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The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet: A Novel
by David Mitchell
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.00
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Slightly flawed, but innovative and affecting, April 4, 2011
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Shoving readers with frightful immediacy into a place and era that hasn't exactly been extensively portrayed in contemporary Western fiction, David Mitchell's "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" is easily the finest novel set in turn-of-the-18th-century Japan I've ever read, and should manage to equally impress both literary buffs who like the occasionally history lesson and history nerds who want to inject some fiction into their reading. Setting its human drama and occasional bawdy comedy against the backdrop of a society in flux, it takes readers back to a time before airplanes, cell phones, and the Travel Channel, when trips abroad were long and perilous and information was scarce and closely guarded. In lesser hands the novel could be a dry historical, but Mitchell shows an admirable willingness to get his hands dirty as he enlivens his tale of culture clash and forbidden love with plenty of violence, colorful language and anatomically explicit descriptions. Readers will likely be torn on the effectiveness of the various literary tricks that Mitchell employs (splicing lines of description together with lines of dialogue, especially, could strike readers as either brilliant or maddening), but there's little denying the emotional depth and attention to detail that he brings to the story.

As the book's title suggests, its action is centered around the experiences of Jacob de Zoet, a young, devoutly Christian clerk who's joined a Dutch trade mission to Japan in an effort to earn his fortune and secure his bride of choice back home. Upon his arrival at the trading outpost of Dejima just outside Nagasaki, Jacob quickly finds himself plunged into a world dominated by intrigue, greed, and hidden agendas, where the Dutch and their Japanese hosts seemingly compete to see which side can be more duplicitous and arrogant. A romantic element is also introduced in the form of De Zoet's forbidden infatuation with a deformed Japanese midwife, but those expecting a standard-issue historical love story will be getting something else entirely. In spite of the tenuous moral center provided by De Zoet and a few like-minded characters, The Thousand Autumns is in many ways a deeply cynical novel, with depictions of altruism and fidelity greatly outnumbered by those of deceit, self-seeking and worse. Even De Zoet, who's so upstanding in relation to most of the other characters that he practically squeaks when he walks, harbors plenty of outsized ambitions and personal conflicts beneath the piety and rectitude on his surface.

The book is at its best in its opening chapters, as it shoves together the combustible elements of a cranky, homesick Dutch trade mission reeling from years of graft and corruption and a shady Japanese contingent trying to wring every bit of money possible out of their guests. The narrative moves along at a pretty breakneck pace in these early chapters, although Mitchell does occasionally slow down to allow his characters to relate wrenching tales of brutality, deprivation, and levels of racial prejudice and hostility that would appall the average Klansman. The story bogs down a little bit in its middle section as Mitchell decides to focus on other, somewhat less interesting characters, but comes roaring back to life in its final act, shifting the focus back to De Zoet and introducing a potentially hostile British crew for a rousing final clash between would-be imperial powers. The final confrontation, along with the intrigues leading up to it, makes for a worthy ending for a book that manages to bring together a frequently bleak worldview and unflinching descriptiveness with bursts of poetic language and sentimentality that can bring a smile to even the most cynical of readers. Throughout the novel Mitchell portrays an existence that's significantly more nasty, brutish and short than in these relatively comfortable times, but he does manage to inject just enough decency and humor to keep the proceedings from getting truly depressing.

DVD ~ Ben Stiller
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid all around, December 17, 2010
This review is from: Greenberg (DVD)
Expertly occupying the space between dumbed-down mainstream comedies and hackneyed indie quirkfests, Noah Baumbach's "Greenberg" is a character study with a decidedly narrow focus, elevated by a mix of style and tone that defies easy classification. The movie does contain its share of humor, and romance of a sort, but to call "Greenberg" a romantic comedy would be roughly tantamount to saying "Shaun of the Dead" is a horror movie because there are zombies in it. Ben Stiller takes a break from starring in big-budget Hollywood productions to step into the role he was seemingly born to play as Roger Greenberg, an intelligent but unstable ex-musician and recent mental patient who journeys from New York to L.A. to build a doghouse for his vacationing brother. While there, he starts a stormy relationship with his brother's twenty-something folk-singing assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig) while re-connecting with varying degrees of success with some of his former friends. And really, that's pretty much all the plot there is, but Roger's general unpredictability and his halting path to redemption make for surprisingly riveting viewing.

