Friday, December 30, 2011

Music Haul (2011)

CDs are a great Christmas gift - certainly for a music fan. They're cheap, you can never have too many (I've been collecting for years and am still nowhere near done), and each one is a potentially exciting musical discovery waiting to happen. The only trick is finding the ones a person is going to like (much easier if they tell you which those are). It is true that the digital revolution is changing the way we consume all sorts of media - not limited to music - but I have yet to outgrow the CD format (it's scary to think that the day is fast approaching - if it's not here already - when kids will view CDs in the same antiquated light as I learned to view vinyl records (albeit I've always given them the reverence due a well respected elder format)). So, it doesn't take a stretch of belief to hear that my most numerous Christmas gift is that of the CD album. I shall now list those CDs I received this year, and give a short review of each:

Iron Maiden - Edward The Great (2002)
Black Sabbath - Heaven And Hell (1980)
Rush - Feedback [EP] (2004)
Fleetwood Mac - Kiln House (1970)
Journey - Look Into The Future (1976)
The Rocky Horror Picture Show [Soundtrack] (1975)
Jethro Tull - Aqualung (1971)
Explosions In The Sky - How Strange, Innocence (2000)
The Rolling Stones - The Brussels Affair (Live, 1973)
Lance Lopez - Live (2007)
Michael Bloomfield - Live At Bill Graham's Fillmore West (1969)
Gary Moore - Blues For Greeny (1995)

Black Country Communion - Live Over Europe [DVD] (2011)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

2011 Movie Releases (In Review)

At the end of last year, I posted a summary of the movies that had been released throughout the year that I got to see in the theaters, followed by a discussion of: the movies released that year that I saw outside the theaters; the movies that were released that year that I wanted to see, but didn't get around to; and what I was looking forward to seeing in the next year. I thought it was a fun idea, so I decided to revive it for 2011!

Actually, it's a couple weeks early yet, but I don't know of any movies coming out between now and the New Year that I'm probably going to rush out to the theater for, so I figured I'd go ahead and take a look back while it's on my mind.

It turns out 2011 was a much leaner year for [new] movies, for me, than 2010 was, probably largely because of my financial and transportational condition. I only saw four movies in the theater this year, and the one movie I mentioned that I was looking forward to (Red Riding Hood), I ended up skipping - although I did get a chance to see it at home later in the year. Here are links to my reviews of those five movies:

Super 8 - a great nostalgia piece/sci-fi action flick from the minds of J. J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg, and starring Elle Fanning (conveniently released during my period of obsession with her sister's filmography) that I described as The Goonies of the 21st century.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 - the continuation of the previous December's release and the final installment in the Harry Potter film series.

Paranormal Activity 3 - a second sequel to the movie I rated as the scariest movie I'd seen in my adult life (although unfortunately not entirely living up to its predecessors' accomplishments).

The Thing - a prequel disguised as a remake to John Carpenter's best movie (confusingly, with the same title), which was itself the best remake ever done, and one of my favorite movies of all time (though the prequel expectedly does not quite live up to the previous movie's reputation).

Red Riding Hood - the movie I described as Little Red Riding Hood adapted for the Twilight generation. As a fantasy and an erotic thriller, it leaves much to be desired, but Amanda Seyfried looks fantastic, and it's a curious gothic romance.

Now for movies released in 2011 that I missed! There were three in particular that I heard about and wanted to go see, only to find out they weren't playing anywhere near me. Those were Trust, Texas Killing Fields, and Shame. As for the rest, I'm going to browse through a list of movie releases in 2011 to refresh my memory of what came out...

* I had heard good things about The King's Speech, even if it doesn't look like the sort of film I'd be drawn to. But I ended up not seeing it.

* Hanna looks good, but I don't remember hearing anything about it.

* Soul Surfer is one that somehow slipped under my radar.

* I considered seeing Your Highness due to its pervertedness, but ultimately decided against it as "sexy" comedies are frequently disappointing in the erotic department.

* The Tree of Life intrigued me when I saw trailers for it - not enough to get me out to the theater, but I'd still like to watch it sometime.

* I'll probably watch X-Men: First Class some day, but my feelings for the X-Men movies are lukewarm.

