There was plenty of evidence suggesting that I shouldn't watch American Horror Story. It's gory. It's more interested in providing oh-shit moments than in story. It's helmed by Ryan Murphy, whose self-indulgence and plot anvils have been driving me up the wall lately. But on the flip side of the coin, there were intriguing elements, too. This recent season was about witches, which I find more interesting than haunted houses. It starred actresses I adore and admire (including Angela Bassett, Kathy Bates, and Frances Conroy). It was a good opportunity for a fun TV night with a friend, who could narrate the gory bits as I hid my face behind a sofa pillow.

Eh, what the hell? I dove in. And my verdict is... What sort of a goddamn mess did I just devote 13 hours to? This was not a television show. This was someone sitting down and writing a first episode and a last episode, and then just throwing ideas into a blender to come up with any sort of connective tissue. Was this show about a war between competing witch groups? Was it about witches banding together to fight off a group of hunters? Was it about a mother and daughter grappling for power within a coven? Was it about the protection and development of the next generation of witches? Was it about identifying the next Supreme leader of the coven and the current one coming to grips with her waning abilities? Was it about the redemption-or-maybe-not of an evil, immortal slave owner? Was it about a murderer whose spirit is released, but now he inhabits an actual body, even though the regenerated butler ghost doesn't, but he can still interact with the world, because why the fuck not? Minotaur rape? Murderous Christian neighbors? Voodoo? Zombie boyfriends? I could go on like this, because AHS: Coven wanted to be about all these things, and more. As a result, it wasn't about anything. Every time it threatened to focus on an actual story, it would be like "Oooh, something shiny over there!" and gallop off on another tangent.

Speaking of shiny things, there were some bright spots. Frances Conroy up and stole the season, swanning around as Myrtle. Angela Bassett and Kathy Bates chewed their scenery delightfully. Jessica Lange imbued Fiona with genuine menace. Acting-wise, I really have no complaint, except for the chunk of wood wandering around and masquerading as a person named Taissa Farminga. Some of the scenes were compelling in their determination to be as weird and flamboyant as possible. But you can't ground an entire series just by tossing up a series of events crafted to shock and confuse people; there should probably be some thought put into boring stuff like plot and characterization, as well.

So, Coven will be the first and the last season of American Horror Story that I watch. I'm all for gonzo craziness, but I'm also one of those old-fashioned guys who likes my TV to have some internal consistency. Pass the matches. Let's burn this show at the stake.

American Horror Story: Coven: C-


Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 14

I didn't realize that writing Top Chef reviews while on a calorie-counting diet would be so excruciating! I think I may have hurt my nose trying to climb through the screen during the most recent episode. Shirley should really stop making such delectable fish dishes if she cares about my situation at all.

Seared Snapper with Crustacean Broth, Silken Tofu, and Napa Cabbage

We're in the home stretch, so jump on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 14. It's now down to the final four. Who will win? I've got my prediction!

Out of This World

There may be 7 billion people on the planet, and sure, different lands have different cultures, but after a point, we humans can be kind of dull. It's no wonder there are so many stories about monsters and other mythological creatures; human nature only expands so far. It may have been happenstance that my two latest library books both focused on these otherworldly entities, but I still have to assume that I'm in some sort of dreamy, what-if kind of mood.

The first was Neil Gaiman's latest novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane (2013). I'm a big fan of Gaiman's work, but so are a lot of other people, so I figured I was in for a long wait at the library. I actually got it really quickly, and I'm guessing that's because this is a very short read - only 192 pages. It also shares a lot of DNA with other Gaiman books. There's a distinctive Coraline feel to the story, as well as a touch of American Gods. The book is told from the point of view of a man who returns to his small hometown to attend a funeral. He goes to the site of his childhood home and reminisces about the strange experiences of his youth, and the magical women who ran the farm down the lane. All kids have problems, but this unnamed narrator is forced to contend with a power-hungry being from another dimension that hitchhikes to our world as a parasite in his foot. The narrator finds his neighbors the Hempstock women (and especially Lettie, who appears to be near his own age) a mix of ethereal and practical magic, and teams up with them to drive the demon back to where she came from.

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.

