July 2010 In Brief, Part 2

Highlights:
Road Trip – My son and I cruised along Midwestern highways on a 12-hour drive to Lake Michigan, squeezing in plenty of teen driving practice, and passing by a few colleges along the way. I made a road trip playlist of music we both liked: The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Violent Femmes, Rage Against the Machine, and the Dr. Horrible Soundtrack, brought lots of gluten-free snacks, and together we sped through the Midwest loving that 70mph Michigan speed limit.

The Lake Michigan Cousin-palooza– About 50 relatives trekked in from all over the country to my aunt and uncle’s beautiful lakeside house for the Fourth of July.  We chatted, talked, conversed, and caught up on all the news while cooking, eating, and building sand castles.  Every evening at sunset we’d crowd on their deck and watch the sun melt orange and pink stripes onto the water.  No wonder we all keep coming back.

Fiction Books Finished:
Feed, by M.T. Anderson (*** 1/2) –  [2002] Titus and his friends are living in the last years of a dying empire where teenagers have a commercial TV and internet system called "The Feed" playing right in their heads.   During a spring break vacation to the moon, Titus meets home-schooled Violet.   When the two of them have their feeds hacked at a nightclub, Titus begins to look on his carefree life differently.  M.T. Anderson creates a vivid futuristic world with its own addictively real teen speak.  It’s a book that was ahead of its time and worth checking out. [YA Science Fiction, for ages 14 and up]

The Next Best Thing to Having the Super Power of Speed Reading:
When my to-read list hit the 100 book mark, I finally faced up to the truth: I read painfully slow. If I can’t have the power of speed reading, listening to audiobooks is the next best thing. There’s a wide selection available, they make my house work more pleasant, and I’m able to "read" at least an extra book a month now.

Audiobooks Finished:
Down the Rabbit Hole: An Echo Falls Mystery, by Peter Abrahams (***) – is an average, but entertaining, YA murder mystery.  Mandy Siegfried, the narrator of the audiobook, is especially good at teen dialog and really made the book come alive for me. [YA mystery, for ages 10 and up]

A Crooked Kind of Perfect, by Linda Urban (*** 1/2) – is a sweet, satisfying book about an 11-year-old girl who dreams of playing classical piano in Carnegie Hall, but instead ends up playing the electric organ that her quirky agoraphobic dad bought her. This is a quiet sweet book about coming of age in an eccentric family.   [Middle grade realistic fiction, for ages 9-12 years old]

Non-Fiction Books Finished:
Get Opinionated: A Progressive’s Guide to Finding Your Voice (and Taking a Little Action), by Amanda Marcotte (***) – Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon.net is one of my favorite bloggers. Since she’s blunt, funny, and raised in Texas, calling her a young Molly Ivins is a somewhat apt description, though she’s more into pop culture than Ivins.  Her book is a quick breezy guide of everything progressive from eating local foods to why giving to Planned Parenthood is such an excellent cause.  She even has advice on how to talk to your climate-change denying relatives.  

My favorite part is the beginning descriptions of each type of political person one finds on the Internet: Manic Pixie Dream Girl Liberal Chic, Less Fun Feminist Liberal Chicks, Liberal Dudes, Liberal Dudes Who Scold Feminists About "Important" Issues, Country Club Republicans, Rush Limbaugh Impotents, Your Mom The Swing Voter, etc.  She manages to both accurately sum up and amusingly mock the values of each and every one, including her own category. 

Our Inner Ape, by Frans De Waahl (****) – A fascinating book that explores the social patterns of our two closest relatives– the chimpanzees and the bonobos– and looks at what we can learn about humans from the studies of primates. One of the most interesting finds– for me– was how primate researchers are discovering that social patterns and habits are more environmentally constructed than instinctual. When the primate environment changes, many characteristics like aggression, sexual relations, and social structure change too.

TV:
Better Off Ted – This workplace satire never got the attention it deserved.  Netflix instant now has both 13-episode seasons.  So if you’re in the need for something fun, check it out. It took me about 3-4 episodes before I knew the characters well enough to enjoy the show.  After that, I laughed and laughed. [Watched on Netflix Instant]

Doctor Who (season 5) – I thoroughly enjoyed the new doctor and his companion Amy Pond.  The season had a good plot arc with a satisfying finale. [Watched on BBC America, also available on iTunes]

The Guild  (season 1,2,3) –  Felicia Day (Penny from Dr. Horrible) wrote this amusing story about a World-of-Warcraft-type guild who end up meeting each other in person.  Evidently Felicia Day played a lot of World-of-Warcraft between acting gigs and it shows. Her characters both pay homage to and playfully mock  a lot of the gaming stereotypes: the micromanaging guild leader, the guy who misinterprets banter with any female characters as flirting, the gamer trying to escape life, etc. It’s a fun series for anyone into gaming or anyone who lives with a gamer.  [The series started out as web-episodes and is now available on Netflix Instant.]