* Bad Teacher appeals to me at least to the extent that I like teachers that do not conform to the industry code on how kids are supposed to be indoctrinated (although it is, unfortunately, only a comedy).

* Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one I would have liked to have seen. You know, if I had had more enthusiasm to get out and spend money.

* I was this close to going out to see the Don't Be Afraid of the Dark remake, but I ended up sating myself with the original.

* I'll admit that Shark Night (3D?) caught my attention, but I'm not sure it's good enough to live up to its premise (shark attacks on girls in bikinis). It could be a totally cool exploitation flick, but I have a feeling it's more likely to be on the level of a cheap sci/fi (sorry, syfy :p) channel monster movie. I guess I'd actually have to watch it to find out...

* Contagion sounds interesting. Makes me think of Outbreak, which I liked.

* I really want to see Red State. A guy I met at the Horror Realm Con really hyped it up for me. I wouldn't have expected Kevin Smith (see: Clerks) to do a good horror movie, but that's the word on it, and it sounds good. Plus, it's supposedly about religious intolerance!

* Dirty Girl looks intriguing, but would be a lot more...interesting...with an actual teenager. :-\

* No comment on The Human Centipede 2. :p

Alright, that's enough. I think the moral of this story is that there are more movies out there than I have the time (and the money) to watch, and that's not even taking into account the decades of movies past that I have yet to see!

But as for next year, I think The Dark Knight Rises is the big one to look out for. There's also a lot of excitement for The Hunger Games - I think I'm going to probably read the book(s) first, and then we'll see how excited I get. I'm also looking forward to seeing The Perks of Being a Wallflower when it comes out (featuring Emma Watson in her first post-Harry Potter role). And it looks like The Hobbit (part 1) might be coming out next December? I guess we'll have to wait and see!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

SRV - Slow Blues

Legendary British blues guitarist Peter Green (the man who formed Fleetwood Mac, and penned Santana's hit Black Magic Woman) once differentiated between the two styles of the blues, saying that he considered all the faster songs to be rock n roll, with the slower ones being the true blues. And while there is a long history of upbeat blues, this comment has always resonated with me, as it's the downbeat blues that have always spoken to me on a deeper level. In my mind there is a significant distinction between that style of up tempo blues that has a good rocking beat, that gets you jumping and moving, as if to dance your blues away, and the down tempo blues that seems to wallow and revel in sadness and despair. Both approaches have merit, and I do indeed enjoy both of them immensely for their separate appeals, but as a bit of a darker, more melancholic, inwardly directed person, it's the Slow Blues that truly calls to me.

So I took some time to dig through Stevie Ray Vaughan's discography recently. SRV is undoubtedly one of the greatest blues guitarists to ever grace this planet, and is probably my favorite artist whose career is situated primarily in the decade of the '80s. One of the most fascinating aspects about Stevie is his seemingly effortless combination of talent and popularity. Many pop artists rely on hooks to draw audiences in to their music, while many highly talented instrumentalists garner only a fraction of their popularity. It was more common in past decades, in my experience, for pop artists to be accomplished musicians, but Stevie Ray Vaughan is uniquely talented, even while being widely regarded and capable of writing a very good pop tune that demonstrates, rather than obfuscates, his mastery of the guitar.

But with my previous discussion of slow blues in mind, I have gone through Stevie's discography, skipping over those accomplished pop rockers (many of the ones you hear on the radio frequently), even [reluctantly] ignoring those tracks (several of them instrumentals) that showcase SRV's awesome guitar abilties, to focus in on the slow blues numbers that Stevie has recorded. As a result, I have compiled a nice, tight playlist of Stevie Ray Vaughan songs that emphasize the melancholy of the blues, the kind of songs that wallow in despair, the sort you might like to listen to on those days when you feel depressed, and you don't have a lot of energy, you're not ready to start feeling good again just yet - you just want to sit up in your room, as Son House once described it, and cry a while. Here's the tracklist:

1. Texas Flood
2. Dirty Pool
3. The Things (That) I Used To Do
4. Tin Pan Alley (aka The Roughest Place In Town)
5. Ain't Gone 'N' Give Up On Love
6. Life Without You
7. May I Have A Talk With You
8. Leave My Girl Alone
9. The Sky Is Crying

Friday, December 16, 2011

Notes on The Deathly Hallows (book version)

Warning: Harry Potter spoilers!

