The State of the Art: Television 2015

I should never have tempted Fate. Last year, I was grousing because it was tough to choose my top five when it came to television. There were plenty of good shows to choose from, but even some of my favorites were still in the B-range of grades. This year? I gave A-range grades to ten shows. How on Earth am I supposed to pick a top five now?

I'm pretty stingy when it comes to the A-range, so it must have been an absolutely incredible year for TV. Television is an embarrassment of riches right now, and it doesn't show any signs of abating as the entertainment genre to beat when it comes to quality. Step up your game, movies! And all this wonderful programming is just the shows I got to - people are falling all over themselves to talk about things like The Americans and Fargo, which I haven't gotten around to starting yet.

So, it looks like my queue will be filled for a long time to come. In the meantime, let's check out the shows that blew me away in 2015!

#1: The Great British Baking Show - Seasons 1 & 2

It looks like non-fiction rules for the second year in a row. Nothing but The Great British Baking Show could possibly aspire to top my list. It's essentially the perfect show, even if it is a reality competition. The judges are fair. The hosts are engaging. The contestants are the kindest people you could ever hope to meet. The challenges are well-designed. The food photography is second to none. It's fun to talk about with other fans. It's a warm, friendly, exciting show, and gives fascinating insight into the history and culture of British baked goods. I'm usually pretty good at nitpicking tiny imperfections in shows - even the ones I love - but in the case of The Great British Baking Show, I wouldn't change a thing.

#2: BoJack Horseman - Season 2

I was completely unprepared for this one. Season 1 of BoJack Horseman was fine, but nothing to get too giddy over. It was good enough to check out Season 2, though, and thank God I did. It's amazing how much television has changed in the recent past, because can you imagine trying to describe this to someone even ten years ago? "So, it's a cartoon, set in a universe where anthropomorphized animals and humans co-exist, and it winds up being one of the cleverest, most heartfelt, sharply-written depictions of depression on the air. And it tackles some of the thorniest social issues of the day. But it also features two kids in a trenchcoat wooing a cat who thinks she's being romanced by an adult." You'd get a lot of blank stares before they carted you off to the madhouse. It is intensely difficult to blend good comedy and good tragedy into a single work, and somehow, BoJack Horseman did it seamlessly this year. You could easily go from a belly laugh to a gut punch within a single episode, and I can't think of a single other show that's so successful in wildly varying its tone.

#3: Parks and Recreation - Season 7

C'mon, how could I not? It can be very difficult for a show to stick the landing, but Parks & Rec carried it off without a hitch. Jumping a few years into the future had all sorts of benefits, from the jokes at future tech to being able to jump over the triplets' babyhood completely. Whew. As always, though, where the show really shined is in the relationships between its characters. In the final season, we find Leslie and Ron at odds with each other, and exploring why that is, along with how they repair their friendship, was masterfully done. Parks & Rec never lost its sense of humor, even when tugging hard on the heartstrings. Its characters move on: They get married, they leave for other cities, and they pass away, but at the end, it puts a smile on your face as well as some tears.

#4: Brooklyn Nine-Nine - Season 2

Where Parks & Rec excelled at hitting me in the heart, Brooklyn Nine-Nine concentrates solely on the funny bone. Far and away the best workplace comedy in recent memory, Brooklyn Nine-Nine makes excellent use of its ensemble. Everyone plays off each other perfectly, and I liked that far from being bumbling incompetents, the precinct detectives are actually capable cops. The addition of Kyra Sedgwick as Captain Holt's nemesis added another layer to his deadpan hilarity, and she was but one of several guest stars who knocked it out of the park. Really, the best way to gauge a comedy is how much it make it makes me laugh, and when you're guaranteed two good belly laughs per episode, you know you've got a winner on your hands.

#5: Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt - Season 1

This is the only truly "new" show in my top five, but there's no way I couldn't include it. When I first started watching Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, my intention was to watch one or two episodes a day, so that I could draw out the experience. Nope, didn't happen; I shotgunned the whole season in two sittings. Brooklyn Nine-Nine mines comedy out of realistic situations, while Kimmy Schmidt goes straight for the absurd. It never lets up on the jokes, and a great majority of them were flawless. Quotes from this season have already infiltrated my daily speech, and though it's the last of my top five, it's the show for which I'm most looking forward to new episodes. Season 1 may have somewhat run out of steam towards the end (witness my comment about difficulty in sticking the landing up there in the Parks & Rec entry), but Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt is reliably hilarious, and has the catching theme song I've heard in my entire life.

Honorable Mentions

Normally, I'd just lay out my top five, but as I said, there were five others that also got at least an A- this year, so it seems a shame not to mention them. I'd highly recommend all of them!

