Saturday, May 3, 2014

People come and go from our lives. And that's OK!

"People come and go from our lives. And that's OK."

That was a quote from one of my old professors about Facebook. He was frustrated by our modern obsession with needing to be connected to one another all the time. You see it in the way people treat their "friends lists" on such social networking sites.

Have you messaged me within the past 2 years? No? Defriended.

It's such an odd way of going about it too because so much can be misunderstood. Are you defriending me because you feel we don't talk enough? Are you defriending me because you think we're just acquaintances? Are you defriending me because you saw one of my posts and you didn't like what I said?

People come and go from our lives. And that's OK. This is what social networking (along with a clever professor) has taught me. Or, as the common phrase goes, 'less is more.' Instant messaging, texting, even e-mails are relationship-killers. Excellent tools, nonetheless, but like many tools, humanity was ill prepared for them. The ironic thing is that the more often we connect online, the less we seem to connect in reality.

One of my favorite things about college was going off into the world, leaving my home state of Minnesota, and gathering new experiences outside of what I knew. I was terrified. My best friend, Aaron, and I talked to each other almost every single day on the phone. We were both scared of losing our friends, and each other, that we overcompensated. It didn't help that we were both having really awful freshman experiences.

The next time we saw each other, it was like nothing had changed. Our friendship was stronger than ever, and we became much more comfortable not talking. It makes it that much more exciting when you finally do see each other again. You both gain so much more experience and potential that the other person doesn't, and you can share that with each other, and it's beautiful.

Aaron is currently on a tour with his choir in Europe. I miss him. But he is having an experience he will never forget for the rest of his life. I can't wait to hear all the stories he'll have to tell. As another popular phrase goes, "Distance makes the heart grow fonder."

Multiply this yearning by a trillion, and you have how I feel about hundreds of friends back in Minnesota. I haven't talked to them in ages! It's been over four years -- that's not even that long, really! And I'm filled with joy when I think of what our next meeting will be like.

Social networks seem to be a panacea for most people -- curing their subconsciously diagnosed disease of loss, nostalgia, and yearning. But these emotions are essential to being human and to fostering human relationships with one another. Get off the computer and miss your friends and family like you never did before. It's healthy, and it's OK to not talk.

Everyone has potential to give, but they first need to be allowed to grow outside of you in order for that potential to be realized by you both. We all need to write our own stories, even if, in the end, we outgrow each other, which sometimes happens. Love is sacrifice.

Monday, August 12, 2013

FILM REVIEW - Fruitvale Station (2013) - Ryan Coogler - "Are you sad yet?"

This is by far and away my least favorite film of 2013 thus far. I went to see it from a recommendation I got from some friends, and, similar to my experience with 2011's 'Drive' I foresee this being a movie that a lot of my fellow film buffs love, but I despise.

The film is based on the true story of Oscar Grant, a young man who was shot fatally by police on New Years Day 2009.

I'm going to compare this film to a film that is starkly different (and much better) than Fruitvale: Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Both of these films show you how the film ends at the beginning. This works great in Melancholia, because it doesn't play on the audiences feelings of knowing that the world is going to end, because that's not what the story is about. It shows you how the film ends at the start, because Trier wants you to focus on the characters - the characters are the story (which is why many found themselves bored with the first half which didn't focus on the impending apocalypse at all). 

While the film does focus on Oscar's character, it spends the entirety of the film trying to make you feel bad that you know he's going to die, and they do this by using all film cliches. He starts off as a real low life - a cheater, a repeat offender, a drug seller, a sloth, and by the end of the film he's... well he's made up with his girlfriend, who doesn't bring up the fact he cheated on her for the rest of the film, even after he screws up multiple times and loses his job. Seriously, the reasons they give for you to care for Oscar are just really... strange. You see him play with kids, he obviously cares about his daughter, and he lets a pregnant woman use the bathroom even though a shop is closed and she really has to go. That's legitimately one of the plot points. He then has a conversation with the pregnant woman's husband about marriage and how he should propose to his girlfriend (again, shoving it in your face that you know he's going to die). At one point he even goes on and on to his daughter, who tells him he shouldn't leave, about how he's going to come home and they're going to do all these things together (again, shoving it in your face that you know he's going to die).

