Wednesday, February 8, 2012

"Crowns do queer things to the heads beneath them:" A Clash of Kings

PORTEmaus Literature Society No. Ten: A Clash of Kings

A Clash of Kings

In the previous Literature Society post, I explained that I am not a fan of the fantasy genre. However, I do enjoy well-written imaginative tales. Two novels and roughly fourteen hundred pages later, there is one thing that you can say about George R.R. Martin's fantasy series and it is that these books are well-written. In fact, I think the argument could be made that A Clash of Kings improves upon its predecessor, mainly because I knew where Game of Thrones was going having seen the television series. In a way, it was refreshing to be able to fully develop the world of Westeros and the rest of the locales in my mind rather than such mental imagery taking the form of the series.

When A Clash of Kings begins, Ned Stark (the hand of the King) and King Robert Baratheon are dead and the world is plunged into a series of chaotic conflicts because of the power vacuum. The claim of Robert's son, Joffrey to the iron throne are contested on allegations of incest between the Queen and her twin brother (which are also true). This has led Stannis and Renly Baratheon (Robert's brothers) to raise large armies to remove Joffrey from power and install themselves in their place. In the North, Robb Stark (Ned's son) is engaging in battle against the Lannisters (The Queen's family) and their armies across the riverlands with much success. This has put many in the capital on edge as food and water begins to become scarce, leaving the inhabitants and the reader wondering who will win out in the impending battle.

For those curious, that was a simplification of the novel's plot. Let's face it, a lot can happen in the span of seven hundred some odd pages and with nine point of view characters a lot does. Clash of Kings introduces two new point of view characters into the series and they happen to provide some of the most exciting parts of the book including a suspenseful event that involved the death of two characters (one major and his younger brother). This is what makes the narrative structure of these novels so interesting. It provides the reader with an intricate knowledge of the happenings in the novel, while in other circumstances, the reader learns plot points as the characters do.

A Clash of Kings is a pleasant (albeit a depressing) read to someone who is not a fan of the genre. It was surprising in the sense that it was better than Game of Thrones which is a feat in and of itself. It will be interesting to see how the show is adapted in April and how it will play out with the version in my mind. It is at this point that I am hooked on the series... I suppose we all saw that coming. As I mentioned earlier, I am a sucker for good storytelling and willing to go out of my normal reading habits to try something new. It goes without saying that this book comes recommended but of course, one should read the Game of Thrones to have any idea about what is going on.

Parting thoughts:
I read an interesting article in the New Yorker about George R.R. Martin and the relationship with and expectation of the reader with the writer. It really highlights Martin's reverence for Tolkien and counters me notion that Martin's world is larger than Tokien's. Yes, I realized the folly of such a notion and subsequently had my nose rubbed in it. I blame it on over-excitement.

Monday, February 6, 2012

"At last we will reveal ourselves to the Jedi. At last we will have revenge:" Stars Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Film Foray RETROspective no. Huit: Star Wars: Episode One - The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Like most children, Star Wars hold a very special place within the cockles of my heart and I waited anxiously many a year to see "A long time ago... In a galaxy far far away..." on the big screen. 1999 rolled around and the younger version of myself saw it opening day... Needless to say, I left excited but a subsequent viewing revealed the truth. Episode I was not that good. Flash forward twelve years and it seemed like a great time to expose my oldest to a "galaxy far far away" and the first of three movies that I do not hold as dear as Episodes IV, V and VI.

Episode I is the tale of Naboo being held hostage by the dastardly Trade Federation and the response of the Galactic Republic was to send two Jedi Knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) to resolve it. It quickly becomes apparent that the situation is not simply black and white with the Federation's actions being dictated by a Sith Master. Qui-Gon and Obi-wan leave Naboo with the Planet's (democratically elected) Queen (Natalie Portman) and because of mechanical issues have to land on Tatooine. While on this desert planet, Qui-Gon meets the prophesied "chosen one" of the Jedi Knights, who will return balance to the force. After receiving council from Yoda (Frank Oz), Qui-Gon and company return to Naboo to free it from the Trade Federation's blockade.