Steven Universe - Season 1: Ineligible, since it didn't air this year, but a remarkable show that actively made me cry a few times, despite it being a good-natured, silly cartoon.

Black-ish - Season 1: Ineligible, since it's already mentioned in the Best of 2014 post. I wrapped up with it this year, though, and it remains one of my favorite shows on the air. Season 2 is already proving that there's no sophomore slump in the offing for this one.

Sense8 - Season 1: An extremely fascinating show that took its time to develop a backstory, and managed to make eight wildly disparate characters equally interesting.

Scrotal Recall - Season 1: A terrific show with a terrible title. Romantic comedies are often silly to the point of being stupid, but this one is firmly grounded in real human motivations.

Wet Hot American Summer: First Day at Camp - Season 1: Made me laugh a billion times. What more could I ask for?

The State of the Art: Movies 2015

Normally, the movie post for the annual State of the Art roundup would be the last one. Movies have a grand reputation as an art form, and it was only recently that movie stars that now appear on TV aren't considered to be slumming. In fact, the reputation of television has been gaining so much ground that it is officially more important to me this year. So, 2015 will be capped by the TV post, and for today, we can talk movies.

I feel like I didn't do very well with my resolution from last year. I said I'd embrace a wider spectrum of film genres, and in a sense I did, but the overall numbers just keep dropping. I saw 41 movies this year, 18 of which were released in 2015. Maybe it's an attention span issue? Movies require more investment, and with a hectic schedule, maybe I just felt like TV (along with being stunningly good this year) is just easier to consume. Whatever the reason that the world of cinema is receding in its importance to me, I still managed to see some terrific movies this year, and I'm excited to list them.

Two notes: First, I always like to mention that letter grading is always tricky, and often has a lot to do with how well I think a movie achieved what it set out to do. So Magic Mike XXL, which wildly succeeded at being a fun road trip movie, gets a far better grade than In the Heart of the Sea, a movie that attempted to be grand and prestigious, and wound up being mostly dull. Second, I didn't include any of the Rank and File movies in this year's list, because those were watched for a side project to compare to each other, not as a representation of my movie-watching year.

Okay! Now that that's dispensed with, let's get to the top five!

#1: Room

What I Said: With just a handful of characters and locations, Room manages to do everything well, from action to relationship drama to exploration of mental health to family dynamics to the damage of exploitative media to appreciating cute dogs. It will definitely wind up on my best-of-the-year list, and will likely garner awards chatter as well. Sometimes, the critical community and I don't see eye-to-eye on what constitutes a great movie, but in the case of Room, we're all on the same page. Go see it immediately.

#2: The Martian

What I Said: I've seen a term bandied about regarding movies like this: Competence Porn. That may be a crude way of putting it, but I really love the themes it implies. In most movies, goals are accomplished by renegades and mavericks and lone wolves. Even when people work together, they're generally operating outside "The System". Competence Porn movies, on the other hand, celebrate intelligence and people working at their best under difficult circumstances and rules. No cowboy is going to sweep in and save the day here. It takes rigorous scientific application to get the job done. The only bad guy is circumstance, and audiences don't get to see enough movies with that premise.

#3: Carol

What I Said: For those who enjoy a deep and thoughtful tone piece, this film is right up your alley. There may not be a more magnetic actress working today than Cate Blanchett, and her name is already (deservedly) being bandied about for an Oscar nomination. Her performance is exquisite, but I hope some of the credit for that flows in Haynes' direction, because as is usually the case with his movies, Carol is an immense feast for the eye.

#4: Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

What I Said: The marketing for this movie played up the opening scene, in which Tom Cruise clings to the outside of a plane that's taking off. Make no mistake, that was cool to watch, but it says a lot about this movie's strengths that it was about the third most thrilling part. I mean, watching Cruise hang on for dear life was neat, but watching four agents wend their way through a theater as an opera is performed, and not knowing who to trust or what terrible shit is about to go down had me on the edge of my seat.

#5: Inside Out

What I Said: Joy and Sadness begin the perilous journey back to headquarters, and along the way, Joy learns that far from being a blockade, Sadness is a critical component of Riley's emotional development. It's a healthy message, and a powerful way to show kids that it's important to process all their feelings.

