31 December 2008

My Year in Review, Books

I read a lot of books in 2008, although I unfortunately didn't get around to reviewing too many of them. This is a list with commentary of just a handful of them that affected me the most or that I enjoyed (or simply that I'm still thinking about).

(Note: I was planning on re-reading and writing booklog entries for all of Pynchon's works, in the order in which they were published. I got about halfway through my re-read of GR when other things came up, and I never got back to it. Maybe I'll try and finish the project this year, maybe not.)

Oil!, by Upton Sinclair (1927). I read this way back in January -- it's the book that There Will Be Blood is (loosely) based on. It's easy to read this as a socialist screed (and I'm sure that Sinclair meant it to be such) but it's also an involved study of a naive young rich boy's transformation into a socially-responsible young man. Every character is portrayed humanely, even the "evil" oil-magnate father that became Daniel Plainview in the film. Worth a read by any fan of the film or anyone simply interested in the political literature of the early twentieth century. (Original review here.)

The Start of Darkness, by Rich Burlew (2007). This one is really only for fellow fans of the amazing webcomic The Order of the Stick (link goes to the first comic -- they get way better than that one, I promise). This isn't because the book doesn't tell a complete story, or that it wouldn't work at all for those not familiar with the comic, but most of the joys of The Start of Darkness derive from the way that Burlew provides a brilliant prequel to the events of the comic without "pussifying" his characters at all. The story of how Redcloak became the goblin he is in the comic is one of the most heartbreaking and amazing things I read all year.

1632, by Eric Flint (2001). Holy shit, I'm sticking this on my list? Yep -- I read this way back at the beginning of the year, and it still resonates in a strange way. Far from literary fiction, this piece of modern pulp SF has one of the hokiest premises imaginable... and it's executed so well that you forget that fact within a mere handful of chapters. No one would claim 1632 is great literature, but it's one of the most entertaining books I've read in a long time. Exactly what a good cheap paperback should be. (Original review here.)

Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie (2008). I'm not sure if I read Abercrombie's first book in this series (The Blade Itself) this year or at the end of the last, but both the first and second books deserve placement here. The Blade Itself was a brilliant piece of fantasy revisionism filled with gritty characters and desperate men and women -- my favorite was the conflicted torturer Glotka who sublimated his own immense physical pain into his work. Before They Are Hanged continues the story of Blade, and while it doesn't give quite the same kick that we get from meeting all the fantasy archetypes from the first book, it more than compensates by giving the reader a depth and heft to the worldbuilding that was missing in the first. Before They Are Hanged is half "road movie," half war novel, either half of which would have been so entertaining that I wouldn't have been able to put it down. I bought the third novel The Last Argument of Kings a few days ago and without even opening the first page I fully expect it to end up on next year's version of this list.

Anathem, by Neal Stephenson (2008). This is one of those books that throws the famous xkcd comic off its curve. It's easy to get caught up in the strange terminology and re-imagining of pre-Enlightenment thinking shown in Neal Stephenson's latest, but the author is deft at getting the reader to accept his terminology at his pace, and once the first 250 pages have set up the world the real story begins. Physicists may quibble with some of Stephenson's scientific extrapolations, but to me the whole thing fit comfortably within the confines of SFnal speculation. The finale of the novel leaves plenty of unanswered questions and the ending (despite being emotionally cathartic) feels a little flat, but there are few books out there that even attempt the kind of scope of Anathem. Stephenson is to be commended for even attempting such a ballsy nerd novel as this, and the fact that he so regularly succeeds makes up for many of his missteps.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace (1996). Including footnotes, this book is more than a thousand pages long. I flipped the book open to a random page and counted 430-odd words. Which means that this book is something like 400,000 words long -- your average doorstopper SF novel is about 100,000. And I can't say that the book is riveting for its entire length -- Shana could tell you stories of my frustrations will Wallace's endless meandering about his characters' psychological ministrations. But there is a method to the madness and at the end of the day the month or so I spent reading Infinite Jest were well-spent -- the world lost one of its most brilliant and perceptive writers when he killed himself earlier this year. It's hardly a quick read, but it's an amazing one, and I'll be reading more from DFW in 2009 for sure.

