Monday, July 27, 2009

Stunt Dorm Rooms

It's getting toward college move-in season again, and we all know what that means. No, not mandatory but useless orientation on the hottest and/or rainiest weekend of the year. Not overeager eighteen year olds drinking cases of Icehouse just because it's there. Not even student staff members who already resent their jobs, two weeks in. (Although, that last one is more true than the residents and professional staff alike might care to know.)

What it means is the annual rampant consumerist explosion known as "back to school shopping". Bookshelves. Lamps--in both desk and octopus-like floor varieties. Carpeting. Microwaves. Refrigerators--but not bigger than 3.1 cubic feet. Desks. Desk chairs. Futons. "Art". Coffee makers. Those ridiculous water dispensers. (Really, guys, there's a water fountain down the hall. I promise.)

That leaves me, and most other people who have actually been to college recently, wondering "where exactly do you put all that stuff?" The answer, if you listen to the peddlers of all this college gear, is "in your massive dorm room that you get all to yourself as a freshman". Here are a few of my favorite exaggerations:

This one's courtesy of our friends at Target. Note the massive, sun-filled window right above the bed (with neither safety screen in front of the window, nor shirtless dudes playing volleyball outside). The cleanliness. The modern, slightly-industrial decor. The new wooden furniture. The spotless mirror on the back of the door, with neither crack nor "unidentifiable smudge" from the last inhabitant. Also notice how the pale blue-gray bricks actually seem to compliment the colors in the bedding.

This one, from Bed Bath & Beyond, gives us a little less to work with, but there's still plenty of wishful thinking here. I like the luxury of putting the bed right in the middle of the room, with no need to cram it into a corner to afford the roommate some space. The bedding here, too, compliments the wall coloring. Better yet, it's available in 3 other styles--each of which comes with ready access to perfectly matching dorm rooms.

But by far my favorite in "yeah, right" awesomeness is this masterpiece from Ikea. Windows, check. Wall treatments that match your furniture and accessories, check. Enough space for a bed, a guitar, a desk-ish cube, and a bookshelf--on just your side of the room!--check. And the pièce de résistance? Hardwood floors. Because no dorms have decades-old carpeting, and surely none have dingy tile floor.

(All images copyright of their respective fantastically creative owners.)

Currently listening: "Shady Grove" as performed by Among the Oak & Ash

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Folk Music Among the Oak & Ash

The Paste Magazine Culture Club podcast turned me on to one of my favorite albums of summer 2008, and just as I was thinking I needed some new music for this summer, the July 2009 edition of Paste Culture Club showed up to save the day.

Among a bunch of bizarre stuff--bizarre stuff comes with the territory in that podcast--was the track "Peggy-O" from Among the Oak & Ash's self-titled album. They're a folk/"Americana" duet who play a lot of songs by that celebrated composer "Traditional". I've always had a soft spot for Appalachia-tinted folk-y music. (I don't even mind a little bluegrass, which is far from a popular opinion.) But the big obstacle in the way of me actually acquiring some is that it feels kind of weird listening to some fifty-year old dude from Tennessee plucking an indeterminate string instrument.

That's why Among the Oak & Ash is so intriguing: they play that sort of music, but they're indie enough to live comfortably in the rest of my iPod (and among the rest of the Paste Magazine fare). I mean, the girl singer is named Garrison, and the dude wears a vest while he's playing guitar.

Folk music thrives on harmonies, and Among the Oak & Ash delivers there. Garrison Starr and Josh Joplin have a very effective vocal arrangement that shows up in several of the songs on the album, where they sing the same melody and the same pitches (with Starr an octave or two higher, naturally). It's not harmonizing per se, but it's a nice effect that suggests simplicity and unity. The other vocal trick that works well is harmonizing in perfect fourths, but with Joplin singing the higher pitch, despite his lower vocal register.

The album makes the mistake that so many others do, front-loading it with the most interesting tracks. "Hiram Hubbard" is a brilliant way to start the album, and I don't think it would have worked anywhere but the start. The next three tracks, "Peggy-O", "Angel Gabriel", and "Shady Grove", are upbeat (or at least fast-paced), and they're my favorite three tracks on the album. "Angel Gabriel" is probably the highlight of the album, combining the band's vocal excellence with some nice religious imagery.