I'm pretty happy with this mixture of prestige and mass appeal movies. Like I said, I didn't see a lot of new releases this year, but let's check out the full list:

2015 Movies

Room (A)
The Martian (A-)
Carol (B+)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (B+)
Inside Out (B+)
Spy (B+)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (B+)
Trainwreck (B+)
Magic Mike XXL (B+)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (B+)
Tig (B)
Jupiter Ascending (B)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (B-)
Bessie (B-)
Mr. Holmes (B-)
Spectre (C+)
In the Heart of the Sea (C+)
Mortdecai (D+)

At least I did well with my quality filter this year, as 55.5% of the 2015 movies got a B+ or higher, and that D+ was for a movie it wasn't my idea to watch. But how did the 2015 movies fit into the overall year? Let's see the big picture!

Room (A)
Life Itself (2014) (A)
The Martian (A-)
Caged (1950) (A-)
Neighbors (2014) (A-)

Carol (B+)
A Separation (2011) (B+)
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (B+)
Inside Out (B+)
Selma (2014) (B+)
Spy (B+)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (B+)
Trainwreck (B+)
Magic Mike XXL (B+)
Troop Beverly Hills (1989) (B+)
Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (B+)
Obvious Child (2014) (B+)
Dear White People (2014) (B+)
Song of the Sea (2014) (B+)

Straight Talk (1992) (B)
Chef (2014) (B)
Tig (B)
Tim's Vermeer (2013) (B)
Moon (2009) (B)
Mommie Dearest (1981) (B)
Jupiter Ascending (B)

Avengers: Age of Ultron (B-)
Bessie (B-)
Interstellar (2014) (B-)
Mr. Holmes (B-)
Source Code (2011) (B-)
They Came Together (2014) (B-)
Don Jon (2013) (B-)

San Andreas (C+)
Spectre (C+)
In the Heart of the Sea (C+)

Logan's Run (1976) (C)
Hours (2013) (C)
Dragon Age: Dawn of the Seeker (2012) (C)

Horrible Bosses (2011) (C-)

Mortdecai (D+)


Galaxy Quest

How into the whole Star Wars phenomenon are you? Are you a fanatic that can outline the entire Sith hierarchy and could draw a detailed family tree for every character that ever wandered into the cantina? If so, then you're probably doing cartwheels over the newest movies in the franchise. And indeed, Episode VII (The Force Awakens) a giant leap in quality from the godawful prequels of ten years ago.

For those of us who enjoy Star Wars on a more general level, The Force Awakens is a perfectly good flick, but not worth anywhere near the amount of critical hysteria it's generating. I'll avoid major spoilers in talking about it, but if you haven't seen it yet, you should probably skip the rest of this until you have.

The overarching plot of Episode VIII is essentially an exact repeat of Episode IV. The Empire (known as the First Order now) is trying to destroy the Rebel Alliance (known as the Resistance now). The leader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), has telekinesis by using the dark side of the force, and plans to accomplish the attack on the Resistance with the use of a gigantic weapon capable of destroying entire planets, and that has a convenient weak spot that can bring down the whole operation. Sound familiar?

The Resistance forces get help in the form of a defecting Storm Trooper (John Boyega) and a desert scavenger (Daisy Ridley), who join up with some familiar faces to take down the First Order and restore peace to the galaxy.

Thing is, Episode IV was really good, so there's really nothing inherently wrong in trying to replicate the parts that made it successful, but with several 2015 improvements. The special effects are better. Women and minorities are represented better. Characters from the past are a welcome sight. From start to finish, The Force Awakens is an engaging sci-fi story with a cohesive plot and good acting.

That said, it seems like a large portion of its sterling reputation lies in the simple fact that it didn't shit the bed like the prequels did. It hangs together capably, and apparently, that's all people needed to start throwing their panties up on stage. It's a good movie, but there's nothing particularly interesting about the script. Very few of the plot beats are any different from Episode IV. One of the characters is an expert at absolutely everything she attempts, which seems a little...pandery? Just a little.

I'm not trying to come down on the movie too hard. Like I said, I really enjoyed it, and am already looking forward to the next one. By all means, general movie fans will find a lot to like about it, and if the hardcore fans are pleased, what more can we really ask for?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens: B+

Small Plate #3: Acero Executive Chef Adam Gnau

Four Courses Podcast

Four Courses has had a lot of exciting changes in the past year. From our new guest hosts to joining the STL Vernacular Podcast Network, we've been really please to be expanding our mission. And now, let's expand even more with our very first interview with a member of the St. Louis food scene!

In Episode 22, guest host Chris Romer and I talked about Acero. Several hours before we arrived to settle in for what turned out to be a fantastic meal, Chris got the opportunity to sit down and talk with their executive chef, Adam Gnau.

Chef Gnau was very generous with his time, so go on over to the Four Courses page and give Chris' interview with him a listen. Enjoy!

