well have been the ones. Fast forward to just a couple of weeks ago, and I’ve discovered that they are building a Zaxby’s somewhat near to where we currently live. Zaxby’s is a chicken-based fast-food restaurant—if you think of Chick-fil-A, you’ll be in the ballpark—that has some pretty good food. We didn’t go there very often in Tallahassee, but I don’t mind having them as an option here in Utah. They’re good enough to visit every once in a while.

When it comes to genuine discoveries of 2014, I did most of my exploring back in Tallahassee. It almost seems pointless to talk about the good and bad restaurants I discovered in Tally, now that I’m nowhere near them. Still, as I have little else to talk about, I’ll go ahead and mention a few places. Probably my favorite Tallahassee discovery was the Flying Bear Great American Grill. Melanie and I had some coupons that resulted in us going to the Flying Bear on a date. (Because what’s more romantic than a date with coupons?) We had an appetizer of spinach and artichoke nachos, and we then shared a pasta entrée that featured cherry tomatoes, spinach, and mushrooms with a combination pesto-alfredo sauce. You couldn’t even tell that alfredo sauce was part of the equation, but the food was still very good and of high quality. The same was true on our follow-up visit, when we took the boys with us. Melanie stuck with pasta. A key part of her dish was pepperoni and habanero flakes. It almost sounds wacky, but it was super good. I customized a mushroom bacon burger, and it was great. If we were still living in Tallahasee, I would want to visit Flying Bear again.

Speaking of burgers, I’ve always been a fan of gourmet burger restaurants. I tried a few new ones in 2014. In Tallahassee, I tried both BurgerFi and Vertigo Burgers & Fries. Vertigo came first. It is largely regarded as one of the best burger joints in Tallahassee. It was pretty good, but messy. Peter had a slider, and we joked that it must be so-named because the meat kept sliding off the bun. Melanie and I had the same problem with our burgers. BurgerFi was very, very, very expensive. Ridiculously so. I admit, it was tasty, but it wasn’t any better than Five Guys (and may not have been quite that good), making their exorbitant prices a huge turn-off. I wouldn’t bother with them again. Since moving back to Utah, I have twice eaten at Smashburger. My buddy Matt treated me to Smashburger in early November. My burger didn’t quite wow me, but the quality of the food was high enough that I was eager to return and give them another shot. We went there as a family a couple of days before Christmas. I tried a different burger, but the result was the same—good, but not quite knocking me off my feet. Having given them two tries, I don’t think I’ll bother with them again. They’re fine, but if you’re living in Utah, it’s hard to justify wasting your time on anything other than Crown Burgers. Especially when Smashburger serves shoestring fries, which I feel are kind of an insult to customers. On the plus side, I very much enjoyed Smashburger’s “Smashfries,” which are tossed in olive oil, garlic, and rosemary, making them pretty darn good despite being very thin. As for other items on their menu that I’ve tried, their fried pickles are okay and their Nutter Butter shakes are unique, but not really worth bothering with.

I’m happy to report that my favorite food discovery of 2014 did indeed take place in Utah and so is something I’ll hopefully be able to enjoy for years to come. I’ve now eaten at Café Zupas a total of four times since moving back to Utah, which isn’t too shabby given that I can only splurge on such things once in a while. I’ve tried several soups and sandwiches at this point, and each and every one has been of high quality and mighty tasty. My favorite soup is the cauliflower cheese, and I’m still trying to decide what my favorite sandwich is. I quite like the pesto chicken Panini, but on my most recent visit, Melanie got the Honey Cilantro Carnitas sandwich and it was super friggin’ yummy. This is a place I will hope to return with some frequency.

