Sunday, February 1, 2015

Top 25 Albums of 2014

For now most of these just are the album and the cover image, reviews to come eventually.

1. Lewis and Clarke - Triumvirate

 (the 7 year wait since their beautiful and amazing Blasts of Holy Birth was worth it. This album is a masterpiece.)
2. Luluc - Passerby

(Based on Jeffrey Overstreet's recommendation I have this folk duo a listen. Some of the most beautiful songs I've heard all year)

3.Peggy Sue - Choir of echoes

4.Wye Oak - Shriek

5.Sharon Van Etten - Are We There

6.Warpaint - Warpaint

7.The War on Drugs - Lost in the Dream

8.Perfume Genius - Too Bright

9.Sea Wolf - Song Spells #1

10.Sally Seltmann - Hey Daydreamer

11.Orenda Fink - Blue Dream

12.Lo-Fang - Blue Film

13.Saintseneca - Dark Arc

14.I Break Horses - Chiaroscuro

15.Haerts - Haerts

16.Future Islands - Singles

17.FKA twigs - LP1

18.First Aid Kit - Stay Gold

19,Ballet School - The Dew Lasts An Hour

20.Avey Tare's Slasher Flicks - Enter the slasher house

21.The Antlers - Familiars

22.Real Estate - Atlas

23.Secret Cities - Walk Me Home

24.Skygreen Leopards - Family Crimes

25.Timber Timbre - Hot Dreams

Top Ten Albums of 2013

Top 10 Albums of 2013

Here we are again for Justin's favorite albums of 2013.

1. Basia Bulat - Tall Tall Shadow

This was a great year for female fronted indie folk music, and Basia came ahead of them all with this great album which gained her the title of "the new Joni Mitchell".

Title Track

2. Alela Diane - About Farewell

My second favorite indie folk album of the year (there's three), and one of Alela's best ever. She wrote the songs after a tough breakup, and the sorrow and beauty thread through every song beautifully.

Title Track

3. Tony Dekker - Prayer of the Woods.

the solo album from Great Lake Swimmer's lead singer is a grand folk album that brings to mind early Iron and Wine and Great Lake Swimmers themselves.

Title Track

4. Jacco Gardner - Cabinet of Curiosities.

An album straight out of the 60's, reminiscent of The Zombies and other greats, this Dutch musician from Amsterdam plays baroque pop as if it never went out of style (and let's be honest, it never really did.)
Title Track

5. Youth Lagoon - Wondrous Bughouse

Youth Lagoon is solo singer Trevor Powers, evoking Animal Collective, and the Beatles alike (especially Sgt. Peppers Lonely Heart Club Band), with some great indie pop that leaves you wanting more.

6. Porcelain Raft - Permanent Signal

One of the more beautiful indie pop albums of the year that you'll ever listen to. great piano based music.
"The Way Out"

7. The National - Trouble Will Find Me

This one got A LOT of play at the coffee shop I frequent, and just the fact that I can still listen to the whole thing without hating it means it deserves to be on this list.

8. Moonface - Julia With Blue Jeans On

Krug channels Elton John in this new solo album and it's great. Solely piano and Krug singing, a great album for listening to on a winter night by the fire.

Title Track

9. The Polyphonic Spree - Yes, It's True.

It's hard to listen to The Spree without just wanting to jump up, laugh, and dance. Great happy 60's influenced music that makes you smile.

"You Don't Know Me"

10. Five Iron Frenzy - Engine of a Million Plots

I was once a huge FIF fan, and this new album brings back the nostalgia hardcore. They still got it. Also the funnest album of the year.

"Into Your Veins"

Some honorable mentions.

Hospital Ships - Destruction in Yr Soul
The Mantles - Long Enough To Leave
Mother Falcon - You Knew
Rogue Wave - Nightingale Floors
Wampire - Curiosity
Sad Baby Wolf - Electric Sounds
Telekinesis - Dormarion
Low - The Invisible Way
Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Specter At The Feast
Ducktails - The Flower Lane
Steve Martin/Edie Brickell - Love Has Come For You
Deerhunter - Monomania
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
Mikal Cronin - MCII
Washed Out - Paracosm
Islands - Ski Mask
The Head and the Heart - Let's Be Still
Arcade Fire - Reflektor
Public Service Broadcasting - Inform-Educate-Entertain
Shearwater - Fellow Travelers
Smith Westerns - Soft Will

Well, there you go, and who knows there may be others i come to like, or as i listen to these places will change, but for now this is my list. Enjoy

Top Ten Albums of the Year (2012)

Top 10 Albums of the Year -

I'm no music critic, and though I am quite the music snob I realize my tastes vary differently from others. I will do my best to say why I loved these albums, but usually it comes down to simple sonic soundscapes drawing me in and never letting me go. 