Wonder Woman

Earlier this year, I began to watch Daredevil, the new Netflix series produced by Marvel. I say "began", because despite its critical and commercial success, I just couldn't get into it. Maybe it was because I didn't find the characters interesting. Or maybe because it was too dark. I mean that literally; I know Daredevil is blind, but that doesn't mean the rest of us don't need the damned lights to be on once in a while. So I approached the next Marvel series, Jessica Jones, with a certain amount of trepidation.

I was soon put at ease and able to breathe a sigh of relief, because I found Jessica Jones a lot more enjoyable. In fact, it's nine of the finest episodes of television I've seen this year. Trouble is, it's a thirteen-episode season. But let's talk about the good stuff first. Far from being a token of a female superhero, Jessica is a full-fledged character, and Krysten Ritter does a great job of portraying her. She's moody, boozy, rude, and sarcastic, but buried below her gruff surface is a streak of empathy.

Her superpowers aren't as remarkable as lot of the other people in the Marvel canon: She can't shoot fire out of her fingertips. She's not a rapid healer. She is, however, incredibly strong, and can jump great distances. Those less showy powers really work in the realm of a television drama. The stories by necessity are more about her than her abilities. The antagonist is fantastic, too. David Tennant plays Kilgrave, a man obsessed with Jessica who has the power of persuasion. And lest you think that doesn't sound so horrific, imagine a person who can talk people into hurting and/or killing themselves and others with a single sentence.

Superheroes are best used when their remarkable powers serve as a stand-in to tell more human stories, and Jessica Jones accomplishes this admirably, digging into weighty issues like PTSD, abuse of privilege, and self-control. 99% of the supporting cast is terrific. It includes Carrie-Anne Moss as a shark of a lawyer, Rachael Taylor as Jessica's adoptive sister, and Mike Colter as Luke Cake, who has unbreakable skin and will be getting a series of his own soon.

If Jessica Jones had wrapped up the season at episode nine, it would be making my end-of-the-year ranking of my favorite shows even more agonizing. Thankfully, it does me a big favor by tripping over itself in episode ten and crawling painfully to the finish line. Suddenly, the audience is spending an inordinate amount of time with the one supporting character who is neither interesting nor acted well, a shrill neighbor named Robyn. Facing off against Kilgrave is apparently not enough of an obstacle for Jessica, so additional baddies come out of nowhere. Parts of episodes start spinning off into irrelevant tangents. A character is essentially given an on/off switch for evil, so that he can be whatever the writers need him to be for a particular scene.

Despite that disappointing succession of episodes, the season as a whole was very entertaining. But with its best material at the front end, I worry that Jessica Jones may have already given us all the entertainment it can. Still, I'm on probably on board for Season 2, though I'll be going into it with a certain amount of trepidation. Hey! Neat little trick you've pulled off, there, Jess.

Jessica Jones - Season 1: B+

The State of the Art: Books 2015

Looking at my entire year in any area of pop culture leads to some really weird and interesting meta conclusions. Grading everything as I consume it often means that I don't see the trends of how I've been behaving until late December. So I'll be reading merrily along, figuring that I'm generally doing what I always do, but when I compile everything into one list, suddenly I see that I've been favoring some particular genre. 2013 was the Year of the Short Story. 2014 was the Year of the Parallel Universe. And here in 2015, I'm just now realizing that it has been the Year of Family Drama.

Naturally, I've tried to read books from all over the spectrum. I always have a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction. In 2015, I've started to incorporate things I don't have a lot of experience with - comic books and graphic novels, for example. I'm trying to follow my author friend Jeffrey's lead in seeking out novels by a more diverse range of authors (an ongoing goal for 2016). But even with all these efforts to broaden my reading horizons, the majority of the books I've read this year seem to center around families in crisis. Whether it's a Dutch housewife desperately attempting to connect with her husband, an African-American man unable to wrangle his siblings, or a poor young girl coming to terms with her father's alcoholism, troubled households were apparently all the rage on my nightstand.

That sounds depressing, but in looking at the number of books I got through in 2015 and their relative quality, things are actually looking up! Last year, I jumped to 36 books, and this year, it's even higher, standing at 39. That may be cheating a bit, because a couple of them were comic books that I could knock out in a single day, but I'll go ahead and count them. The real news is the jump in quality. Last year, only 28% of the books I read managed to rank a grade of B+ or higher. This year, the number has risen to 33%. That, combined with the fact that nothing I read in 2015 ranks below a C, means that this was a pretty great year for books. Hooray!

