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A Brave Endeavor

June 25, 2007

Vegetarianism isn’t so bad.

George Bernard Shaw and Percy Shelley were staunch advocates of vegetarianism. Well, Georgie was a teetotaller, so he might have had a thing for being extreme. And Leonard Nimoy still speaks about the benefits of an exclusively vegetarian diet. These people have or had firm opinions about what they and the rest of society should be eating. So what have they against meat?

Humans like to fancy themselves omnivores. It’s a nice compromise between the feral hunter and the pacified “producer”. Natural predation implies a lack of reason. Eating no meat at all put us in a state of passiveness — stoic grazers. We lose our almighty seat as the Animal King. Meat has always been a dietary staple and it’s delicious and it means we’re natural badasses.

Taste alone is why people won’t try vegetarianism — but it’s that passive association with eating no meat that makes vegetarianism the subject of unnecessary prejudice. It’s ridiculous enough that we’ve destroyed other people for ethnic differences and sexual preferences, why start another folly of a crusade against what people eat?

That’s a rant for another time. I just finished a month meat fast, thirty days of absolutely no meat. And starting my third day in London didn’t make things any easier. It almost ended one morning when I walked into a downtown Gyro rotisserie. Two vertical monoliths of chicken and gyro roast revolving at a steady rate beneath a suspended bundle of herbs and seasonings. A part of me died that day. I had spent a week and a half all over England sampling an array of ethnic cuisines. Every day was a Dionysian abandon for any healthy reservation I ever had. I ate and ate and ate. The pains of a nigh imploding stomach became a frequent experience. I wanted to test my resolve. I had to see if I had any discipline left in me.

The month was successful and surprisingly devoid of temptation.

With one exception.

I have always wanted to eat at Brave New Restaurant. Arkansas Times has talked about it for god knows how long. It lingers in the restaurant advertisement section, beckoning me with a copper laced ladle while I slaver helplessly over the brittle news pages. I made my mind up a year ago in May to save up enough money to go. And there I was, two weeks until home free and a week and a half in from London, speaking with my mother over the phone, planning an outing with her on Friday evening, when she offered to take me for a late birthday dinner.

So I was doomed to nitpicky indecisiveness because I couldn’t order 90% of the main entrees on the menu for their inclusion of meat. I was heartbroken. But I’m sure their salads are the best in Arkansas, yeah? There are always other times, other chance. Food is so transitory, right?

RIGHT?

Then I saw it, like a godsend, highlighted by an emboldened black box that indicated it as a house specialty. “Roasted VEGETABLES — okay, not so bad; farm fresh, Arkansan vegetables sauteed in a vibrant medley — with GNOCCHI. Did I read Gnocchi? No-kii, ganoki, nochee, ganochee, GNOCCHI?

I had my first Gnocchi experience the first night I was in London when my travel partner, Jeremy, and I stopped at a Roman owned Italian restaurant. I had heard about Gnocchi on the Food Network and seen several top chefs run through the preparation routine meticulously because some Midwestern housewife didn’t know how to spell or say it, let alone prepare it. So I tried it, Jesus rose again, and humanity lived in a miraculous era of good feelings minus James Monroe.

I excitedly ordered and, to top it off, my mother treated me to a glass of Pinot Noir Cuvee E. Yes, I’m 20. No, I’m not a lush. I got my food, it was as colorful and delicious as I could have ever imagined and Jesus came again. This time, he tried to steal a piece of zucchini and I punched him in the chest. My virginal visit to Brave New World would have been perfect had the couple next to us not made an exhibition out of making out. The creme brulee couldn’t have been that good.

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Angels in America

April 25, 2007

I had never heard of Angels in America when Whittey B. introduced it during our Charismatic Actor show-and-tell. Furthermore, I didn’t recognize Jeffrey Wright – better known for his roles in Shaft, the Manchurian Candidate, and Syriana – as the boldly flamboyant Belize. I’m fond of the few roles that I’ve seen Jeffrey Wright play, so I was tickled when Whit decided to focus on his acting. She’s right — he’s one of the most underrated modern actors. Though most of his roles have been minor or supplementary, he portrays his characters in such exacting accuracy that it’s hard to spot him throughout his movies because we can attribute a plethora of personalities to his face. He moves stealthily from movie to movie in a variety of accents and postures. I’m curious to see what he’ll do next.

