Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book Review - Cities of the Plain

Cities of the Plain is the conclusion of the epic Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy, and if I thought he was an outstanding writer before reading this trilogy I now truly believe he is one of the greatest writers of recent times. This volume is by far the best of the three; it is both simple and absolutely profound in its simplicity to a degree that far outshines the previous two novels.

This book takes the characters from the first two books and entwines their lives together, which is something I had figured out almost as soon as I started the second book but is also something I was really looking forward to. This particular volume seems to be more dialogue-centered and less dependent on terrain and landscape as a character, which is also good as it really lets McCarthy's dialogue take off and when it takes off, it really freaking takes off. All the philosophical banter, monologues and stream-of-consciousness narration are at their peak here and I'd probably say that this is the peak of McCarthy's writing that I've yet read.

Without being cliche or cheesy, McCarthy really manages to bring out authentic emotion through his writing, and it's made all the more realistic because of it's simplicity. There's no fluff or filler when it comes to the emotion, it's all raw and out in the open. The same goes for the level of violence; as per his usual style it's brief and bloody and realistic. I doubt anyone but McCarthy could pull off such stark simplicity and still convey the deep and real feelings his characters have.

There's not a whole lot more to say about this book, as much as I loved it. It keeps the same style and pace as the other two, so if you've read them you know what to expect in terms of technical style. To sum it up, this is a brilliant conclusion to a brilliant trilogy. From the very first page to the very last page Cities of the Plain bristles with deep thoughts, blunt feelings and brutal violence. Cormac McCarthy is at his peak here, and this profound novel has cemented his place in my mind as one of the best writers of our time.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Movie Review - Good Night, and Good Luck.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a film set in one of the most tumultuous periods in American history, the post-WWII communist scares of the 40s and 50s. The movie is centered on Edward R. Murrow, the television journalist who brought down Joe McCarthy, the man who was more or less terrorizing America with allegations of communists under every rock.

This is a fairly low-key movie; the music is mostly soft jazz, the dialogue is soft-spoken and there's no special effects or stunts. Lots of archived footage is shown here, and at times that's all thats being shown. The film is shot in black and white and filmed in a low-key style that every once in a while feels like a documentary.

While this is a low-key movie, that doesn't mean that it's a weak movie. The dialogue here is strong and is really what carries the film. Strathairn delivers some terrific speeches and monologues as Edward R. Murrow, and every one of the films large cast of notable talent (George Clooney, Robert Downy Jr., Frank Langella, Jeff Daniels and many more) delivers terrific performances. 

While there isn't a lot of flash in this movie, Good Night and Good Luck is a fantastic period film that sheds light on a very important time in American history and some of the men who stood up to Joe McCarthy and his crazed anti-communist vigilantism. This movie is slow however, and will probably stretch the patience of those not used to films like this; but if you can stick it out you'll definitely find that it was worth your time. Good Night, and Good Luck is a movie I highly recommend to anyone who wants a good, slow-paced and well filmed movie.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Movie Review - Toy Story 3

Trilogies can be tricky things, especially when the first parts are universally deemed to be excellent films; Toy Story 1 and 2 are two of the most popular American films ever produced. I've yet to meet anyone who doesn't like Toy Story, and that fact alone means that the bar for a third installment in the series better be of equal or greater caliber. It's also difficult because no matter what, the third installment of anything will always be compared to the first two, and when the third isn't as good this can make it seem even worse.

Toy Story 3 on its own is a pretty decent film. There's an abundance of clever jokes, references to other Pixar films and as always the animation is top notch. Unfortunately, compared to the first two Toy Story Movies, it falls a little flat. I suppose the easiest way to describe how I feel is that while the first two films can be both enjoyed and also critically examined and still prove to be excellent films, Toy Story 3 fails to hold itself up on really close inspection. So as a fun movie to go see with friends, this does pretty good. As a serious piece of film, not so much.

There's a lot packed into this movie, with 2 main plot points and so many characters being added that the movie's slightly over 1 and a half hour time doesn't allow for any breathing room; it's a rush from one bit or disaster to the next with no time to develop characters or subplots like the first two movies did so well. That's not to say that they're not enjoyable or well done, but it almost feels as if you're watching a series of short films strung together than one cohesive movie. There's not as much background given to the toys present circumstance; I felt that a flashback or two would have given a lot more depth to the movie. The end of the movie was somehting I honestly thought was really weak and not thought through all the way, as it's just too unbelievable and reaches for emotion that it just doesn't produce.

I did enjoy this movie however, and there were so many clever jokes, one liners and plain old goofy things going on that I was kept laughing for the majority of the film, so my advice would be to go see it as nothing more than 104 minutes of brilliantly animated silliness. While not as good as the first Toy Story movies, Toy Story 3 is a decent ending to what is probably one of the most loved series of movies to come out of America. I'd recommend this be watched with nothing more than a desire to laugh and be entertained, as that's all I think this was really meant to be.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review - The Crossing

The Crossing is the second book in Cormac McCarthy's border trilogy, and so far it's the one I like best. While All the Pretty Horses was a fantastic book in ever way, it seemed a little too sparse and almost a little detached, and I wasn't as drawn to the characters as I was here. All the Pretty Horses reminded me of Black Beauty in a way, with it's intimate and detailed looks into the relationships of men to horses as well as men to men. The Crossing reminds me much more of White Fang, mostly because the story revolves around (for the most part) a boy and a wolf.