There may not be a great deal of forward momentum or traditional drama in "Greenberg," but if believable dialogue, relentlessly dry humor, and almost hilariously awkward sex scenes are your thing, you'll definitely find yourself in the right place. Baumbach shows an admirable commitment to avoiding predictable character arcs and contrived plot developments, showing Greenberg at both his best and worst and forcing viewers to try to find sympathy for him in the quiet moments between his blowups. While he's the kind of guy you want to root for, Roger certainly doesn't make it easy--as played by Stiller, Roger walks (and frequently jumps over) a fine line between "endearingly quirky nonconformist" and "off-putting jerk". Stiller's performance does contain traces of the neurotic-nerd persona he's developed in countless better-known films, but there's an oddly alien aspect to Greenberg that conveys the impression of someone who doesn't quite understand social graces and has lost the will to try.

While there are some interesting side plots involving Roger's attempts to repair some of the damage he caused to his old friendships, his relationship with Florence forms the core of the movie and provides one of the more intriguing and offbeat romantic pairings in recent cinematic memory. What makes Roger and Florence's bond especially interesting the is the way their differences in age and experience bring them together even as they provide a reliable source of conflict, with Florence's youthful naivety alternately complementing and clashing with Roger's world-weary cynicism. What Florence finds refreshing about Roger--his aimlessness, his lack of ambition, his near-total lack of a social filter--would strike pretty much any normal viewer as more than a little pathetic, a gap that the movie exploits to full effect. At the same time, Roger does possess enough intelligence and charm to make a relative stranger like Florence view him as an unconventional free thinker rather than a guy well past his prime who's pretty much given up on life.

While it's not entirely without flaws, the combination of the honest, unsentimental script and Stiller's revelatory performance are more than enough to make "Greenberg" one of the best movies I've watched all year. The themes of alienation and stilted personal development occasionally bring to mind the work of Wes Anderson, albeit with less elaborate set design and a lot less emphasis on father issues. In any case, those generally put off by both mainstream and small-time comedies should find a lot to like here.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 31, 2010 2:21 AM PST

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin
DVD ~ Gordon Liu
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A must-see for Kung Fu aficionados, August 10, 2010
This review is from: The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (DVD)
While 1978's Shaw Brothers classic "The 36th Chamber of Shaolin" may not have achieved the kind of instant cult status that had greeted Bruce Lee's "Enter the Dragon" a few years earlier, it's still an unusually ambitious and compulsively watchable martial-arts movie that effectively mixes heavy Eastern philosophy, nationalistic mythmaking, and scores of righteous tail-kicking. In a deservedly career-making lead performance, Gordon Liu makes for a commanding presence as Liu Yu-De (later renamed San Ta), who's introduced to viewers as an unimposing student living through tumultuous times in China's Canton province. Fed up with the imperious Tartar rulers who make life miserable for the Cantonese every chance they get, Liu Yu-De takes the bold step of joining the monks at Shaolin Temple in the hopes of using the liberating power of Kung Fu against his people's oppressors. The movie isn't exactly subtle in its pro-nationalist message or in its portrayal of the Tartars' brutality, but as with most martial arts movies subtlety is less important than the telling of a stirring story with a relatable hero and convincing action scenes, and on that front "The 36th Chamber" is a near-total success.

