Blackened Tongues and the Christmas Calamity

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 12

It's absolutely incredible to me that we're coming up on an entire year since my friend Kyle and I launched the Four Courses podcast. We all know that time flies, but I expected it to fly at the speed of an airplane, not the speed of a laser beam. My obsession with food and cooking continues unabated, so if you haven't downloaded it already, here is Episode 12, submitted for your approval.

Topics include the cozy atmosphere of Elaia, the best drinks for winding down at the end of the evening, the food-related disasters that have befallen us over the years, and a spirited debate over restaurants with a policy of not accepting reservations. We close out the year by revisiting the year's food resolutions to see how well we did at keeping our promises. I hope you enjoy it, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

The State of the Art: Movies 2014

I need to start this year's cinematic State of the Art with some caveats and some apologies. I really fell down on the job in 2014, movie-wise. Check out the stats in years past. This year, I'm at a lower overall number (50 movies) and a lower number of same-year releases (19 of the 50). That means it's held at a pretty steady percentage of new-to-overall (38%), but there's a smaller pool of movies to draw from.

Also, I've noticed that the grades look kind of wonky, due to my usual system of partially grading on a meets/exceeds/doesn't live up to expectations scale. That means that if a heavily-praised prestige picture was good, but didn't strike me as wonderful as people said, it likely didn't get as high a grade as a comic book movie that I expected to be kind of dumb, but wound up being more entertaining and technically proficient than it could have been. I don't mean to suggest that Captain America: Winter Solider is a towering cinematic achievement, while Birdman was crap.

And finally, since the top five all have to be same-year releases, movies that I like more than those on the list might fall through the cracks, due purely to timing. Note that Her has the highest rating I've given a movie in a long time, but since I saw it this year, it doesn't appear on either the top five of 2013 or 2014.

So, let's get to that top five, along with a pledge that I'll try to embrace a wider range of movies next year:

#1: Guardians of the Galaxy

What I Said: I'm reaching for things to nitpick, and am not really coming up with anything. This was pretty much the perfect summer movie experience, and assuming Marvel wants to capture lightning in a bottle like this again, they'll have their work cut out of them.

#2: Boyhood

What I Said: As a cinematic achievement, this is flawless. Assembling a movie with a single cast/crew over the course of twelve years is no mean feat, just in the technical sense. There are also any number of methods Linklater could have used to incorporate the aspect of passing time into a fictional narrative, and he avoids a lot of clumsy traps. There are no obvious dissolves between ages. There are no "One Year Later" subtitles. There's no omniscient narrator explaining what's happening. There's no obvious foreshadowing in the beginning that magically pays off in the end. There is no AND THEN THIS HUGE THING HAPPENED THAT CHANGES EVERYTHING event that never happens to actual people. The movie just flows from scene to scene, just like life.

#3: X-Men: Days of Future Past

What I Said: It's not just an excuse to watch Wolverine slash at stuff and Magneto levitate some bullets. As a result, it's a fantastic flick, where the verbal fights are as compelling as the super-powered ones. The cast certainly helps. The elder versions of Xavier and Magneto (Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) are well-matched by their younger selves (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender). Jennifer Lawrence is an emotionally powerful Mystique. Peter Dinklage is a superb antagonist. Each of the secondary characters gets a chance to show off as well, and actually use their powers in concert with each other, demonstrating cooperation that not enough team movies display. And if you're just looking for pure fun, the Quicksilver setpiece in the middle of the movie is one of the most amazing scenes I've seen in a long time.

#4: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

What I Said: Captain America is not the Broody Loner Hero that we've been seeing a lot of lately. He wants to interact with society, and has a much stronger connection to the people around him than Batman or Superman has in a long time. Still, the real standouts in this movie are Johansson and Mackie, both of whom take roles that could easily come off as one-note and flesh them out into relatable, sympathetic characters. Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford also turn into some great supporting performances.

#5: Gone Girl

What I Said: As far as performances go, most special mentions have to go to the female contingent. Rosamund Pike gives Amy a cool, competent air, but still conveys the emotion bubbling underneath. Carrie Coon is Nick's twin sister who does her damndest to be supportive, even as her brother makes what she feels are all the wrong decisions. Kim Dickens is marvelously understated, but forceful as a detective trying to unravel the mystery of Amy's disappearance. And hey, let's not leave out Missi Pyle, who plays a Nancy Grace surrogate as nasty and irresponsible as you could ever want.

Comic book movies are over-represented, so I guess I was just looking for some fun this year. Maybe next year I'll revert to indie dramas. Or maybe not! Let's go to the full year's list:

2014 Movies

Guardians of the Galaxy (A)
Boyhood (A-)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (A-)
Captain America: Winter Soldier (A-)
Gone Girl (B+)
The Lego Movie (B+)
Edge of Tomorrow (B+)
The Babadook (B+)
Grand Piano (B+)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (B)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (B)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (B)
Big Hero 6 (B)
The Skeleton Twins (B)
Into the Woods (B/C+)
Birdman (B-)
Maleficent (B-)
The Boxtrolls (B-)
Godzilla (C+)

It seems that sticking to more lighthearted fare worked pretty well, as 47% of the movies rated a B+ or higher, and only a single new release wound up disappointing me. Still, I feel like not seeing movies like Whiplash or Foxcatcher yet means I haven't done my "homework", if that makes any sense. So how do the 2014 films fit into the entire year of movie watching? Let's find out!

Her (2013) (A+)
Short Term 12 (2013) (A)
Guardians of the Galaxy (A)
Boyhood (A-)
X-Men: Days of Future Past (A-)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (A-)

Gone Girl (B+)
The Lego Movie (B+)
Edge of Tomorrow (B+)
The Babadook (B+)
Captain Phillips (2013) (B+)
The Last of Sheila (1973) (B+)
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (2013) (B+)
Side Effects (2013) (B+)
The Warriors (1979) (B+)
Hot Water (1924) (B+)
Night of the Comet (1984) (B+)
Grand Piano (B+)

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) (B)
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (B)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (B)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (B)
Big Hero 6 (B)
The Skeleton Twins (B)
Populaire (2012) (B)
Urbanized (2011) (B)
Kings of Pastry (2009) (B)
Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) (B)
Public Speaking (2010) (B)
Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013) (B)
Into the Woods (B/C+)
White House Down (2013) (B)
Trollhunter (2010) (B)

Birdman (B-)
American Hustle (2013) (B-)
The Ides of March (2011) B-
Anna Karenina (2012) (B-)
Maleficent (B-)
The Boxtrolls (B-)
Exam (2009) (B-)
Penelope (2006) (B-)

August: Osage County (2013) (C+)
Wanderlust (2012) (C+)
A.C.O.D. (2013) (C+)
Godzilla (C+)
Rango (2011) (C+)
Hamlet 2 (2008) (C+)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) (C)
It's a Disaster (2012) (C)
The Big Wedding (2013) (C-)

Shorties #15

Now that the year is almost over, I'd better get to wedging in blurbs about the things I've just wrapped up, if only so they can be included in the State of the Art posts. And what's the quickest way to do that? Shorties!

#1: The Ides of March: In this 2011 film, Ryan Gosling plays a campaign manager for George Clooney, portraying a politician attempting to win the Democratic presidential nomination. All of his talking points are slick and broadly appealing to us bleeding heart liberals, but there are dirty little secrets bubbling beneath the surface. When Gosling discovers that winning and ideals cannot always go hand-in-hand, he has to make some pretty tough choices. It's a well-acted movie, but often trades in cliche. And on a personal note, I really detest it when movies or TV depict arguments about/decisions regarding abortion that don't have the guts to ever even mutter the word aloud. (Grade: B-)

#2: Mr. Mercedes: I was surprised that I was able to get my hands on Stephen King's new book from the library so quickly. This story concerns a retired detective who sets aside his suicidal tendencies in an effort to close a case where the perpetrator of a heinous hit-and-run mass murder got away. Perspectives shift between the hero and the villain so that we can see what both of them are up to. There are no supernatural baddies here; all the horrors stems from places that are distressingly human. It's a fairly mundane thriller, and weirdly, it's the first book in a trilogy about the protagonist, who isn't a very interesting character. It was a decent read that moved along at a good clip, though, and that's all I was expecting from it. (Grade: B)