The film spends most of it's time telling you how to feel instead of just letting you feel. It feels like a contrived set of circumstances that Coogler wrote in that have nothing to do with Oscar's true story, and instead, are shoehorned in to make the film more depressing, even when they don't make sense. I felt like Coogler was above my shoulder throughout the entire film, whispering incessantly into my ear, "Are you sad yet? How about now?" Instead of manipulating real events to make the story more interesting, Coogler is manipulating events to try to make you give a shit about a story that really did not warrant a film adaptation.

Coogler writes that he wanted the film to show that each human life has value and that if people understood Oscar's background, it wouldn't be like they read it in the paper, it would show that every human life means something. If that was his intent, it didn't come through. Instead of being inspired, or seeing the purpose in Oscar's life, all I saw was a mistake that ended in a tragedy. Coogler tries to force a relevant "police brutality," message at the end that instead comes across as just an ignorant mistake on an officer's behalf.

Even though the film features strong acting performances, and intriguing cinematography, at the end of the film, I had to ask myself, "What do I take away from this film?" and "What did I learn of the human experience?" and it really taught me nothing. It felt very nihilistic, and I personally felt very numb leaving the theater, because I was given no proper reason to care. 

I think people who are into social justice films, or people who are easily roused by cliched depictions of police brutality will enjoy this film, because they will feel validated, even if it's only for the ten minutes that police are actually on screen. For those who live in the real world, you'll be able to see that this is a film poised to force emotions out of people that just aren't there, which is a pity given it's potent cast.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Way, Way Back (2013) - Nat Faxon/Jim Rash

Alfred Hitchcock talked many times about the importance, not on story, but on execution. He said that he didn't care how "good" the story was, because if the execution was well done, it would be engaging all the same. A similar belief is that "it's not what you say, it's how you say it." These concepts hold true for a film like The Way, Way Back, which ventures into familiar waters (didn't intend that as a pun) within the coming-of-age dramedy. While it is a predictable film, the familiar conclusion is made incredibly impactful by the stellar direction of Jim Rash and Nat Faxon. 

The story tells the tale of Duncan, a 14-year old boy who finds himself trapped at a summer home with his recently divorced mom and her domineering boyfriend, Trent. Being an introverted person doesn't help the fact that he's surrounded by adults he can't relate to, and fellow peers who find his behavior stand-offish. Duncan eventually finds friendship in Owen, the owner of a water park nearby, through which Duncan begins to finally understand his place in the world. 

Being from the studio that made Little Miss Sunshine, Steve Carrell and Toni Collette are both phenomenal in their roles, but what really makes this film tick is the gradual transition you are able to see in Duncan, played by Liam James. For most of the film, Duncan is this very socially awkward kid. He's very fearful of this new world around him (both literally and emotionally, with the divorce). You really cringe for him at times when he's first attempting to flirt with the girl next door, but as that falls back and becomes the B-plot, there's this natural joy that James exhibits when he's with Owen, and you really believe him when he says that Water Wizz is the only place where he's happy.

This isn't to belittle the other cast members, as Allison Janney, Sam Rockwell, and Maya Rudolph do spectacular jobs as well. Their characters really help to provide the comedy center, and allows the film to avoid being too much of a downer, as it tackles very tense, almost too relateable problems (I felt similarly about Crazy, Stupid, Love... maybe it's just dramedies about divorce). 

I've been actively searching for a film that I could point out and say, "That's my favorite film of 2013," because while I've seen some pretty great films this year, there hasn't been anything that has wowed me as much as Moonrise Kingdom last year, or Melancholia the year before, Or Black Swan the year before, or Slumdog Millionaire the year befo- you get the idea. Mud, The Way, Way Back, and The Conjuring are all very high on my list, but I'd have to say that if I'd have to give one the top contender currently, it'd have to go to The Way, Way Back. 

If you get the chance, definitely check this out.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

GAME REVIEW: Heavy Rain (2010)

In anticipation for Quantic Dream's next game, Beyond: Two Souls (releases in October), I've decided to review their previous game, which happens to be one of my favorites in the past few years, Heavy Rain.

You play as a loving father, a private detective, an FBI agent, and a cunning journalist all attempting to solve the mysteries of The Origami Killer, a serial murderer who uses extended periods of rainfall to drown his victims.

The game is molded after noir films, and behaves (as do most Quantic Dream games) like an interactive movie. One of the innovative parts of the game is that while you play as four separate characters, it is impossible to get a 'GAME OVER' screen. If you screw up, or get a character killed, they stay dead, and the storyline adapts to your choices. Because of this, each character has several different endings ranging from getting married to the love of their life to shooting themselves after becoming overcome with depression. So, yeah, don't screw up.