What I got to see of Angels in America in class has little physical action – the driving force is the dialogue in the diner. Belize launches a venomous verbal assault on the seemingly clueless Louis (Ben Shenkman). Louis’ inability to provide a logical defense against Belize’s sharp, witty retorts renders him ignorant and Belize seems the righteous prophet of an age haunted by the outbreak of AIDS. The scene set a tone for me – I saw dynamic anger in Belize’s disgruntled speech and fearful uncertainty in the way Louis’ impacting contributions to the conversation were diminishing as the scene unfolded. Jeffrey Wright perfectly captures the flamboyant mien of his character – weaving his body slightly as his argument crescendos into a heated offensive. He’s like a cobra that leers at its prey, bobbing its head as it taunts the poor creature before an inevitable strike. Shenkman waves his hands emphatically, protesting in defiant, but alienated, protest, like a cornered animal trying to desperately bat its predator away. The two characters are antitheses of each other, and their respective actors use that opposition to create a rhythm in dialogue.

I haven’t seen Angels in America yet, but if the rest of the writing and acting is as provocative as I’ve seen, then the miniseries will hold, with little doubt, much intrigue.

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The Dreams and Nightmares of M. Night Shyamalan

April 18, 2007

Film writer and director M. Night Shyamalan achieved commercial acclaim in 1999 with his third film, The Sixth Sense, which is largely remembered by Haley Joel Osment’s immortal line “I see dead people”. Afterwards, Shyamalan’s career gathered momentum with films such as Unbreakable, Signs, the Village, and the recent Lady in the Water, establishing a personal style of lateral twists and eerie atmosphere that Roger Ebert describes as “essentially con games” with the audience.

The Sixth Sense was the first commercially successful film that Shyamalan wrote and directed and set the trend for his succeeding films. Dr. Malcolm Crowe (Bruce Willis) is a child psychologist who, after being shot by a former patient, tries to aid the hallucinatory Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment). Cole tells Dr. Crowe that he can see dead people, and the skeptical Dr. Crowe advises Cole to communicate with and aid his ghosts. After successful therapy with Cole, Dr. Crowe returns to his wife to reconcile, and the audience soon discovers that Crowe was one of Cole’s ghosts all along.

Shyamalan’s progenitor turn, his signature “twist”, isn’t what’s so clever. The credit goes into the delivery of the story into the unsuspecting eyes of the audience. He masterfully avoids detection through explicable, but unsuspicious maneuvering. There is no indication that Dr. Crowe is a ghost – but there’s no give away that he is. The story is peppered with gasping moments and progresses cautiously, beckoning us into each new presentation of evidence, until we are in the last room, Shyamalan’s insistent finger has disappeared, and the rub is unfolding in revelation.

Unbreakable followed The Sixth Sense in 2000 with the same ambition, but with a slower plot progression that barely clings to any real suspense. Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) is a fragile comic book store owner born with a rare bone disorder that severely weakens his skeletal structure. Price searches for the meaning behind his fragility and contacts security guard David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who was the miraculous sole survivor of a massive train wreck. Price proposes that “unbreakable” Dunn is actually a superhero. Dunn has the ability to view a person’s immoral behavior upon touch and has only been sick once in his life – when he nearly drowned as a youth. Price tells Dunn these are typical super hero characteristics. The big twist occurs when Dunn discovers remnants of blueprints and newspaper clippings of major disasters in Price’s store. Price calmly confesses that he caused the accidents to find his opposite – someone with an incredibly hardened bone structure.

The plot has creative potential – it’s a unique approach to the superhero mythologies. Shyamalan tries to adapt a believable story of a superhero through reasonable explanations – such as Price’s bone disorder and Dunn’s crippling weakness to water. Price’s obsession with finding his counterpart is a bit outlandish – he’s too concerned with the big picture to have any malice. By the end of the movie, his indifferent sabotaging just doesn’t fit in with his otherwise didactic and energetic insistence. The movie offered the eerie, suspenseful mood that Sixth Sense had, but fell just short of achieving it..