Unfortunately, the entire album isn't as exciting as the first four songs promise. "The Water Is Wide" and "High, Low, and Wide" are both about three times as long as they need to be, and honestly none of the songs where either Starr or Joplin sings alone is as effective as the ones where they sing together. "Joseph Hillstrom" is a catchy enough original composition, and I couldn't identify it as an original rather than a traditional simply by listening to it, which is a good sign.

As first, I didn't see a whole lot that would keep me coming back to Among the Oak & Ash, but I don't think that's true at all. The band's music represents an original take on music deeply rooted in the cultural, social, and spiritual traditions of this country. Or, a contemporary view of timeless themes. Starr and Joplin say that Among the Oak & Ash is a project that's just beginning, and I can only hope we see many more albums like this one in the coming years.

Currently listening: "A World Apart", Vedera

Friday, July 17, 2009

Harper's Island Post-Mortem

I've been following the CBS series Harper's Island thanks to my friend Alex Harkey. Quick recap/explanation: several years ago, lots of people got killed on Harper's Island, a secluded island off the coast of Seattle; now two people are trying to get married on Harper's Island; people start dying again; the killer is one of the wedding guests or one of their friends on the island. (Spoilers follow. Most of this is taken from a conversation with Alex, and edited for coherency.)

In the end, we find out that the killer was Henry, the groom-to-be, motivated by some psychotic conception of "togetherness" with his childhood friend Abby. And if I understood the finale correctly, I think Henry and Abby might be half-siblings? That's especially creepy.

My thoughts on the reveal and the resolution:

I don't dislike Henry as the killer, mostly because I don't see him as totally implausible. Everything I said about knowing the island, and knowing the wedding party, and being central enough to have some sort of impact definitely applies to Henry. The thing that I like the least about Henry as the killer is that it was weird to watch him transform into a complete psychopath over the course of about an hour.

It was clear Henry had some downright bizarre notions about "being together" with Abby--as in he seemed like a total nutjob--but he seemed the most stable out of anyone on that island through the first eleven episodes. Given that the motive was apparently driven by insanity, I'm not sure how plausible it was to see ostensibly the most sane guy there have that motive then see the sanity just vanish as soon as it was convenient.

A killer in a murder mystery should appear as normal as, or even more normal than, the other characters. The trick in making a really good one is to put in subtle hints that some motive could exist while still appearing like a normal person on the surface. From that angle, I more could have bought the killer being someone with some kinks to their personality than the guy who was essentially the straight man to a whole lot of eccentricity.

I'm not sure if you could have positively identified Henry as the killer in any of the first eleven episodes. There's plenty of evidence against him, but I don't think there's a smoking gun. Motive would have been impossible to nail down until about the ninth episode at the earliest, when we found out that Abby's mother likely had a child with Wakefield. It would be interesting to watch through some of the early episodes already knowing how the ending and resolution to see if that colors some of the "clues" or if any of the deaths could be explained or are still suspicious.

All that said, the weakest part of the denouement was the explanation of Henry's motive. We saw that Henry wanted to go around with Abby a lot, but that's not identifiable as motive at all--they were understood to be good friends, and it's a heck of a logical leap to take that to "well, okay, what if Henry wants the two of them to be more than friends, and that's why he's the killer."

I would have preferred one of the characters to have figured out the killer rather than Henry essentially telling them. Of the characters who knew who that killer was Henry, Henry himself told Trish, Sully, Abby, and Jimmy. We don't know what eventually happened to Shea and Madison, but we can assume that Abby or Jimmy told them the truth eventually. That means that nobody actually figured out the killer for themselves, which is a little disappointing.

Finally, it would really help if we got a "debrief" sort of episode? Maybe some "here were all the clues" and "here's how Henry killed all these people and avoided suspicion"? Make it similar to the Mole, where after the big reveal, there's always a "debrief" episode where the "clues" and "sabotage" are explained. I think Harper's Island would probably benefit from something like that too. Or maybe even a writer/producer commentary track over the episodes to say things like "okay, notice how we haven't seen Henry in the last few minutes here" or "while all this is going on, here's where we imagine Henry is rigging the trapped chandelier in the church."

Thoughts on the series as a whole:

Foremost, I think it would have worked better if everyone wasn't so "sure" that Wakefield was dead at the beginning. I really dislike starting a story with the premise that an old villain was dead, then bringing back the old villain just so the good guys can fight him again. (See my comments on the new Transformers movie.) It would have been a lot easier for me to stomach if it had been something along the lines of "some people say that Wakefield died, but I have my doubts". That way, you can get people thinking from the very beginning about whether or not the guy is alive, and there's a lot less secret-keeping between Abby and her father.