#3: Side Effects: Stephen Soderbergh tends to make movies that I find fascinating, but sometimes it takes me a while to get around to seeing them. This 2013 movie is no exception, which worked out well, since I enjoyed it more on my couch than I think I would have in the theater. On the surface, it's a psychological thriller about a murder and just how culpable the perpetrator is, given that she's on an experimental course of anti-depressants. Did she mean to do it? Does she even remember it? Is it her psychiatrist's fault? Is she playing the system? It's a great premise, and the execution is pulled off meticulously. Even as the general story is unfolding, the movie also serves as a pretty sharp satire of Americans' over-reliance on pill popping to solve all their problems. The final act is a little too neat and tidy, given the mess that preceded it, but overall, it's a very well-done movie. (Grade: B+)

#4: Dragon Age: Inquisition: This game franchise has had a bumpy history. The first entry (Dragon Age: Origins) ranks as one of my favorite games of all time. The second (Dragon Age II) was the biggest disappointment of the year. Now that I'm several hours into this third entry, I can confidently say that Dragon Age is back, baby! My grade is based purely on gameplay, so I'm not docking any points for the bugs, of which there are too many. I'm not happy about the crashes and glitches, of course, but they're fixable. They're not intrinsic to the game. This game almost seems like a direct response to the complaints about Dragon Age II. Don't like the poorly-written companion scenes? Great, here are nine companions who all have much more intricate backstories, desires, wishes, and triggers. Tired of the same cave over and over and over again? Great, let's make the world breathtakingly gigantic, with each zone having its own citizens, atmosphere, and personality. This game is gorgeous, funny, romantic, sad, and above all else...fun. And I'm not even halfway done. (Grade: A)

#5: Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin: If you're not careful, writing about history can be too dry. I mean, check out one of the only two books that I couldn't even get through this year. Simple recitations of names and dates gets old (no pun intended). So I was pleased by Jill Lepore's 2013 book, even as it admitted to being about a woman whose only claim to fame was being Benjamin Franklin's kid sister. Jane Franklin wasn't an author (she could barely spell). She didn't advise her brother on matters of policy. She didn't, in fact, do much of anything except make soap and babies. But that's precisely what's so interesting about the book; plenty has been written about our forefathers, but not much about the lives of the people for whom those forefathers were crafting a new country. This book runs on the parallel tracks of a towering giant in American history and a simple housewife, who happened to adore each other. Lepore's source material is very thin, but she's able to build on it, creating a pretty lifelike portrait of a woman who remains mostly anonymous. (Grade: B)

Tears For Fears

As I've recently mentioned, the race is on to cram in a bunch of movies before the year ends. To that end, one of the afternoons this weekend was devoted to chicken strips and a double feature at a friend's house. Now there's an enjoyable combo!

The first movie was one the few horror films I've allowed myself to see lately. I allowed myself to be seduced by The Babadook for several reasons. One: All the critical reviewers I often read and trust were talking it up as being much more than just an everyday screamer. Two: I had been assured that except for brief flashes, the gore level wouldn't be anything I couldn't handle. Three: It stars Essie Davis, an actress I'm doing cartwheels over these days. After making sure I had a handy blanket to hide my face when necessary, we dove in.

It's a fascinating movie, in more ways than one. The reviewers were right: This isn't just a jump-scare movie where monsters leap out and yell "Boo!". It's a lot deeper than that. Davis stars as a single mother with a young, troubled son. Her husband was killed in a car accident that occurred when he was driving her to the delivery room, so of course, her feelings about her kid are all wrapped up in the grief and loss surrounding her husband. It doesn't help that he's a real handful, so her situation is worsened by the complicated feelings of not really liking him.

When she reads a pop-up book ostensibly written for children to her son, they discover that it describes a presence known as Mr. Babadook, who will consume their entire lives if they allow him in. It doesn't take long for the household to devolve into hysteria, but is Mr. Babadook real, or are the events that seem supernatural just a manifestation of loneliness, unhappiness, and sleep deprivation? It's a tense, exciting movie, and one of the rare thrillers that offers a good scare without having to resort to disgusting shock effects.

As soon as the end credits rolled, we jumped straight into Wes Anderson's latest movie, The Grand Budapest Hotel. It's gotten stellar reviews, but as with the stellar reviews for Birdman, I find the gushing praise a little overdone. That's not to say I disliked it, though; as with a lot of Anderson's movies, I found it gorgeous in its visuals, and pretty charming to boot.

The story charts the history of the titular hotel and its most devoted concierge, as told by his protege, a young refugee serving as lobby boy. Ralph Fiennes is the one aspect that has not been over-praised; he is absolutely incredible as the concierge whose devotion to service and professionalism earns him valuable friendships worldwide. A battle over a dowager's bequeathment and the threat of world war sends them on a series of adventures. It's a clever movie, and for those who don't enjoy the usual twee nature of Anderson's movies, this one is a lot more straightforward. It didn't quite reach the heights that last year's Moonrise Kingdom did for me, but I will admit that it was very fun and very pretty.

The Babadook: B+
The Grand Budapest Hotel: B

I Wish...

Once upon a time...

Disney made an adaptation of a musical you've either never heard of, or at least aren't very familiar with. It's released on Christmas Day with a family-friendly rating and is packed to the rafters with bankable movie stars and beloved fairy tale characters. I'm speaking of Into the Woods, the long-awaited adaptation of Stephen Sondheim's 1986 musical.

It interweaves the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack (of beanstalk fame), Cinderella, and Rapunzel. They're off in their separate stories until a childless couple (a baker and his wife) pull everyone together in their quest to undo a spell put on them by a neighboring witch. The music and the orchestrations are lovely, and all of the actors are excellent at putting their own twisty spin on classic archetypes. Meryl Streep's witch may be nasty, but she loves her daughter. Little Red Riding Hood is more interested in cinnamon rolls than her granny's health.

It's a very pretty movie (and there's no way a theater production can achieve the same visual things that a movie can), and though things take a scary turn midway through, it never gets too intense. For newbies (especially those with kids), it's a pretty entertaining way to spend a part of your holiday season. The characters go well beyond their original stories, and all learn valuable lessons about their place in the world and the interconnectedness of all people.

And they all lived happily ever after.

Into the Woods: B

Once upon a time...

Disney made an adaptation of a musical you know by heart, and while it was competent (a feat in itself, given what a shitshow the rumors suggested it would be), it doesn't come anywhere near achieving what the source material does, and in the transition, winds up as a pretty disappointing final product.

Now, I'm not saying that everything in the play had to find its way into the movie; I'm not against cuts and changes. It's disappointing that the reprise of "Agony" is gone, but I don't much care that the narrator/old man is practically eliminated or that Jack doesn't sing goodbye to his cow anymore. But I do care when the underlying themes of the source material are discarded or mangled. This is a fully Disneyfied movie, which means it's done away with the parts of Into the Woods which satirizes, well, the Disneyfication of fairy tales.

Johnny Depp is pretty terrible as the wolf, hamming all the character's subtext into full on text for a frankly-too-young Little Red Riding Hood. The songs have been slowed down. The charm of the interweaving storylines of the opening song is lost to quick cuts between scenes. Rapunzel, far from dying, simply walks off the screen two-thirds of the way through and is never seen again.

Though Emily Blunt is terrific (as she always is) as the Baker's Wife, and Chris Pine is a wonderfully smarmy Prince Charming, the adaptation and directorial choices are hampered by the PG rating, and just don't go far enough to make this very worthwhile for fans of the show. I've spent years wishing for Into the Woods to be made into a big spectacle of a movie. And as the musical admonishes, you should be careful what you wish for, lest you get it.

Into the Woods: C+

The State of the Art: Books 2014

Last year, I was amazed and delighted to note that not only was there an increase in the number of books I was able to read, but that the average quality of books rose as well. What a magical time it was. This year, I'm still amazed, but not as delighted. I don't know how I did it, but I somehow managed to put away 36 books (to last year's 28), and as always, that doesn't even include books I often re-read, or stray things like childhood favorites I revisited to see how they held up.

Thirty-six doesn't sound like a lot, but for someone who also consumes a lot of movies, TV, games, and podcasts, averaging three books a month isn't half-bad! Unfortunately, though the number of books went up, the average quality went down. There were definitely some bright spots this year, of course, which we'll get to in a moment. But if we're looking at 2014 as a whole, the books that stand out are fewer and farther between. Note that last year, 13 of the 28 books ranked a B+ or higher (46%). This year, 10 of the 36 managed to make the cut (28%). Ouch.