And I really mean that. The story, by itself, is depressing enough as is, but it can become heart-breaking very fast if you're not careful, and it makes you feel even worse, because your choices brought about their pain. Think of it like a modern version of a "Choose Your Own Adventure," book, but instead of being able to go back a few pages and choose to go over the bridge instead of under it, you get to watch your character writhe and suffer, and then be forced to start the entire game over again if you want them to get a better ending. What makes this even more difficult, is that, often, when you're deliberating over a movement or what to say to another character, you are only given a short amount of time with which to respond. Especially once you get attached to some of the main characters, the action sequences are stressful enough to provide aneurysms.

If you get a chance, definitely check out this game. I'm very much a supporter of this movement that's been happening within games to make them more cinematic, and focus on character development more. As long as they're not pieces of shit like Metroid: Other M.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

FILM REVIEW: The Conjuring (2013) - James Wan

The horror genre is one that suffers from weight issues. It's a genre that is difficult to find craft and balance in. Many of the films take themselves too seriously or not seriously enough. A tinge to the left can have the audience laughing at it's disingenuous, while a tinge to the right can have them groaning in disgust. In essence, in the horror genre, it's very easy to break the diving board.

Now, I've been a fan of James Wan's since his career began. As anybody who knows me knows, I am an avid fan of the Saw franchise, in particular, the first three films (the first directed by James, and the original trilogy all written by his longtime partner in crime, Leigh Whannell). With his second film, I thought Dead Silence took itself a little too seriously, but it established an almost vaudeville voice in horror for Wan that separated itself from Saw.

Wan's fourth film, Insidious, saw Wan finally being taken seriously outside of his Saw fame. While lightning doesn't strike twice, it was Wan's second horror film (the first being Saw) to be made for under $2 million and making back around $100 million. One of the selling points of Insidious is that it tries something new with horror, and where that is concerned, I give it all the credit. Personally, I felt Insidious lost it's traction in it's third act, mainly because of the decision made to CGI the demon, and the amount of horror that was lost to the imagination. 

James Wan's balance is perfected in The Conjuring.

While The Conjuring isn't the perfect horror film, it is by far and away one of the best in the last few years, and definitely the best in Wan's history to date. It continues to feature Wan's vaudeville-type demons that started in Dead Silence, but it doesn't go overboard by showing them too much, and it has just the right amount of humor to balance out it's darkness.

The film follows the story of the Warrens (portrayed by Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga), real-life paranormal investigators who researched several famous "hauntings" (The Amityville Horror, and The Haunting In Connecticut being two other media pieces based off their cases). In The Conjuring, they come to the assistance of the Perron family, who begin experiencing disturbing things at their new home in Rhode Island.

While I don't praise many horror performances, I have to continue to give Vera Farmiga (Orphan, Up in the Air, Bates Motel) the credit she deserves. She has been one of my favorite actresses of the past decade, and she definitely doesn't disappoint here. 

In contrast with Insidious, and for the sake of argument, The Conjuring isn't anything new. But where some see this as a detractor, I see it as a perfection of approach to styles and tropes within the horror genre, similar to how Alfonso Duralde defended the film with, "...but Fred Astaire didn't invent tap dancing," James Wan did not invent the ghost/demon/exorcism style, but he damn near perfected it. 

While James Wan is now moving on to doing bigger budget films (Insidious 2 comes out in September, but Fast & Furious 7 is next on his production list), I personally cannot wait to see what else he comes up with in the horror genre. I would love to see him move outside of ghosts and try a thriller, as he is quite on point with his techniques in building suspense. 

Go see this film and support well-done horror films. Or be stuck with remakes of When A Stranger Calls. 

Sunday, July 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Buy This Land (2013) - Chi-Dooh Li

This book is the summation of the American dream - an incredible, unexpected unlikely journey that ends with giving back, with paying it forward for future generations. It is the autobiography of Chi-Dooh Li, a man whose beginnings were just as extraordinary as his achievements.