The Village was released in 2004 and followed M.Night’s Signs. Lucius Hunt (Joaquin Phoenix) lives in an isolated village surrounded by a vast expanse of forest. The perimeter of the village is marked off by flags to warn the townsfolk of trespassing into the woods where “Those We Don’t Speak Of” reside. After a child dies of illness, Lucius volunteers to travel beyond the woods to retrieve medical supplies, but is wounded by a mentally unstable villager, Noah Percy (Adrien Brody). The blind daughter of the town elder, also Lucius’ love interest, takes the mission upon herself and ventures into the woods to find the towns beyond, at the risk of upsetting the forest-dwelling creatures.

By the time the Village was released, Shyamalan’s usual plot formula had lost all of its luster. There are precisely orchestrated moments of tension – most used with minimal special effects, as is typical of M. Night – that actually bring a tingle or two. Lucius’ stabbing is sudden and contrived though, playing into the predictable metaphorical appointment of the task to the blind daughter of the village leader. The movie places a lot of momentum in the early parts of the movie, a momentum that’s dispelled with the first twist of the story — the forest creatures are concoctions of the villagers themselves – and the film limps along until the second major twist arrives.

Shyamalan’s repeated use of a plot twist works against him. Audiences had a taste of his mischief after the Sixth Sense, and could expect a similarly unusual picture from Unbreakable. With Signs, the ploy was becoming increasingly familiar until, by the time the Village was released, the revelation that the isolated village was actually in the center of a modern nature reserve was a ten minute fancy that withered into at most, a nod of indifference.

Shyamalan gets a lot of credit for creative twists, but all that he’s really doing after the Sixth Sense is setting a predictable trap for his turn and applying an outlandish curve that leaves little chance for accurate foresight. Bruce Willis’ indestructible body is explained away as a super heroic quality, and Samuel Jackson’s frailty is attributed to his preconceived villain status, but we aren’t left with any reasoning as to why they’re the way they are; only Samuel Jackson’s overeager insistence that because of his concentrated abilities, and, well, destiny, there must be a supplementary opposite to his essence. In Signs, it isn’t much of a surprise when the intruding force on Mel Gibson’s Pennsylvania farm is an alien, and though actually seeing the alien near the end instills an atmosphere of anxiety, the surprise only leaves a disappointing aftertaste. Shyamalan avoided this major, gimmicky twist in Lady in the Water, but if it continues, the audience will only predict more extravagant outcomes so that when he does unveil a catch, his version is as interchangeable as anyone’s, but finalized through his authority as writer and director.

 

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1984 directed by Michael Radford

April 11, 2007

George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty Four­, written in 1949, is a novel projecting the near-apocalyptic fate of the world in fifty-five years. Unfortunately, Orwell died a year later, and was unable to see his dystopian novel adapted, ironically, to screen in 1984. Our generation doesn’t feel the full weight of Orwell’s title – 1984 is long gone. A movie about Nineteen-Eighty Four that was released in 1984 is a passing memory. But to the people who read the book before 1984, watching Michael Radford’s 1984 in 1984 elicited one of two sentiments: a failed prediction about the state of their civilization or a bitter reminder that circumstances could turn for the worse at any time.

The film adheres to the original plot of the novel faithfully. Winston Smith is a citizen of the totalitarian state, Oceania, who rewrites historical documents for the Ministry of Truth. Winston leads a tedious and routine life; he must abide to strict procedures by the Party, like propaganda movies and daily inspections, else he answer to the ever-looming Thought Police. Winston keeps a journal that contains his private thoughts. This is problematic, because free thought in Oceania is considered thoughtcrime, and those who commit thoughtcrime are never seen again. The story’s pace changes when Winston meets Julia, a bold and energetic young Party member. The two enter into a forbidden relationship and Winston rents a secret apartment above the store of a trusted colleague. Winston and Julia are eventually found out through the espionage of the trusted store owner. The Party seizes Winston’s diary as evidence and imprisons Winston and Julia. They are promptly brainwashed by the torturous practices of O’Brien, a Party leader, and refute their thoughtcrime and love for each other before being released; aimless ghosts compared to their former selves.