But hey, let's get to some good news! In looking at my list of books, it becomes increasingly clear how much I enjoy a well-executed gimmick. I wouldn't call myself a huge overall fan of science fiction or fantasy, but books that manage to straddle the line between those and realism always seem to rise to the top. It's our world, but giant bugs are attacking. It's our world, but a hidden Amazon tribe needs our help. It's our world, but a woman keeps looping through her life. If 2013 was the Year of the Short Story, 2014 is the Year of the Parallel Universe. So let's crawl through the looking glass, and talk about which of those worlds are worth the visit.

#1: Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith

What I Said: If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones, that would have been cool. If this book had just been about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, that would have been cooler. But this book is about a horny teenaged boy trying to come to grips with his raging hormones as he contemplates his probable bisexuality, and by the way, giant insects are taking over the world, starting with his hometown. And damn, is it fantastic.

#2: The Unwanted - Jeffrey Ricker

What I Said: Melding a story about fighting mythological forces, a story about family bonds and reconciliation, and a story of young gay romance is akin to trying to graft wheels onto a dolphin, and yet somehow, Ricker manages to weave them together seamlessly. Jamie must navigate the dangers of both the American high school caste system and of angry gods hurling lightning bolts in his direction, and for that to read as completely natural and realistic is quite the feat.

#3: S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst

What I Said: The book is crammed with bits of paper, from "newspaper clippings" to postcards to handwritten notes, so the reader is actually reading two books at the same time, with one of them being completely fake. Still with me? It's a tough act to pull off, but Abrams and Dorst do it nimbly, making this one of the most fascinating reading experiences of the year.

#4: The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman

What I Said: There's a very dreamlike quality to the book, and it's a great example of a modern fairy tale. The interloping demon would be genuinely terrifying to a child, and the Hempstock women are exactly the type of people you'd run to in order to defend your home. It fits very neatly into the Gaiman catalog, and I'd heartily recommend it.

#5: Life After Life - Kate Atkinson

What I Said: As the story unfolds, we see how the small changes in the characters' actions ripple out, affecting not only Ursula, but the people around her. As a character exploration, it's riveting.

And now, for the fully ranked list, with books published in 2014 underlined:

Grasshopper Jungle - Andrew Smith (A)
The Unwanted - Jeffrey Ricker (A)
S. - J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (2013) (A-)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - Neil Gaiman (2013) (B+)
Life After Life - Kate Atkinson (2013) (B+)
Spoiled Brats - Simon Rich (B+)
The Divorce Papers - Susan Rieger (B+)
How to Build a Girl - Caitlin Moran (B+)
When Did You See Her Last? - Lemony Snicket (2013) (B+)
Missouri - Christine Wunnicke (2006/2010) (B+)

The Book of You - Claire Kendal (B)
CivilWarLand in Bad Decline - George Saunders (1996) (B)
Astonish Me - Maggie Shipstead (B)
The Postmortal - Drew Magary (2011) (B)
The Path of Minor Planets - Andrew Sean Greer (2001) (B)
The Humans - Matt Haig (2013) (B)
One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories - B.J. Novak (B)
Shouldn't You Be in School? - Lemony Snicket (B)
Speaking from Among the Bones - Alan Bradley (2013) (B)
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - Susanna Clarke (2004) (B)
Arts & Entertainments - Christopher Beha (B)
Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin - Jill Lepore (2013) (B)
Mr. Mercedes - Stephen King (B)
File Under: 13 Suspicious Incidents (All the Wrong Questions) - Lemony Snicket (B)

Lexicon - Max Barry (2013) (B-)
The Interestings - Meg Wolitzer (2013) (B-)
Hollow City - Ransom Riggs (B-)
Longbourn - Jo Baker (2013) (B-)
Sisterland - Curtis Sittenfeld (2013) (B-)
Ready, Okay! - Adam Cadre (2000) (B-)

One Last Kiss - Michael W. Cuneo (2012) (C+)
The Lifespan of a Fact - John D'Agata, Jim Fingal (2012) (C+)
The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War, and Genius, as Written by Our Genetic Code Sam Kean (2012) (C)
From Scratch: Inside the Food Network - Allen Salkin (2013) (C)
The Three - Sarah Lotz (C-)

The Imperfectionists - Tom Rachman (2010) (D+)

And finally, there are the books that don't even get the dignity of a grade. Last year, there were one or two books I didn't get through because issues of my own, rather than anything being wrong with the book itself. Not so this time:

The Execution of Noa P. Singleton - Elizabeth L. Silver: Is it the narrator or the author who's irritatingly in love with the sound of her own voice? Either way, this book got insufferable in a hurry and was punted back to the library.

Founding St. Louis - First City of the New West - J. Frederick Fausz: St. Louis is a fascinating city, but you'd never know it from this book, which is a dry recounting of names and dates. There are ways to make history intriguing, and unfortunately, this isn't it.

Hopefully, the books of 2015 will signal a bounce back in quality, and I'll have more to recommend. Speaking of which, my reading list is almost entirely made up of recommendations from others, so if you've got a Best Of... list of your own, please let me know. Happy reading!

The State of the Art: Television 2014

Last year, whittling down the television shows I watched to the top five was pretty simple. It was a good year for TV, but only a handful of shows really blew me away, and it was easy to decide what should get top marks. This year, I'm sitting here agonizing, because I want to put about ten shows into my top five. I've had to make some very painful cuts, but ultimately decided that by pure virtue of their novelty, newer shows are standing out more than shows that have been on the air for a while. All this to say that while I still adore Bob's Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and Parks and Recreation, they're taking a bit of a backseat this year so I can sing the praises of shows that managed to capture my heart in their first season, which is a difficult feat to accomplish.

My top five also ignores a lot of critically-acclaimed shows that I'd probably like as much as everyone else, but just haven't had a chance to get to yet. I promise I'll try to watch The Good Wife and The Americans at some point, but unlike all the critics fawning over them, nobody's paying me to sit around watching TV, so I'm working with more limited options here. Older seasons that I'm finally getting to (and loving) aren't eligible, which is a shame, but I have to play fair. Enough caveats, though! Let's get to the list!

#1: Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey - Season 1

Though I just described the difficulty of whittling my list down to a top five, there was never any doubt as to what would take the top spot this year. It's tough enough to make a show entertaining. Making it entertaining, educational, visually arresting, and socially-conscious-without-being-didactic is nigh on impossible. Cosmos could only scratch the surface at explaining the weird and wonderful aspects of our universe and the scientists (both famous and forgotten) responsible for exploring it, but what a scratch. In everything it attempted, it struck a perfect balance. It corrected popular misconceptions without being polemic. It explained advanced scientific concepts in a way that a general viewer could understand without being condescending. It highlighted just how small and insignificant the human race is to the universe while stressing the importance and responsibilities the human race has in the past, present, and future of our own small corner. It was fun and important and gorgeous, and I'm hoping against hope that they produce more episodes. Even if they don't, Cosmos will always stand as the highlight of 2014 television.

#2: Orange is the New Black - Season 2

Even after all that blabber about featuring new shows on my top five this year, I had to make room for this. Far from going through a sophomore slump, Orange is the New Black managed to put out a terrific first season, then proceeded to get even better. I still don't know how a show with so many characters managed to not only make time for everyone, but did so without feeling rushed or bloated. All the characters, no matter how kind or how evil they're initially presented as, are written as real, multifaceted humans with understandable motivations. Every single storyline that took place within the prison's walls was riveting, with special mention going to Morello's backstory, which literally made my jaw drop. A show this immense would usually have a few miscast characters, a few unnecessary plotlines, and a few insufferable scenes. But no. Aside from a little dead weight in the form of characters outside Litchfield, Season 2 was funny, sad, thrilling, and scary. This show is a machine with a thousand moving parts, and in 2014, that machine was firing on all cylinders.

#3: Black-ish - Season 1

There seems to be a theme in this year's list: It's Difficult To Pull Off [Fill-In-The-Blank], But This Show Did So Admirably. It's difficult to present science lectures as entertainment. It's difficult to write for more than twenty believably human characters. Know what else is difficult? It's difficult to handle storylines with racial implications. It's difficult to write kid characters that aren't annoying (or played by annoying actors). It's difficult to balance family and work scenes. And Black-ish came out of nowhere to knock all three of those out of the park. I started watching it out of curiosity, hoping that it'd give me a decent chuckle or two, and instead, it's effortlessly ensconced itself as my favorite sitcom of the year. It can take old saws such as in-law friction and school crushes and make them funny again, but what really shines about this show is its ability to contrast the experiences of its characters with more mainstream (read: white) ones without being self-important about it. Storylines that could be potential landmines, such as tokenism in the office, the morality of spanking, or the justifications of minorities that play Oppression Olympics with other minorities are handled not only gracefully, but hilariously. All four of the kids in this show are good actors who can sell shallowness or smug precociousness without being obnoxious, but the real standout is Tracee Ellis Ross. Sitcom wives are often put-upon killjoys or shrill shrews who are constantly attempting to wrangle a wacky husband and his schemes. In Black-ish, Ross gets to be as wacky and scheming as her husband, and she absolutely shines.