Hopefully next year I'll review books as I read them so I don't have to resign myself to these short paragraphs about such great books.

Beer Review, Bell's Christmas Ale

Bell's Christmas Ale
Comstock, MI
5.4% ABV

Appearance: Dark orange (almost red) body, nonexistent head, heavy amounts of carbonation suspended in the glass. Even aside from the bubbles, this is a very hazy beer -- I can't see through it to the other side except vague lights. 4.0/5

Smell: Clean dry malts, very bready. Other than the strong aroma of grains, not much else to the aroma. No hops present. It's good, just not complex. 3.5/5

Taste: Sweet caramel malty start, slightly dry in the finish. A touch of astringency to the aftertaste. A nice flavor, not very complex -- little I can really say about it in detail. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate. Coats the tongue well but not quite as thick as you'd expect from a good Scotch Ale. 3.5/5

Drinkability: This is a good beer that is perhaps a tad mislabeled. I'd consider this closer to a bock than a Scotch Ale -- it's not high enough in alcohol or thick enough to justify the label its given. Not a lot of complexity, but a great flavor that makes it worth picking up. 4.5/5

Overall: 3.9/5

30 December 2008

Following the Lead of Shana

Shana did this the other day, so I guess I'll try it. It's a photo from about eight months ago when I got my new glasses, but still.

MyHeritage: Family tree - Genealogy - Celebrity - Collage - Morph

Sean William Scott? I think my favorite there is Robert Downey Jr. -- I've always wanted to look like a (hopefully former) heroin addict.

A Werner Herzog Christmas

This is from E-merl a few days ago.

It really makes me want to see Grizzly Man again....

29 December 2008

My Year in Review, Movies

As I said before, I didn't get to see too many movies in theaters this year, and thus don't feel comfortable really putting together a "ten-best" list of movies made in 2008. I did, however, see dozens of movies through Netflix, and have decided to put together a personal ten-best list based on the movies that I saw during the year 2008 that I rented from Netflix. If you go back and look at the full list of movies I quoted in the earlier post, you'll notice that many of the films I saw this year are recognized masterpieces, which made it very difficult to pick just ten (plus a handful of honorable mentions) that really stood out from the rest. To that end, I've decided to pick ten that meant something to me personally, or movies that stood out from the pack and stuck in my head more than the others.

Other than the top three or four on this list, it wouldn't be that hard for me to change my mind. Certainly I wouldn't argue that some of these picks are better than some of the others I didn't place on the list, but the essence of making this kind of list is making decisions, so here are the ten that I'm picking, in reverse order.

10. A Fish Called Wanda (1988). Now, I'm not saying that this film is better than Stray Dog or Do the Right Thing, but it's certainly funnier. Kevin Kline and Jamie Lee Curtis join about half the cast of Monty Python in a modern (okay, modern for the 1980s) take on a classic screwball comedy-slash-crime caper. The double-crossings come fast and furious, no one's motives are quite what they seem, and the physical comedy is some of the best ever filmed. Kevin Kline in particular is superb as a thief with delusions of intellectual grandeur and pretty much steals the show out from under the feet of the rest of this amazing cast.

9. Lake of Fire (2006). Tony Kaye's three-hour abortion documentary was nearly two decades in the making, and while the photography may be black-and-white, the nuance and moral complexity is all about shades of gray. The long running time gives the viewer time to settle in and get comfortable with the pace, to meet the people on camera and begin to understand each viewpoint before moving on to the next person. I got to the end of the film and couldn't imagine how anyone could ever think that Lake of Fire ascribes to a pro-life position -- I've read reviews from the other side of the aisle that indicate viewers who disagree with me on the subject of abortion tend to feel the film takes their side instead. Kaye's film includes some startling imagery of actual aborted tissue and contains its fair share of vulgar language, but no one can argue that this film treats its subject with anything other than dispassionate humanism. A must-see for anyone who cares about the abortion debate.

8. In Cold Blood (1967). This adaptation of Truman Capote's "nonfiction novel" is one of the greatest crime dramas ever made. Forget the fact of its verisimilitude and its attention to the details of the actual crime -- In Cold Blood gains its power by showing exactly how two nobody small-time crooks managed to commit a horrific crime. It humanizes its protagonists without ever excusing their crime. And yes, it becomes a bit of an anti-death penalty screed towards the end, but you can excuse some of the preachiness and just focus on the brilliant performances, direction, and amazing cinematography by Conrad Hall. (Original review here.)