1. Sera Cahoone - Deer Creek Canyon

Sera sings like she's been singing for awhile. She has the rough but tender voice of a veteran. In a year where I've been discovering a lot of female voices that really hit me hard, hers is the strongest. Every song is a melancholy drug that addicts you from the first tone. Link to the title track.

#2 Lord Huron - Lonesome Dreams

Sounding like a hybrid of Fleet Foxes and Youth Lagoon, Lord Huron plays indie folk with just as much an emphasis on the rock as the folk. It's a beautiful soundscape that is the kind of music you can listen to while driving down the road. In a year where I sorely missed new Okkervil River music, this was a great bandaid. Link to 'Lonesome Dreams' the title track to this amazing album.

#3 Perfume Genius - Put Your Back N 2 It

It's been a long time since I've heard something so beautifully piano based. Memories of Summer At Shatter Creek's All the Answers, or even the older albums of Great Lake Swimmers come to mind, but Perfume Genius has managed to capture the spirit while infusing his own brand on melancholy on the subject. It's a joy and a wonder to listen to. Link to title track.

#4 Sharon Van Etten - Tramp

On a lot of Top 10 lists this year, and for good reason. She gives all her heart into the songs and you can really tell. Mindblowingly great album. Link to "Serpents" from the album Tramp.

#5 Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros - Here

Few bands evoke the full heart of the 60's like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros. They're like a little hippe troupe traveling down the road in a flower covered van playing venues on their way to Woodstock. Every song is a pure joy, and it's a real grower. They manage to create the same fun filled listening experience as their first album. Link to 'Man on Fire.' from the album Here.

#6 Grimes - Visions

If Bjork and Enya were to have a lovechild it would be Grimes. Her pop filled ethereality is fun from one track to the next. In a year where a lot of bands have been looking to the 80's and electronic music for inspiration, Grimes manages to stand out among the rest. Link to 'Oblivion' from the album Visions

#7 Sea Wolf - Old World Romance

Sea Wolf has been a favorite for years, and Old World Romance is no exception. Every single song reflects the sensibilities of a master at his craft. Link to 'Old Friend' from the album Old World Romance.
#8 Animal Collective - Centipede HZ

People had to be asking after Merriweather Post Pavilion, can they do it again? Centipede HZ proves they can. It's noise pop at it's best. It's wild, it's crazy, it's eccentric, and it's pure candy. Take their song Applesauce for example...what other band can write such a great song about applesauce?
#9 Tame Impala - Lonerism 

Psychedelic ear candy. This Australian band takes what they so well did in their debut and adds on to it with amazing flavor. Link to 'Feels Like We Only Go Backwards" from Lonerism

#10 Is a Tie

The Oh Hello's - Through the Deep, Dark Valley

One part Lumineers one part Of Monsters and Men, The Oh Hello's manage to capture the vibrant transcendance of both without becoming too much of a clone. They also deal with issues of faith in a refreshing, honest way. Link to "I Was Wrong" from Through the Deep, Dark Valley. Also their album is a free download on Bandcamp, but probably not for long as they get more popular, and for good reason.
Wickerbird - The Crow Mother

A criminally unnoticed album from 2012, Wickerbird's The Crow Mother is ambient folk rock at its best. Blake Cowan of Mt. Ranier Washington paints with his music a vision of snowy fields, deep forested mountains, and more with his excellent debut. There's a lot of Fleet Foxes here, and Bon Iver, it's a beautiful album that deserves to be more noticed. Link to 'Druids' from The Crow Mother

Several honorable mentions of the year.