In spite of its decidedly serious subject matter, "The 36th Chamber" still manages to be one highly enjoyable movie to watch, owing almost as much to its brisk pace and interesting plot structure as to its myriad of rousing Kung Fu battles. Those who enjoy action-movie training sequences as much as this reviewer should find plenty to enjoy here--its middle third or so is essentially one extended montage highlighting some of the nifty training techniques and weaponry used by the Shaolin, tied in with its protagonist's transformation from scared student Liu Yu-De into fearsome, steely-eyed avenging angel San Ta. The film's personal story of San Ta's spiritual and physical evolution is bookended by opening and closing acts that nicely establish the historical and personal context for his arduous journey and feature some rather scintillating fight sequences of their own (the final battle between San Ta and Lo Lieh's arch-villain General Tien, featuring San Ta's patented three-jointed stick, is especially memorable). Those who enjoyed the likes of "Enter the Dragon" and Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill" (in which Liu himself plays a pair of classic roles) should definitely consider themselves obligated to check this movie out, along with the also-excellent earlier Shaw Brothers effort "King Boxer."

Big Machine: A Novel
Big Machine: A Novel
by Victor LaValle
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.32
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Doubt is the big machine, August 6, 2010
This review is from: Big Machine: A Novel (Paperback)
Whatever else can be said about Victor LaValle's novel "Big Machine," let no one say it's lacking in ambition. A religious and philosophical inquiry that should appeal to both believers and heathens in equal measure, it tackles big questions about the nature of belief and the possibility of redemption, all while relentlessly skipping around in time and juggling multiple narratives. Normally the inclusion of high levels of theological debate and stories of divine involvement in a novel would result in me tossing it out the window of a moving car about halfway through, but fortunately LaValle skillfully mixes the sacred and the profane throughout. Even as he deals with spiritual matters of eternal consequence, LaValle clearly has no reservations about plumbing the depths of human experience, with frequent depictions of addiction, violence, and general depravity littering the book's pages. The book ends up having something for pretty much everybody, with its gritty subject matter and dark comic sensibility keeping its philosophical and supernatural elements thoroughly grounded in reality.

The largely first-person narrative centers around a decidedly unlikely hero in Ricky Rice, a childhood survivor of a suicide cult whose adult life has been a series of petty crimes, menial jobs, and failed relationships, but who gets a second chance as part of a group of black former criminals and drug addicts charged with looking for evidence of God's presence in the world's more bizarre events. Despite, or perhaps because of, his myriad failings, Ricky Rice makes for a great narrator--world-weary and jaded without giving in completely to cynicism, with a caustic wit and an insight into human nature born of his constantly trying circumstances. Unfortunately for those who place a heavy emphasis on plot coherence, Ricky generally isn't in a rush to bring one story to its conclusion before delving into another, causing the book's chapters to alternate between the pasts and presents of the its central characters with a frequency that can prove distracting. However, while the story isn't always well-paced or easy to follow, its epic scope and LaValle's biting humor ensure that it's never boring. "Big Machine" isn't always the most user-friendly of reads, but it does prove to be an ideal novel for a world where doubt is as powerful a force as belief and where people can aspire to transcendence even as they remain deeply flawed and plagued by uncertainty.

The House of the Devil
The House of the Devil
DVD ~ Jocelin Donahue
Offered by SpReAdLoVe
Price: $20.50
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars As good as advertised, July 14, 2010
This review is from: The House of the Devil (DVD)
Its title may make it sound like a low-grade would-be shocker, but writer-director Ti West's "The House of the Devil" marks itself from the beginning as an ideal horror movie for those who are unimpressed by contrived shocks or gratuitous gore but would like to see a film with somewhat believable situations and characters who (mostly) talk and act like real people. It's a rare attempt to take a decidedly sensationalistic subject and approach it in a naturalistic, relatively believable way (granted, "The Omen" took a somewhat similar tack about 35 years ago, but, well, this movie does it better), and West's efficient script and assured direction are enough to further distinguish this movie from the competition. The title and the opening graphics about Satanic cults leave little doubt as to what's coming, but the movie takes its time in revealing the particulars, and does so with a minimum of clunky exposition or backstory (it's not even clear until the very end whether there was any actual supernatural involvement in the film's events). In place of the all-too-common horror-movie trope of obnoxious dolts being picked off one at a time, viewers get a story that, at least until all hell breaks loose in the final act, should actually be pretty relatable for anyone who's ever been young and trapped in a hellish living situation with little means of escape.

