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Turning Point

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This movie is nothing special, or at least, it SHOULDN'T be. It's really a very standard storyline told through the lens of dance -- one of aging, the path not taken, friendships, and what it means to grow up.

The first thing that makes it exceptional is that it's a dance movie that has a good plot. It's got a reputation as one of the better dance movies, and it definitely deserves it. I find ballet rather tedious, and this movie didn't change my mind, but I really did enjoy the movie as a whole. Unlike nearly every other dance movie out there, this movie doesn't skimp on the writing and produce an insultingly simplistic script. There's no need for a dance movie to have a terrible plot, it just seems to be one of the really stupid conventions of the genre.

The other exceptional thing is that it is a story driven by women, that isn't a flighty piece of fluff. It's refreshing to see Hollywood acknowledge that women can be real characters with real motivations, and can be the focal point of a movie. Too often the "it won't sell to men" line is used as a rationale for casual misogyny among the movie studios. It was great to have a window to the 1970s when second-wave feminism was having a moment and it wasn't so outlandish for women to carry a movie.

I wish there were more films like this.

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Hunger Games: Catching Fire

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This movie caused me great personal growth.  It made me go figure out Redbox.

Netflix didn't have it, and Amazon had it available only for purchase, so it was off to watch it from disk like a barbarian.  Redbox was kind of fascinating.  You can see the manipulation of the disks and cases, like those old jukeboxes which used to reward you for your dollar by flashing some holographic silver CD back at you before you got to listen to Real McCoy.  Whee!  There was a slight hiccup when our movie came with an additional piece of paper that was almost certainly used as part of a scam, but Redbox has yet to to drive a truckload of lawyers up to our apartment, so that seems okay.

As for the movie, it's really good.  I love the revolutionary aspect of the movies, and Jennifer Lawrence brings a depth to Katniss which is quite impressive.  The caught-between-two-lovers aspect could have easily been overplayed, but it's handled with subtlety and not magicked away as I was worried it would be.  It's totally worth seeing, and not just for those who have already read the book -- it's a pretty good movie in its own right.  Thought I have misgivings about the last book being split into two movies, I'm definitely eager to see them.

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Things Fall Apart (The African Trilogy, #1)

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For all the bombast around this book as an anticolonialist work, I was surprised at how gently the subject is handled. The colonizers in the book have an air of other about them, but the book is telling one man's story, and thus the book has an air of the personal tragedy, as opposed to the systemic failure that was European colonialism. The result is a warm and inviting novel that also serves as a critique of colonialism. It may have the subject matter of Howard Zinn, but it has the tone and timbre of Rudyard Kipling. One wonders if this book would have been as positively received when it was published in 1958 if it had taken a more openly critical stance.

It's not hard to see the influence that this book has had, especially in white America's understanding of Africa. Much of the story is told in a style that heavily uses animals as characters in fables and metaphors for life. There's also a lot of touchstones of"Africa," particularly tribal organization, animist religion, and lots and lots of yams. These are the first things I remember learning about when I was introduced to "African" culture. Of course, Africa, being the gigantic place that it is, makes this kind of broad-brush characterization more than a bit silly. Nonetheless, for better or worse, these are key traits in the Western conceptualization of the continent, and it's not hard to trace some of this back to Things Fall Apart.

As a work outside of its criticism of colonialism, I was more interested in the wandering overall picture than the plot. Okonkwo is a distant and flawed character, and his motivations were never particularly compelling to me. As such, the storyline and book ended with a bit of a thud. However, the setting and overall feel of the book is quite good. There's a feeling of getting to know the culture in which this book is set, and a pervasive sense of everyday life that defies the linear plot. It's an intriguing and unique way of presenting the book, and quite appealing.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/567972092

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Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)

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I enjoyed the first two books in the series, but this book rubbed me the wrong way. The theme is Katniss' failure to adapt and her permanent brokenness from the old regime, but the ultimate ending is unsatisfying.

I relish dark and ambiguous endings, and it took me a lot of thinking to figure out why this one bothers me so much. The conclusion I eventually came to is that this book feels so nihilistic. There's no moral to be drawn here, no viable solution to a problem. If I had to put it into a pithy one-liner, I'd sum up the theme as "Nothing you do can possibly matter in the face of systemic corruption." Though the book doesn't assert any further thesis, the natural next statement that leaps to mind is "It's not worth trying."

And that, ultimately, is what drives me crazy about this book. Most dark endings serve as a cautionary tale -- "Don't do X or you'll end up like our main character" or "Watch out for the people and groups you choose to associate with" or at least "You should fight against the particular systemic corruption that caused this massive unfairness." I was unprepared for the bleakness of this book.