7. Nashville (1975). Possibly Robert Altman's greatest film, which is saying something. Another three-hour chair-buster, Nashville uses its running time to introduce us to a huge cast of characters in the titular city, and provides a dozen or so musical set pieces that altogether probably comprise a full hour of the film. Watch it at least twice; while it may seem like this movie is almost entirely plotless, tiny threads move throughout the film and what seem to be meaningless details eventually add up to become amazingly detailed plot threads. Robert Altman, you will be missed.

6. Chinatown/Knife in the Water (1974, 1962). Two films from Roman Polanski that I saw for the first time this year, both so good I can't choose just one. Chinatown is a note-perfect noir made thirty years after noir was king with a breakthrough performance by Jack Nicholson and an ending that curdles the blood. Knife in the Water is a masterpiece of low-budget film -- it takes place almost entirely within the confines or immediately outside a small sailboat and has only three actors.... but they have enough psychological and sexual tension for six or even sixteen. Both are brilliant and deserve inclusion but if you asked me to pick just one it'd be Knife.

5. Double Indemnity (1944). Possibly the noir picture. An insurance agent (Fred MacMurray) and a femme fatale (Barbara Stanwyck) conspire to do in her husband. She wants the money; he wants.... We never really find out what he wants, probably mostly just the satisfaction of getting away with it. Edward G. Robinson plays a smart fraud agent at the insurance company and has a knack for finding just the wrong time to ask just the right question. A film so modern in its approach that it could be made today... but no remake could ever even attempt to topple the original.

4. Downfall (2004). This was the film of a thousand Youtube parody videos, but the original retains its power through sheer storytelling. This story of the last days of Hitler is possibly the most disturbing and depressing piece of cinema ever made, but lovers of cinema will be energized by the amazing cast, cinematography, and direction. Bruno Ganz is electrifying as one of the most evil men in history -- Downfall is worth seeing for his performance alone. A must-see for film fans and/or history buffs. (Original review here.)

3. Dawn of the Dead (1978). Not the first of Romero's zombie movies, but the best. Dawn of the Dead starts with a society in chaos from the zombie apocalypse and never takes its foot off the gas pedal. Romero uses his zombies to examine the effects of racism and sexism, of class and social standing, of consumerism and of desperation. Combine this with the fact that Dawn is easily one of the most terrifying experiences I've ever had (with many of the most tension-filled sequences played out in full light, at that!) and contains some truly horrifying examples of zombie gore and you have what is bar-none one of the finest films I've ever seen.

2. City of God (2002). This was a late entry for me -- I saw it only days before writing this list. Nevertheless this crime drama from Brazil is definitely one of the finest films I saw this year; a sort of bleak Brazilian Goodfellas that has the kind of assertive and propulsive energy you'd expect from a much more experienced filmmaker. The violence and dread of violence is punctuated by a coming-of-age tale (that somehow never grates) and sequences of great humor, but at all times City of God reminds its audience that death and destruction can be just around the corner. Go into it knowing as little as possible and I promise you won't be disappointed.

1. Once Upon a Time in the West. (1968). I don't usually like Westerns, but I absolutely loved this Western. Sergio Leone makes one of the most elegiac films I've ever seen, a long song, even a hymn, to the Old West. As Society and Civilization invade the wide-open spaces of these characters' lives, we see how some of them can deal with it while others can't. The cinematography captures some of the greatest images ever put on film, and Ennio Morricone's score is so amazing that I've been listening to it regularly ever since seeing the film. The Western you should see even if you hate Westerns. (Original review here.)

(But, but... what about Wings of Desire and Stray Dog and and and.... Forget it, I've already gone one over already.)