Bob Dylan - Tempest
First Aid Kit - The Lion's Roar
Beach House - Bloom
White Arrows - Dry Land Is Not a Myth
Fang Island - Major
Horse Feathers - Cynic's New Year
Stepdad - Wildlife Pop
Chairlift - Something
Father John Misty - Fear Fun
La Sera - Sees the Light
The Lighthouse and the Whaler - This Is An Adventure
Stealing Sheep - Into the Diamond Sun
Aaron Embry - Tiny Prayers
Tanlines - Mixed Emotions
Sun Kil Moon - Among the Leaves
Sea of Bees - Orangefarben
Lost in the Trees - A Church That Fits Our Needs
And a Special Mention, (which is better than honorable in my book) of a great pop/electronica album that came out this year.

Midiboy - RE:Boot
Gregg Hart's been making music for years, and his craft gets more and more honed each year. His most current album is a great mashup of late 80's/early 90's electronica with a strong message of faith and spirituality. This is the kind of album you buy your kids and secretly listen to more than them. It's just fun, deep, pop. This gets a Special Mention cause (full disclosure) Gregg is a personal friend of mine. For that alone I can't really try to number this album, or place it in honorable mentions. It deserves its own spot exclusively on this blog. A Highly Recommended album. Listen to it on Spotify for yourself, I guarantee you'll love it. RE:Boot

The Shining by Stephen King

The Shining

By Stephen King

Blurb: The Shining is a gothic, creepy tale set against the backdrop of an old hotel where ghosts of guests and proprietors haunt the Torrance family and begin to take over the father, who gives in to his own demons. This story embodies the old adage "your sin will find you out."

"As a dog returns to its vomit, so a fool repeats his folly." Proverbs 26:11 (NIV)

I couldn't get this verse out of my head while reading this novel. It is truly one of Stephen King's most creepy thrillers, and one of his best as well. As it progresses we follow the Torrance family down a black hole into madness and chaos, all the while feeling as if we are watching Jack Torrance in particular crumble against the ongoing onslaught of his own demons. It starts with the family in Colorado, preparing to make the hours long drive to The Overlook Hotel, where they will be caretakers during the long winter months. Isolation and cabin fever of course take precedence as possible avenues into horror, but the reality of what is going on is creepier still, as it seems all the ghosts and skeletons of The Overlook's past have gathered for a mighty assault on anyone brave or desperate enough to stick around the full time. Jack Torrance is a recovering alchoholic who has short bursts of temper now and then, one of these bursts costs him his job at a Vermont Prep school, and their need for money pushes the family to accept the caretaker job, found for them by one of Jack's friends and former AA buddy. He is a brooding, melancholy figure, given to self indulgence and self pity even though he truly does care about his family, especially his young son Danny wo exhibits psychic abilities, seeing visions of terror and horror the longer they stay at the hotel.

It is because of Danny's abilities that the ghosts take such an interest in the family. His powers act like a battery to their hauntings, giving them ever more and more insidious means to haunt the family. From suicidal women, arms dripping with blood in the bathtub, to a barking man in a dog suit, there is a cast of terrifying characters haunting this hotel. Death seems to follow them into every hall and corridor. Outside as the snow encases them in their cage the hedge animals seem to come alive, lions and dogs and evil rabbits creeping ever closer to keep them from escaping.

But in the end it is really Jack's demons that almost destroy them, his lack of communication with his wife, and bouts with self pity lead him ever further from his family despite their close quarters, he wipes his mouth to the point of cutting his lips in his thirst for alchohol and it's effects. He becomes obsessed with the stories of the hotel and it's dark past, in the process giving up on his duties as a father and husband, but also more practically, giving up on a play he was writing which he hoped would get him back in good favor with the board at the school in Vermont. Paranoia seeps in as he begins to believe everyone is out to get him, even his own wife and son. As the ghosts watch they lay an isidious trap that plays right to his insecurities and demons, getting him to the point of actually believing he's drinking a glass of whiskey when he's really just feeling it all in his head. He breaks down completely and gives himself over to their dark plans, effectively becoming their weapon against Danny and the wife.

And so the story goes, until the last moment of ultimate loss, and the explosive ending. Unlike other King novels the ending is not really ambiguous, we know just who loses and who wins, who lives and who dies, and while the TV Miniseries leaves it open to the possibility of further hauntings, the book ends more decisively.