#4: Silicon Valley - Season 1

People spend a lot of time trying to craft funny jokes, but it takes a lot of skill to incorporate dudebro humor into that while still maintaining a show's intelligence. Veer too far into esoteric humor, and you get Dennis Miller's disastrous stint on Monday Night Football. Veer too far into the lowbrow stuff, and you've got Adam Sandler. Silicon Valley managed to be a whip smart show about starting a business in a cutthroat environment, developing emerging technology, and...dick jokes. Nerds are often presented as a monolithic type of archetype, but all of the characters in this show are their own kind of nerd, with unique ways of being socially awkward. The bickering and the collaboration of the characters are all entirely natural, and between the satirization of tech billionaires and scenes of awkwardly trying to alter a sexually explicit company logo, this just might be the smartest comedy that aired in 2014.

#5: Looking - Season 1

Gay characters are starting to improve. Once upon a time, they were non-existent. Then they were allowed onto the screen, but only as sassy accessories for straight women. Then they were allowed to be their own characters, as long as they never did anything as icky as actually displaying affection for each other or - god-forbid - wanted to have sex. Even when gay characters actually had agency, you weren't guaranteed to get a quality show out of it, as the hacky, melodramatic, soft-porny American version Queer As Folk proved. So in a sense, Looking is a revolutionary show; it features gay characters that are actually believably human. As in Orange is the New Black, none of the characters are entirely good or entirely evil. They often have good intentions that are waylaid by fear or temptation. They deal with problems and quirks that affect people in the modern gay dating world. And they have sex! And not with bow-chicka music to a dance club backbeat, but the way real people have it - rolling around in bed in a messy apartment on a Sunday morning. And as I mentioned in the review, though the show is at the bottom of the top five list, "Looking For The Future" (in which two characters simply hang out for a day, and grow closer by talking about their backgrounds and hangups) is probably my favorite individual episode of anything this year.

Blood Will Out

December is all about catching (and catching up with) movies that are being discussed on year-end lists. There's no way I'll get to everything I want to, but that's no reason not to give it the ol' college try. Going to Kansas City to visit my sister is always a good opportunity to consume some culture, and this past weekend was no exception. We had a Saturday double-feature of Birdman in the theater, then home for The Skeleton Twins on Netflix. And as my sister mentioned on Twitter, if nothing else, "Birdman and the Skeleton Twins" would be a terrific band name.

Now, did you know that there are only two types of entertainment? There's deep, emotionally complex Art, and there's soulless, big-budget dreck. The former is always good, the latter is always terrible, and there's absolutely nothing in between. That's the gist of Birdman, the newest film from director Alejandro González Iñárritu, known for such rollicking good times as Amores Perros and Babel. Michael Keaton stars as an actor who used to be a big name, most notably for playing a costumed superhero, but hasn't been heard from in a while. GET IT? He stakes his reputation and a good amount of his money on a serious play that he's not only producing, but directing and starring in as well. His fears and nerves continually flood to the surface, often in the form of hearing the voice of his Birdman character from long ago. His new attempt at relevance is beset by problems ranging from a surly, distant daughter to a costar who insists that all emotions in the theater be genuine at any cost, whether it's by drinking real alcohol or by nearly raping an actress on stage. His problems mount until inevitably, they explode into violence.

This movie is on everyone's lips as a shoo-in for a Best Picture nomination, and while I didn't dislike it, it doesn't remotely deserve that reputation. It's well-acted (Edward Norton almost walks off with the entire picture) and well-shot, but it doesn't have much to say, story-wise. Journalists and critics are set up as easy strawmen to knock down. American tastes are derided as wholly crass and unsophisticated. It's a shallow criticism of the state of modern culture. While it probably deserves a C+ for those reasons, strong performances and cinematography (the movie is filmed to make large sections of it seem to be one continuous shot, which really works well) elevate it a good deal. It was definitely worth a viewing, but please...no awards.

The Skeleton Twins was interesting, in that it's a drama that features actors better known for comedy. It stars Bill Hader, who plays Milo, a gay, out-of-work actor who comes from a family racked with depression. After a failed relationship, he unsuccessfully attempts suicide, after which he reconnects with his similarly suicidal twin sister Maggie (Kristin Wiig), who he hasn't spoken with in ten years. The two start to rebuild their relationship, while still stumbling over life obstacles that serve as constant temptations to end it all.

It's a heavy premise, but these two actors are adept at injecting levity. They also play really well as siblings. In a way, brother/sister relationships are the most difficult to portray realistically, but you can immediately accept that these two grew up together. Scenes that would come off as trite and cheesy in another drama actually work in this movie. In particular, a scene where Milo tries to cheer up his angry sister by roping her into a Starship lip sync really shines. This film is not the most layered, unflinching depiction of depression and family tension that you'll ever see, but it's better than any suicide drama starring Saturday Night Live alums has any right to be.

Birdman: B-
The Skeleton Twins: B

It's Not TV

For someone who cut cable service several months ago, I haven't done too badly at keeping up with TV shows. Between Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming sites, I can get just about every show I'm interested in. Just about. There are, however, a particular subset of shows that my usual sources can't cover. And for that, I had to resort to...other methods. That opened a whole new avenue of shows, all of them on HBO. I have no idea how long this portal will remain open, so I hurried to jump into everything that I'd been hearing good things about, plowing through the inaugural seasons of four shows that couldn't be much more different in tone:

First up was Veep, which stars Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a hapless vice-president whose ambition far outstrips her competence. Her office is full of slackers and schemers, and the group of them is always getting into one embarrassing situation or another. It's a comedy very much in the vein of The Office (minus the invisible film crew), but with higher stakes and the ability to swear. This is the only show of the four that has already been on for more than a season, which also means it's the only show that had expectation built in. People have been falling all over themselves to praise Veep since it started; Louis-Dreyfus has won three consecutive Emmys for it. And while both she and the show are good, it didn't quite live up to the hype for me. That may be because cringe comedy has never been my favorite style. Or it may be genuinely over-praised. Still, it was a funny season, and I'm more than willing to catch up with the rest of the episodes.

Next was Silicon Valley, which is another comedy. This one is about Richard Hendricks, a brilliant but socially inept programmer who develops software that has the potential to change the technological community. Big businesses smell money and come after his idea, but Richard decides to retain control of his idea and builds his own small business with his cantankerous friends. All sorts of challenges rain down on his head, ranging from logos to intellectual espionage. It's actually really rich story material, but the show never gets too heavy, which I liked. It's also got just about the perfect amount of dude humor, which can go overboard in a hurry. Making a simple dick joke can be lazy. Making a dick joke into a full-on mathematical debate is genius.

But enough of things like smiling and good feelings! Let's muck around in some despair! That was easily accomplished by watching True Detective. Take all the critical praise that Veep gets and triple it, and you'd be in the general vicinity of how much attention this show has attracted. It's a depressing, dour show about a brutal murder and the toll it takes on both the community and the two detectives tasked with solving it. Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson both turn in impressive performances, but unfortunately, the tone of this show struck me the same way that another highly-praised, violent drama did. Not to say that True Detective was bad. Some of the technical work that went into it was riveting, and I can recognize what an achievement it is. But I can also recognize when a show is Not For Me, and while I'll probably check out Season 2 to see if it's different enough to grab my attention, I'll likely have to make my peace with being in the minority on this one.

Finally, I zoomed through the first season of Looking, which was pretty easy to do, given how fascinating it was. One of the executive producers is Andrew Haigh, which makes sense, since the show is reminiscent of Weekend extended to series length. It follows the lives of a group of gay friends living in San Francisco. They're all trying to work out what they're looking for, both professionally and personally. None of the characters are purely good or purely bad - they're all saddled with flaws and assets in equal measure. A lot of the storylines are mortifyingly relatable, from app hookups to blurred lines between friends/coworkers/boyfriends. The ground is thick with relationship dramas these days, but there aren't a lot of realistic gay stories being told. This series is a refreshing change of pace, without resorting to the eye-rolling melodrama that Queer As Folk traded in. Though it won't take the top spot on my list of 2014 television shows, there's a real chance that "Looking for the Future" - in which two characters play hooky from work and do nothing more than hang out for the day - will be my favorite individual episode of the year.