Like most Star Wars fans, this film has a bevy of problems. Seriously, the crux of the story is the basis of taxation disputes. Wow, it really sounds as if George Lucas had this written for twenty years and was not scribbled down on paper a few days before production began. Honestly, the story is the least of this film's problems (which I will discuss momentarily) and I am going to go out on a limb to say that Episode I is not the worse film of the prequel trilogy (I will explain that further in the next RETROspective post). Granted, it has Jar Jar Binks (played horribly by Ahmed Best), a character whom a five year old hated and Jake Lloyd, who has the distinction of being one of the worst child actors in the history of cinema but it does have several things going for it.

The Phantom Menace tends to be lambasted because of story issues (the dialogue in particular), casting and of course, Jar Jar. Rightly so, it is not a good film by any means, however, its special effects hold up quite well and there was not extensively on CGI sets like Attack of the Clones (Trust me, I will get into that next time). For these reasons alone, you can at least watch the film without being taken out of it. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the story or the dialogue. Unlike most diehard fans, I do not hate Episode I, I do not like but I have come to terms with its existence. After all, I grew up with the other three films and never really expected them to live up to my expectations (Then again, I am a cynical cuss). Then again, the only reason I revisited this film was to expose my daughter to the "galaxy far far away" and she liked it. When one ponders this, it kind of seems... Appropriate.

Rooney Rating:

Parting Thoughts:

The final lightsaber battle is still the highlight of the film. Honestly, it was a boneheaded move to kill Darth Maul off in the first film. You know who are forgettable characters? Count Dooku and General Grievous... Sigh.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Fashionably Delicious: Jason Wu brings New Wave Cool to the Masses

I hope you all had a great holiday season, full of fairisle and lambswool and peacoats and mufflers. That's all done though and while it remains cold(not really) retailers are in the midst of their spring campaigns rolling out light weight khakis shorts and enough knits to run American Apparel out of business. It's also time for Target to release their latest designer collaboration with young hot shot Jason Wu. Now the last time I was here we were talking about the madness that Missoni had caused with their record breaking collection that achieved 100% sell through on first shipment. This time I am writing to you on the eve of its release. In just a few hours people will get there chance to experience this capsule collection.

Jason Wu burst onto the scene in 2006 with his eponymous brand garnering immediate attention from young Hollywood with his clean simple approach to fashion. His line is full of well constructed clothes with a sense of youth teeming throughout. He makes clothes for the socialite in all of us ensuring that pops of color are never forgotten. Looking at his collections you get a feeling of the whimsical approach to classics like Phillip Lim but completely wearable and accessible by anyone.

This youthful approach continues on through his Target collection, where he pushes it even farther saying himself he wanted to offer something that you couldn't get in his own collection. The result is a selection of flirty dresses and desirable separates with some structured handbag to compliment everything.
He calls the collection inspired by the French New Wave(he won me right there) and it shows, you can absolutely imagine Anna Karina walking down the streets of Paris whistling a pop tune as she saunters towards Jean Paul Belmondo. The colors evoke the kind of slight nautical inspiration you'd expect from a spring collection, with the inclusion of some strong blacks and hints of mustard rather than a strong yellow.

The line's mascot is a mischievous cat that is plastered across one of his totes. It is this sense of fun that is woven through the entire line. Where this line excels and where so many others fail is it's wearability. Every piece is wearable, and unlike the ubiquitous zig zags of Missoni(although fabulous) his styles won't be tired in a month. A month from now you may not remember how awesome his line is but I guarantee you if you see one of his pieces walking down the street it'll be sure to turn some heads and still maintain interest.