As far as movies go, Kubrick's is a darker version, giving in more to the horror stereotypes and resulting in a story more lacking in the human depth of the novel. This is better explored in the King supported miniseries with Steven Weber from 1997, directed by Mick Garris who also directed King's other novel turned into miniseries The Stand. Weber plays Jack Torrance to perfection, embodying the love he had for his family while also letting the dark ghosts take over effectively and believably. You just know he's a man heading towards danger and grief without even taking a second to look back and wonder where he's going. Nicholson's Jack on the other hand from Kubricks The Shining is an over the top performance of serial killer proportions. A man who hates his family from the start and never quite seems like a good person despite his flaws. What Kubrick penned was a great horror movie, and an iconic performance from Nicholson, but in the end it fails to follow the novel, and for that is truly lacking.

Stephen King is a master at mixing the macabre and the moral, at showing the thin line between. The road is truly narrow in his novels, and the path men like Jack Torrance walk is truly a tightrope, but in all of it there continues the reality that we have a choice to not give in, to fight our demons. Jack Torrance gives in, but we don't have to, no matter if all the forces of Hell come against us as they seemed to in this novel. If we give in we are only doing so cause deep down inside we wanted to from the beginning, but in Christ we are strong to fight against the principalities and powers of this world. If only Jack Torrance had relied on Jesus rather than himself, this novel might have ended quite differently.

Redshirts by John Scalzi


by John Scalzi

Redshirts is a satire that takes itself seriously. And it works. Scalzi has crafted an intelligent novel that not only parodies the ever-growing death count of redshirted ensigns on Star Trek, but also explores the very edges of determinism vs. free will, and the gap and connection between author and character.

When I first sat down to Redshirts I had no idea what I was getting myself into. It had an interesting and funny concept, the satire on "redshirts" from the original Star Trek series, who continually found themselves dying in increasingly stupid ways while the senior crew survived the odds time after time. It laughs at the physics defying action of badly plotted science fiction. It parodies Kirk and Spock, Sulu and others with respect, and it never ceases to twist the plot in increasingly strange ways. It starts out as just a funny novel, but becomes as time goes along, a very philosophical novel exploring the concepts of determinism, metanarrative and the Creator/created relationship. Scalzi doesn't hold any punches as he takes the characters down the proverbial rabbit hole into the dark of the unknown, into the big questions of who am I, and why do I exist. At the end of the novel you might be asking yourself the very same questions.

Andrew Dahl is happy to be an Ensign on the Intrepid til he finds out that almost all ensigns assigned to away missions die somehow. There seems to be rules too, if you stick with a certain senior member then only one ensign is allowed to die. There's a box that fixes all problems that no one can fix (a joke on the whole idea that most science fiction tv show writers couldn't plot themselves out of a box). All the other crewmembers hide out when the senior crew come around and conveniently forget to tell the "newbs." It's up to Dahl to learn all of this himself, with the help of his other "newbie" friends, before it's too late and he is killed off. As the novel progresses Dahl and others learn that there is more going on with the Intrepid, and the universe itself, than originally thought. And that's when it gets very meta. The lines between real and fiction become blurred and the friends become increasingly more and more pulled into a twisted clash of opposing universes, and their "creators." Scalzi brilliantly weaves the story to a satisfying conclusion. We're left without any idea what really was going on, but we're satisfied nonetheless because it's just so well written. After this he dives into three codas, tacked onto the end like a Peter Jackson movie, tying up some loose ends and leaving some characters with happy endings. The first coda fits into the story well, and is probably some of the funniest stuff in the novel. The second is a bit sadder, but also interesting because it's written in second person (the only instance of this I've ever seen in a novel), so as you read it you become the character in a way. The last coda is my most favorite though and also the most heartbreakingly beautiful. It's a strange way to end a story that is a satire, but it works. No one can accuse Scalzi of not being afraid to experiment. In that way he's a lot like other science fiction and other fiction writers who have come and gone, like Joseph Heller, or Kurt Vonnegut.