Veep - Season 1: B
Silicon Valley - Season 1: A-
True Detective - Season 1: C+
Looking - Season 1: B+

There's Gold in Them Thar Hills!

It's time to begin looking back over the blog posts of 2014 and compiling the year-end lists, which I always enjoy. One conspicuous absence from these retrospectives is the world of music. As I've probably mentioned a handful of times, I just don't spend enough time in the world of new music to put together a reliable list, preferring instead to just listen to knowledgeable friends' recommendations. The only exception was Suzanne Vega's new album, which is terrific.

Well, let's add one more album to the list of music that brought me joy in 2014, even if it was actually released in 2013. I was piggybacking on Spotify... What's that? You don't know what piggybacking is? That's when you sneakily drop in to just listen to the tracks that the sidebar mentions that your friends are listening to. Anyhow, I was piggybacking on Spotify one day, when a particular song caught my attention. After it was over, I backed up and listened to it again. And again. After that, I decided to take a stroll through the entire album, and was happy to hear that this wasn't just a one-track wonder.

The album I'm referring to is Black Sun, from a band called Gold Fields. The song that so captured my heart is "Thunder", which easily claimed the title of my favorite song of 2014 (again, the song was released in 2013, but this is year that it ruled the airwaves of my mind). As with a lot of my favorite songs, it seems to occupy that nebulous middle ground between the deep layering of indie music and the upbeat tempo of pop.

Sometimes indie music can be too dour and often produces tracks that fall into the category I call wall-of-sound. And pop music is often shallow and overly fluffy, relying on a catchy beat and ignoring exploration of anything interesting either musically or lyrically. The songs I like the best somehow find a way to straddle that line, retaining the thoughtfulness of indie with the catchiness of pop.

Give "Thunder" a listen, and tell me if you understand what I mean. Arrgh, this is why I don't write about music! It's too hard to describe! While the rest of the album didn't match the heights that "Thunder" achieved for me, a handful of them came close. I really like the jaunty romanticism of "Treehouse" as well (ignore the dumb video, and just listen), and "Closest I Could Get" has a haunting, ethereal quality I enjoy.

Really, the entire album is a great find, and while I wish I could take the credit for discovering it, I owe it all to the friends I follow on Spotify. Speaking of which, I'd better get back to stalking their playlists. I need to "find" an album for next year, too.

Black Sun: A


For someone who's made the life choice to not have children, I sure do read a lot of books that are either written about or written for young 'uns. I haven't really explored why this is. Maybe it's cause YA or stories revolving around kids' problems are easy lifts, and if I'm feeling lazy, it doesn't take a lot of brain power to process stories like Harry Potter. That's not to say these books are inherently inferior; just not as densely layered. It's like how watching Scrubs requires a lot less attention than watching Mad Men, though they're both good shows.

Anyhoo, all this is to say that I've just finished up another batch of kid-centric books. Their premises are nowhere near similar. One doesn't get much more ribald than admiring a girl's eyebrows, while another describes getting banged by a big dick in exhaustive detail. One of them takes the view that children's points of view are often neglected to the detriment of society, while another assumes that most kids, if left unchecked, are basically assholes. The one thing that all three of these books do have in common is that they're pretty damned good. Oh, and another similarity - I actually managed to read them in the year they were published! That's a rare accomplishment for me, being a wait-in-line-at-the-library type of fellow.

First up was Spoiled Brats, the new short story collection from Simon Rich. Rich's previous book made the #2 spot on my favorite books of last year, so this one had some big shoes to fill. Where The Last Girlfriend on Earth focused on love stories, Spoiled Brats steps onto the minefield of modern parenting, which is ripe for satire: Parents be crazy. The style is similar in this book, veering wildly in perspective. One story is told from the point of view of a elementary school class hamster, trying to protect his children from the carelessness and neglect of the students. One is told by a chimp who feels superior to his poo-flinging parents after being noticed by a researcher. Helicopter parents explain the attention their gifted child needs and don't understand why him being a demonic force from hell should prevent him from getting the best education. All of the stories are clever and funny, and I'd recommend them to anyone who interacts with children or parents, not just those with kids themselves. It doesn't really attempt to do anything beyond what The Last Girlfriend on Earth did, and as such, it didn't have as much of an impact on me, but it was still a good read, and the two books would make a great companion set.

Speaking of sets, I also got my hands on Shouldn't You Be In School?, which is Book #3 in the All the Wrong Questions series by Lemony Snicket. I enjoyed both Book #1 and Book #2, though I'm noticing the usual trend of series becoming less engaging over time. My review could basically be repeated word-for-word from last time: "If the book suffers from anything, it's a lack of novelty. It's a great story, but not all that different from Book #1. I'm still as interested as ever in this storyline, though, and am eagerly anticipating Book #3". Just replace that #1 with a #2, and that #3 with a #4. I will say that Shouldn't You Be In School? does ramp up the action somewhat, which injected some much-needed urgency. Lemony and his friends in Stain'd-by-the-Sea are solidifying their group into the VFD we know and love in the Series of Unfortunate Events books, and must contend with missing schoolchildren, a rash of arson, and the ever-mysterious Ellington Feint. At this point, the series has become pleasant and comforting in its wittiness and character exploration, which is plenty of reason to continue with it.

Speaking of pleasant and comforting... Wait, that's a terrible transition. Because while I plenty enjoyed Caitlin Moran's How to Build a Girl, "pleasant" and "comforting" are two adjectives that belong nowhere near it.

I'm always trying to read books from different authorial perspectives, and this one was singled out in reviews for being a strong one for a young female character with actual sexual agency. It certainly follows through on that promise. It's about Johanna Morrigan, a teenaged girl in 1990s England, whose family subsists entirely on her father's disability check. She's smart as a whip, but doesn't have a lot of outlets to develop her promise. She also suffers from all the self-esteem issues that plagued us all as teens, but which are especially damaging to girls. Desperate to prevent her family's tenuous income from crumbling (and equally desperate to get laid), she puts on the front of a seen-it-all, world weary music journalist, and scores a position writing poison pen reviews of shitty bands. The effort of maintaining her front (and throwing herself at any available man) consumes her, which leads to all sorts of bad decisions, both professional and personal. Though I didn't particularly care for the coming-of-age-through-shifting-music-tastes trope, I realize that's a matter of taste, rather than any problems in the writing. Moran makes Johanna relatable and likeable, even as she's shoplifting eyeliner or masturbating while her brother sleeps next to her, and that's a difficult trick to pull off.

Spoiled Brats: B+
Shouldn't You Be In School?: B
How to Build a Girl: B+

(H)ath Not An Audience Eyes?

When a drama is bad, it's unsettling enough. But is there anything more tortuous than a bad comedy? I don't know if I'm alone in feeling this way, but I'd rather watch five disappointing "regular" movies than one underwhelming farce. This is usually where word-of-mouth is an enormous help. There are plenty of movies that looked good on paper, but once they were met with a collective shrug (or worse), I could be relatively confident that I should take a pass.

There is no such luxury when it comes to the ABC project, though! This experience is all about diving in, and hoping that I discover some hidden gems. Hamlet 2 (2008) looked like it might have some promise in that department. The premise of a disgraced drama teacher putting on his own wackadoo high school play is perfect. Steve Coogan plays that teacher, who is told that due to funding cuts, he'll be losing his job at the end of the year. He's been producing awful film-to-stage adaptations, and between the end of his job on the horizon and a newly-populated-with-underpriveleged-Latino-students-for-no-reason class, he decides there couldn't be a better time to put on an original work. "Hamlet 2" will be a musical, time-travel extravaganza, and will right all the depressing wrongs of the original play (and will help him work out his daddy issues in the meantime). Again, sounds fun, right?

It just doesn't work. There are flashes of fun here and there, but the majority of the movie is just Coogan behaving like an oaf, with no real wit or bite to the satire. The community gets whipped up into a frenzy of religious protestors and free speech advocates, but it's all the same jokes you've heard before. Catherine Keener is relegated to another thankless, pointless role as the shrewish wife. There is one bright spot in Elisabeth Shue, who plays herself (but an Elisabeth Shue who gave up acting to become a fertility clinic nurse in Tuscon, Arizona, which...what?).