It's easy to say that I would have preferred that Wakefield not come back at all, but honestly that would have changed the series so much that it's tough to say if such an overhaul would have made things better or worse. He was pretty intense as a villain, but that doesn't necessarily say that his appearance made good narrative sense. The idea that he would show up to prove his own innocence, as suggested by Harkey, is a great twist that I never even thought of, and I doubt anyone would have seen coming.

There was a definite shift in tone between the first ten episodes and the last three, when the killings went from mysterious to out in the open, or alternately the style went from "murder mystery" to "horror". Maybe that was to try and make things more exciting and intense for the last part of the series. I think it worked; the last three or four episodes really seemed like a climax to me, with the real emotional climax of the series as a whole coming at the end of the eleventh episode, when Chloe threw herself into the water so Wakefield couldn't get her.

Speaking of Chloe, I'm glad that the Cal-Chloe story and the Sully redemption story reached their resolutions. Toward the middle of the series, I kept insisting that all of those characters had to live to the end so their stories could resolve. In retrospect, though, none of those people actually did, and I think both stories were handled well. Also in retrospect, Shea pretty much had to live, unless they wanted the Madison story to end in complete tragedy. Not only can you really not kill a little girl, you really can't orphan her either, I guess.

Overall reaction to the series:

Definitely one of the strengths was the closed environment--the promise of "this is only going thirteen episodes, you will know all the answers by the end, and the killer will be revealed." It's like Lost, which hit a nadir at an episode now popularly referred to as the "flying kites in Thailand" episode, which had virtually nothing to do with the overarching plot of the series, or even the story arc of the season. Basically, the producers realized the show had no real direction, so they petitioned ABC for an end date. When they got it, the show got back on its feet, because they'd always imagined Lost as a show with a beginning, middle, and end. Short story long, having a set amount of time to get things done allows much more effective storyboarding and long-term planning, which I think Harper's Island capitalized on.

I'm not exactly sure why Harper's Island's ratings were so low. Obviously the move to a different time slot didn't help, but I think the low ratings probably started before that and the move was a reaction to falling ratings. Maybe people didn't want to wait thirteen weeks to figure out how it ended? Maybe it's because it was so serialized? I definitely think it's the sort of show where if you miss one episode, you feel lost, and you might be less than inclined to watch the next week. Of course there's always the option to watch online, but maybe not enough viewers thought that was worth it, so there was just a gradual decline in watching each week. The only other idea I've heard is that some combination of the time slot and network didn't reach the target demographic well enough.

In general, I enjoyed it a lot, and would recommend it with a few reservations (noted above). It's absolutely the sort of show that's way more fun to discuss with someone else, to make predictions and give reactions to the murders as they happen.

Currently listening: "I'm Not Over", Carolina Liar

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Transformers Sequel

I've heard a lot of facetious subtitles for this movie, any of which would have been more explanatory and willing to get me into the theater than the incomparably generic "Revenge of the Fallen". "Revenge of Megan Fox's Cleavage" is one that I like a lot but can't take any credit for. Ones I came up with include "Humans--Who Needs Them", "Attention Defec--Next Scene!", and my personal favorite, "Glenn Morshower is Unsurprisingly Awesome".

In case you haven't heard my usual Megan Fox Rant, here goes: Megan Fox is not attractive. Mostly, that's because she's fake-looking. Her breasts are probably fake, and her eyebrows and eyelashes almost certainly are. She wears way too much makeup, especially around the eyes, and she has lips that resemble a fish's. And that's not even to mention the tattoos. Weirdly, a lot more girls have told me that I should find her attractive than have guys. I'm not sure what to make of that.

And in case you don't know who Glenn Morshower is, he plays the incomparable Aaron Pierce in 24. Morshower doesn't seem like he plays any other sort of character, but he doesn't need to--he has the competent, confident "guy in charge" archetype nailed down.

One more acting bright spot in this movie was the cameo appearance by Rainn Wilson as the astronomy professor. It makes me sad, though, that it took me until his second of two scenes to realize who it was.

If the acting by Glenn Morshower and Rainn Wilson are the bright spots in the movie, are there not-so-bright spots? Yes, and sadly, it's "most of the rest of the movie".

First, the vocabulary of Transformers doesn't seem to suit itself well to a serious, live-action movie. You can throw around names like "Optimus Prime" and "Megatron" with some semblance of a straight face, but once you throw "Energon" and "Decepticons" and "Cybertron" into the mix, you're begging for something a lot campier than what this movie is going for.