The book is strong from a writing perspective, and that gives it a formalist vigor that may be satisfying to some readers. There's still a page-turning quality here. It just was too empty to satisfy yours truly.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1128375645

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Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)

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Good, but suffers from sequel-itis, as much of what's here is a repeat of the first book. Still, there are worse mistakes to make -- the first book is good, and even a rehash of it is still a good book. There's finally some widening of the scope in this novel, as Katniss starts to encounter systemic corruption in a way that she can't shoot her way out of. If you liked the first book, you should definitely continue on to the second.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1128372962

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The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)

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I'm definitely late to the party here. I enjoyed this book. It had me rolling my eyes at the infeasibility of the authoritarian all-powerful state, but I really enjoyed its central premise of individual action as protest against systemic failure. As much as the government felt unrealistic, the theme of the book is strong and the writing is of that particular page-turning quality that caused me to finish the book in a matter of 2 days. I'd recommend this to anybody -- it's both easy to read and relevant to our wider culture.

This post was crossposted from Goodreads. You can find the original at http://www.goodreads.com/review/show/87787804

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Silicon Valley Season 1

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Like Tara said, "There needs to be more of that show as of yesterday."

Mike Judge has hit on another instant classic.  Though I'm not fully in Silicon Valley culture, my job as a web developer is definitely adjacent to it, and I certainly am affected by it.  This show is incredible.  It's the best comedy I've seen since Flight of the Conchords.  Just as Judge has done many times previously, he's hit a perfect-pitch satire, and this time the target is something that is very relevant to me.  The cast and script are also great.

Unless this series fails miserably in Season 2 or 3, this is going to be the definition of 2010 tech culture the way that Office Space is the defining satire of 1990s tech culture.  I know that sounds overblown, but I can't praise this show highly enough.  If you can get some HBO, go see it.

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The Master

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Paul Thomas Anderson is an auteur who seems hell-bent on making boring, pointless movies.  Just as with There Will Be Blood, this is a great work of craft -- incredible acting and great directing.  But also, as with There Will Be Blood, it did nothing for me.  I kept wondering why the movie existed.  This wasn't a particularly interesting story, the script was nothing special, and there is a overwrought symbolism that confuses the point of the movie more than it clarifies it.  Is this really nothing more than story of Freudian longing?  Or a look at Scientology?

The real reason to watch this movie is Philip Seymour Hoffman and Joaquin Phoenix.  Both of them take characters that could be cartoonish and give them a depth which is well beyond what the script has cause for.

Maybe Paul Thomas Anderson will get back to making films like his earlier career.  I can only hope that we'll see another Boogie Nights out of him.  I'd even settle for a Magnolia.

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The Tudors

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First: ohmygod the costumes

Second: Jonathan Rhys Myers is never who I would have picked out for Henry VIII, but he plays him incredibly well.  He channels the King's brief attention span and egocentrism perfectly.

Third: The Tudors plays fast and loose sometimes with history, but I'm willing to give it a pass, for the most part.  The show has very few pretensions to realism, and what has been changed doesn't feel out of place.  This is a look at the political machinations of the era, and if the show is willing to do a little hand-waving for an impressionistic picture of the whole, I'm willing to forgive it.

Fourth: This show is my favorite visual adaptation of 16th century England, a crowded genre of which I've seen a few.  The 1998 Cate Blanchett vehicle Elizabeth is probably my next favorite, along with it's sequel Elizabeth: The Golden Age.  The unexceptional Elizabeth I, the 2005 TV mini-series, and A Man for All Seasons, the 1966 film adapted from a play, fill out the middleThe "We watched a History Channel documentary and that's all the research we need" Shakespeare in Love far in the back of the pack.

Fifth: Beyond Rhys Meyers, the rest of the cast is great as well.  Natalie Dormer is a personal favorite.  Sam Neill plays a convincing Cardinal Wolsey, and Peter O'Toole is a delightful treat as Pope Paul III.  The lesser-known actors they get for Sir Thomas More, Catherine of Aragon, and Thomas Cromwell are also very compelling.

I thought this show would be a guilty pleasure, but turns out there's no reason for adjective at all.  It is simply a pleasure, and I'm enjoying it immensely.  I've finished season 1 and am about halfway through season 2, and I plan to continue for a while.

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Sherlock: Season 3

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How in the hell does this show manage to stay as good as it is?  Season 2 left nowhere for Season 3 to go, so it's going to be bad, right?  I mean, how many times can you bring a character back from the dead before your show has more in common with a Soap Opera than with a top-notch mystery drama?  This is the second time in a row that I've thought "It can't possibly be as good as I remember it" and then starting and finishing the series and thinking that, somehow, it was even better than I rememberd.  As soon as I begin watching a season of Sherlock, I'm reliably done within two days.  Sure, part of that is the fact that there's only three 90 minute episodes, but on the other hand, it's often difficult to find 90 uninterrupted minutes.  But we manage it, every time.

The great things from past seasons are completely undimmed.  Cumberbatch still has the perfect Holmesian manner, and still nails the sociopathic savant character well.  Freeman, even though he's a much bigger star now, still convincingly plays the exasperated sidekick.  And together, they still have an astounding magnetism.  The villain in this season isn't quite as good as Moriarty, but don't worry, he'll be back.  Did you miss him?

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