It's not a terrible movie by any stretch. It's just lackluster. But when it comes to lackluster comedy, you'll find yourself pining for a good ol' fashioned tragedy in a hurry.

Hamlet 2: C+

Pretty Pretty Princess

Towards the end of the year, I have a very patchwork system for watching movies. Movies are not only starting to gather awards and awards buzz, but December is when all the "Best of..." lists start appearing. That means it's time to play catch-up with all the noteworthy films that have come out over the past year. Some, I can grab on Netflix. Some, I decide I can safely skip. And some demand that I rush right out to the theater. So when I saw one trusted critic's Top 25 of 2014, I went ahead and added everything that looked interesting to my queue. Except one. One was not only unavailable to add, but looked so pretty that I immediately began casting around for local theater screenings. Naturally, the good ol' Tivoli came through, and before I knew it, I was eyeballs-deep in The Tale of Princess Kaguya.

This is a Studio Ghibli production; it comes from the same people that made The Secret World of Arietty and Princess Mononoke. Unlike those two movies, though, I not only saw The Tale of Princess Kaguya on the big screen, but I saw it in the original Japanese, with English subtitles.

The story follows a fairly standard fairy tale structure. A poor farmer stumbles across a magical baby, born of a bamboo stalk in the forest. He and his wife are overjoyed to adopt her, even as she grows to young womanhood at an extremely rapid pace. The farmer interprets other signs to mean that his mission in life is to get his daughter into the highest echelons of society, and begins to work towards that goal. He succeeds in moving his family from poverty to wealth, but the rules and regulations that restrict noble young ladies cause Princess Kaguya to bristle. She has no interest in being silent and still and marrying a boring nobleman. She misses the days of her freedom, and calls out to the heavens to help her. As in most fairy tales, it's a rash wish, and one that she'll come to regret.

Story-wise, this movie is very languid. It's very slow and thoughtful, and you can feel every one of its 137 minutes. That's neither a compliment nor a criticism. At times, I felt like it should be moving along at a brisker pace, the way Spirited Away and Howl's Moving Castle did. But at other times, I was really enchanted by the lyrical stillness of the scene. And if there's one aspect of the movie that is just about flawless, it would be the visuals. Studio Ghibli has reliably terrific animation, but in this film, the animation is not only beautiful, but inventive. There are scenes wherein the emotion of the characters actually changes how they are drawn. Raw hysteria and panic are rendered in rough, almost abstract outlines of people and surroundings, while calmer introspection allows for scenes drawn in vibrant color and minute detail.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya is already racking up acclaim, beating out all other animated movies for critics groups in Los Angeles and Boston. If I were rating movies on visuals alone, I would enthusiastically throw my support behind it as well. Ultimately, the story was just a little too meandering for me to be that effusive, but if you're looking to feast your eyes on a work of incomparable beauty, this should definitely be on your list.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya: B

Thanksgiving Tune-Ups and the Parsley Dispute

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 11

We've already had our first blustery snow days blow through, so it's almost officially time to bid adieu to the best season of the year. Before we do, though, we had one more harvest feast to celebrate - a little thing called Thanksgiving. We're at the peak of the food year, and Episode 11 has arrived just in time.

Topics include Fast Eddie's Bon Air, the essentials for both a home bar and a well-equipped herb/spice rack, and food trends that are dead and gone. We close with a nod to Thanksgiving by soliciting recommendations on how to update the use of cranberries. They're due for a change. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

All the Single Ladies

Once upon a time, I promised to watch a show. And then I didn't. There are a number of reasons for this: The list of other shows to catch up on got too long. I was getting my period television fix from Downton Abbey. Childbirth and midwifery are not among the topics that generally appeal to me very much.

But finally, a block of viewing time miraculously opened up, so thanks so much to the new fall season for being 90% terrible! I decided to finally give Call the Midwife the chance I had promised it, so while I was a little bit trepidatious, I settled in to begin Season 1. This show is, in a word, riveting. I was expecting it to be pretty good, but I never thought it would be gripping. The stories in each episode are pretty simple, and most of them revolve around the same issue: how to care for people who cannot care for themselves. But every episode in this first season found a fresh way to look at the problems of pregnancy and sickness in 1950s London.

Pregnancy and labor are usually handled in a standard, three-screams-and-here's-your-baby. It's almost become an off-handed plot point in most shows. Call the Midwife re-establishes the stakes, not only in setting the show in a time where giving birth was a great deal more fraught than it is today, but by exploring the issues surrounding troublesome births, from socioeconomic status to religion to mental health. The cast is top-notch (both the group of nurses and the nuns they reside with). If there's any failing, it's that the main character is a bit of blank slate, and most of the interest comes from the people orbiting around her. I'm very much looking forward to starting Season 2, and since I've already name-checked Downton Abbey, let's hope that unlike that show, Call the Midwife doesn't fall into a sophomore slump.

Moving from terrific to terrific-er, Netflix finally released Season 2 of Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries for instant streaming. As you'll recall, I gushed about Season 1, and was over the moon when more episodes became available. My only worry was that they wouldn't be able to keep up the charm and interest, now that a pattern had been established.

No worries, mate! If anything, Season 2 is even better. Phryne is still fun-loving (in many, many senses of the word "fun"), but her relationship with Detective-Inspector Robinson is slowly, but surely developing in a very organic way. In a parallel track, Deputy Collins and Dot are also cementing their relationship, and finding as many obstacles. Even the case-of-the-week, which would naturally be the most rote aspect of a murder mystery procedural, has taken a big step up. Many disparate worlds are explored: Phryne insinuates her way into the realms of high fashion, street-racing, archaeology, sideshow boxing, and more. And the Christmas special finale ramps the situation up even higher, as the main characters are not just investigating murder, but are targets as well. It was a fantastic season, and I'm already champing at the bit for the next one.

Call the Midwife - Season 1: A-
Miss Fisher's Murder Mysteries - Season 2: A

Magical Mystery Tour

The real world is boring! And when it's not being boring, it's being sad and depressing. It's no wonder readers and audiences are constantly looking to jump into fictional worlds of wonder, be they utopian, dystopian, or something in-between. Of course, authors are members of this unfortunate real world, so they have varying amounts of success in capturing the feel of the supernatural. On that note, I just finished two books that attempt this jump. One did a great job; one... One was not so great.

The first was Susanna Clarke's 2004 novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell. An admission up front: I had read the synopsis of this book (Two sparring magicians become rivals in their shared goal of bringing magic back to the forefront of 19th-century English society) and thought it sounded like a quick, fun read. While it was plenty of fun, quick it was not. This sucker is 782 pages long.

That's not a knock against it. Reading this book made me feel like I was researching a historical document, which is exactly the feel it was going for. It's tough for a book to put you into the state of mind of another time period, the way TV does all the time, but this one almost makes the reader believe we took it off the shelf to peruse in the 1800s.

After it fades from the mainstream, both the stuffy Mr. Norrell and his apprentice, the younger, more adventurous Mr. Strange, want magic to be a big part of English society again. But while Mr. Norrell trades in theory and research, Mr. Strange wants to use magic more practically, applying it to the English war effort against the French. The relationship between them frays and snaps, and they both begin to meddle with power they cannot control. Other characters are soon drawn into their webs, and magic's reputation with the ruling class becomes the least important problem that the magicians must contend with.

Though it was a long haul, I enjoyed this book, and wonder if it would have made as much of an impression if it were shorter. I do think it's one of those books that has aspects that may be especially appealing to me, and that I shouldn't widely recommend. But if you like the idea of magic being an almost everyday subject, as dense and as full of historical research as astronomy, by all means, give it a go.

I rejoined the modern era with The Three, a 2014 novel by Sarah Lotz. It's arranged as snippets of interviews, basically copying the format of World War Z. The interviews tell the story of Black Thursday, on which four separate planes from four separate airlines on four separate points of the globe all crash. Terrorism is ruled out as the cause, but in an even stranger turn of events, on three of the flights, a lone child survives.

The world immediately begins to try and puzzle out the cause and the meaning of all this. The usual crazy theories about aliens and conspiracies swirl through the internet. The explanation that amasses the most support, though, is that the three children are harbingers of the upcoming apocalypse, and a tide of religious fervor sweeps in.