Just barely over a year since I became interested in the Harry Potter series and started watching the movies, I have now finished reading the books!

And this time, I finally decided to write down notes as they came to mind while reading the story, instead of waiting till the end to pull my thoughts together.

* I'm surprised that Dudley redeemed himself, in the end. I guess that makes him a less pathetic character than Draco?

* While not unattractive in the movies (though she is inevitably overshadowed by Emma Watson's Hermione Granger), judging from the chapter illustrations, Ginny is a lot prettier in the books. Hence, I mind Harry pairing up with her (instead of Hermione) less than I do when I watch the movies (which are filled with great Harry x Hermione moments).

* Wow, I just discovered that some people ship Tom/Ginny (like from Chamber of Secrets), and I think that's fantastic. (Okay, that note wasn't actually related to this story)...

* Much clearer antagonism between Harry and Scrimgeour in the books. He practically grills them like a police investigator during the reading of Dumbledore's will!

* Even with the Deathly Hallows movie split into two parts, it's amazing what didn't make it into the movies. Like how Regulus got that locket, and Grindelwald's association with the titular Deathly Hallows. This is good stuff we're talking about.

* It's fascinating that with Kreacher, we're given a nice middle ground for how to treat house elves. You don't have to forcibly deny them their lifeblood, the work they are proud of doing, you just have to treat them with fairness and respect. It might be tempting to have a slave who is forced to do your bidding, but considering that elves have some nice tricks up their sleeves, it's probably better to get them to help you because they like you, not simply because they have to. Anyway, it's better for your conscience, and it shows what kind of a person you are, the way you treat your slaves.

* Rather convenient that Harry's starting to see into Voldemort's mind again. Not that I'm complaining, those bits of exposition are both exciting and integral.

* Dumbledore really was pretty distant. I guess I could understand if he didn't like to talk about his family, but there was more he could have told Harry, at least as much as using the sword to defeat the Horcruxes. I know he trusted Harry to be able to figure it out on his own and all, and he was an extremely busy man, but Harry had always seemed to be resentful of Dumbledore's distance. I would have thought, apart from wanting to protect Harry from the truth, that maybe his admiration of Harry would have led to more of a connection between them. Although I can't really fault Dumbledore for not treating Harry with respect (like few else do), even back when he was just eleven.

* Wow, after Harry and Hermione visit Godric's Hollow, it's such a low point, even more than I remember it being in the movie. With Ron gone, and Harry's wand broken, they didn't find the sword, almost got killed by Voldemort (who himself actually showed up!), and most incredibly of all, Harry inadvertently helped Voldemort discover who the wand thief was that he's been looking for! And when Harry re-experienced Voldemort's attack on his parents, it's amazing the confusion between Harry and Voldemort, that you can't even really tell if it's the one or the other...

* Amazing that Dumbledore and Grindelwald were friends. Even so, I don't think Dumbledore's letter was as damning as it was supposed to be. I've had plenty of discussions like that in my own youth. I'm sure it was a difference of interpretation, that led Grindelwald to become a powerful dark wizard, and Dumbledore to be the icon of respect that he was. Just because he thought Muggles could stand to benefit from the powers of wizards doesn't mean he wanted to enslave them or kill them on a whim or anything of the sort. Even so, I do agree that Dumbledore should have told Harry much more than he did. It's to a point that I've lost a lot of my respect for him. On the other hand, his current actions (noble and not) may be an attempt to make up for what transgressions he may have committed in the past. If anything, it seems that Dumbledore, immensely talented though he was, is not perfect (maybe not even close), even though he may have been right about Snape all along (the one thing that seemed to be the most obvious evidence of his flaws).