All in all a very likeable novel, and a very fast read. I started it at 7pm yesterday and finished it by 1am. The plot flies by and the action keeps you interested. The characters themselves are very likeable, and there really are no villains, except for maybe fate itself, or the struggle for free will. It's a novel about finding yourself, and your meaning in the great cog wheel of life. It's also just a very fun parody of science fiction itself with some serious philosophical questions to keep you awake after reading it. It makes you question, and at the end of the day, a good novel can't do much better than that, because it's with questions that we can begin to find answers.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

Set in a far, and mostly dystopian future Ready Player One is a fun romp into 80's nostalgia and a virtual world where most of your dreams can come true and your imagination can run wild. It's a fun story with not much depth, but worth the read despite.

Wade Watts is a boy with little future at the beginning of the story. He's seeking an easter egg left by the developer of a vast virtual world called The Oasis. He spends most of his time in this world, as the avatar Parzival, accompanied by his best friend Aech, and others called 'gunters' who are seeking the easter egg as well. The developer, a child of the 80's, is obsessed with everything from that culture, from Duran Duran to Dungeons and Dragons, Ladyhawke to Ferris Bueller's Day off and Monty Python's Grail, it's replete with references. The people who play within the game are able to bring their own cultural influences as well, and there's Firefly class ships, Star Trek references, lightsabers, etc. But mostly it's the 80's this book celebrates. Wade finally catches a break when he finds the first key, and the whole world is set on fire as others find it,and everyone races to find the egg. It was left by the developer after he died and is the key to his vast fortune. Some seek it for power, some for fortune and some even for escape. Escapism itself seems to become a theme by the end of the story and our protagonists learn the value of going outside like most stories of this kind.

There's not much unexplored here. I was reminded of Tad Williams' Otherworld (apparently not the only one, Werthead of Wertzone was too), and all my favorite MMORPG's, but just like Star Wars, and other such stories, the lack of depth does not mean it's not a good story, and it truly is. There's adventure, fun, and pop culture references aplenty. It's a very fast read too, you can finish it in about a night and day. Engrossing for every page. At the end you don't feel like you've wasted time and you have the same feeling as if you'd just watched a fun summer blockbuster, only of epic proportions. Highly enjoyable and worth reading, especially if you can catch all the 80's references.

There's a movie coming soon, and I'll be interested to see if they can pull it off. All in all a highly recommended story.

Monsters of Templeton by Laura Groff

Monsters of Templeton
by Lauren Groff

It's a novel more for females than men, but despite that it's an enjoyable and poetic read through a young woman's journey into learning about her family and past, full of villains and victims, heroes and lost girls, all set within a sort of Victorian theme.

Lauren Groff grew up in Coopertown New York, and this novel is her love song to the famous home of James Fenimore Cooper, classic novelist of such novels as The Pathfinder, part of the Leatherstocking tales, and what is considered his magnum opus The Last of the Mohicans. Groff's novel is a generally fictional take on the Cooper family, it's past and it's ties to characters in Cooper's novels. The fictional town is Templeton, and it's titular figure Marmaduke Temple is the founder who came and conquered the wilderness, along with other settlers. His son is James Franklin Temple, a celebrated author and classical novelist who becomes the town hero in later times. The novel begins with a death, of the famed monster that lives in the lake, it floats up to the surface as if heralding the coming of other small town secrets of Templeton's dark past. Young Wilhemina Upton, related to the Temples on her mother's side has returned home after a disastrous affair with a college professor and the resultant encounter with his wife. She is also pregnant, and her homecoming is quite strained. Her former hippie mother has decided to become religious, and her reverend boyfriend doesn't like the daughter that much. Old flames and friends pop up unexpectedly and most unwantedly, and to top it all off her mother finally reveals that her father is someone who she knows who lives in Templeton!

This is the setup for young Willie's journey to figure out who her father is, she goes back many generations into Templeton's past and what she finds are monsters of a different kind than the one in the lake. We also get a more rich background from chapters devoted to different people of the Temple and other families who played a part in the development of Templeton. In  the end most all of the town's dark secrets are laid bare, much like the monster in the lake, finally floating on the top of the water for all to see. But this brings relief rather than grief, and Willie's epiphany that having a past, no matter what kind, gives foundation for a future is a concept that I find valuable to learn.

The prose itself is poetic, though a lot less so than her second novel Arcadia, and there is the problem of not caring about the characters all that much for most of the book. They're all flawed, and for the most part not that interesting. Yet, still by the end of the book you are happy for Willie and for her revelations. And the poetic prose makes up for the lack of anything really engaging. It's not an adventure novel but more of a coming of age story. I feel like females too, would engage more with Willie's plight and her problems she faces with the pregnancy and everything throughout the novel. As for me I was more interested in the town's past, learning all it's dirty little secrets, and feeling like no matter how far back you go, humans are still humans, they can be monsters and heroes alike.