So will it be the crazy sell out insanity of Missoni, I highly doubt it, but it's sure to be successful and it's sure to turn some people on to an amazing young designer. But who knows maybe when Twincess braves the doors tomorrow(which by the way she's getting there at stores open this time) she'll find empty racks once again. I'll be sure to let you know. One way or the other this is exciting fashion for the masses and absolutely worthy of your time.

Bence and Twincess

One last thought- don't worry I'm sure Target backed up its servers this time.

"I made one decision in my life based on money and I swore I would never do it again:" Moneyball

Film Foray Cavalcade no. Cuarenta y Cuatro: Moneyball


They say there is a method to the madness that is professional sports scouting. Being an avid fan of both baseball and football, I never was able to glean what that method was. Having spent way too much time watching the scouting combine for the latter of my favorite pastimes, it seemed that prospective athletes are treated more like horses or livestock more than anything. I am also been a fan of using statistics to glean a perspective (at the very least to discern trends) on sports performance for awhile (after all, it is the only reason I give a passing glance to fantasy sports). Sure, all of that talk of math sounds dull, it is ironic that it made for a damn good film.

Moneyball is the story of Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), a former major league player who is the general manager of the Oakland Athletics and is faced with a dilemma. The A's have lost three of their most important players (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isinghausen) to other teams and ownership will not allow for a growth in payroll. This attitude forces Beane to adopt the principles of sabermetrics (the analysis of baseball through empirical evidence, namely statistics). This method runs contrary to what scouts have been doing since the beginning. To implement this method, Beane hires Peter Brand (a composite of Paul DePodesta played by Jonah Hill) and they compile a roster of cheap players (who have perceived deficiencies) who lead the A's to a MLB record twenty straight wins but also the ALDS (American League Divisional Series).

Moneyball excels on practically every level and it is not surprising that the film has been recognized for six academy awards. Unfortunately, it is has some stiff competition and it will be a shame that if it does not walk away with the adapted screenplay award considering that the story/ dialogue is compelling. Furthermore, I do not know why Sorkin lit the world afire with the screenplay for The Social Network and little has been said about this screenplay... Which (in a word) was "better" than that film. I know Hawk will agree with that notion. It is also kind of shame that one of the PORTEmaus favorites at cinematographer, Wally Pfister was not singled out for praise his work on the film. I know there were a lot of well-framed films released this year (although no body could Lubezki's work on Tree of Life) but as always, he did some great work. I would wax poetic about the lightings in this film as well but lets face it, nobody cares (Which is a shame).

When I first started hearing about the cast for this film, I was slightly surprised. Not so much about Brad Pitt (who is pretty consistent in his performances) but I was appalled by the casting of Jonah Hill. In the hallowed halls of the Maus, you will find little love for either the short doppleganger of Seth Rogen. However, even I have to admit that Hill was not that bad in this film nor did I feel the urge to leave the room when he took the screen. Then again, I am a little perplexed by his Oscar nomination, it was a good performance but not worthy of that recognition. Seriously, his spot should have went to Albert Brooks for Drive or Tom Hardy for Tinker Tailor. In spite of this nonsensical segue, I really thought Pitt did a wonderful job as a man hampered by the mistakes of his past (Signing with the Mets) and seeks to do better in the future. Then again, I am a sucker for such self-reflection.

Rooney Rating:

Winter Preview UPDATE The Innkeepers

Ti West, Ben Wheatley, and Adam Wingard are three young guns in the horror genre. With a new film out this year for each of them Rey seem poised to take the reins of horror and usher in a new generation of filmmakers that turn genre tropes on their head. I've seen the new films from West and Wheaton, but haven't had the pleasure of seeing You're Next from Wingard, but with Bowen in the lead again I'm sure it kicks ass. Wheatlon's film, Kill List, is a piece for another day, but it didn't register with me as strong as The Innkeepers. West has been around for a few years and most notably received a lot of critical appreciation for The House of the Devil, an extremely slow burn ode to Polanski and Roeg that while respectable didn't pay off the way it needed to. But you could not deny the potential that was there. West has returned and taking his time once again has made a wonderfully fun and scary film that never gives away too much and is an incredibly enjoyable ride throughout while keeping up his knack for atmosphere. This is in no doubt due to the characters he has infused into the story. This is the Ti West I was waiting to see.