Also, does it seem strange to anyone else that the Decepticons call themselves "Decepticons"? It's like in those old (yes, campy) sci-fi movies, when the evil genius refers to himself as evil. Real-life evil never thinks of itself as evil.

While we're on good old Megatron anyway, I see no need to have brought him back for this movie. If I were ever to write a list of "storytelling best practices", one of the ones at or near the top would be this: if a major villain dies in one installment of a series, there had better be a damned good narrative reason for bringing him/her/it back in the next installment.

That's one of the (several) reasons that Return of the Jedi is the weakest of the Star Wars trilogy. The Death Star was not a compelling villain anymore. We already say it explode spectacularly at the end of Star Wars--and what a great ending it was! The good guys win against all odds, and the Empire is foiled. Return of the Jedi had a lot going on anyway; surely George Lucas and company could have invented something else besides "Death Star Part 2: Revenge of Death Star". Instead, we saw that both George Lucas and Emperor Palpatine were out of new ideas.

In this case, it's Michael Bay and the Decepticons (snicker) who are out of new ideas. The Emperor Palpatine analogy isn't an accident either--the "big villain" of this movie is essentially an Emperor Palpatine knock-off. but is worse in two important ways: 1) he can't shoot lightning from his fingertips, and 2) his name is "the Fallen". Seriously? Seventeen thousand years of plotting revenge against Earth, and the best name for yourself you can invent is "the Fallen".

I can't stand the way this movie paced itself. It finally settled into something resembling coherency toward the end, but at the beginning, we were "treated" to a new scene every few minutes. One minute we're at college with Sam, and the next we're at a motorcycle shop with Megan Fox, and the next we see Satellite Decepticon talking in symbol-speech from deep orbit.

At one point, Sam defiantly tells Optimus Prime that this isn't his war, and he should just be left out of it. He's more right than he can know. Aside from the magical rail gun (I'll talk about it later) toward the end of the movie, it appears that our puny human weapons are utterly useless against the might of the Transformer. So Sam is right in a way he can't possibly comprehend. If the movie is going to do far enough out of its way to make humans suck against the Transformers, then why can't the movie just show two good hours of Transformer-on-Transformer action, double the number of explosions, and half the frequency of Megan Fox's trout face mouth.

In fact, the Transformer, with its inherent requirement for this "energon" (snicker), are hardly the alien master race they want us to think they are. That honor would have to go to...

The Plant. This thing can get its own energy from sunlight, which seems way more practical than needing to blow up a sun to procreate.

Now, let's talk geopolitics for a second. At one point in the movie, we're treated to an embarrassingly weak Egypt-Jordan border crossing, which our protagonists are able to get across by giving the Arabic equivalent of "g'day, mate", and proclaiming they're from New York. "That's right, um, we don't have any identification papers, and we're American, and oh yeah, your own intelligence agency is tracking us, but can you please let us through anyway?"

Another "did anyone else notice": what ever happened to the Egyptians who were after Sam? Probably they were abandoned into a plot hole when someone realized that in a fight of Middle Eastern intelligence in one corner and Shia LeBeouf in the other, not a lot of bets are going to get placed in favor of our man.

Geopolitics rears its ugly head once again when the Americans make a drop over Jordanian airspace--then call the Jordanians for help when something goes wrong. In case anyone hadn't noticed, we're not best friends with most of these countries. The thought that they would want to help us after we had the gall to fly unannounced and plop down old Optimus is completely implausible.

And so is the thought of breaking into the Air and Space Museum with three dudes, a girl, and a couple of tasers. And so is some crazy guy with a radio calling a ship captain about his "experimental rail gun technology" and actually getting the captain to use it. And so is the "super-secret hiding place" of the Primes being behind an inch and a half sheet of rock in Petra... and nobody having found it, ever. And so is the idea that you can walk between Petra and the Valley of the Kings in a day or two.

Looking back on the movie, that seems to be a common theme: "hasn't anyone else noticed this incredible implausibility?" Of course we have, and you'd be hard pressed to convince me that the director and writers didn't as well. They must have thought that after watching robots blow each other up for nearly two and half hours, we wouldn't really care.

Incorrect. Turns out that even if you're making a special effects movie, you still need some coherence behind it; you still need a reason to make the movie worth my time and nine dollars. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen lacks that coherence and reason entirely.

Currently listening: "The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is Out to Get Us!", Sufjan Stevens, from Illinois