The other book I read was far more blunt and analytical. That's because the protagonist is an alien who has no concept of human emotion. I'm talking about Matt Haig's new book, The Humans (2013), which explores what an alien race that has evolved beyond the need for individualism (and its attendant baggage like love and greed) must think of us. I had mixed feelings on Haig's The Dead Fathers Club, but enjoyed it enough not to dismiss The Humans out of hand, especially when I got a specific recommendation for it.

The alien protagonist comes to Earth and takes over the life of a mathematics professor on the verge of solving the Riemann hypothesis. Solving it would allow humans to make enormous leaps in technology and interstellar travel, and the aliens are not supportive of that outcome, believing that we humans would wreck the universe if given access to it. And hey, they're probably not wrong about that. The alien sent to Earth is tasked with eliminating anyone the professor might have told about his discovery, including his wife and child. First, though, he must acclimate to life as a human, which is naturally rife with confusion and frustration.

As the alien spends more time with these weird, wonderful, terrible, contradictory humans, empathy and understanding begins to seep in. Suddenly, the cold reason and logic that has always served as the guiding principles of his race don't make as much sense. The book is a bit too clinical at times, which is understandable coming from a narrator of pure practicality, but begins to wear after a while. Fortunately, it never sinks the book, which wound up being an enjoyable read, overall. It's always fun to see what authors get up to in their attempts to step outside the human experience and look in. We're among the few beings to have imaginations. We may as well put them to use.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: B+
The Humans: B

She Blinded Me With Science

Gravity is amassing all kinds of good news lately. A Golden Globe for directing. Film festival honors up the wazoo. Oscar nominations. My favorite movie of 2013. And now it can add one more accolade to the pile: Lucky son of a bitch.

I'm still working my way through the Best Picture nominees before I fill out a ballot for the Academy Awards, and finally snagged a ticket to Spike Jonze's latest whimsy, Her. What does this have to do with Gravity, you ask? Only that if I had managed to see Her in 2013, we might have had a very different discussion about favorites of the year. Her not only would have given Gravity a serious run for its money, but probably would have beaten it. I adored this movie.

Let's start with the story, which is deceptively simple. It's the near future, and operating systems have gotten advanced enough to the point that they're functioning artificial intelligence. Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a lonely, recently-separated man who makes a living writing lovely emotional letters for people who can't articulate their feelings. When he updates his phone and computer with the new OS, the personality it constructs for itself (Samantha, voiced by Scarlett Johansson) soon beguiles him, and they fall in love. Naturally, this is a very complicated relationship, and the remainder of the plot really just centers on Theodore and Samantha's efforts to define and protect their love.

If it had just been that, it'd be a nifty story, but not the amazing film it turned out to be. What really makes Her spectacular is the world Jonze builds around the citizens in this futuristic Los Angeles. It is note-perfect. Technology has made leaps and bounds, but not to the point that anything is unrealistic. As with any era, there is an inexplicably popular fashion trend. But to these characters, interactive video games and high-waisted pants are just an everyday fact of life, not something to remark upon. Everything is futuristic, but the world still feels lived-in and real. It's incredibly easy to picture this world as the actual status quo in a few decades, and striking that balance perfectly must have been difficult.

Thematically, the movie also seamlessly dives deep into the relationships we have with our technology. Samantha is illustrative, but it certainly doesn't take a computer with a personality to make someone inextricably linked with their toys. Just count the number of people checking their phones at restaurants these days. Theodore's inability to connect with other people, and the ease with which he falls in love with a "woman" who understands him is telling. Of course she understands him; she was explicitly designed to do so. The acting is solid from top to bottom. I've never been a huge Joaquin Phoenix fan, but he is outstanding in this role. Scarlett Johansson is never seen on-screen, and still manages to fill out a poignant, relatable character. Chris Pratt and Amy Adams are always a treat, and do not disappoint in their supporting roles.

I'm sitting here trying to think of things to nitpick, just so that there's some balance to my review, but I'm not coming up with anything. This is a (mostly) quiet, thoughtful movie, and as such, it may not bring home the Oscar gold it deserves, but there is one elusive award it's already nailed down: The highest grade I can give.

Her: A+

European Union

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 13

It's a tense week over on Top Chef, and this time, it's not because someone left grimy fish guts on someone else's knife. It's an episode that also features both French and Spanish cuisine, so you know there are some tasty ingredients flying around.