The story concerns two minimum wage workers at a local inn that is about to be torn down. They are nerdy and amateur ghost hunters and they banter with the few but quirky guests, and before you know it the hotel in all of its spookiness begins to reveal its secrets. And that's really the best word to describe this film "spooky."

You look at those posters and they evoke a certain feeling, they give you a sense of the type of movie you're going to see. One of atmosphere and tone, but with an underlying sense of fun. This is West reinventing the haunted house story with nerds in the leads. The film would have absolutely failed without the two leads.
They have a great chemistry with just the right amount of hesitation from the guy and the perfect amount of pretension you'd expect from someone who fancies themselves a ghost hunter. The characters are funny and goofy, but ultimately relatable. Their naturalistic delivery is sure to come across as annoying to some, but is far better than some of the trendy mumblecore films. Once the shit hits the fan you begin to see the characters break down and reveal their true colors. West does the unthinkable and keeps the camera on our actors in one key scene letting us see the fear crawl across their face and denying us the money shot.

West is a perfectionist and you can see the amount of control he holds over everything as the story moves at a deliberate pace, and much like House of The Devil, is a slow burn horror story, the difference here is he gives us fully developed characters and relationships while Devil was kind of a one woman show. He drops nuggets of fear as we move along and makes sure to treat the Inn as its own character, and once the film begins to move into horror territory the scares are completely genuine putting us in the shoes of the characters with the same amount of uncertainty as we try to make it to

I'm really happy West nailed this one. It's a small intimate film that honors and reinvents the haunted house genre. If Devil was an homage to the satan heavy films of the late 70s and 80s then this is West doing Vincent Price in the 60s. Some of my peers in the blogosphere have been referring to this as a horror comedy and while I see their point I think the description is misleading. When I think of horror comedy I think of Shaun of the Dead or Scream. Those films take place in a different reality, this is absolutely in the real world and these people are dealing with otherworldly occurrences. The conflict that arises from that leads to some humor and the leads have a witty banter with each other but West backs all that up with some genuinely frightening sequences. Really fun flick and a nice evolution for West. Really hope he continues doing original horror, because I know he has a classic in him somewhere.


One last thought - West has an anthology horror film called V/H/S coming out with Adam Wingard and a handful of other young directors. It sounds like an interesting approach to found footage, which admittedly has never really blown me away.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

"There is no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man:" Game of Thrones

PORTEmaus Literature Society No. Nine: Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones

Way back in the month of August, I offered a qualitative summary of HBO's Game of Thrones where I reviewed what I found to be enjoyable about it. At the end of that "review," I entered into (mostly internal) debate about whether or not I would read the book with its mammoth page count. Well, I decided to give the book a go once my studies began drawing to their conclusion. As I mentioned in that August post, I am not much of a fan of the fantasy genre but I have enjoyed some of the more well-known series such as Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter and His Dark Materials. While this book will not change my overall reading habits, it is without a doubt, one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction that I have read.

Game of Thrones follows the intrigues regarding the seven kingdoms under the rule of King Robert Baratheon, who led a revolt which resulted in the death of the previous monarch known as the "Mad King." The bulk of the book follows the members of the Stark family, the head of which is the Warden of the northern part of the seven kingdoms. After the death of his mentor, King Robert taps his closet friend to be the Hand or advisor to the King. Eddard "Ned" Stark begrudgingly accepts the position and quickly realizes that things are not what they seem. People cannot be trusted, the Seven Kingdoms are broke and there are some who wish to see the King dead. With the "accidental" death of King Robert, there is a series of events which will take the Seven Kingdoms into the midst of a vicious civil war. Whew! Sadly, this is a mere simplified account of the book and by no means comprehensive.