If you've read any of my reviews of McCarthy's works you'll have a good idea what to expect here: minimal prose and plain dialogue. There's a lot of dialogue here though, moreso than in some of his other books I'd say. The landscape plays a big role here, almost to the point of becoming a character unto itself; the descriptions of the Mexico/Texas border area are absolutely beautiful. I'd be willing to bet McCarthy has spent a good deal of time alone in this kind of wilderness to write such vivid descriptions.

The dialogue here is as strong as ever; I'd actually say it's some of the best I've yet read from McCarthy. The more philosophical side of his writing is really spotlighted here, and in my opinion is the highlight of the book. There's one particular monologue towards the middle of the book that was absolutely brilliant and one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read. I've read and re-read this particular monologue probably 5 or 6 times, and every time it leaves me awestruck with how simple but powerful it was. It's this little (actually not so little, the monologue is close to 10 pages long) section that really made me favor The Crossing over All the Pretty Horses, and I'd argue that it's one of the single best individual things McCarthy has written.

So far, the Border Trilogy has been absolutely outstanding, and as I said before The Crossing is my current favorite. Full of dialogue and deep philosophical meanderings and beautiful descriptions of the American Southwest, The Crossing is a brilliant book that I highly recommend.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Music Review - Blind Guardian - A Voice in the Dark

After a 4 year wait, one of my favorite bands, Blind Guardian, is back. This single has two songs that will be on the upcoming album and one cover, and based off this single I'm pretty sure the full album will be fantastic.

The title track is more of a throwback to Blind Guardians speed/power metal days, with fast drumming and guitars and Hansi sounding as ferocious as ever. I'm not a huge fan of the bands older music but this is pretty good, with some awesome soloing and fantastic catchy vocals. I wasn't blown away by it but its a good solid Blind Guardian song.

The second song is a cover of the John Farnham song"You're the Voice", and since I'm not really familiar with the original I don't know how good this version really is in comparison. It's an okay song, nothing really amazing, and Blind Guardian have definitely done better covers.

Lastly comes "War of the Thrones". This song is why I love Blind Guardian. It's an acoustic ballad (but if I'm not mistaken the version on the album will not be acoustic, and this version will be a bonustrack) and definitely one of the best they've ever done. The vocals sound brilliant, guitars are as usual outstanding and the writing is top notch. It far outranks "Skalds and Shadows" from the most recent album and I daresay it's as good if not more so than "The Maiden and the Minstrel Knight" from A Night at the Opera.  "War of the Thrones" is catchy, dramatic and has a brilliant ending chorus that ranks as one of the catchiest moments in Blind Guardians entire career. Definitely my favorite from this single.

A Voice in the Dark definitely has me salivating over the full length album, and it's definitely somehting I'll be buying as soon as it comes out. Blind Guardian have once again proved that they're one of the best bands in the business and I have no doubt the new album will be one of their best efforts.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Cigar Review - Neos Cappuccino

I'm not big on flavored cigars (there are a few exceptions) and I'm even less enthusiastic about flavored cigarillos, as most of them end up being pretty cheap and bad tasting smokes. These little guys by Neos however, are fantastic, well flavored and well crafted cigarillos.

The flavor really comes through, and both the taste and smell are terrific. They're small, smaller than cigarettes actually, so they're perfect for a quick smoke or an after dinner dessert smoke. There's no filler or filters here, these are genuine little cigars. They're pre-cut and require no skill to light and smoke in 5-10 minutes. Next time your looking for a light smoke with a lot of flavor, an after-dinner smoke or maybe a chaser smoke after a bigger cigar, I highly recommend Neos Cappuccino.

Music Review - Summoning - Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame

Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame is one heck of an album. It's not as murky and ambient as Oath Bound, and it's also much more "metal", and fairly accessible. It's not my favorite Summoning album and I don't think it's their best album, but it certainly is quite the record.

The most noticeable thing on this album is the clear production; LMHSYF is definitely the best produced (technically) album Summoning have made. The plodding drums are loud and heavy and somewhat faster than Oath Bound, the guitars are more towards the front of the mix and have a more chunky and heavy sound to them, but they also still have a slightly ambient feel to them at times. Keyboards are used in abundance here, and while not the best sounding keyboards I've ever heard they certainly do a good job of setting the mood. The vocals are basically the same as every other Summoning album, not amazing but definitely well performed black metal screeches and screams.

The songs are shorter here than on Oath Bound and seem to rely more on catchy melodies than on constant repetition. The melodies like I said above are more accessible and catchier, and there's a lot fewer long buildups to choruses and climaxes like on Oath Bound. To sum up songwriting: more concise, more catchy and shorter songs.

There's some real killer songs here, and really no song is bad. The samples used on "South Away" and "In Hollow Halls Beneath the Fells" are executed perfectly and really add to the songs. There's a good number of samples used here, mostly from old The Lord of the Rings radio dramas, which is a pretty neat idea to use in music like this.

The star of the show here is the last song, "Farewell," though, with it's dramatic trumpets and amazing choir use(this is first time clean vocals were used in Summonings music if I'm not mistaken). The chorus to this song is amazing, actually the entire song is amazing and is for me the highlight of the album.

Let Mortal Heroes Sing Your Fame is a good solid album, with a really cool medieval feel. The songs are catchy and easy to follow, and really show the songwriting strength of Summoning. While not the band's best album, this is definitely a keeper.