Pickled and Poached Mussels, Crustacean Jus & Tomate

Take a skip across the pond, and head on over to What'ere, Jane Eyre for Episode 13. The dishes featured may not be as classic as croissants or paella, but they'll still have you salivating in a hurry.

Cap'n Crunch

There are up-sides and down-sides to movies based on real life events. If it twists too many facts for the sake of entertainment, it can come off as contrived and pointless. If it hews too close to bare facts, it can be boring. When it comes to non-fiction thrillers like Captain Phillips, there's a strange additional perk: Anti-predictability. Not unpredictability - that would be not being able to foresee what comes next in a story. In many fictional action movies, the beats and twists are repeated so often that any seasoned movie-goer can tell what's coming next. But in non-fiction, there is no super-spy that can wriggle out of every dangerous situation. There is no handy hacker that can break into the system in fourteen keystrokes. In real life, both the good guys and the bad guys are fallible.

So when Somali pirates take over Captain Phillips' (Tom Hanks) ship, the characters being bound to realistic reactions made it impossible to tell what was about to happen, and the overall suspense of the movie increased. Phillips is no badass; he has to keep his crew safe and buy time until military assistance arrives, and he can only do that through wits, pleading, and negotiation. The movie is also helped by the fact that the pirates aren't two-dimensional baddies. They don't hijack ships for the fun of it, and their desperation and pressure from an unforgiving boss is palpable.

Not everything works. Hanks' accent slides around a bit, there are a couple of overly melodramatic beats, and of course, it wouldn't be a Greengrass movie without some unnecessary shaky-cam. Still, I wound up enjoying this movie a lot more than I thought I was going to. It was surely entertaining. I'm not sure that I'd put it in contention for Best Picture of the year, but it being so is what spurred me to see it in the first place, so mission accomplished on that front.

I'm not sure how many liberties were taken between the facts and artistic license regarding this story, and the movie should be credited with making those seams invisible. I can't tell what Hanks did that Phillips didn't, and it's the believability of the series of events portrayed that makes this film really work. It's non-fiction that manages to be a lot more thrilling than the testosterone fantasies churned out in most Hollywood potboilers.

Captain Phillips: B+

Oscar Nominations 2014

It's the mooooooost wonderful tiiiiiiiiime of the year! Not Christmas. Don't be ridiculous. If December should be recognized, it would be for those wonderful best-of/worst-of lists. But even that section of the calendar can't compare to the relentless predicting and the celebrating and the snarking and the rending of clothes over snubs that is Oscar season. The nominations came out this morning, and why wait to dive into wild and no-doubt-pointless speculation? Let's go for it! Wheeee!


American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave
The Wolf Of Wall Street

Of the nine nominees, I've seen three. That's pathetic. What's even more pathetic is that of the six that I've missed, I really am only interested in seeing half of them. Wait, does that sound familiar to you? Did I accidentally just copy/paste last year's note about the Best Picture category? No, it turns out I'm in exactly the same situation this year. Uncanny! I'm very anxious to see Her, and will likely catch Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave at some point. Philomena, The Wolf of Wall Street, and Dallas Buyers Club aren't anathema to me, but strike me as homework that I may or may not ever get to.

Both American Hustle and 12 Years a Slave won Golden Globes. While I liked American Hustle, it's getting wildly overpraised, and the Academy tends to favor stark drama, especially if they can look like they're awarding diversity. I think 12 Years a Slave has got this one, which is too bad for the marvelous Gravity. I feel like that one was the year's best blend of prestige, audience appeal, technical achievement, and good performances.


Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Bruce Dern (Nebraska)
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf Of Wall Street)
Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave)
Matthew McConaughey (Dallas Buyers Club)

Having seen two of these five performances makes it difficult to predict, but based just on buzz and chatter, I think it's unlikely Bale or McConaughey will win. Ejiofor is the front-runner, but DiCaprio and Dern have the potential to edge past him: DiCaprio because he's been "perennially overlooked" (I don't agree, but it's what people are saying), and Dern because he's old. I'll be keeping an eye on this one to see if the conversation shifts the way it did in the whole Argo vs. Lincoln thing last year.