Jocelin Donahue makes for a refreshingly normal horror-film protagonist as Samantha, a cute, vaguely tomboyish college sophomore desperate for some quick cash so she can escape from her oversexed roommate and rent her own apartment. A seemingly perfect opportunity arises in the form of a lucrative babysitting gig for the Ullmans, a couple seemingly eager to get out of the house to view the upcoming lunar eclipse, but as is so often the case in horror movies the job isn't what it seems. For one thing, her prospective employers turn out to be the epitome of creepiness, led by Tom Noonan as the imposing, secretive Mr. Ullman. Those who saw Noonan as the bizarre detective on the last two seasons of "Damages" will be familiar with his erratic movements and irregular speech patterns, and here they're combined with a patchy beard and ominous-looking cane to produce a character who manages to be frightening without doing much of anything. And Noonan's character may as well be Mr. Rogers compared to his wife (Mary Woronov), whose brief appearance in the early going is marked by an imperious stare and a demeanor creepy enough to send a less cash-strapped babysitter running for the hills. In the end, Noonan and Woronov both strike a near-perfect balance in their roles--they're spooky enough that viewers in on the story will know there's something up with them, but not so overtly menacing as to make it implausible that Samantha could believe they were merely weird rather than truly nefarious.

Once Samantha inevitably takes the job after some tough negotiations over the price, the movie settles in for an extended stretch devoted more to establishing an eerie atmosphere than to delivering any real scares (with one brief but very notable exception). While some will surely be bored by a middle section that consists largely of Samantha walking (and in one memorable scene, dancing) around the Ullmans' apparently empty dwelling, West does an admirable job of steadily ratcheting up the tension while capturing the inherent scariness of being alone in a spacious, isolated house. The movie does surrender a good deal of its carefully constructed air of mystery with its frenzied, nightmarish climax, but the conclusion is still made all the more effective by the slow buildup preceding it. Suitably, the violence is employed sparingly and almost entirely in the final 15 minutes, with what bloodshed does occur presented in a blunt, unflinching manner that goes well with West's overall minimalist approach.

Given the endless barrage of stupid-looking horror flicks landing in theaters, it's a shame this one didn't make much impact at the box office, but viewers who like their scares delivered intelligently should be sure to check it out. At about 90 minutes it doesn't stick around anywhere near long enough to get boring, and still manages to take its time getting its pieces in place before everything goes to hell (no pun intended). The typical pitfalls of horror cinema--cheap effects, flat characters, brainless dialogue, direction that treats subtlety as an unpardonable crime--are all very little in evidence here, making "The House of the Devil" the rare horror film that should appeal to both enthusiasts of the genre and those who typically avoid it. Injecting a measure of realism into the devil-movie template may seem like a thankless task, but fortunately West and co. turn out to be more than up to it.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 18, 2010 4:55 PM PDT

DVD ~ Jesse Eisenberg
Offered by CyberCypher
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An adventure worth taking, June 27, 2010
This review is from: Adventureland (DVD)
It's a rare movie that mixes references to literary and philosophical favorites like Trotsky, Gogol and Melville with repeated punches to the crotch of its protagonist, but these opposing poles manage to mark "Adventureland" as an ideal comedy for the more intellectually inclined viewers out there. Taking viewers all the way back to 1987, writer-director Greg Mottola's semi-autobiographical comedy doesn't exactly boast a great deal of narrative drive, but its relaxed pace is perfectly suited to its highly personal storytelling. It would be a mistake to describe the movie's overall tone as nostalgic, but it does provide a wistful and relatable take on the period in life when aspirations tend to collide with reality, along with the expected (yet still amusing) nods to 80's style and pop culture. The formula is somewhat similar to that used in Mottola's previous effort, "Superbad"--barrages of profanity, sex jokes, and youthful debauchery mixed with occasional doses of sentiment and self-realization--although this time out the balance is tilted noticeably more toward the latter elements. Where many mainstream comedies seem desparate to get a laugh out of their audience, "Adventureland" is content to let the humor rise naturally from the interactions of the characters and smartly-written dialogue loaded with sarcasm, intellectual references, and big words.