A good first effort by an author who really found her voice by her second and far superior novel, Arcadia, but beautiful nonetheless.

Les Miserables (2012) A Guest Review by Naomi Hanvey

In the post-musical film era, a handful of movie musicals are universally appealing enough that the average “not-a-fan-of-musicals” moviegoer can enjoy them.  Les Misérables is not one of them.  With over 30 musical numbers and nearly every scripted line sung, this is not a musical everyone will enjoy.  Therefore, when I see a number of critics writing negative reviews of this new movie adaptation in which they criticize the film for being, well, too musical, I have to wonder what they were expecting.    I haven’t read the novel by Alexandre Dumas or seen the musical live, but I was familiar with the music and the storyline and found the movie to be exactly what I hoped to see: a fusion of film and theatre that brings to life the story of Jean Valjean, a reformed thief struggling to be a good man in the midst of the poverty, destitution, and bloodshed that defined the early 1800s in France.  I’m not going to critique the plot or most of the music in this film because they exist separately from the movie.  In my opinion, people who criticize the film for being a musical might as well criticize Rite of Spring for being atonal.  It is what it is, and therefore I am limiting my review to those aspects which are exclusive to the film: acting, direction, cinematography, etc.
Overall, the single word that describes this film is ambitious.  Those familiar with either the book or the musical know that it is a huge story, with an enormous cast (257 credited in the movie), spanning about two decades and covering a multitude of events and issues.  In short: the principal character is Jean Valjean, a convict who breaks parole in order to start his life over after his release from prison.  He is pursued by Inspector Javert, a police officer whose commitment to justice borders on obsession and whose inability to comprehend mercy makes him ruthless.  Valjean takes pity on a woman named Fantine, whose poverty has driven her to prostitution in order to care for her illegitimate daughter Cosette.  Upon Fantine’s death, Valjean vows to care for Cosette as his own child, rescuing her from the home of the corrupt Monsier and Madame Thénardier.  When Cosette grows up, she falls in love with a patriot named Marius, who is in turn loved by the Thénardiers’ daughter Éponine.  When the Friends of ABC revolt (the Paris uprising of 1832), Javert is captured by the rebels and sentenced to death until Valjean discovers him and secretly lets him go.  Unable to reconcile his debt to Valjean for saving his life with his duty to arrest him for breaking parole, Javert commits suicide.  Meanwhile, Éponine joins the rebellion in the guise of a boy and saves Marius’ life by coming between him and a rifle.  The rebellion is crushed and every member killed – except Marius, who is wounded but saved by Valjean.  Cosette and Marius are married, but Valjean, old and sick and still weighed down with guilt over his past crimes, goes to a convent to live in solitude.  When Marius tells Cosette that Valjean saved his life, they go to him.  Finally at peace, Valjean dies, summoned to heaven by Fantine.
Since the story covers a period of more than 15 years, there are only two characters we follow from beginning to end: Valjean and Javert.  Therefore, it is on these two performances that the entire production rests, so maybe it’s fitting that in Hugh Jackman (Valjean) and Russel Crowe (Javert), we see the best and the worst of the entire movie.  Jackman delivers an excellent performance, showing both feeling and restraint.  In his expressions and vocal performance we can see the inner struggle of Valjean and feel what he feels; however, his lines occasionally sound almost out of his vocal range, and I would have preferred to hear a more polished singer.  However, like Gerard Butler in The Phantom of the Opera, I found that Jackman’s acting made up for what little he lacked in vocal performance.  He truly carried the film, especially since Russell Crowe did very little to carry his own weight.  In a movie so full of passion, with a number of talented actors pouring heart and soul into their roles, Russell Crowe stands alone as the one person who doesn’t seem to know what the story, let alone his own role, is about.  Thus Javert comes across as a nice policeman whose desire to do the right thing sometimes leads him to make mistakes and often makes him confused.  We aren’t sure why he sings about death and judgment and we certainly don’t know why he falls to his death, but throughout the film I just felt sorry for him.  I didn’t see any of the inflexible worship of the law, the obsessive hunt for Valjean, or the torment of the moral conflict that ultimately drives him to suicide – even while he was singing about it.