Among my food discoveries of 2014 are a handful of sweet treats. Gigi’s Cupcakes is located a few doors down from the Flying Bear and has extremely fancy cupcakes. Too fancy, really. There’s a mountain of frosting atop each one. It looks pretty, but I’d rather pick up a pack of Hostess Cup Cakes from the gas station (and they’d be cheaper). Lofty Pursuits is a combination ice cream parlor / game shop in Tallahassee that has really good ice cream. Sadly, despite my intentions to return, I only visited them once. I had their pistachio ice cream, which had a very clean, airy, flowery flavor to it. I tasted a few other flavors, thanks to my family and, of course, taste spoons. All of the flavors had a slight alcoholic taste to them, or so I thought. One of the flavors I tried, whose name escapes me, tasted exactly like buttery mashed potatoes. I don’t think that was the goal, but so it was. And finally, back in Utah, Melanie and I took our boys to Daylight Donuts on the morning of New Year’s Eve. I was woefully unimpressed. The selection was shoddy, the donuts looked messy, and the store employee didn’t know anything about them. I assume it was an anomaly, but at the time we visited, they offered only cake donuts. I asked the guy, “So, you don’t have any available right now that aren’t cake donuts?” He pointed at one kind of donut and said, “Well, these are cake donuts.” He then pointed at another kind of donut and said, “And I think these are whatever the other kind is.” Both kinds of donuts he pointed to were cake donuts. Melanie later heard him saying to another customer, “I’ve been telling people these are cake donuts, but I’m not really sure.” Regardless, the donuts we selected were so-so. They were very, very sweet. I will never go there again, and I would encourage people not to.

Okay, that’s enough food for thought. Stay tuned for more 2014 in Review…

Thursday, January 01, 2015

2014 in Review: Books

I’m going to start this year’s Year-in-Review series with a post about books. It makes good sense. I read far, far more books in 2014 than I reckon I have in any year previous. Excluding picture books (of which I read several), I read a grand total of 58 books throughout the year. Goodreads tells me I read a total of 13,948 pages. I assume that’s in the ballpark, but the page count isn’t precise because sometimes Goodreads synchs up your reading list with different editions of the books you read, or it includes the indexes of books, etc. But, if you throw picture books into the lot, I suppose it balances things out a little bit. Regardless, let’s take a look at what I spent all that time reading in 2014.

30 of the 58 books I read were non-fiction. Of the 30 non-fiction books I read, only 6 were not specifically on Mormonism, including 3 that were entirely non-religious and 1 scholarly religious book that was written by an LDS author but had nothing directly to do with the Mormon faith. That leaves 24 books on my list that are about Mormonism. That’s a ton, but percentage-wise, it’s less “Mormon-heavy” than last year. Mormonism occupied only 41% of my total reading, and a mere 80% of my non-fiction reading. I’m really branching out!

One reason I read so many more fiction books in 2014 is that I started reading more books to my kids. And, with them being slightly older now, we’re able to focus much of that reading on chapter books. Among our favorites has been the Janitors series by Tyler Whitesides (Melanie’s cousin). The third and fourth books in the series—Curse of the Broomstaff and Strike of the Sweepers, respectively—were read by me in 2014. It really is a great series, although the most recent book was far less impressive to me than the previous three. But dominating our reading in 2014 is the work of James Howe. Howe is most notable for the Bunnicula series. I loved those books as a kid, and so I was eager to introduce them to my own children. They really loved them, so much in fact that we also ended up reading the spin-off series Tales from the House of Bunnicula. I must say, I loved the latter series even more. Each of the six books in the series is written by Howie, a wirehaired dachshund puppy who is rather full of himself but too youthful and dimwitted to be anything other than lovably charming. I think children could learn a lot about the writing process by reading these books, as Howie frequently interrupts his own narratives with entries from his “writing journal,” wherein he writes about his struggles as an author. It is really a fantastic and hilarious set of books, even if they are very light reading. All said and done, the work of James Howe accounts for 13 of the 58 books I read in 2014, by far the most prevalent author on my list.