"Adventureland" centers around the plight of James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg), a sensitive recent college graduate who's just found out that his parents' finances won't accomodate either his planned trip to Europe or his graduate-school goals. James is marked early on as the type of idealistic dreamer who allows himself to fall for a girl he's been dating for a week and a half, reads poetry for pleasure, and aspires to write Dickens-styled travelogues exposing the state of the world around him (on a personal note, as something of an overeducated, underemployed pseudo-intellectual type myself, I was certainly able to empathize with James's situation as he tries to find his way in a world that has little use for his extensive knowledge of comparative literature and Renaissance studies). Since James's education didn't provide him with too many marketable skils--he laments early on that he's even unqualified for manual labor--he's forced to take a decidedly menial position working the game stations at Adventureland, a dreary amusement park in suburban Pittsburgh run by an overly enthusiastic husband-and-wife team (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig, who bring their usual hilarity to relatively minor roles). At the park, James finds himself surrounded mainly by a pack of doomed souls with little or no prospects, chiefly focused on getting through the day so they can numb at least a little of their pain with booze, weed, and sex.

Shortly after embarking on his job at Adventureland, James begins a tentative romance with his vaguely dark and troubled coworker Em (Kristen Stewart, aka the chick from the "Twilight" movies), who also happens to be carrying on a secret affair with Connell (Ryan Reynolds), a married wannabe musician making ends meet as the park's handyman. Not surprisingly, some life lessons ensue, but they're laced with enough humor and a light enough touch to differentiate "Adventureland" from the mass of coming-of-age flicks out there. It helps that the movie places an emphasis throughout on creating believable and multi-dimensional characters, as Mottola shows a clear affection (or at least sympathy) for most of the cast without idealizing them or minimizing their flaws. Even Reynold's Connell, who routinely cheats on his wife and blatantly lies about his musical exploits, is presented less as a villain than as just another working stiff doing whatever he can to make his life tolerable. Likewise, James's Russian literature-loving friend Joel (Martin Starr) is portrayed as part endearing nerd and part aimless, pretentious slacker.

Like most great comedies, "Adventureland" succeeds because it gets the little things right, perfectly capturing both the myriad tiny indignities that come with dead-end service-industry jobs and the attempts that people in them make to transcend their seemingly dire circumstances. The minimalistic, occasionally haunting score by Yo La Tengo is nicely complemented by a selection of period music both great (the Replacements make a couple of appearances, including a memorable use of "Bastards of Young" in the opening scene) and not so great (the constant playings of Falco's "Rock Me Amadeus" are used to further underscore the horrors faced by the park employees). "Adventureland" definitely isn't the most ambitious movie ever made, but it draws viewers into its characters and their little world so well that it doesn't have to be. Those familiar with the work of Judd Apatow and his collaborators (several of whom show up in supporting roles) would be well-served to check this movie out.

Await Your Reply: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
Await Your Reply: A Novel (Random House Reader's Circle)
by Dan Chaon
Edition: Paperback
Price: $11.92
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An oustanding achievement in the field of excellence, June 11, 2010
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On its surface, Dan Chaon's "Await Your Reply" concerns the hot-button issue of identity theft, but those looking for a breakdown of the mechanics of stealing someone's identity would be best served to look elsewhere. Instead, Chaon seems more intent on exploring the question of whether an identity can be stolen when it can't even be said to properly exist in the first place. In Chaon's hands, identity is an elusive and illusory concept, certainly nowhere near as easily defined as a name or a family history, and able to be exchanged at pretty much any time if it becomes too binding. Mixing its personal storytelling with boatloads of existential angst, the book is part character study, part profound musing on the nature of identity and the way we define ourselves, and compulsively readable whatever its focus.