Amy Adams (American Hustle)
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
Judi Dench (Philomena)
Meryl Streep (August: Osage County)

Normally, given these five actresses, I'd find this a difficult choice, both for who should win and who will win. This year, though, the answer to both questions is Cate Blanchett. Streep's win for The Iron Lady surprised me, but at least in that case, it was a marvelous performance in an otherwise disappointing movie. Even the great Meryl can't quite humanize the monstrous mother in August: Osage County. Bullock was great in Gravity, but mostly through emoting; the Academy likes a good speech or two. As far as Dench goes, here is as good a place as any to predict a Philomena shut-out across the board.

That brings it down to two. Adams is a terrific actress and just about carries American Hustle on her shoulders, but I just don't see how she can beat Blanchett's performance in Blue Jasmine. Adams was wonderful, but Blanchett was transformative.


Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips)
Bradley Cooper (American Hustle)
Michael Fassbender (12 Years a Slave)
Jonah Hill (The Wolf Of Wall Street)
Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club)

Did you ever think you'd hear yourself saying "Two-time Academy Award nominee Jonah Hill"? It's so surreal. The only thing more surreal would be "Academy Award winner Jonah Hill", but I don't think we need to worry about adopting that nomenclature this year. Though I haven't seen Dallas Buyers Club, I can't read any movie site that doesn't go out of their way to laud Jared Leto's performance. Sometimes that buzz is enough to carry someone to victory, and I wouldn't be surprised if that happened here. I could be talking out of my ass, though. Cooper's is the only performance of these five that I've seen, so beyond a prediction that he won't win, I have to go out on somewhat of a limb.


Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine)
Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years A Slave)
Julia Roberts (August: Osage County)
June Squibb (Nebraska)

Of all the acting categories, this one is the hardest to call. I'm pleased to see Hawkins' nomination, as talk about her performance has generally been outshone by the Blanchett juggernaut. Lawrence was amusing in American Hustle, but part of the over-praise that the movie has been getting is reserved for her. Squibb was fantastic in Nebraska, but the role may be too slight to be awarded. Roberts surprised me in August: Osage County, but the movie being a drag may bring her down with it (the movie getting acting nominations with nothing for Best Picture or Best Director is telling). And I've heard great things about Nyong'o, but without having seen it, I can't judge. So who will win? Arrrgh! I think I'm going to whittle it down to Nyong'o or Squibb - Best Supporting Actress is often the category where the underdog has the best shot. After flipping a mental coin, I'll predict Nyong'o, but wouldn't stake my retirement fund on it.


David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity)
Alexander Payne (Nebraska)
Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave)
Martin Scorsese (The Wolf Of Wall Street)

Oof. Another tough one. Based on gut instinct, I think it will come down to McQueen or Cuarón. The three others made movies very much in their traditional vein, and movie quality aside, the Academy likes to reward breakthroughs. That would seem to imply Cuarón will win, but 12 Years a Slave has been hogging a lot of buzz. I think I'll go ahead with my Cuarón prediction, anyway. Gravity was such a technical achievement, it will be difficult to overlook.


Eric Warren Singer & David O. Russell (American Hustle)
Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine)
Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack (Dallas Buyers Club)
Spike Jonze (Her)
Bob Nelson, (Nebraska)

Why are my predictive powers so wonky this year? Was it something I ate? Or are the nominees just more evenly-matched? I could honestly make a case for any one of these movies to win. I get the feeling that Her may be passed over in the bigger categories, so Original Screenplay may be where they give it some gold.


Richard Linklater, Julie Delpy, and Ethan Hawke (Before Midnight)
Billy Ray (Captain Phillips)
Steve Coogan & Jeff Pope (Philomena)
John Ridley (12 Years a Slave)
Terence Winter (The Wolf Of Wall Street)

Before Midnight is a good option, since it wraps up a beloved trilogy, and the writing is one of the qualities that people praise most highly about it. Its main competition would come from 12 Years a Slave, which has a fair probability of winning in any category it appears in.


The Croods
Despicable Me 2
Ernest & Celestine
The Wind Rises

Frozen. Done. Okay, that's not fair. Normally, I'd say there's a real possibility that The Wind Rises could sneak in for the win, especially with the retirement of Hayao Miyazaki upon us. Still, he's already been rewarded for Spirited Away, and that movie didn't have a powerhouse like Frozen to compete against.