I went into this movie fully expecting to find fault with Anne Hathaway’s portrayal of Fantine.  This could easily be a “please give me an Oscar” performance in a “please give us an Oscar” movie, and it probably is, but in spite of that, I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about her actual performance.  She captures the character of Fantine – from her strength and determination to her journey to despair and eventual delirium – with such raw and agonizing conviction that I am likely to forget every other rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream” I’ve ever heard.
Regarding Samantha Barks as Éponine, I have mixed feelings.  Barks, a veteran in this role, plays the part with more subtlety than Hathaway, but gives a stirring and memorable performance.  However, comparing her thin but curvy figure and nearly flawless complexion to Hathaway’s 25-pounds lighter, blotchy and sickly appearance earlier in the film (or even Jackman’s skinnier self), I just didn’t find Barks believable as an emaciated waif.  Despite that, I found “A Little Fall of Rain” to be one of the most touching scenes of the entire film.
The rest of the actors delivered good performances – Eddie Redmayne as Marius perhaps surpassing the others – but with comparatively little screen time, none of them leave a real lasting impression.  The exceptions to this are Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter as Msr. And Mme. Thénardier, who provide just about all the comic relief through outrageous and even grotesque humor.  Both of them were excellently cast, and they played their parts, as one could easily expect, to perfection.
I have to throw in a few words for Isabelle Allen, who plays young Cosette and whose face is pictured on the movie’s poster.  In a living embodiment of Emile Bayard’s portrait we’re familiar with from the original novel, Allen portrays innocence and helplessness flawlessly in a memorable, though brief, performance.  The real prize for acting in my book, however, goes to Daniel Huddlestone as Gavroche, a young street urchin who considers himself part of the uprising and who is eventually brutally slain.  Gavroche’s character ultimately represents the entire book – hopefulness in the midst of destitution, perseverance against impossible odds, and ultimately a pointless death, one tiny casualty in a minor uprising that affected no change in France.  Huddlestone immediately captures his character and the audience’s attention.  In a story full of pain and death, it is his that we feel the most.
I realize most of my review has focused on the actors, because as a movie-goer and a musical fan that’s what I pay the most attention to.  In terms of cinematography, this movie has only one flaw as far as I could see: a large number of disturbingly long extreme close-ups.  During a character’s main vocal performance, the camera cuts in to the actors face . . . and just stays there.  I felt like the movie actually lost impact this way, because any time the camera forces you to focus on it rather than on the action it’s capturing, it’s not doing its job properly.  In the amount of time we see Anne Hathaway’s face in frame, you can just about count all her pores.  On the other hand, Russell Crowe’s performance was baffling enough by itself so the additional component of the poor camera choice did little to detract from it.  Besides that, I found the costumes and sets very well designed, the location shots beautiful (a nice contrast with the abject poverty we see throughout the film), and the overall production well done.
In summary, if I may paraphrase the nursery rhyme, the parts that were good, were very very good; the parts that were bad, were horrid.  If you don’t like musicals, you can give it a try, but go in with tempered expectations and the knowledge that you will be listening to almost nothing but verse for two hours.  If you are a fan of musicals, or of Les Misérables specifically, you will find this movie imperfect but still worth watching.

Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon

Review: Boy's Life by Robert R. McCammon

We ran like young wild furies,
where angels feared to tread.
The woods were dark and deep.
Before us demons fled.
We checked Coke bottle bottoms
to see how far was far.
Our worlds of magic wonder
were never reached by car.
We loved our dogs like brothers,
our bikes like rocket ships.
We were going to the stars,
to Mars we'd make round trips.
We swung on vines like Tarzan,
and flashed Zorro's keen blade.
We were James Bond in his Aston,
we were Hercules unchained.
We looked upon the future
and we saw a distant land,
where our folks were always ageless,
and time was shifting sand.
We filled up life with living,
with grins, scabbed knees, and noise.
In glass I see an older man,
but this book's for the boys.

Such begins the novel Boy's Life by Robert R McCammon, a novel that is at once classical and contemporary, enlightening and entertaining, horrific in some parts and wondrous in others (many times the same part), it is a book about a young boy's growing up in the small town of Zephyr, Alabama. In this town are many magical and wondrous things, from an escaped triceratops from the fair, to an elderly black lady who might or might not be able to do magic. This small town is filled to the brim with exciting and bizarre characters, people who are in a way, larger than life. But at the same time, as a child, everything is larger than life. And that is what this novel is about, the wonder and magic of childhood, be it truth or imagination, and holding on to that as we grow, and learn of the darker truths of this life. This boy learns of these darker truths as a murder happens in town, and his father becomes inextricably intertwined into the mystery. Subplots abound though that have everything to do with growing up, from the death of a friend and crisis of faith, to the inevitable encounter with school bullies. It reminds one of Tom Sawyer, or Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird. The story is set in 1963 and '64, a time when civil rights is a huge issue, and it continues to be an ongoing subplot throughout the book as well as the mystery of the murder.

One thing I loved about this story is the father, a strong male character in a world where increasingly the father is relegated to a bumbling idiot, it reminded me of Koontz's characters in that regard, and family is indeed a powerful catalyst throughout the story, and a shoulder to lean on as the boy grows and learns. It feels as if much of the story was taken from older stories, there's elements of Old Yeller, Stephen King novels, To Kill a Mockingbird, and even Something Wicked This Way Comes as the story goes on, but all of this it is at root it's own animal. I believe as one of my favorite author's once said, that there are no new stories under the sun, only old ones told in our individual ways, and if you can do this, then you have told a good story. McCammon does this with flying colors. At almost 500 something pages it is hard for one to say that he wants to read more, but I was left with that indelible effect as I finished the novel, having read it for the most part of a night and sitting there half asleep at 6 o clock in the morning, I could have read a hundred more chapters about Cory Mackenson, his friends Ben, Davy Ray, and Johnny, the dog Rebel, The Lady, The Moon Man and the large cast of supporting characters, each so lovingly individual that you know this author knew people like them in real life.

I think the mark of a good story is how long it stays with you after you read it, and whether you feel at once changed and perhaps healed after reading it. I can say for a fact that Boy's Life has this effect, and I look forward to repeat readings in the future, entering into Zephyr, and into the magic and wonder of that pool of innocence and grace of childhood, back when the world was far bigger and every person we met was a mystery and a magician, when our fathers were giants, and our dogs were our brothers, and the woods beside our house was a magic kingdom where anything could happen.

Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

Review: Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

It hit me while I was reading a collection of short stories by William Gay entitled "I Hate To See That Evening Sun Go Down." why I loved Jeffrey Overstreet's Auralia's Colors, my first foray into the world of The Expanse, so much. It's not because the story is all that different from many other stories I've read, it's not because the prose stands out to me all that much, though it is in fact lovely. It is because of the fascination with all things artful, beautiful and true. Look up Mr. Overstreet and you will come across a phrase from Dostoevsky's The Idiot "Beauty will save the world." at first this may seem abstract and perhaps even dangerous, but in reflection beauty is truth is as true a statement as the aforementioned, and in this light stands the power of Auralia, and of us all. We are the beauty-makers of this world, the meaning bringers, the children of Truth, of Christ. And oftentimes we can take out the beauty in what we try to bring. One reviewer said it best when she compared Overstreet's work to a Van Gogh painting. Van Gogh painted reality, his impression of it, and it was that individual touch on beauty that made art. What Overstreet does is show the importance not only of creativity, but of understanding how to take color and light and beauty, and make meaning and purpose out of it. The Expanse is a world much like our own, where art is somehow turned on it's head and what is beautiful is not, and what is forgotten or put to the wayside is the most beautiful of all. We can't write reality beautifully without inviting some magic, some light, some impressionism into the mix. And that's what got me last night while reading William Gay. He writes beautifully too, you could say the same of Nabokov, or Hemingway, but something is missing, something which shares the ache, and the brokenness, but no hope. Overstreet shares hope. And beauty as well. In truth if you were to read his novels you might not come to the conclusion that God is God and Christ is Lord, or even what that Hope is. But you will know color, and you will know wonder and I know, having been down that path, where it ultimately leads. I also know Gay's path, and while it is pretty, it is hopeless...and for all of it, it deeply misses someone like Auralia.