Before we get to the rankings, some disclaimers. As always, the list doesn't include books that I re-read, childhood favorites, etc. I've tried to explain how my general grading system works, but there are always intricacies. Grades are often a reflection of how well I think a book did in accomplishing what it was going for, so as in TV and movies, non-fiction has a lower bar to clear for a high grade. Non-fiction just has to lay out the facts in an interesting way, whereas there's always something to nitpick in fiction. That's just the nature of the beast. "Best" doesn't necessarily mean "favorite". I can recognize that something is a great achievement and still rank it lower than something I just flat-out enjoyed more.

And finally, I'm not going to list comic books or Pop Culture Homework Project books in my top five, no matter what grade they got. State of the Art posts are an attempt to summarize the culture of the year as a whole, and those don't really fit into that goal. Naturally, they'll still be listed in the full ranking. Speaking of which...enough chatter! Let's talk about some books!

#1: The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites - Libby H. O'Connell

What I Said: This book was essentially designed to hit all my sweet spots. It digs into hidden pockets of American history, and the way that earlier generations went about the challenges of feeding themselves. It uses food as a backdrop to explore the topics that Americans are passionate about, and what trends we embrace. It organizes everything into neat capsules. In fact, it appealed to me so much that I bought a copy before I even finished reading the one I borrowed from the library, which is a feat that no other book has ever accomplished. [This book has also inspired the American Plate Project over at Tastes of Lime - so it's been good reading AND good eating!]

#2: The Turner House - Angela Flournoy

What I Said: The book avoids the issue of spreading itself too thin by focusing on just a handful of the kids and the emotional baggage that comes along with an ill, aging parent, unhelpful siblings, and a sackful of money problems. This was a remarkable book, and is the rare novel that really succeeds at being transportive. I haven't read something that was so good at making me feel I was actually in the book's universe since The Night Circus.

#3: Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories - Katherine Heiny

What I Said: All of the stories revolve around the romantic entanglements of the narrator, one of whom appears in three of the stories. Generally, I'd consider that a been-there-read-that sort of idea, but Heiny does something special here. Namely, the characters don't do anything that special. People don't blow up at each other. Big, life-changing catastrophes don't arrive out of the blue. These are just normal women leading normal lives, and the stories are more about their private thoughts than any propulsive event.

#4: The House We Grew Up In - Lisa Jewell

What I Said: The family makes an effort to stay somewhat tethered to each other and to offer emotional support to the mother that won't admit to the mental illness she clearly suffers from. It's a tough road, though, and each of the family members has their own issues to work through as well. Hoarding has always been a fascinating topic to me, and makes a terrific premise to center a novel around. Jewell writes with her usual wit and relatability, and I tore through the book in no time flat.

#5: Golden Son - Pierce Brown

What I Said: Firstly, it was able to stand apart as an entity capable of existing on its own merits, rather than just serving as weak connective tissue between the first and third books. Secondly, and here's the real coup, it's not only a good read, but it's better than the first book. Really! The series is actually building on its foundation, which you'd hope would happen all the time, but never does.

And now, for the fully ranked list, with books published in 2015 underlined:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith (1943) (A)
The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites - Libby H. O'Connell (2014) (A)
The Turner House - Angela Flournoy (A-)
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green (2012) (A-)
Archie #1 - Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (A-)

Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories - Katherine Heiny (B+)
The House We Grew Up In - Lisa Jewell (2013) (B+)
Golden Son - Pierce Brown (B+)
The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman (2014) (B+)
Roller Girl - Victoria Jamieson (B+)
The Halloween Tree - Ray Bradbury (1972) (B+)
Choose Your Own Autobiography - Neil Patrick Harris (2014) (B+)

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton (2013) (B)
Double Down: Game Change 2012 - Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (2013) (B)
The Alex Crow - Andrew Smith (B)
Red Rising - Pierce Brown (2014) (B)
So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson (B)
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins (B)
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History - Glen Berger (2013) (B)
The Fever - Megan Abbott (2014) (B)
Fables, Volume #1 (Legends in Exile) - Bill Willingham (2002) (B)
Fables, Volume #2 (Animal Farm) - Bill Willingham (2003) (B)

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters (2014) (B-)
The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton (2014) (B-)
Us - David Nicholls (2014) (B-)
Mommie Dearest - Christina Crawford (1978) (B-)
Tease - Amanda Maciel (2014) (B-)
The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell - Chris Colfer (2012) (B-)
Dietland - Sarai Walker (B-)

Nine Inches - Tom Perotta (2013) (C+)
Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne (1873) (C+)
Inherit Midnight - Kate Kae Myers (C+)
Yes Please - Amy Poehler (2014) (C+)
Outlander - Diana Gabaldon (1991) (C+)
All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews (2014) (C+)
How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking - Jordan Ellenberg (2014) (C+)

Kiss Me First - Lottie Moggach (2013) (C)
The Blondes - Emily Schultz (2012) (C)
Fables, Volume #3 (Storybook Love) - Bill Willingham (2004) (C)

This is normally the place where I'd list the books that I dropped before finishing them, but as I said at the top of the post, this has been a pretty remarkable year. I didn't have to jettison anything! If there's one thing to fix, it looks like I may have slightly over-relied on popular, mainstream books. There's nothing wrong with enjoying those, of course, but I'd like to challenge myself a bit more. In order to discover those hidden gems, though, I'll need recommendations. And in order to get those, we all need to get reading. To the library!