Chaon's writing doesn't exactly place a great deal of emphasis on narrative drive, tending to move things along at a relaxed pace marked by frequent digressions to develop his protagonists' backstories while examining the inner workings of their minds. At the same time, his psychological insights are always interesting, and while the overall worldview of the book is generally bleak and unsentimental it never comes at the expense of plausibility. "Await Your Reply" is certainly one of the most naturalistic novels I've come across in a long time, with straightforward prose complemented by a near-total absence of histrionic dialogue and contrived plot twists. There is a mystery to be developed here, but it's done more through subtle cues that fit neatly in the narrative than through stunning, out-of-left-field revelations.

The book splits its time evenly between three seemingly unrelated plots centering around decidedly ordinary characters--a working-class high-school valedictorian from Ohio who's skipped town with her former history teacher; a college student who takes up residence with his long-lost ID-thief father; and a magic-store employee caught up in an endless, wide-ranging search for his disturbed twin brother. None of the characters seem to live life according to any sort of well-defined goal or plan, instead just sort of floating rootless through a world on the fringes of proper society, where the connections that typically sustain us--family, friends, community--have less meaning than the realities of getting by from one day to the next. While the paths of the principal characters never cross, the connection between the three storylines isn't exactly kept a secret, so the revelations that tie all the threads together can't really be called twists in the vein of something you'd see in a Chuck Palahniuk novel. Reading this book occasionally gave me the feeling of trying to solve a puzzle, but the depth of the characterizations and the emphasis on subtlety and realism elevates it way above the level of a simple whodunit or intellectual exercise.

For a book where not a great deal happens, "Await Your Reply" does manage to generate a great deal of suspense as the situations of its characters become increasingly desperate, which only adds to its overall mood of alienation and deception. It's incredibly easy to get drawn into Chaon's world, to the extent that this book became (for me at least) a bit of an obsession by the time I was finished. "Await Your Reply" may not be a conventional mystery, but it still manages to be a first-class page-turner.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Yet another classic from the masters, April 25, 2010
This review is from: OPTION PARALYSIS (Audio CD)
I worship the Dillinger Escape Plan with a fervor typically reserved for one's deity of choice, and those who feel similarly should take a great deal of delight in "Option Paralysis." In an extreme-music underground that's become almost as cluttered with copycats and one-trick ponies as the mainstream, DEP continue to separate themselves from the pretenders with their top-notch musicianship and endlessly inventive approach. And after a break of over two years since their last release, the classic "Ire Works," DEP have returned with yet another album that's as catchy as it is assaultive and as fascinating as it is challenging.

Where DEP's debut "Calculating Infinity" was essentially one sustained, hard-charging paroxysm of dissonance with an occasional break for some avant-garde and free-jazz elements, the band's efforts since Greg Puciato took over vocal duties from Dmitri Minakakis have incorporated much greater amounts of musicality and experimentation, and "Option Paralysis" is perhaps the best synthesis yet of everything these guys bring to the table. Even better, Puciato's steady improvement on vocals culminates here with what's unquestionably his best performance since assuming the frontman role. I'll admit I wasn't completely sold on Puciato when he first came aboard for "Miss Machine," and while he's still not quite the imposing preference that Dmitri was, he's proven to be an impressively versatile vocalist who can also bring the noise with the best of them when necessary. Puciato howls, wails, croons, and occasionally even near-whispers his way through the album's ten tracks, bringing a frightening immediacy to lyrics that tend to alternate between warnings, admonitions, and angry rhetorical questions. In other words, he kicks major tail here.

Of course, it helps immensely that Puciato has some of the best material of the band's career to work with this time out. The dizzying guitar patterns, ever-shifting time signatures, and pounding drum assaults that characterized previous albums are all still very much in evidence, and here they've been joined with the perhaps the sharpest and most unpredictable songwriting of DEP's career. One of the first things that struck me about this album is that these guys have really learned how to close out a song: the conclusions to the schizophrenic opener "Farewell, Mona Lisa" and "I Wouldn't If You Didn't" are practically apocalyptic in their epic sweep and sinister intensity, while the end of "Gold Teeth on a Bum" turns a simple plea for help into a highly disconcerting mantra. Throughout its running time, the album is yet another near-perfect mix of short, efficient noisecore assaults ("Good Neighbor", "Crystal Morning"), freeform genre-hopping exercises ("Endless Endings", "Chinese Whispers"), and more melodic--albeit still edgy and dark--fare ("Widower", "Parasitic Twins").