The Broken Circle Breakdown
The Great Beauty
The Hunt
The Missing Picture

This one's odd, because all the foreign movies that got the most praise this year aren't on the short-list, either because they didn't qualify or they were overlooked. As a result, I don't have a good sense of which of these will win. I'll probably let the critical establishment make my pick for this category.


Phillippe Le Sourd (The Grandmaster)
Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity)
Bruno Delbonnel (Inside Llewyn Davis)
Phedon Papamichael (Nebraska)
Roger A. Deakins (Prisoners)

Hmm. Do we go for what seems like the obvious choice and pick Gravity? Or do we go with perpetual also-ran Roger Deakins, who has to win at some point? If Skyfall didn't get the job done, I don't see how Prisoners can, so I think this one is going to Lubezki. Also, pity the poor Inside Llewyn Davis, which is virtually ignored this year, and when it is recognized, it's in categories where it has no shot.


American Hustle
The Grandmaster
The Great Gatsby
The Invisible Woman
12 Years a Slave

This one always goes to a period piece, whether or not it should. The Great Gatsby would normally be the one to beat, but time and critical divisiveness has killed a lot of the buzz surrounding that movie, which may allow the '70s cheese of American Hustle to grab this one.


American Hustle
The Great Gatsby
12 Years a Slave

Ditto on this one. Gravity may be able to sew up Cinematography, but I can easily see the disco and polyester aesthetic of American Hustle swaying it.


The Act Of Killing
Cutie And The Boxer
Dirty Wars
The Square
20 Feet From Stardom

20 Feet From Stardom was entertaining, but too slight to win. My guess is that this will go to The Act of Killing, which popped up on a lot of Top Ten lists last year.


Facing Fear
Karama Has No Walls
The Lady In Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Prison Terminal: The Last Days Of Private Jack Hall

Your guess is as good as mine! I'm hoping a local theater has one of those screenings where they show all the nominated shorts. As far as predictions go, though, I'll have to rely on someone else's.


American Hustle
Captain Phillips
Dallas Buyers Club
12 Years a Slave

I hope you won't think it's catty of me to be pleased not to see The Wolf Of Wall Street on this list. You can say a lot of nice things about Scorsese movies, but telling a tight story and avoiding bloat is not among them. It's tough to pick the winner from the nominated movies, though I think Gravity and 12 Years a Slave are the likely front-runners. Based on no evidence whatsoever, I'll go with 12 Years a Slave.


The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Iron Man 3
The Lone Ranger
Star Trek Into Darkness

How did Pacific Rim miss out on this? I won't waste time being nonplussed about it, because there's no way it would have beaten Gravity, anyway. Although that raises a good question. Will the people that vote in this category choose a more traditional winner (a summer blockbuster, that is) rather than a story-driven science fiction movie? This will be an interesting test case.


Dallas Buyers Club
Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
The Lone Ranger

Oh, what the hell. Jackass.


John Williams (The Book Thief)
Steven Price (Gravity)
William Butler & Owen Pallett (Her)
Alexandre Desplat (Philomena)
Thomas Newman (Saving Mr. Banks)

OK, I know I predicted a Philomena shutout, but Desplat has won before, so who knows? I'm in the dark on this one, so I'll have to do some more research before making a prediction.


“Alone Yet Not Alone” (Alone Yet Not Alone)
“Happy” (Despicable Me 2)
“Let It Go” (Frozen)
“The Moon Song” (Her)
“Ordinary Love” (Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom)

Let's not even talk about the winner, which will obviously be "Let It Go". Not when the articles about a weird Christian, racist movie that nobody's ever heard of suddenly popping up to get a nomination for no reason have been so extremely entertaining.


Get a Horse!
Mr. Hublot
Room On The Broom

Get A Horse! was remarkable for its 3D animation, but that's the extent of what I know about this category.


That Wasn’t Me
Just Before Losing Everything
Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?
The Voorman Problem

I haven't seen nor heard of any of these, so let's go with Helium. When in doubt, depend on the periodic table.


All Is Lost
Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Lone Survivor


Captain Phillips
The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug
Inside Llewyn Davis
Lone Survivor

Hey, you wanna go grab some sushi?

Welcome to the O.C., Bitch!