Tick Tock

Uh, oh. Time is running out. Is it running out on Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal), a combat veteran in the 2011 movie Source Code, who finds himself involved in some governmental experiment in which he loops through time in order to discover who bombed a commuter train? Well, yes. But it's also running out on me, who must get an entry up about all the movies I watched this year before I can post the end-of-the-year summary. I had intended to put Source Code into a Shorties entry, because there isn't that much to say about it, but 2015 is rapidly coming to a close, so here we are.

In a twisted version of Groundhog Day, Stevens keeps reliving the eight minutes before a bomb is detonated on a train, and is tasked by the agent (Vera Farmiga) communicating with him through...methods with discovering the identity of the bomber. The majority of the rest of the movie is him doing just that, and also having to balance the interactions with the other passengers, from a rude stand-up comic to the pretty woman (Michelle Monaghan) flirting with the guy whose body he's inhabiting to carry out his mission.

It's not a bad little thriller, though parts of it are woefully overwritten. Why not just make the movie about time travel, and not wedge in needless romances and conspiratorial scientists? Why build in a silly and unnecessary twist ending? If you're stuck at home on a rainy afternoon, and are looking for something to watch, I suppose you could do a lot worse than this. That said, my official stance on this movie that's supposed to be heart-poundingly exciting is an indifferent shrug.

Source Code: B-

Fantasy Land

It's time to dive into end-of-the-year lists! Those lists are one of my favorite parts of the cultural year, both making them and reading others'. Before I can report on what stood out as the best, though, I have to tie a bow on everything that I completed in 2015 to make sure everything is represented. For the world of reading, that means mentioning the last two books I'm likely to finish this year.

The first was Chris Colfer's 2012 book, The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. If Colfer's name looks familiar, it's because he played Kurt Hummel on Glee, which is really the only reason I was interested in reading this. What would a series of children's books by an actor barely out of childhood himself look like? The Land of Stories is a fairy tale series targeted to readers from about third to seventh grade. The Wishing Spell revolves around twins Conner and Alex Bailey, who, along with their widowed mother, are struggling to do their best on their own. Alex escapes the problems of daily life by immersing herself in fairy tales, and when the book of stories her late father read to her from starts to beckon her, she answers the call, with Conner in tow.

The twins have adventures alongside all the usual fairy tale characters, and if I were in the intended audience's age range, I may very well have wound up loving it. I'm an adult, though, so I've encountered Once Upon a Time. And Wicked. And Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. And Wolf Among Us. And a million other reimagined angles for these classic stories. It requires a pretty fresh take to make yet another retelling of Cinderella or Red Riding Hood interesting, and this book just couldn't pull it off. It wasn't a bad read by any stretch, but unlike a lot of other books for kids, this has no winking material woven in that's designed to appeal to more mature readers.

Hype played a part in me reading the second book, too. Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train was one of the most talked-about books of 2015, and its premise appealed to me. Rachel rides a commuter train past a row of houses, and has come to admire the adoring couple she always spots in their backyard. When she sees something that threatens what she perceives as their perfect relationship, she entwines herself in their business, which exacerbates the troubles in her own life. That's about all I can say without delving into spoilers.

This book has already been optioned as a movie, and I can see the appeal. The story reads like a Diet Gone Girl, with Rachel being an unreliable narrator and the sordid secrets of many couples being exposed. I'm not sure it's worth the hysteria it generated, though. The book goes along at a good clip, but a lot of the plot developments are overly contrived, with developments happening at extremely convenient times, and with characters relying on some pretty unlikely chains of events. I liked it, but this may be one of those stories that works better as a movie.

So there ya go. Two fairly good books that have absolutely no prayer of being in my top five of 2015. It may be an anticlimactic end to the year, but I guess I'd rather read solidly entertaining stories like these than stumble into something I expected to like and hated instead. Well done, 2015! You're...solid!