Overall, while it's pretty tough to rank DEP's catalogue top to bottom, based on my first impressions I'd have to consider this one the best. I still love the singular insanity of "Calculating Infinity," but since that album was pretty much impossible to top I think the band definitely made the right decision to experiment and add more disparate elements to their sound. Whatever your preference, if you were a fan of the the band's previous efforts you certainly can't go wrong with this one. Five stars, easy.

Chuck: Season 2
Chuck: Season 2
DVD ~ Zachary Levi
Offered by Mediaflix
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not the best, but better than most, April 18, 2010
This review is from: Chuck: Season 2 (DVD)
For a show with an almost laughably far-out premise--an underachieving nerd who works at a thinly-veiled surrogate for Best Buy being sucked into the high-stakes world of espionage after having the contents of a government supercomputer visually implanted in his brain--"Chuck" has developed into a remarkably watchable hour of TV, especially coming as it does out of the vast wasteland that is the major networks these days. I'm not generally a fan of shows aimed at the "obsessive nerd" demographic (I never watched "Lost," caught only a few episodes of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," and gave up on "Heroes" after two mediocre seasons), but "Chuck" managed to hook me where other shows have failed by taking its clever concept and marrying it to a (generally) skillful combination of action, drama, and comedy. "Chuck" doesn't succeed by avoiding the ridiculousness and implausibility of typical Hollywood spy fare, but by embracing it wholeheartedly at every turn, always with a wink and a nod. In a sense, "Chuck" is able to have it both ways--the show's creators get to indulge in all the ludicrous plot developments, unrealistic fight scenes, and last-minute rescues that should be recognizable to viewers of shows like "24," but the show's heavy layers of irony and parody serve to deflect pretty much any criticism that can be directed at it.

Inserting a regular guy into the parallel universe of TV spy shows is an idea with so much obvious potential it's a wonder it wasn't done earlier, and Zachary Levi's performance in the titular role is a large part of the reason "Chuck" manages to largely live up to this potentional. Chuck is the sort of only-on-TV nerd who's funnier, taller, and better-looking than I am, but Levi still manages to nicely convey the mix of confusion, fear, and indignation faced by a classic underachiever who finds himself in over his head in circumstances he didn't ask for and can't control. Of course, it helps that Levi is ably backed by Yvonne Strahovski (recently named the 17th-hottest woman on earth by a panel of experts, and a rather expressive actress to boot) as Chuck's CIA handler/love interest Sarah Walker, and Adam Baldwin as his vageuly menacing and fervently dedicated NSA overseer, Major (later Colenel) John Casey. Casey especially represents an almost perfect meeting of character and actor, with Baldwin combining an imposing glare and snarling voice with expert comic timing, and the writers parceling out occasional insights into his character without unduly softening him. I'm not a fan of the knee-jerk patriotism and militarism that Casey represents, but he's still one of the more reliably interesting and entertaining characters on TV these days.

While this second season definitely has its share of weaker moments--the inexplicably Nicole Richie-featuring "Chuck Versus the Cougars" actually borders on terrible--it still marks a significant improvement from the first season, and manages to cohere pretty well from beginning to end despite a near-constant stream of twists and turns in the plot. The humor can occasionally be a bit too broad and wacky, resulting in a show that's more amusing than truly funny, but its sly geek-culture references, colorful supporting cast and workplace humor that occasionally hits a bit too close to home should still endear "Chuck" to any fans of Simpsons/Office Space-style comedy. The show works best when it manages to bring together its escapist spy plots and its somewhat more down-to-earth workplace elements, as in the brilliant Thanksgiving episode "Chuck Versus the Gravitron", or when it veers out of its usual tone, as in the surprisingly dark ending to the Christmas episode "Chuck Versus Santa Claus." Other episodes evidence a "Simpsons"-like commitment to fleshing out the show's ancillary characters, best exemplified by "Chuck Versus Tom Sawyer," which humanizes Chuck's shady colleague Jeff and explores his backstory without undercutting his essential creepiness, and also manages to work in a Rush-themed plot that would work pretty much nowhere else on TV. Viewers also get a slew of memorable guest appearances from notable character actors, from the great Gary Cole filling in Sarah's past while playing her father to Tony Hale as the sniveling new assistant manager at the Buy More to Chevy Chase playing around with his typical bumbling persona as a genially nefarious software tycoon (sports fans should also be pleased by surprisingly able one-off appearances by Michael Strahan and Jerome Bettis as less-than-principled mall employees).