The next most commonly read author on my 2014 list is Daymon Smith, with four titles. Smith has written a multi-volume series that is A Cultural History of the Book of Mormon. I’ve now read six of the books in the series, but that’s just over half of them. A linguistic anthropologist, Smith attempts to trace the use (and abuse) of the Book of Mormon within the LDS Church since the church was established in 1830. (Actually, he starts before the church was officially established.) Smith’s books can be very difficult to read but are hugely rewarding for those who put forth the effort to understand them. One of the most important things to come out of my reading of Smith is that I now realize how much we read into scriptural texts. That is, we have certain narratives and ideas already in our heads as we approach a text, and so we frequently obscure the text with preconceived notions, reading it to confirm what we believe it is already saying (but, often times, really isn’t or isn’t necessarily). That’s just the tip of the iceberg, but needless to say, reading Smith has shifted some paradigms and is likely to have a permanent influence on my approach to Mormonism.

A similar compliment can be paid to Paul Toscano, who ties for third-place (along with Denver Snuffer and Stephen King) as my most-read author of 2014. In total, I read three books composed by Toscano. Two of those books were collections of essays, 1994’s The Sanctity of Dissent and a superior work from 2007, The Sacrament of Doubt. I enjoyed both of these volumes, but far-and-away the best book by Toscano is the one he co-authored with his wife, Margaret, entitled Strangers in Paradox: Explorations in Mormon Theology. Strangers in Paradox is the absolute best book I read during all of 2014, non-fiction or otherwise. Like the work of Daymon Smith, Strangers in Paradox is paradigm-shifting. I don’t agree with everything in it, but almost every page has a ton of interesting ideas to mull over. If you ever questioned the richness of Mormon theology, this book will change your mind. Although I obtained the book from the library, those who are interested can read the book in its entirety for free at the following website:

To round out my recommendations for amazing reads about Mormonism, I will plug three more books. In order of preference, I highly commend “This is My Doctrine”: The Development of Mormon Theology by Charles R. Harrell, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith by Terryl and Fiona Givens, and Letters to a Young Mormon by Adam S. Miller. Together with Strangers in Paradox, these books comprise all of the five-star non-fiction books I read in 2014. Harrell’s book is something like an encyclopedia, with each chapter tackling a different subject in Mormonism: The Holy Ghost, The Preexistence, Salvation for the Dead, etc. Harrell, a professor at BYU, chronicles how each subject was perceived and understood at various times in history, starting with Old Testament times and moving up through different stages of Mormonism, be it Kirtland-Era Mormonism, Nauvoo-Era Mormonism, or Mormonism today. What most readers will find surprising is that very little of Mormon doctrine has remained static over the years, and our conception of things as central as the nature of God has remained in flux even since the LDS Church was established.

The Crucible of Doubt is a book I wish most Mormons would read. It espouses the kind of Mormonism that I love and embrace, and I think if more Mormons would seriously hold to the views put forth in the book, LDS culture would be remarkably different (for the better). Letters to a Young Mormon is a very tiny book, a book of advice on various subjects written by the author to the hypothetical LDS youth. Don’t let the name of the book fool you—any thoughtful Latter-day Saint will benefit from reading its pages. Miller, a philosophy professor, provides a refreshing look at what it means to live Mormonism in the context of today’s rational world. Both The Crucible of Doubt and Letters to a Young Mormon are published by subsidiaries of the LDS Church and can be found at such non-controversial bookstores as Deseret Book. Just in case you think I only read stuff written by excommunicates and other radicals.