Access to arts and culture in St. Louis is pretty underrated, but I do wish theater was a bigger presence. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of local troupes, and the Muny and Fox take care of most of the big shows, but it can be a challenge to track down performances of particular plays. If I wanted to see August: Osage County here, God knows how long I'd have to wait for someone to mount a production. Since seeing the play isn't in the cards, I opted for the new movie. Adaptations of plays don't have a great track record in cinema lately, so I went in with a certain amount of trepidation. Trepidation that was immediately validated.

For those who haven't heard of it, August: Osage County is the story of an Oklahoma family that reluctantly gathers when the patriarch leaves without a word, then commits suicide. His three daughters come back into town for the funeral, and the dysfunction of every character soon bubbles to the surface in a series of fights, secret-outing, and recrimination. Meryl Streep portrays the toxic mother, and Julia Roberts the headstrong eldest daughter who locks horns with her most often.

Plays are often specifically crafted to highlight explosive emotion and heightened tension, and when put onto film, that can read as melodramatic and hammy. That, I'm afraid, is exactly what happens here. Scenery is chewed with wild abandon; it seems that director John Wells told his actors that there is no such thing as "over the top" in this adaptation. Some of the character interactions are compelling, and some of the performances are admirable, but as a whole, this movie is a series of contrived, operatic rage bombs.

I do want to single out some of those great performances, though. It's surprising to me that in a movie with Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts would be the one to distinguish herself, but it's true. Streep is dependably good, but her character is a fairly two-dimensional shrew. Roberts could have fallen into the same trap, but embeds her character with a layer of pity and relatability that I appreciated. As far as the supporting cast, Julianne Nicholson and Chris Cooper are the MVPs, perhaps because they are playing characters who are not simply balls of neuroses, but people striving to make an unpleasant family as palatable as possible.

Everyone else is fine, though the progress that Ewan McGregor made with his American accent in Beginners has suffered a substantial backslide. The real issue is that this is a soap opera masquerading as a prestige picture. There are plenty of realistic, good stories about a crumbling family that could probably work as both a play and a movie. When it comes to this band of loonies, though, it's pretty apparent that these histrionics should have stayed on stage.

August: Osage County: C+

She Shucks Shellfish by the Shoreline

Top Chef - Season 11, Episode 12

Oh, bother. We're to the traditional point of the season that it's becoming a slog, and I wish they'd just get on with the finale, already. It happens every year. I've fallen behind a bit, but will endeavor to catch up. Salivating over seafood makes it easier, and this episode is certainly one of those ones I dearly wish I could have been a diner at.

Grilled Swordfish, Shrimp, and Sweet Onion Puree with Fennel Daikon Relish

Travel back in time a couple weeks with me, and go check out Episode 12 at What'ere, Jane Eyre. You'll be forgiven for calling me afterwards and insisting we go out for swordfish. And trust me, I'm on board.

(G)lum Rock

I'm good about exploring new avenues in books or movies or television, but have an unfortunate tendency to listen to the same music over and over. Spotify has been a great help in shattering this rut, mostly thanks to the "follow" list. Seeing that so-and-so just listened to such-and-such provides a handy springboard to discover a group or genre I'm unfamiliar with. Often, a single song is intriguing enough to pull me into listening to a full album. This is exactly what happened when I heard "Dark Star" by Poliça. It hypnotized me to such an extent that I went and immediately listened to the entire album, titled Give You the Ghost.

I would never have found this album on my own. My musical knowledge is limited, but I've managed to listen to some alternative rock and electronica over the course of my life. This is a blend of the two, described as "synthpop" on a couple of the sites where I saw this band listed. So the singer's voice is heavily altered, layered and echoing throughout every song. This works well for some tracks, and distracts in others. As far as the tone goes, it's mostly the same throughout - this album makes me feel a bit melancholy. That's not a criticism; once in a while, there's nothing better than allowing yourself some good ol' fashioned pensive music depression.

It does, however, make listening to the entire album at a stretch kind of a challenge. Putting a mellow, downbeat track into a playlist or a mix is welcome. Eleven songs with the same tone and feel in a row can make it seem like just a wall of echoing sound. If you wanted to kick back on the couch, get high, and just let some music wash over you, this album would be outstanding. If you're looking for something to listen to as you wend your way through the grocery store, though, it probably shouldn't be your first choice.