The tone of the movie is accurately captured in the dull colors of the environment and the contrasting lighting. Radford uses a film technique called bleach bypassing that retains the silver in the film to give the film blunted visuals. 1984’s sets are chaotic and washed out — Winston’s Party living quarters are Spartan and deteriorated; the store that Winston turns to for privacy has dusty, fragmented merchandise. The weather is always gloomy and buildings are minimally lighted. Even the physical qualities of the actors project their predicaments – John Hurt’s lean, weathered appearance is a powerful reflection of the early resignation of Winston. Indeed, Hurt’s aged features later reappear in the 2006 film adaptation of V for Vendetta in Adam Sutler, the dictator of the Norsefire party. The dreary and scored landscapes reveal the depressing deconstruction of the world. Perpetual fires blaze and once lofty buildings lay demolished in sepulchered heaps.

1984 is less about the destroyed society of the future as it is about the current state of Earth. The movie is a bold assertion that 1984 has approached with little evidence of Big Brother’s fixed leer. It still reminds us of the anarchic dictatorships that litter our continents. Of course, Orwell probably didn’t have an earnest prediction in mind when he wrote his novel, but that doesn’t mean Radford can’t grin matter-of-factly at the absence of a corrupted major world power. 1984 is now one of many dystopian perspectives in film. Children of Men is a focused progression, chronicling the journey of a politically apathetic man and a child-bearing young woman in a world whose women can no longer give birth. The political disintegration is more of a background entity, but the chaos and turmoil of the country still propel them to their destination. V for Vendetta puts us behind the eyes of two brave revolutionaries who have made personal sacrifices in the face of a vicious government. The story centers on actually overcoming their oppressors – however costly the desired end may be. But 1984 is really the father-in-film of the modern depiction of alternative futures and sets the melancholy tone for movies to come. Winston and Julia make no progress against the party but are tragically assimilated into the unstoppable momentum of the ambiguous Big Brother. The viewer isn’t left with any sense of satisfaction or achievement, just a bitter after-taste from the futility of Winston and Julia’s struggle.

Radford’s 1984 does the book justice in the way it manipulates the mood of the plot and physically mirrors the state of both its characters and its setting. The movie leaves no room for optimism, only conflicting senses of sympathy and dread for the “rehabilitated” Winston and Julia. Though it’s difficult to attach to the movie because of its slow progression in the beginning, it’s doubtful if later dystopian films came as close to the profound psychological upheaval that 1984. Winston’s weary visage and Julia’s starved torso stay with the viewer as an eerie reminder of the opaque frigidity of the future.

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Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind by Hayao Miyazaki

April 11, 2007

Nausicaa

Changing trends are nothing new — as a “curious” species, we’re flighty and easily bored. I can’t remember how many favorite movies I’ve had, and my last pick is being replaced by several potentials of recent release. One trend in particular that I was apart of — the anime trend — has mostly passed. Now, I’ll watch anime, but I don’t get as excited about it as I used to. That foreign excitement that surfaced every time I watched a new series, that sense of uniqueness and quirkiness that overtook me when I saw anime movies like “Samurai X” or “The End of Evangelion” — it’s gone. There is an exception to this blunting of tastes, though: Hayao Miyazaki.

When asked what a good movie is, I often give a Miyazaki film – I name them all interchangeably — and a conversation similar to the following ensues:

Me: I love Castle in the Sky; I enjoy all the quirky forms of aviation Miyazaki creates.

Random Person: Isn’t that anime? Not a fan.

Me: Anime? Miyazaki isn’t anime; he’s film that’s been painted.

The meaning of “anime” has shifted since it absorbed Americans in its specifically “Japanese” personality. It’s a manufactured and serial, characterized by typical expressions (like the ecstasy eyes: ^_^) or epic, draw-out battle scenes. It’s rare to see films like Grave of the Fireflies and Howl’s Moving Castle that are so realistically depicted. Miyazaki’s films have a recurring central theme: reverence for nature. Princess Mononoke addresses man’s struggle versus nature, but Miyazaki began that story with the first animated film that he wrote and directed: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind.

Nausicaa is set in a land whose ecosystem has been recovering for a millennium after an apocalyptic event, the “Seven Days of Fire”. Nausicaa is a glider-wielding (it does serve as a weapon), animal loving princess of the Valley of the Wind. She is able to communicate with the chaotic Ohmu, dormant giant insects that awakened and become enraged when humans destroy the land. Nausicaa must find a way to pacify the Ohmu while fending off the greedy and aggressive Tolmekia Empire.