Only one fiction book claimed five stars from me in 2014, and that is The Witch’s Get by Diana Janopaul. I assure you, my being smitten with The Witch’s Get has nothing to do with the fact that the author is a good friend of mine and attended church with me in Tallahassee. As wonderful as the woman is who wrote The Witch’s Get, the book stands on its own merits. It is, quite simply, a beautiful and poetic read. It feels like a classic, the kind of novel that is driven by story and manages to involve all five senses throughout. The story is set in Scotland during the time of witch trials, a time when a healer and midwife, like the main character Mancy, would be at risk of being burned alive for her mystical ways. The Witch’s Get is a brief and satisfying read that I heartily recommend to everyone. Just to whet your appetite, let me share a favorite quote from the book:
For me, there really were no such things as weeds. They were all special in their own way. I have been told by the American herbalists here that sweet dandelion is considered a weed where they come from and that people go to great lengths to eradicate them. Imagine! My dancing, humming dandelions. Well, it just goes to show that you can turn almost anything into something bad, something evil. Dandelions are weeds and healers are witches. Imagine. (page 54)
As noted above, Stephen King was amongst my most-read authors of 2014. I read several King books as a teenager, but went nearly 20 years before I picked him up again in 2013. Yes, in 2013 I read a single book by King, a newly-arrived sequel to King’s 1970s classic The Shining. That’s what piqued my curiosity, and although the book was nothing special—by no means do I think King is an excellent writer—I found a certain satisfaction in reading something that, from a literary standpoint, is a bit more fluffy and entertaining. There was also something nostalgic about reading an author that I associated almost exclusively with my teenage years, and that made it fun. And I guess I got hooked on that feeling, because I’ve now read a few more Stephen King books. It started with Mr. Mercedes, a 2014 thriller about a retired cop who is hunting down the person who purposely drove a Mercedes-Benz into a crowd, killing multiple people. Around Halloween, I read what is highly regarded as one of King’s scariest novels, 1983’s Pet Sematary, about an Indian burial ground that can bring the dead back to life. King then released a second new book in 2014, Revival, about the continually intertwining lives of musician Jamie Morton and Charles Jacobs, a minister obsessed with the magical power of electricity. I have to say, Mr. Mercedes was my favorite, with a genuinely taut and suspenseful final few chapters. While I enjoyed the other two novels, I felt they both had fairly little going on much of the time. Pet Sematary didn’t even seem much like a horror book until the last few pages. Even so, I enjoyed my time reading these books and will probably end up reading more Stephen King in the future. Maybe he’ll be my go-to author when I’m wanting to read something that doesn’t require much thought.

I made a conscious effort to branch out in 2014 by reading a few classics. During the Christmas season, I read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I’ve always had it in mind that I love Dickens, although this is based purely on my very much enjoying Great Expectations when I read it as a high school freshman. A Christmas Carol is the first Dickens book I’ve read since then, and I wasn’t disappointed. I think because the story is so familiar to us, we fail to see how wonderful a tale it is. My only complaint is that the ending seems very brief and abrupt compared to the rest of the book. Another classic I read is Edith Wharton’s 1911 novel Ethan Frome. This is one of my mother’s very favorite books, and so I chose it partially based on that (and also because it was fairly short compared to other books I was considering at the time). I thought it was very good, though I found it a little slow at first and sometimes didn’t find the writing all that clear (which may be me, or based on the book’s age, or what have you). I also found it a bit monotonous and melodramatic near the end, but I won’t say much more so as not to ruin the ending (if that actually matters to anyone reading my blog, which I highly doubt). I gave the book only three stars on Goodreads, but that’s primarily because it’s not the sort of book that resonates with me personally. Less enjoyable to me was The Awakening, Kate Chopin’s 1899 novel that is often regarded as a proto-feminist work. I suppose it may have been impressive and somewhat revolutionary for its time, but my modern mind found it difficult to pay attention to as I read. It’s one of those books I felt like I was sometimes reading without really listening to it, if you know what I mean. I also found the ending a bit baffling, but again, I shan’t say more than that so as not to ruin something. And finally, while not exactly a classic, I did branch out by reading Anaïs Nin’s Little Birds. For those who don’t know, Little Birds is a collection of erotic short stories. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of them. As I noted in my Goodreads review, the writing was graceful and often poetic, but the stories themselves were all over the place. A story might begin with two strangers meeting at night on the beach and making love, and then conclude with the woman recounting a time when she enjoyed being sexually assaulted while watching a public execution. Yeah … weird.

And I think that is a satisfactory year-in-review when it comes to books. Stay tuned for review posts about movies, television, and other fun from 2014.