If you had to pick a standout track, go for "Dark Star". Other good ones include "Lay Your Cards Out", "Violent Games", and "Wandering Star". I don't think I'll ever listen to the entire album in one sitting ever again, but it's an interesting collection that was definitely worth my time. And on those rainy days I'd like to sit around and wallow for a bit, some of these tracks will really hit the spot.

Give You the Ghost: B-

Sister Act

Oof. You think the waiting list at the library for a new book is tough? Try putting yourself on the list for a new book that is recommended by Oprah and set in St. Louis! I'm surprised I was able to get my hands on Curtis Sittenfeld's 2013 novel Sisterland before Halloween. Its setting was the big draw. Normally, I wouldn't be that interested in the story of psychic twins who have premonitions of an upcoming earthquake, but toss it into my hometown, and I'm on board, especially if it's not just background, but is constantly referenced. The narrator basically lives a mile from my apartment; she and I shop at the same grocery store. We turn on the same streets. She and my sister attended the same middle school. She dated someone who works for the same car company that someone I'm dating works for. Uncanny!

But as I mentioned, this isn't just St. Louis: The Novel. The narrator Daisy (or Kate, depending on whether she's going by her middle name or not) and her twin sister Violet have always had a sense of the future. Violet has embraced her psychic abilities, while Daisy is embarrassed by them, and has done her level best to bury them. A fundamental difference in how they approach life has made the relationship between the sisters difficult, and things aren't helped when Violet goes on TV to announce that she has had a vision of an earthquake that threatens to level the St. Louis region. Daisy is mortified at the attention this draws to the family, but privately, she agrees that a cataclysm is on the horizon.

The book also does a lot of exploration of Daisy's relationships with the people around her, from her husband and children to her best friend/neighbor to the men she dated in the past. Some of these are more interesting than others. Lots of ink is devoted to routine, everyday childcare, and its tedium surprised me. Not the tedium itself - I don't expect diaper changes and juggling strollers to be fascinating. I'm just surprised so many passages are devoted to it. I don't know if Sittenfeld has children, but on this first pass, it sure seems like she's fallen into the classic trap of believing the banal details of child-rearing are of interest to others.

The story regarding the possibility of the earthquake and the media attention that surrounds it is a lot stronger. Life is going to change for this family whether or not the disaster strikes, and Sittenfeld makes the smart choice to focus on the shifting relationships, rather than a lot of hysterical scenes about impending doom. Credit should also be given for writing a realistic narrator who can, at times, be kind of a douche. It can be tough to straddle the line between an overly saintly protagonist and an overly insufferable one, and Sittenfeld does it well. Daisy has plenty of character flaws, but she's still relatable. The book never reached a point that I was deeply invested, but it was definitely worth the read. Especially if you live in this town. So go read it, and when you're done, we'll go grab some Lion's Choice.

Sisterland: B-

Good Free Will Hunting

I love video games, but my Games tag doesn't get near as much of a workout as Movies, TV, or Books. It's not difficult to see why; properties in those latter three categories don't take much of an investment, either in time or money. If I'm going to get into a new game, though, it involves considerable commitment of both. In fact, Gone Home was the only new game I was able to devote any amount of attention to in 2013. Until the December Steam sale hit! Suddenly, a bunch of games became a lot more accessible, and there were two I immediately jumped on. While both of them delve into the intricacies and complexities of fate and free will, their tones and gameplay styles couldn't be more different.

BioShock Infinite is the one with more mass appeal. It appeared on several best-of lists, but beyond that and a few minutes of peering over the shoulder of a friend who was playing it, I didn't know much about it. I've never played any of the BioShock games before. When it hit a ridiculously low price, I decided that its strong word-of-mouth meant it was worth the risk of me walking into it blind. And I'm so glad I did. In BioShock Infinite, you play as Booker DeWitt, a private investigator who finds himself in the floating city of Columbia in 1912 to track down a girl to trade in exchange for a gambling debt. This is the most beautiful game I've played in a long time, and for the first section, you might actually find yourself pining for a simpler time. A time of straw hats and victrolas, when patriotism and religion weren't such loaded phrases, and fun was wholesome. But during the city's big festival, the game takes a sudden turn that literally made my jaw drop, and reminded me that there was plenty about the good ol' days that wasn't so good.