* Xenophilius (awesome name) strikes me as something of a cryptozoologist. With the Lovegoods, you have to wonder if they're outright crazy, or if there's some merit to their mysteries. Take Luna. She was one of the few in Harry's group who could also see the Thestrals, ironically "proving" that Harry wasn't crazy in seeing them. And she believed Harry's story about Voldemort's return before most. So you want to believe there's something to her ability to discern truth in the world, and you begin to wonder if the crazy things she talks about aren't true, after all. And Xeno, he knew all about the Deathly Hallows - it makes you think they have inside knowledge on things. But then again, maybe it's just that they're so gullible that they're the first ones to believe those things in the world that are true, but are so improbable that most others don't believe them. On the other hand, it seemed like Xenophilius knew that Erumpent horn wasn't really a Crumple-Horned Snorkack's horn, and he was going to use it to trick the people that took Luna. Yet he insisted (as he must, to keep up appearances, so that the trick would work) that it was indeed the horn of a Crumple-Horned Snorkack. Was this just an unusual circumstance, or is he not as sincere about other things as he makes himself out to be? It's all quite a mystery. No doubt, though, that Luna is unusually sincere, loyal, and a good friend.

* The chapter "The Deathly Hallows" is clearly a turning point, but it's also gotta be one of the most expository-rich chapters in the entire Harry Potter series. I'm so used to getting mere glimpses of exposition here and there, being served with more questions than answers, all throughout the series, which is frequently frustrating. But here in this chapter, we get so much. It's thrilling! I'm glad the group acknowledged that they have one of the Hallows already (the Invisibility Cloak), which went entirely unmentioned in the movie, even though I had been left with the conclusion that it was not unique (other members of the Order were using other invisibility cloaks, unlike in the movies where the cloak was unique). Also exciting to think of Harry being a descendant of the three brothers in the original story (although, wouldn't that also, frighteningly, mean that he's related to Voldemort? And wouldn't that mean that he's also descended from Salazar Slytherin?). And shocking that Harry suspects the Resurrection Stone is inside the golden snitch so early in the story. I love that Harry is so possessed with the idea of collecting the Deathly Hallows and the power/protection it will bring him. Maybe it's immodest or whatever, but he is fighting at a disadvantage, after all, and it's a very exciting goal to have in a fantasy story. I didn't feel as much emphasis on the Hallows in the movie, they were almost incidental, like some trinkets they happened to come across (except maybe the wand, which Voldemort [was allowed to, as a dark and proud wizard] make a big deal about) in the course of their journey.

* Wandlore is fascinating. If I were a wizard, I think I would be tempted to become a wandmaker.

* How the hell is Aberforth the Hog's Head's barman? In the movie, it looked like he was hiding in some underground bunker or something. Did anybody know who he was? He's supposed to be this big mystery, and now it feels like he's been hiding in plain sight all this time...

* The Deathly Hallows is definitely shaping up to be the best book in the series, with all that goes on. Breaking into Gringotts, the Horcruxes and the Hallows, on the run from the Death Eaters, and of course the great concluding battle against Voldemort. Plus it's totally awesome to finally get a look inside the Ravenclaw common room (I love that the password is answering a question!). ;-)

* When Voldemort kills Snape, I can't help thinking (and I had the same thought when I watched the movie), that his method of killing is highly suspect. I mean, it's pretty darn convenient that he kills Snape in a way that leaves him alone and conscious for the last few moments of his life, for Harry to slip in and take his memory. I don't suppose Voldemort knew Harry was hanging around, but considering the meaning behind his killing of Snape (re: the Elder Wand) I would have thought he'd stick around to make sure Snape was dead, as well as to kill him with his own hands. Is he so proud and overconfident as to overlook the surety of a nice, quick Avada Kedavra curse, which he's used so many times before? I mean, honestly, even if Voldemort was right about the wand passing into the hands of the one who killed its previous owner, then even by that logic, the wand would be Nagini's, not Voldemort's...

* Speaking of, I always thought it was curious that Avada Kedavra is so reminiscent of the antiquated magical spell "Abra Cadabra". Plus the "Kedavra" part seems to suggest "cadaver", which the spell can be said to create. The spell names are actually really well done in this series, often foreign-sounding but subtly suggestive of their effects. Like the Cruciatus Curse which subjects a victim to excruciating pain.