Okay, fine. A few more that I loved -- here I'm focusing on genre pictures, films that fill a niche perfectly rather than films that really deserve inclusion. Four more, in no particular order:

Bound (1996). Lesbian noir, how can I say no? Before the Wachowski brothers were pretending they knew how to philosophize and do kung fu at the same time, they made this low-budget indie masterpiece. Gina Gershon and Jennifer Tilly play lovers who steal millions from mobster Joe Pantoliano. It's the kind of premise that sounds like a "gay cowboys eating pudding" movie but the plotting and script are first-rate, the performances are mannered but great, and the Wachowskis show they have a great sense of style when they don't let their own computer fetishes get out of hand. Oh, and the sex scenes are some of the hottest ever put on film.

Martin (1975). Three years before returning to the zombie movie with Dawn of the Dead, George Romero gave the world his take on vampirism. Is the titular character really a vampire, or just a fucked-up kid? Romero never really supplies an answer, and this low-budget horror film works just as well as a character study of a young man who can't quite come to grips with who (or what) he really is. It all leads to a finale which has to be seen to be believed.

Ravenous (1999). Oh, what happened to you Guy Pearce? This might be the movie with the hokiest premise (well, except for Six String Samurai) I saw all year: vampire cannibals in the 1840s. What starts off as the story of a disgraced military officer slowly becomes one of the great genre movies of all time as the mystical powers granted by the eating of human flesh become known to the characters. Standout performances by the aforementioned Pearce, Robert Carlyle and Jeffrey Jones.

Encounters at the End of the World (2007). Werner Herzog goes to Antarctica. He meets crazy scientists and sees some amazing sights of the natural world. What else do you need? Go rent it.

Okay, that's my list for 2008. Hopefully in 2009 I can do a lot more to get to write up regular reviews of the films I'm watching so that these sorts of lists will have more meaning. I'm aiming for two a week, but I don't think there's a chance in hell that I'll actually make that kind of schedule.

Beer Review, Special Reserve Black Bier Ale

Dark Horse Special Reserve Black Bier Ale
Marshall, MI
7.5% ABV

Appearance: Dark coloration, brown-black, with very thin khaki-colored head that disappears almost immediately. Opaque. 3.5/5

Smell: Sweet, malty. Hints of chocolate malt, a touch of caramel. Very subtle. No hops present in nose. 3.0/5

Taste: Dry malt up front, slightly cloying, with a very dry finish. Slightly unpleasant "soapy" flavor. Alcohol is well-hidden. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness. Slightly watery. Low carbonation. 3.0/5

Drinkability: Overall not necessarily a bad beer, but it lacks complexity and could use a little more balance. 3.5/5

Overall: 3.15/5

28 December 2008

My Year in Review: Beer

I know, the last thing this blog needs is yet more talking about beer to the exclusion of other topics. But beer reviewing is a very ephemeral activity, in which I pour a beer, type out a few descriptions of its characteristics, assign the whole thing a numerical score according to BeerAdvocate's formula, and move on. If I buy a single of beer A and a case of beer B, they each get pretty much exactly the same amount of space on the blog in terms of review, so it's hard to look at the blog and really get an idea of what I really enjoyed and made an impact on my daily beer consumption activity and what I admired on a technical level but didn't find compelling enough to buy or drink again.

So I've decided to make a list of five beers in no particular order that I enjoyed enough to devote a bit more space to -- these are beers that made enough of an impression on me that I am either still drinking them now or beers that I am still thinking about as comparison points for other beers.

(Note: these are not the five best beers I drank in the last year, just a selection that I think deserve special mention. For example, Stone RIS will not be found on this list, despite being one of the best brews I have ever consumed.)

Bell's Expedition Stout: When Shana told me that she was considering moving to Kalamazoo, MI for grad school, my first thought was that Bell's brewery was located there. And since moving to this city at the beginning of October, I have consumed a pretty large quantity of Bell's beer, from their summer release Oberon when I first moved here, to their Winter Ale freshly brewed today. Big Porch Ale is a yearly release that deserves mention as a great daily workhorse inexpensive brew, and Two-Hearted is one of the finest IPAs in existence, but my RIS-loving heart will always belong to Expedition Stout. It's too expensive to drink every day, but the amazingly thick mix of chocolate malt and fine hops is a delicious confection that I savor as long as possible every time I drink it. It's not for everyone, but it's just perfect for me.