When I read Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I have never read a series with such a rich history that the world was built upon. George R.R. Martin surpasses the notion with an attention of detail that I have not read in another series or book for that matter. Of course, this is easily explained by the page count which tops out at roughly seven hundred pages. The strength of Game of Thrones is the narrative structure. Each of the chapters is told from the perspective of eight characters, most of which are members of House Stark. I thought this was an enjoyable means for forwarding the story as it kept me interested in the overall story. Curse my linear minded brain and its desire for a conclusion to individual stories!

This novel contains many things that you would find in a stereotypical fantasy novel. You have knights, allusions to dragons (who are extinct), giants, wights and others but the Martin transcends the genre because of how character driven the narrative is. The characters in this novel are multi-layered and whether you hate them or not, you as the reader are drawn to what happens to them. It is a novel where all the characters walk the fine line between life and death and any character might not make it to the end. As you know, I am a sucker for political intrigue and this is the central premise to the novel. With this added to the compelling narrative and likable character, you have an enjoyable seven hundred pages of literature. With that being said, I wholly recommend Game of Thrones to fans of the fantasy genre and those (such as myself) who typically do not read this types of books.

Parting Thought(s):
I am about nine-tenths of the way through the Game of Thrones show... So, expect a comparison between the two.

Also, I decided to take the leap and read the second book. A little teaser for you, in a week, I have read four hundred pages. The Literature Society post for A Clash of Kings should be up soon.

New Tune Tuesday 1.31.12 - Leonard Cohen's new album of old ideas, Jack White goes solo and more...

Beautiful Melodies telling you Terrible Things Vol. New Tune Tuesday 1.31.12

Welcome friends, to another week in which I'm a couple days late and a few dollars short. It's a rather enjoyable week to visit the record store, so if you're in the mood for fresh ear bud, head out. First, I wanna take a brief stop in the ol' news blender...

Neil Young's War against MP3
Anyone who knows me personally knows how many years I put off getting an iPod. After finally getting annoyed with carrying around 250 CD's in my car, I broke down just a year ago. I'm still a vinyl buff though, I go home, and I drop a needle. Veteran rocker Neil Young has been against mp3 as well, backing instead the wonderful sound you get out of Blu-Ray audio. Recently he talked about how he had many conversations with Apple's Steve Job's about a "high definition audio" alternative to MP3 and AAC, but that Job's death has resulted in silence from Apple. He stated that Jobs, a huge Bob Dylan fan, "was a digital pioneer, but he went home and listened to vinyl." One thing Young is right about, CD's contain only about 25% of the information of master recordings. You compress a 85MB WAV CD file into MP3 to get 8.5MB, you're getting only 10% of that. It doesn't magically stay there, compression does just that, compresses. As much as I love vinyl, the warmth and depth of the sound is the best you can get, but we really do need something better for our musical lives on the road and out of the house.

RELEASE OF THE WEEK (1.31.12): Old Ideas, Leonard Cohen
I've got no future,
I know my days are few,
Ah, the present's not that pleasant,
Just a lot of things to do.
I thought the past would last me,
but the Darkness got that too...

It was the early-mid 1980's and Columbia records took a listen to the record Canadian born Jewish poet turned poet-singer ( about 15 years earlier) Leonard Cohen had turned in, "Various Positions." The A&R team basically told Cohen that "we know you're great, but we just don't know if you're any good Leonard..." What they simply meant was as good of a songwriter and poet as Cohen was, he just wasn't much of a commercial property. It's somewhat ironic to think about now, as not only did that album contain "Hallelujah," a song (over) covered so much over the last 20-odd years that Cohen himself asked for a "memoritorium on covering it," but now, in his mid-70's, Cohen is more of a commercial property than ever. his 250-world tour garnered almost uncountable 5-star reviews (including from yours truly for a show in April 2009), the rather pricey tickets sold out everywhere and his latest live and archival releases have sold rather well. Now, after much talk about one over the last three years, he releases his first new LP since 2004, titled, rather appropriately, "Old Ideas."