The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell: B-
The Girl on the Train: B

Nuptial Libations and the Lentil Seduction

Four Courses Podcast - Episode 22

November's runaway food train continues into December. With company holiday parties, cookie exchange parties, family get-togethers, and New Year's Eve celebrations, there seems to be no end to the feasts we enjoy at this time of year. Four Courses heartily supports this tradition, and we hope you'll help us close out our second year with some chatter about some interesting culinary subjects! Hop on over to the Four Courses site and give Episode 22 a listen!

Topics include Acero, the sweet touch of honey, a rousing talk about holiday bread traditions, and how to stem the tide of food waste. We also welcome guest host Chris Romer, who is the first guest to actually prepare some of the food under discussion to bring to the recording. This practice is highly encouraged. Enjoy!

The Whole Wide World

This past week, I saw two movies. One spends the majority of its running time following the adventures of sailors out on the open ocean. One spends the majority of its running time inside a garden shed. Guess which one did a better job of exploring the characters' place in the world and how much there is still to discover? The first was Ron Howard's adaptation of the popular book, In the Heart of the Sea. The film details the (supposedly) real events of the sinking of the Essex, a boat that was destroyed by a giant whale. The story of the Essex led to Herman Melville writing Moby Dick, and like the events surrounding the sinking of the Titanic, its story has captured people's imaginations for more than a century.

If only the movie had captured the grandiosity it was going for. It's book-ended with segments of Melville (Ben Whishaw) talking to the last survivor of the Essex (Brendan Gleeson), who served as cabin boy Tom Nickerson. Tom openly admires the Essex's first mate, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth), and his hero worship increases once the Essex is broken apart by the whale and the sailors must attempt to survive on the open ocean. Though some of the cinematography is pretty remarkable, there just isn't enough story. I don't know how a movie with whale attacks and giant storms and cannibalism could turn out to be dull and staid, but Howard somehow manages it.

For all its pretense of adventure, In the Heart of the Sea never got my heart pumping. Meanwhile, Room (directed by Lenny Abrahamson and adapted from a book by Emma Donoghue), had me on the edge of my seat. Room is an incredible movie, starting from its premise: Joy (Brie Larson) was kidnapped seven years ago and imprisoned in her captor's garden shed. Five years ago, she gave birth to Jake (Jacob Tremblay), so the enclosed room is the only world he's ever known. Joy reaches a breaking point and engineers various escape attempts, after which she and Jake have a whole new set of challenges to face.

I don't know what part of this movie to praise first. Let's go with the acting. Both Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are mind-blowingly good. I believe Tremblay is in every single scene, and he knocks every single one of them out of the park. Far from just having to act like a normal child, he must portray a kid who has no idea how things like telephones or staircases work, and he is absolutely believable. Then there's the story progression. In any other movie, the plot would build to the escape from the room, and assuming that Joy and Jake made it out, they'd walk off happily into the sunset over the closing credits. Room is a lot smarter than that.

Escape is naturally the most important thing on Joy's mind, but once she makes it out, what then? What's the world like for her now? How can she process the trauma of what she's been through? How can Jake adapt to a world he has no frame of reference for? Room takes on all of these thorny issues. Then there's the editing on the scenes during which Joy plans and executes the escape attempts, which are more intense and thrilling than all the scenes in Spectre combined.

With just a handful of characters and locations, Room manages to do everything well, from action to relationship drama to exploration of mental health to family dynamics to the damage of exploitative media to appreciating cute dogs. It will definitely wind up on my best-of-the-year list, and will likely garner awards chatter as well. Sometimes, the critical community and I don't see eye-to-eye on what constitutes a great movie, but in the case of Room, we're all on the same page. Go see it immediately.

In the Heart of the Sea: C+
Room: A

Universal Appeal

TV is a fickle creature. I can generally guess about how much I'm going to like a movie or a book, though there have been plenty of surprises, both positive and negative. When it comes to TV, though, those surprises are constant. In fact, I just got two consecutive ones. One was a show I expected to love, and turned out to be pretty good, but nothing special. One I expected to be blah, and turned out to be extraordinary.

The first was Azai Ansari's new Netflix series, Master of None. It's not really about anything except Ansari's character Dev, who's trying to make his way as an actor in New York City. I got a very Diet Louie feel off of this show, as Ansari used the show to tackle a variety of social issues, from feminism to racism to appreciating parents.

Those are all worthy topics, of course, but Master of None is shockingly underwritten. There is absolutely zero subtlety given to anyone's dialogue. Rather than letting the audience reach any sort of conclusion on our own, the show has its characters explicitly state the thesis of the week. A montage of two men walking through the park is given jaunty, happy-go-lucky music, while a single woman has the accompaniment of horror movie music. GET IT?!?! Also, and it brings me no joy to say this, a couple of Dev's friends weren't cast well. Maybe people with an inability to act was cultured on purpose to make the characters more realistic - which actually wound up working pretty well for Denise (Lena Waithe). Kelvin Yu was a mistake, though. He's adorable, but has yet to give a single naturalistic line reading.