* Snape is a tough nut to crack, there's no two ways about it. I guess that's what makes him such an effective spy. I think Snape was a generally unpleasant person, with a genuine interest in the Dark Arts, who nevertheless had sincere feelings for Lily. It wasn't enough to change him into the kind of person Lily would have liked (I would argue that such a thing is impossible - we are who we are), but it was strong enough that he never wavered in his devotion to her. [Incidentally, I knew (with the benefit of foresight) that when Snape called Lily a Mudblood in that one memory Harry spied on during Occlumency lessons, it was something he regretted; I figured that even more than his humiliation at James' hands, it was that outburst against Lily that made that memory one of his lowest and most shameful].

So when Voldemort threatened Lily's life, Snape was forced to make a decision, and his devotion to Lily was stronger than his devotion to the Dark Arts. So he pledged his allegiance to Dumbledore, and even though they couldn't protect Lily, Dumbledore convinced him not to let Lily's death be in vain. I think from that point forward, Snape was genuinely good, if still a generally unpleasant person who was still interested in the Dark Arts. (And his attitude towards Harry was complicated by the combination of his hatred of James Potter and his desire to honor Lily's memory). Voldemort never believed Dumbledore's claim that love was the strongest kind of magic, and I think that's the reason why he trusted Snape, even to the end (and I do believe Voldemort trusted Snape, even at the moment when he killed him). He had to know about Snape's feelings for Lily, since Snape begged him to spare her, but he probably shrugged it off, not thinking that love could possibly override one's devotion to the Dark Arts (especially one as dark and unpleasant as Snape - who could imagine that one like him could feel love?). Yet another personal failing that led to Voldemort's fall.

But the most poignant aspect of Snape's most personal memories, in my opinion, is the point at which Snape implores Dumbledore never to reveal his devotion to Lily, to which Dumbledore responds, "My word, Severus, that I will never reveal the best of you?" I think that, right there, is Severus Snape in a nutshell.

* More answers when Harry "dies" and gets to talk with Dumbledore once more. I think that better explains Dumbledore's plan to die at Snape's hand, since he was dying anyway since foolishly putting on the ring/Horcrux (tempted by the Resurrection Stone - another detail left out of the movies). Dumbledore (and many of the characters) seems more human in the books, which have more time for exposition and characterization than the movies. He's also less perfect. I really like and respect him a lot, but after everything that's happened in this last book, I don't know that I revere him quite as much as I used to. He's less of an untouchable role model, and more of a flawed person, albeit an uncommonly respectable one. Maybe that's for the better.

I like that this series is full of complexity, and you have flawed characters like Dumbledore, who has dirty secrets despite being so well-loved, and Snape, who is a courageous hero in spite of his slimy personality and dubious proclivities. And the stance against trusting both the media and politicians throughout the series is very refreshing. After Dumbledore's parting speech, though, I really wanted Harry to gather the Deathly Hallows, even after it's been explained about how dangerous coveting them is - he was the one who deserved them in the end. I guess maybe I'm not as mature yet as Harry is at the end of the book. :p I guess this series is more than just an entertaining fantasy, but something of a life lesson, too, in certain ways.

I minded Harry coming back to life less in the book than I did in the movies, but I'm not sure if it's because, knowing what's supposed to happen this time around, I'm less committed to the seductive thought of Harry Potter dying at the end of the series, or if it's because the added exposition given by the books makes it seem less like cheating. Perhaps it's a combination of the two.

* Harry and Voldemort's duel was a lot more exciting in the book. The movie seemed to focus on the flash of the spells, whereas in the book, the verbal confrontation between the two wizards was emphasized, and that made it feel more personal, and more satisfying - Voldemort being defeated not just as a wizard, but as a person. And ultimately, it felt less like Harry winning by a "wand technicality", like it did in the movie, and more that he truly earned his victory.

* The Afterthought (er, Epilogue) actually bothered me less in the book. It was actually kind of touching, with the kids hopping around, the excitement of heading off to Hogwarts fresh in the air, recalling back to Harry's first trip on the Hogwarts Express all those years ago. A fitting coda to the series, I think. And I can't help noticing that Harry's son, Albus Severus Potter, if you take his initials, they spell out ASP, which is a type of snake...