I had to go crazy to love you,
You who were never the one.
But crazy has places to hide in,
That are deeper than any goodbye.

It's an appropriate title since Cohen covers the themes he never ignores yet the world likes to: God. Sex. Mortality. Alcohol. Love or Lust. Faith and Forgiveness. Apocalyptic Endings. It's all here, with a voice and ideas old yet fresh at the same time. The album opens up with "Going Home," a song in which God is looking for Cohen ("that lazy bastard who live-in a suit"), someone who God is ready to take home after one more message to give through him. After all, Cohen, a poet before he became a singing one, has always been willing to "say what I tell him/ even though it isn't welcome/ he just doesn't have the freedom to refuse." It's the long standing notion of poets being the voices of something more, being saige's for the divine, the "brief elaboration of a tube." For Cohen, now at age 77, it's the fulfillment of that notion or myth. Now it's time for him to go home, home without sorrows, to where it's better than before. He just has ten songs to get through first...

Show me the place where the world became a man,
Show me the place where the suffering began...

The Song-titles are simple, often one-word titles or ideas, and Cohen doesn't necessarily deviate much from what they sound like they'll be. "Darkness," "Amen," "Lullaby," Show me the Place." Recorded mostly in Cohen's small home-studio on Avid' Pro Tools, that set-up (featuring Cohen doing much of the instrumentation himself) adds to the late night feel most of these tracks have, both in feeling and sound, as well as lyrical content. Add in a little trumpet here, and yes, even a little banjo there, well, at least in song theme. The album has both sounds that call back to the more acoustic, almost gypsy-Cohen of the 60's and early 70's, such on tunes as "Crazy to Love You," the older deeper voices Cohen, with more synth and female backing, can be found to, for instance "Come Healing." Much of the album comes across as a world weary final statement for this life, some of is sounds like a man out to prove that age doesn't slow down anyone. All of it is good though. 'Old Ideas' is a better record than 2004's 'Dear Heather,' and stands strong alongside, personal favorite, 2001's 'Ten New Songs.' You can't complain when Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen both release their first new studio albums since 2004 within months of each other.

Available on: 180-Gram Vinyl (includes CD), CD, MP3 Download

Other Notable Releases (1.31.12)
Jack White, "Love Interruption" (single from Blunderbuss)
Our first taste of full-on solo Jack White (besides the throwaway track from 'It Might Get Loud') is this single from the upcoming LP 'Blunderbuss,' and it's rather disappointing. If this is the best the album has to offer (and an album's first single is typically the best up-tempo 3-4 minute track your album has to offer) then I'm not exactly looking forward to it. Ruby Amanfu's backing vocals come off as awkward and unneeded, and the song itself is little more than interesting. White has continued down a stretch of pretentiousness the last few years, as well as a style of quantity over quality when it comes to attaching his name to, well, far too many releases. This isn't a bad start to solo White, but certainly not a good one either. I miss Meg...
Available on: Audio Stream (now), Digital single, 45" Single
Lana Del Rey, Born to Die
I'm not sure if the album title refers to the opening track or Lana's career. This is the epitome of a career being built out of record executive offices not off of talent. This folk mixed with trip-hop album is a mixed bag at best. Is it better than her SNL performance? Sure, but it's also just as forgettable.
Available on: Vinyl, CD, MP3 Download
Wilco, iTunes Session
A classic, old-school in studio "live" set from the band, calling back to the days of in-studio performances in radio stations. Unfortunately, just as those radio performances were often rare and hard to get a hold of, this is available only through iTunes. It's a brisk 8-song set heavy on their recent LP ('The Whole Love') as well as some older favorites.
Available on: MP3 Download through iTunes

See you next week. Or well, see you when I see you.