If it sounds like I'm bagging on this show too hard, it's only because it didn't live up to the hype it was given. I didn't hate it at all; it was actually fairly enjoyable. I also liked the casting of Ansari's actual parents as Dev's parents (this is another instance where lack of acting ability is not a detriment). I'm just pushing back against Master of None because it's being hailed as one of the great, important shows of 2015, and it doesn't deserve that reputation.

Know what does deserve its stellar reputation? Steven Universe! Well, I'm only talking about Season 1, since that's what's streaming on Hulu. I haven't tracked down access to Season 2 yet. Season 1 is a gobsmacking 52 episodes, but since each episode only runs 15 minutes, they fly by. This is supremely strange show, and the first batch of episodes didn't really do much for me.

See if you can follow this: Steven Universe is about a little boy who lives with three Crystal Gems - immortal women who can use the gems embedded in their bodies to call forth weapons, shapeshift, fuse with each other, and employ various other gifts to defend Earth (and Beach City in particular) from otherworldly threats. Steven is the product of a Crystal Gem mother and human father, and as such, has attributes of both. He's relentlessly energetic and cheerful, and eager to learn more about his incipient powers while forging close friendships with the Gems and the town residents.

And that's just the premise! As I mentioned, the first few episodes were actually kind of annoying. Steven rarely modulated from effusive obnoxiousness, and the plots were just a monster-of-the-week that the Gems would overcome. I decided to keep watching, and thank goodness I did, because those first few episodes turned out to just be setup for the amazing things that came after.

Never have I seen a show veer so effortlessly between goofy cartoon and affecting character drama and back again. In some episode, Steven may just be trying to throw a BBQ so that the Gems can meet their neighbors. In another, Steven or one of the Gems may work out their feelings about where they came from. Here is a show that can be ridiculously silly in one scene, and have me crying in the next one.

It also has some of the best world-building and continuity of any show, ever. This is not one of those shows where everything resets by the end of the episode. Whatever happens is remembered and built upon. As the first season progresses, we learn more and more about the origin and motivations of the Gems, and go along on Steven's journey to hone the powers he inherited from his mother. And when additional Gems start showing up? That's when all hell breaks loose.

If you tried a couple episodes of this show and gave up on it as a childish trifle, I urge you to give it another chance. It may have started off a little rocky, but at this point, I'm a full-fledged fan.

Master of None - Season 1: B
Steven Universe - Season 1: A-

Identity Crisis

While I'm not one of those people wringing their hands over modern internet culture, there's no denying that there's a lot that can be said about how we communicate these days. It's a rich source of material, not only for navel-gazing thinkpieces, but for fiction writers. On the web, you can be anyone, and that suggests tons of stories. One of those stories is Lottie Moggach's 2013 novel, Kiss Me First.

The book centers around Leila, an introverted woman who spends all her time either online or taking care of her sick mother. When her mother passes away, Leila finds the friends she never made in real life on a site where users debate ethical issues. The charismatic leader of the site singles her out for a strange project: How would Leila feel about impersonating another woman online? It's not as if the woman (Tess) minds; she's fully on-board with Leila effectively taking over her life.

As Leila progresses with the project, she becomes progressively more wrapped up in the aspects of Tess' personality. She has no problem off-handedly messaging Tess' friends and family, but when it comes to the man who got away, Leila cannot help but become invested. Obviously, complications ensue.

Though it's a bit strange, I really enjoy the premise of assuming someone else's life online, told from the perspective of the faker. Unfortunately, Leila is not interesting enough a character to carry the story. If she had been forced to interact more with other people, be they on the web or face-to-face at the hippie commune where she seeks Tess out, maybe it would have been a better read. As it is, we spend most of the book in Leila's head, and she's not a great person to spend that much time with.

It's not that she's unlikable - her being an out-and-out jerk would have given the plot some much-needed urgency - it's that she's bland and annoying. Since she's introverted and anti-social, she doesn't understand that there are people out there who need to form real, honest connections, and though the book makes an attempt to have this realization dawn on her, I wound up not really caring what this woman learned or how she wound up.

Sometimes, I don't like a book because it's written poorly. This is not the case here; Moggach is a perfectly capable writer. But talented writers can still tell dull stories, and I'm sorry to say that Kiss Me First somehow finds a way to make identity theft boring.

Kiss Me First: C
Copyright © Slice of Lime