July 2010 In Brief, Part 1

Movies:
Blame It on Fidel (*** 1/2) – [2006] Nine-year-old Anna’s life is turned upside-down when her parents take up the leftist cause in 1970’s France. I really enjoyed watching upper-middle class Anna struggling to understand and accept all the changes happening in her life.  It makes for a sweet and funny movie.  [Saw in French with English subtitles on DVD through Netflix]

Capitalism: A Love Story (** 1/2) – [2009] I want to like Michael Moore’s movies but they tend to disappoint me.  He’s an excellent researcher who dredges up fascinating facts and stories on his subjects.  Instead of letting those facts tell the story though, he gets in the way of his own point with cutesy stunts and heavy-handed narrating, turning off potential converts.  That’s too bad because Capitalism: A Love Story is full of compelling evidence that illustrates how the current capitalist system in the US hurts regular everyday people.  My recommendation: see the movie for the facts and use the Michael Moore grandstanding bits for bathroom breaks.  [Saw on Netflix Instant Viewing.]

Chloe (**) – [2009] Short review of this movie: horrible script, good acting. It’s clear to the audience exactly what’s going on with Amanda Seyfried’s character from the very beginning — but because of stupid writing– Julianne Moore’s character has no idea how this girl thinks– despite being a gynecologist and dealing with women every day.  D’oh!  Also, unless you watch the deleted scenes you won’t understand why Julianne Moore’s character and her son are fighting.

PS- If you think you’ll soldier through the bad script because you want to see the very pretty Amanda Seyfried’s first nude scene, you’re going to be disappointed.  Her nude shots are brief and all in profile.  [Saw on DVD through Netflix]

Iron Man (***) [2008] – This movie has such an annoying premise I shouldn’t have liked it as much as I did.  A "brilliant" inventor (played by Robert Downing, Jr.) thinks his weapons keep the peace because his brilliance somehow keeps him from realizing that both sides could use his weapons, not just the good guys.  He realizes the horrible truth when he’s kidnapped by the bad guys and treated to a front row seat for the weapons-harm-innocent-people show.

His response to his upsetting revelation is to stop making weapons and instead create an awesome crime fighting suit — that again, he can’t predict could be used by bad guys too.  While living in his wealthy ignorance, he takes his loyal employees for granted, gets them in trouble with his careless attitude, and never seems to realize how badly he treats them.

The redeeming feature of the movie is its accurate, loving portrayal of the problem-solving and creating process.  Robert Downing, Jr. expresses the joy, frustration, and thrall of creating something complicated with a lot of charm.  Luckily these sequences are a large part of the movie.  They’re great fun and the crime-fighting suit is pretty awesome.  [Saw on DVD through Netflix]

Sherlock Holmes (***) – [2009] A slight but enjoyable Sherlock Holmes mystery.  The fun chemistry between Robert Downey, Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes and Jude Law’s Watson and  the gritty portrayal of working class Victorian London liven up what would have otherwise been a tiresome magical-voodoo mystery. [Saw on DVD through Netflix]

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (****) [2009] –  I enjoyed this gritty mystery about a journalist and an eccentric computer hacker investigating the 40-year-old disappearance of a Swedish banker’s favorite niece.  I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how it compares.  There’s some really graphic, dark, dark stuff here, but it’s done with a more kickass feminist spin than older gritty movies about missing women. [Saw in Swedish with English subtitles on Netflix Instant Viewing.]

The Runaways (** 1/2) [2010] – This movie can’t decide if it wants to be the story it’s marketed as — a bad-ass story of an all-girl band making it in the rock world — or a sad tale of drug abuse and exploitation.  That’s probably because the movie is based on Cherie Currie’s drug addiction memoir and co-produced by Joan Jett, who did become a rock star.  Currie was only fifteen when she joined the band and had no support from her dysfunctional family or her exploitative manager.  Since the Runaways broke up with a lot of in-fighting– like many bands of their day– Lita Ford and a couple other band members still don’t  talk to Jett and Currie and the movie barely gives them any lines to avoid legal battles.  That’s too bad because Scout Taylor-Compton gives a kick-ass performance as Lita Ford, with the kind of force I wish Kristin Stewart had for her portrayal of Joan Jett.  Overall, a disappointing movie made about fascinating material.  [Saw on DVD through Netflix.]

What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (****) [1993] – Somehow I had never seen this sweet story about a young man who feels trapped caring for his dysfunctional family in a small town.  Johnny Depp is touching as the responsible Gilbert and Leonardo DiCaprio gives a super realistic performance as Gilbert’s mentally challenged younger brother.  [Saw on Netflix Instant Viewing.]