When he was just a baby, he was to be left behind in China, with his grandfather, while the rest of his family traveled for his father's new job. Chi-Dooh's stepmother kidnapped him and brought him with them just before the Chinese came under Communist rule. Had he been left behind, as his grandfather wanted, Chi-Dooh's life path would have been very, very different. The family traveled often as Chi-Dooh grew up, going through Sydney, Taipei, Guatemala, and Bogota before Chi-Dooh followed in his brothers footsteps and traveled to America for higher education. While here, Chi-Dooh got his degree as a lawyer, found God, and started a family of his own.

When an Argentinian pastor spoke at his church, Chi-Dooh felt called to find a way to help the poor in Central America. This is what led to the founding of Agros International. What started as an experiment in Guatemala blossomed and expanded to other countries. Focused on long-term sustainability, Agros buys a parcel of land and provides expertise to farmers who then gradually pay for their portion of the land out of the profits they make on their crops.

Anyone who has tried to fight poverty knows that this did not come easily, but Chi-Dooh's experience with founding Agros has proven effective. It changes the system which has kept people poor, and it motivates the poor to work for land of their own. Chi-Dooh does not summarize in his book, either, which is fantastic if you are someone who desires to take on such altruistic goals yourself. He details all of the steps, each foot forward that was met with several steps back, each victory and each frustration, before being able to make a difference.

If there's anything to be taken away from Chi-Dooh's story, it's that anyone can make a difference.  The news has been filled with a lot of depressing stories recently, but there is still good going on in the world. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wants to see how they can make a difference, who want to read about the good that is going on in the world, or to people who just want to read an inspiring, uplifting, true story.

Agros International still operates and expands today. More information here:

Saturday, July 13, 2013

MUSIC REVIEW: The Big Dream (2013) - David Lynch

The Big Dream, the new album from filmmaker David Lynch, sees a continuation of his take on modern blues. He has said time and time again that he doesn't consider himself a musician, and these albums are more a labor of his love for music and experiments, and it shows. They have the same aesthetic that his films take on. 

Although I do have an intense love and respect for David's work in film, I wasn't entirely enamored with his first album. It had beautiful moments, such as Pinky's Dream, Good Day Today. I Know, and Stone's Gone Up, and it wasn't like the rest of the album was bad, it was just very sleepy, and the tracks seemed to all sound the same. Nothing was popping out. 

The Big Dream is much of the same, but to a lesser extent. It's helped most by the mixing and production of the drums, which at times, gives Lynch's blues a hip-hop bounce. David also seems to have a better grasp at song structure, with his bridges being much more prevalent, thus making for more effective segues. At the end of the day, though, like with "Crazy Clown Time," I only foresee hardcore Lynch fans getting into this album. 

Wishin' Well is by far and away the best song Lynch has made thus far. It opens with a creeping, heavily muffled guitar sample that immediately feels Lynchian, but the beat gives the song just enough of a bounce to transcend Lynch above any derogatory titles he received once he started releasing his own music. It does this without being overdone. It's a song that shows. A very emotive, beautiful and creepy track.

The album ends with two tracks that feel like they crawled right out of The Black Lodge. Are You Sure has the calming soundscapes, the heavily reverbed gliding guitars, and the dissonant vocals we came to see in some of the most beautiful Julee Cruise tracks. It ends on Lynch's collaboration with longtime fan Lykke Li (whose music I also really love), I'm Waiting Here, which is also the albums first single. It's easy to see why, as it is not just one that is stereotypically Lynch, but at times, Lykke Li's voice is so reminiscent of Julee's, that, if you didn't know better, you'd probably assume it was Julee. 

 Listen to the track here:

Being that his collab with Karen O, Pinky's Dream, was one of the best tracks off "Crazy Clown Time," and I'm Waiting Here being one of the best tracks off "The Big Dream," I wonder how successful an album of collabs with Lynch would be. A lot of people's difficulties with Lynch's music seems to be on his voice, which is very much built for folk music, and seems to be too much of a contrast for it to click with mainstream (although Lynch never was one to try for the mainstream).

The Big Dream sees Lynch progressing. If you weren't a fan of Crazy Clown Time, I don't see you enjoying The Big Dream, but it does capitalize and improve on points where Crazy Clown Time faltered. If nothing else, check out Wishin' Well, because it's by far and away the best track Lynch has made. I'm actually very interested to see where his next album goes, because if the production improves as much on his third time around as it did this time, like Lynch's films, it has the potential to go very, very big.

Best Tracks: Last Call, Wishin' Well, Are You Sure, I'm Waiting Here