While "Chuck" doesn't even approach the level of consistent brilliance shown by cable shows like "The Wire" and "Breaking Bad," for sheer entertainment value it's still pretty tough to top. It's got a likable cast with great chemistry, a solid knowledge of pop culture, and a knack for varying tone and mixing single-episode plots with longer arcs that sets it firmly apart from the glut of interchangeable procedural shows currently clogging the airwaves. The strike-shortened first season was merely decent, and the current third season has been a bit spotty thus far, so it appears that season two will end probably end up being the best the show has to offer. That said, "Chuck" is definitely worth checking out from the beginning if you haven't already.

Snakes for the Divine
Snakes for the Divine
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars HoF don't disappoint, April 10, 2010
This review is from: Snakes for the Divine (Audio CD)
Those in the know have long been aware that High On Fire is among the most reliable bands around when it comes to producing thunderous, head-banging metal, and their latest release, "Snakes for the Divine," is no exception. While their work has always been delightfully malevolent, highlighted by hellacious guitars and vocals that bring to mind Mephistopheles with a sore throat, HoF have never affected an angry, us-against-the-world stance, nor have they engaged in the self-consciously "evil" posturing of so many death- and black-metal bands. Instead, they've churned out album after album of visceral, unrelenting metal in its purest form, without relying on such decidedly non-metal devices as irony or sarcasm. The band deals mainly in crashing, oppressive waves of sound, with all three members plowing ahead in unison and focusing their energies on a single point to produce the most destructive sound possible. And while "Snakes for the Divine" falls a little below the level of its classic predecessors "Blessed Black Wings" and "Death is This Communion," it's still highly a enjoyable synthesis of the low-fi stoner metal of the band's first two albums and the more accessible (though still monstrously heavy) approach they've taken since.

The title track opens the album with a surprisingly catchy lead guitar line, but anyone fearing that HoF will start sounding like In Flames all of a sudden needn't worry, as the song quickly plunges into a fearsome call-and-response between Pike's vocals and guitar, dragging listeners through a series of punishing tempo changes along the way. The largely subdued and eerie dirge "Bastard Samurai"--in addition to having a cool title--is one of the bigger departures in the band's catalog to date, with Pike's guitar frequently functioning as a complementary instrument, establishing a doomy atmosphere that nicely matches the unusually subdued vocals. Of course, just in case anyone starts to think they're slowing down, HoF follows this track with "Ghost Neck," a blistering slab of high-speed thrashing madness that sounds sort of like early Slayer ramped up to even greater levels of both heaviness and hellishness. The album's choicest cut, "How Dark We Pray," is a sweeping and epic piece even by HoF's lofty standards, and even introduces a pretty high degree of complexity into the mix, moving from an extended, impressively tuneful intro to a succession of tricky rhythms and dense layers of riffage, topped off by a downright musical solo that ranks as one of Pike's most memorable to date.

By the time the album reaches its conclusion with another violent pummeling of fire and brimstone in the form of "Holy Flames of the Firespitter," it's clear that High on Fire have another classic album on their hands. These guys have been gaining a pretty significant level of popularity lately (by metal standards anyway), which is nice to see given how much boring tripe is currently occupying the mainstream. Anyone who likes it heavy and hasn't checked out HoF yet should consider themselves obligated to give them a listen.

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