Pretty cool premise, right? As with a lot of disappointing books, though, a pretty cool premise doesn't mean much if you botch the execution. Most of the book is build-up. A lot of chapters end with statements like "I didn't know that it was the last time I'd ever talk to him," or "Of course, when they found out what happened later, everything changed." Build-up like that has to lead to something pretty explosive. And it doesn't; it ends with a shrug.

This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that there were completely rational explanations for the crashes, and all the hysteria was misguided. This could have been a good book if it had built to the revelation that the children who survived really were otherworldly visitors or the messengers of an angry God, and the characters had to deal with the fallout from that. Instead, after all this building and building, the book ends with a smarmy "Gotcha!" and walks away - the equivalent of a twenty-minute joke where the punchline is that there is no punchline.

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: B
The Three: C-

The Sound of Silence

Amidst the birthday and other holiday gatherings that pop up on my Facebook invite page, once in a while I'll spot an interesting public event. One of my friends is an organist, and recently, he posted about the local organist group's fundraiser, which immediately caught my attention. And not just because of the promised wine and hors d'oeuvre! The group was also screening a silent movie, for which there would be live organist accompaniment, to approximate the movie-going experience back in the day.

The movie chosen was 1924's Hot Water, starring Harold Lloyd, who was immensely popular at the time. In introducing the movie, the event organizer told the audience a fun fact I'd never heard before: That organists were free to improvise whatever music they felt complemented the film. I'd always assumed that silent movies came with a pre-written score for the organist to play. I had no idea that every individual organist was given free rein to interpret and adapt the themes. Just as a thought experiment, imagine what it would be like if every theater showing Gravity had had a different score. Amazing.

The movie itself was a gas. See, I'm already speaking as if I live in 1924! I was half-expecting it to be a bit stale and dated, but it genuinely made me laugh. It's only about an hour long, and though there's a thin storyline running throughout, it's mostly an excuse to present a few vignettes. Lloyd plays a young husband just trying to lead a normal, pleasant life with his new bride. Mishaps and hijinks ensue. First, there's the matter of trying to get home on the trolley with an armful of groceries, including -- wait for it -- a live turkey. Then, it's time for a relaxing drive in the new car with his wife, her mother and brother, and...some pre-Dennis the Menace neighbor brat, maybe? At dinner, Lloyd accidentally chloroforms his mother-and-law, and mistakenly believes that he has killed her. So, lots of pratfalls and misunderstanding abound, and happily, they all easily translate to modern sensibilities (except maybe bottles of chloroform lying around the house).

The organist was great, too; all of his music choices fit the mood of the movie perfectly. Honestly, I mostly went to this event out of curiosity. It seemed like a different way to see a movie, and I wanted to at least make an attempt at experiencing what it was like to go to the movies in the '20s. I wasn't really expecting to get a kick out of the movie itself, and I've never been happier to be wrong. It wound up being a really fun film and a fun evening, and as a bonus, I got to see it in an era with internet and plentiful sushi restaurants.

Hot Water: B+

Won't Somebody Think of the Children?

Hi! I'm 37 years old! OK, now that that's out of the way, let's talk about kids' movies! Animation has been having a very good time of it, lately. Though it can be difficult to balance story, comedy, and appealing to audience members of all ages, studios have pretty much been knocking it out of the park lately, give or take a Cars 2. I mean, I see a lot of movies over the course of a year, many of which are designed to win awards, and what winds up landing in my list of favorites? Animated kids' movies. I just saw another trio of contenders, so how did they stack up? Let's find out!

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 is the latest from Disney, who has taken to copying a lot from the Pixar playbook. That's not a complaint; I've been enjoying the new style quite a bit. In this newest movie, protagonist Hiro is a precocious, science-minded kid in the near-future city of San Fransokyo. His older brother is also an engineer, and when he's killed in an explosion (not really a spoiler - it happens towards the beginning, and c'mon: Mufasa, Anna and Elsa's parents, Nemo's mom, Tiana's father, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc.), Hiro takes up his project, an inflatable health-care companion named Baymax. Hiro's own inventions come back to haunt him, so he teams up with his brother's colleagues and Baymax to combat the new threat to the city.

Good stuff first. This movie is gorgeous, and the design of San Fransokyo is a flawless, futuristic meld of American and Japanese culture (I do wonder what happened in World History to create this city. Someone get on a novelization of that). The characters are nicely diverse. Baymax is adorable, and I'll be imitating his fist bump for days. Also, I should mention that Feast, the short in front of the movie, was terrific (though I don't know if I'd think as highly of it if it didn't feature a Boston Terrier. Buuuuuuuuuh cuuuuuuuuute.) All in all, it was a very sweet movie.

That said, when stacked up against its siblings (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen), it suffers a bit by comparison. Every story beat is overly telegraphed. Though Baymax is a memorable character, none of the humans can claim the same. I'm glad I saw it, but unlike those other movies I just mentioned, I doubt I'll ever have the urge to revisit it.

Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2

Next up was this 2013 sequel to 2009's Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. I was surprised by how much I liked the first one, but even given that, I was a little skeptical of the sequel. I shouldn't have been. This time, Flint Lockwood and pals are tasked with dealing with the malfunctioning FLDSMDFR (Flint Lockwood's Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, silly), which is spitting out food/animal hybrids. I cannot believe how many pure, deep-seated belly laughs this movie got out of me. And it wasn't just the low-hanging fruit (*rimshot*) of food puns! There are actual, story-based jokes that had me almost falling off the couch. The story is a little predictable and thin, but it almost doesn't matter. I got a huge kick out of this one.

The Boxtrolls

Finally, I took in this past September's The Boxtrolls, which was cleverly deployed before Big Hero 6 could steal its thunder. Of the three movies, this one was the weakest, though still not bad. It involves a cheese-obsessed society of humans who lives above a sewer-dwelling race of trolls who are named after whatever product is advertised on the cardboard boxes they wear. The two groups are bitter enemies, but things begin to change when a boy raised by the trolls attempts to reconcile them, with the help of a strong-willed girl who wants nothing more than to see scenes of grim carnage. The stop-motion animation style of this one was extremely well done. In fact, I have zero issues with anything about the technical design of this movie, which is beautiful. But the characters are not particularly engaging, the story is not particularly intriguing, and despite a few shining jokes, the humor is pretty lacking. It sure did make me want to tear into a big pile of cheese, though.

Big Hero 6: B
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2: B+
The Boxtrolls: B-

Sugar Imperatives and the Shortbread Concierge

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 10

Autumn! Autumn! Autumn! It's passing by too quickly. While we've still got it in our clutches, we've packed another episode full of seasonal goodness, so put on a sweater and go listen to Episode 10.

Topics include "No Menu Monday" at Home Wine Kitchen, a new semi-regular segment about our favorite drinks of the season, the majesty of soups and stews, and the food traditions of Halloween. Dibs on all the Mr. Goodbar! We close with Kyle's advice on stocking up the freezer for the cold months ahead, and given the sudden shift in temperature, it has come none too soon. Please enjoy, and feel free to drop a line to fourcoursespodcast@gmail.com with any questions, comments, feedback, or suggestions!

Shorties #14

Fall is in the air! There are pumpkins to carve and seeds to roast. There is candy to buy for trick-or-treaters and then eat a week before Halloween and then replace. There are costume components to purchase. All of that takes money, so instead of heading out to the theater, I've been giving Netflix a good workout. And giving Netflix a good workout means...Shorties!