Your companionship with the girl (Elizabeth) is equally fraught. She's kind and smart, but dangerous and unpredictable. She helps you in some fights, and leads you to others. Her freedom is something Booker desperately wants to help her achieve, but at what cost? The gameplay is nicely intuitive for a Bioshock newbie like me, the characterizations are impeccable, and did I mention the graphics? So, so pretty.

But for all the writing and plot work that went into BioShock Infinite, it's still an FPS. Action rules over thought. To really twist your mind inside out, dive into The Stanley Parable. Its premise is childishly simple. Stanley is an office drone who pushes buttons day after day. One day, he discovers that all his coworkers are curiously missing. A helpful narrator then explains to the player how Stanley should go about solving this mystery. "Stanley took the door on his left." "Stanley entered the code 2-8-4-5 into the safe." "Stanley flipped the power switch."

On my first playthrough, I dutifully followed all the instructions given to me. Total game time? About five minutes. OK, good night! Nah, just kidding. The next time I played, it was time to start questioning authority. "Stanley took the door on his left." Screw you, narrator. I'll take the one on the right. "Stanley entered the code 2-8-4-5 into the safe." Nah, let's see what happens when I input 2-3-4-4. "Stanley flipped the power switch." What if I don't even feel like going into the room with the power switch? What if I want to explore the basement, instead?

The narrator does not take kindly to these brutal displays of disobedience. No, he doesn't care for them one bit. If you do not follow instructions to the letter, the narrator becomes increasingly angry and anxious. With every choice you make as Stanley, your relationship to the narrator and to reality warps further. Who is this narrator? What stake does he have in Stanley's decisions? What effect does contradicting an omniscient being have on the universe? Are you the player? Or is the narrator? Is Stanley fictional only in the player's universe? Or is he fictional in his own? Is there a narrator narrating the narrator's story? Your brain should be a pile of goo by this point, and that goo made this game one of the most interesting experiences of the year. Sure, you may not have rescued the princess from the tower. But you took control over your own destiny about which office door you walked through. Now that's real accomplishment.

BioShock Infinite: A
The Stanley Parable: A-

Do the Hustle!

We're in the dead zone of the calendar, movie-wise, and we all know what that means. It's time to pack in all the Oscar buzz films that I've missed before the awards roll around. I've got a reputation to defend! First up in this brand spanking new year was David O. Russell's American Hustle, which has been getting critical cartwheels for a while now.

I liked Silver Linings Playbook quite a bit, despite its third act problems, and the cast of American Hustle certainly inspires hope for a great movie. Christian Bale, Jennifer Lawrence, and Amy Adams are all favorites of mine, and Bradley Cooper has been steadily improving lately. Plus, who wouldn't love a caper set in the '70s? The plot centers on a dramatization and exaggeration of the ABSCAM scandal, while also exploring the relationships between a pudgy-but-magnetic con man (Bale) and the ladies in his life, from his wife (Lawrence) to his mistress/partner-in-crime (Adams). When Bradley Cooper's FBI agent snares him, the little gang is forced to assist in an ever-widening trap for corrupt politicians and gangsters.

There was a lot to like about this movie. Bale and Adams knock their roles out of the park, and plenty of scenes are tense or amusing by turn. Everything and everyone is soaked in a sheen of tacky '70s bullshit, which fits the mood perfectly. That said, does this movie deserve the critical tongue bath it's getting? No. If I had caught it a week ago, it wouldn't even make my top ten of 2013. While plenty of scenes work well, they don't add up to a terrific movie. At just north of two hours, it's not an overly long film, but you feel every minute of it. And you may have noticed that I left one of the top billed actors out of the list up there, and that, I'm sorry to say, is because Jeremy Renner is the one sore thumb here. His performance is wooden, and his accent slides all over the place.

With some more judicious editing and some tonal shifts, American Hustle would be a great movie. As it stands, it's a perfectly decent one. With so many great films to choose from in 2013, I'm not sure why this fine-but-middling one is soaking up so much cultural conversation, but that doesn't mean it's not worth seeing. If for nothing else, it should be certainly credited with injecting the term "science oven" into everyone's lexicon.

American Hustle: B-
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