Nausicaa was released in 1984, but Miyazaki pulls off a brilliant animation nonetheless. He pays great attention to detail and mechanics and action scenes, such as when Nausicaa is flying or fighting on her glider, are impeccably choreographed. Nausicaa isn’t a grand, chimerical heroine, either. She makes mistakes and has moments of physical vulnerability and weakness, and has to overcome them along with her greater struggler, but that’s what makes her so easy to identify with. She’s got exemplary qualities, but that aren’t too farfetched. The same can be said for all of Miyazaki’s work – their genius is in their humanness.

 

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2112 by Rush

March 24, 2007

Toronto rock band Rush is well known for sporting percussion virtuoso Neil Peart, but the high-pitched, shrieking vocals of lead singer Geddy Lee are what really set the group apart. And it’s usually a hit or miss factor – people love or hate Geddy. His voice has deepened with age, and his concert vocals are strained when they play older songs where he had wailed so readily. Hearing him falter during a concert rendition of 2112 isn’t a horrible experience; it just makes hearing the polished sound of the album more nostalgic.

 

2112 was released in 1976. Though the album has six tracks, the bulk of the music is in the twenty minute suite, “2112”. The suite is an ambitious tale, divided into seven movements, and set in a futuristic dystopia. Geddy Lee provides the narration through song, alternating between a citizen who stumbles upon an ancient artifact (which is actually a guitar) and dictating Priests of Syrinx. His vocals shift along with the perspective, varying from the gentle, melodious voice of the citizen to the cacophonous screams of the Priests. Meanwhile, Peart and Lifeson are hard at work providing matching cadences and rhythms that aid in the storytelling. The suite ends with the suicide of the protagonist citizen and an explosive repetition of the words “We have assumed control!” from an alien conqueror.

 

“2112” could have been an album itself, but the other five tracks grant a musical reprieve after such an extended session. The completely unrelated “A Passage to Bangkok” seems at first like a superfluous or “filler” addition, but provides an easy return to an average track length. The strong guitar presence and laid back story are a change of pace from “2112”. “Lessons” is even simpler, with a straightforward acoustic rhythm and a blues-esque solo three quarters of the way through. The arrangement “2112” sends the listener through the behemoth first track and yanks them back to reality with less progressive tracks and stronger “pop rock” sound. This “return to normalcy” approaches cheesy in “Tears” – Geddy Lee is too sentimental in his delivery – but returns to a thrashing “Something for Nothing” to end the album strongly.

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Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven by Godspeed You! Black Emperor

March 14, 2007

The Canadian group, Godspeed You! Black Emperor has had many line-up changes since its conception in 1994, and has had as many as eighteen members on stage at one time. It shows — some of their arrangements are a marvelous surplus of instrumentals, resulting, unexpectedly, with a precise and limited tone. Pseudo-frontman Efrim Menuck (he rejects the title of frontman) declared in 2003 that the ensemble was on hiatus, but they have played a scant handful of concerts since then.

Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven is a two-disc, four-track album released in 2000. As with all of their arrangements, the album’s few tracks seem intimidating, but are actually divided into smaller, distinct movements. This makes skipping to those movements more difficult than swapping tracks, but the songs’ epic length lend to the story that crawls into acknowledgement. Godspeed differs from other post-rock groups like Explosions in the Sky and Mogwai whose instrumentals and guitar presence is more profound. Instead, Godspeed lingers on with pronounced and grim simplicity, a minimalism similar to Icelandic Sigur Ros, but with no vocals and more tension. Some movements may not change for minutes, relying on the melancholic power of a violin or piano to carry the track to one of the many voice samples that pepper the album.

Dynamic changes in the music structure are few, but their scarcity adds to the momentum of the movements. In “Static”, the violin introduction of “Storm” is interrupted by an irregular xylophone and blaring piano chords. “Antennas to Heaven” begins with an energetic sampling of an old country tune, transitions into a peppy instrumental, recedes back to the violin hum for a few minutes, and throws the startling introduction of a brief guitar solo in before returning to the serenity of the violin. These instrumental explosions typify Godspeed. They ambush the ear with gritty voice samples and sudden compositions, rendering the listener uncertain of the next wave. It’s easy to be fooled by the hypnotizing arrangement of typically classical instruments like the violin and the cello – but the group is still a rock band. The ever-bearing presence of the guitar is a testament to that.