#1: Awake - Season 1: This 2012 show only lasted a single season, but after I heard it talked up, I thought it sounded like it was worth a binge watch. It revolves around a cop who gets into a car accident while driving around with his family. His reality then fractures in two: In one, his wife survives the accident, but his son dies. In the other, it's reversed. In both universes, he is sent to a shrink, both of whom assure him that THIS reality is the actual one, and the other is a dream world. They encourage him to process his feelings so that the "false" reality goes away, but he actively does the opposite. If there's a way he can remain with both of his loved ones, even if it's in a patchwork existence, he's going to do it. That is a fantastic premise, and the show was acted well (Jason Isaacs is the main character, and B.D. Wong and Cherry Jones as the two psychiatrists are also standouts). The differing color palettes between the two worlds helped distinguish plot threads without being excessively intrusive. All that was great, but the show was weighed down by some formulaic case-of-the-week storylines, and a blatantly unnecessary conspriacy theory surrounding the accident. In the final analysis, I'm glad I watched it, but I can also see why it got cancelled. (Grade: B-)

#2: Grand Piano: I'll never get tired of telling people this 2014 movie is Speed on a piano, and watching their reactions. Elijah Wood plays a concert pianist who choked during a previous performance, and is only now returning to the stage after many years. As he begins to play, he sees a note in his sheet music that if he misses a single note, he'll be killed by a sniper (John Cusack). This, as you can imagine, does not do wonders for his concentration. The best thing about this movie is that it knows exactly what it is, and isn't clouded by a heavy sense of self-seriousness. All that's asked of the audience is to kick back and enjoy the ride. It's a very slight movie; not much actually happens. But it's got a good sense of fun, and I'd definitely recommend that people watch it. (Grade: B+)

#3: Assault on Precinct 13: It's very important that I note that this is the original 1976 film, and not that unnecessary remake a few years back. This movie could have easily fallen into the Pop Culture Homework Project, but I feel like one assignment about the crime-ridden streets of the '70s is plenty. The movie establishes its stakes early, gunning down an adorable blonde girl with braids. You won't be too upset by her murder; the actress is on one of those abominable Real Housewives shows now. Her father tries to get revenge against the gang that killed his daughter, but is forced to run to a police station that is slated to close soon. There is just a skeleton crew left, and a couple of prisoners are dropped off for [blah blah plot reasons]. The gang, hot on the nearly-catatonic father's heels, lays siege to the station, and gun battles ensue. Minimal time is devoted to character development. This is simply a group of characters flung together and trying to survive the night. I kind of miss action movies like this that didn't do a lot of moralizing. It just throws us straight into the action. (Grade: B)

#4: Exam: That's two action-packed movies, so why not throw some character-based intellectual dramas into the mix? I watched this 2009 one based solely on an intriguing premise: A group of applicants, all desperate for a job, are put into a room with a slip of paper on their desks, and told that whoever answers the sole question best in the time limit will be given the position. They flip the papers over to find they're all blank. Psychological torture...go! Some applicants want to depend on their own skills to pull themselves through. Some want to cooperate. Some want to eliminate the competition. It's sort of a corporate version of The Hunger Games. The execution is a bit off, as the characters' actions are somewhat hackneyed and predictable. Still, it was a very interesting movie, and I'm always going to want to watch those, even if they're not quite able to capture lightning in a bottle. (Grade: B-)

#5: Populaire: Let's wrap up with this 2012 French romance, in which a stodgy boss hires a klutzy secretary, solely because she's a fast typist. He wants to vicariously grab some glory by entering her in speed-typing competitions, and from there, you can pretty much guess every story beat. She gets progressively better. She suffers a setback. They fall in love, but don't want to admit it. Then they admit it, but there's a misunderstanding that drives them apart. Then they get back together and triumph. So, it's Girls Just Want to Have Fun. But here's the thing: I fucking love Girls Just Want to Have Fun. No matter how well-worn this territory is, this movie is so charming that it's impossible not to like. It won't win any originality points, but it's a perfectly cute movie that is worth the watch. (Grade: B)

Fall Television 2014

Now that we're firmly entrenched in this year's fall television season, I've begun to get a better idea about what I'm likely to watch, and what's worth our time, and what won't be sticking around much longer. It's one thing to like or dislike a pilot, but it's the episodes that immediately follow that really shape a show's destiny. Ready for some categorization? I knew you would be!

I'm In!

First of all, I should mention the returning favorites that I'll obviously be sticking with: Bob's Burgers is back for Season 5, and you should make an effort to watch, even though knowing when it's airing will be a challenge; Fox is being a dick by messing around with the schedule. It's only aired one episode so far (featuring an incredible mash-up of musical versions of Die Hard and Working Girl), and the next one won't be until November 2. Pull your shit together, Fox. And speaking of Fox, Brooklyn Nine-Nine has begun Season 2, and while we haven't yet gotten an episode that has reached the peaks that Season 1 did, it's not in a sophomore slump, either. The only other returning show I'm watching as it airs is Top Chef, which I'll hopefully be able to keep up with as far as reviewing, so if you're keeping up, let me know so we can chat about it.

As far as new shows go, nothing has blown my mind, but there are definitely a couple of shows that I'm pretty comfortable committing to. If you'd have asked me last week, I don't know if I'd have included Black-ish among them, but this past week's episode ("Crime and Punishment") may have been the best episode of a new comedy I've seen so far this season. If that's the direction this show is heading in, I'll be a devoted fan. Similarly, David Caspe's new show, Marry Me, has only aired two episodes, but I'm on board. The second episode was a big step up from the pilot, I like everyone in the cast, save one*, and Happy Endings was so great that this one warrants some trust up front.


There are a couple of other shows that I'm also enjoying so far, but are not as cemented as the ones above. I have minimal interest in the backstory of The Flash, but after seeing some very positive reviews, I thought I'd give it a shot. I'm glad I did, because unlike something that shall remain nameless - but rhymes with Botham - it actually strikes a consistent tone and is mostly well-written. Grant Gustin strikes the perfect balance between confusion at his newfound powers and a yen to help others, and Jesse L. Martin is note-perfect as his adoptive father. The women do not fare as well in this show (Caitlin has some promise, but needs a mode besides humorless scold, and Iris is a shallow, dopey drip who everyone is in love with for no particular reason), but aren't beyond hope. I wouldn't call it one of my favorite shows ever, but it's definitely worth keeping up with, for now.

As is A to Z, a romantic... Well, I guess we have to categorize it as a comedy, though it's not very jokey. It's kind of a mix between When Harry Met Sally and How I Met Your Mother, and is about the burgeoning relationship between Andrew and Zelda. A to Z, get it? GET IT? And every episode starts with sequential letters of the alphabet. It's not the worst gimmick in the world, and stars Ben Feldman and Cristin Milioti have good chemistry. There's also some funny corporate culture satire in the background that won't give Better Off Ted a run for its money, but is still enjoyable. The only people left to mention are Andrew and Zelda's best friends*. Yeah... They sure are characters on this show! I don't know that I've ever been so evenly split on a show before. For everything funny and charming that happens, something bad and irritating balances it out. If nothing else, I'm going to keep watching just to see which side of the fence this thing eventually falls on.

Not As Promising!

These would be the shows that I wouldn't classify as "bad", but that I'm unlikely to continue with. So, with apologies to Viola Davis, who is a wonderful actor, and completely awesome in How to Get Away With Murder, I doubt I'll be watching any more. If she were a bigger part of the show, maybe, but it seems to mostly be about a group of photogenic, morally-bankrupt law students who are about one-twentieth as interesting as she is. I appreciate the gay sex, Shonda Rhimes, but it's just not enough to keep me on the hook. I also caught a few episodes of Forever on a friend's recommendation. It stars Ioan Gruffudd as a medical examiner who resurrects naked in the nearest body of water every time he dies. The show, shall we say, borrows liberally from the Sherlock template, and while it's a decent-enough procedural, it's just not gripping enough to be appointment television.

Bye, Felicia!

I tried, Gotham. I really did. And look, I like Christopher Nolan too. But just making your heroes and villains grim and gritty isn't enough. This show is a complete mess, from its inability to settle on a tone (is it supposed to be dark and disturbing or wickedly camp?) to its over-reliance on winks to the audience (She likes to be called "Cat" and she drinks milk! Eh? Eh?) to weak casting. I could only put up with a few episodes before dumping it in disgust. If it somehow manages to right itself and becomes watchable, someone let me know.

*The Season's Dumbest Trend

Are you a white, fat, bearded actor? Want to play an obnoxious best friend? Good news! 2014 is your time in the sun! Though it's early in the season, the white, fat, bearded best friend is easily the worst thing about both Marry Me and A to Z so far. I'm told that there are plenty more of these annoying hirsute gentlemen running around on other shows, too (Mulaney, for example). I'm not sure why the entertainment industry is suddenly so enraptured by this trope and is dumping these dudes on us by the truckload, but I'm not a fan.

Weekly Schedule

So, we've got a pretty manageable slate here. Sure, other shows will soon be along (Downton Abbey, Parks & Rec) to wreck our schedule anew, but for now, there's plenty of entertainment to be wrought, with time left over to... I don't know, clean your house or spend time with your loved ones or WHATEVER.

Sunday: Bob's Burgers, Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Tuesday: Marry Me, The Flash
Wednesday: Top Chef, Black-ish
Thursday: A to Z
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