Brasserie des Rocs Grand Cru: The best Belgian I've had since moving to Kalamazoo, and that's saying something. This brewery used to make Abbaye des Rocs, one of my top-rated beers on BA, although I've heard that production has been halted and I haven't found it in a couple of years. This Grand Cru is an able replacement, though, with a dark nutty Belgian flavor that is about as complex as that Abbey ale, and totally worthy of inclusion at any home feast. I made this my Thanksgiving beer this year, and it paired with the amazing dinner of turkey and dressing (and fried okra!) perfectly, At 750mL of 10% ABV, it's a bit of a wallop, but definitely worth sharing with a good friend if you're not up to it yourself.

Spanish Peaks American Pale Ale: Other than Bell's Oberon and Big Porch, this is probably the beer I've consumed in the greatest quantity over the last three months. My local beer store sells this at $4.99 a six-pack, which makes it one of the best values I've seen in a long time. Sure, it lacks the complexity and punch of some of the greater beers I've had, but it's very nearly a note-perfect pale ale, a technical task worthy of note and worth a place in any beer fan's fridge.

Dogfish Head Indian Brown Ale: It's hard to brew a brown ale that's interesting, as the style itself seems to lend itself to a certain mediocrity. But this one manages that difficult task by upping the hops and giving itself a bigger bite. This is the kind of experiment that could be a huge mistake, but Dogfish Head avoids the trap of overhopping the beer by increasing the flavor of the other ingredients to keep this a very balanced beer overall. I haven't had a lot of this beer lately, but my favorite bar back in Huntsville kept this permanently on-tap where I could pretty much consume my weight in it. (Honorable mention in the "brown ale that is much better than it has any right to be" is Bell's Best Brown Ale, which achieves the same end not by upping the hops but by upping the "nutty" flavor profile and giving the brew the kind of complexity not normally found in brown ales. If I hadn't already sung the praises of Bell's, I might have stuck Best Brown in place of DFH in this spot.)

Yuengling Lager: This is as cheap as Bud Light in Huntsville but seemingly unavailable here, and it's the beer I'm missing most in this area. I know it's a basic uncomplex lager, but it's smooth, clean, and has a sweetness that made it my go-to beer when I could get it. It's the only beer that I'll happily drink straight from a can, and when I could get it for $8.69 for a twelve-pack of cans it was an amazing deal.

So there you have it. Five beers that I enjoyed enough to want to talk about during 2008. I have a much wider selection here in Michigan than I did in Alabama, so my consumption will likely be much different in 2009 than in 2008, but if next year is as good as this year, it'll be a great time to explore the hobby.

27 December 2008

My Year in Review, TV

I don't talk a lot about TV on this page -- it's just not a focus of mine, and I don't consider myself really able to talk about TV in the same way that I talk about movies or books. Oh, sure, I enjoy sitting down and watching a few hours of the tube to relax as much as the next guy, but in general TV is entertaining and stimulating in a very different way than movies or books. TV, in general, is a "long-form" entertainment offering, in which the entertainment value of a given hour is largely based on how much the viewer is involved in the long-term drama of the hours immediately preceding it, and on anticipation of future hours. The best TV is often stoked by anticipation of "what-comes-next," and in this 21st century world usually egged on by web-based or (if you're lucky enough) in-person discussions of "what will happen" or "what it all means." Isn't that really what keeps people tuning in to Heroes or (a couple of years ago) Lost in such an obsessive way?

Sure, plenty of TV is meant to be self-contained or simply amusing or diverting in a short-form format, but you can't sit and analyze a single half-hour of, say, Arrested Development or even Law & Order in the same way that you can analyze a feature film. Films (with very few exceptions) are designed to be self-contained entertainment vehicles in their own right.

This is in no way meant to disparage TV, to be sure. A great TV show can give a character, setting, or storyline the kind of depth that no movie and very few books can, simply because of the amount of time and depth of characterization that is possible with so many hours to fill. It's just that I, personally, don't spend a huge amount of time trying to analyze TV and other long-form entertainment options (like, say, comic books) when my preferred media are available. It's purely a personality thing.

That said, through the power of Netflix I have absorbed or begun to absorb several serial dramas that deserve mention, and I thought I'd take a few minutes to talk about them. In no particular order:

Homicide: Life on the Streets: While I've been a fan of Law & Order for several years now, I hadn't caught an episode of H:LOTS until earlier this year. (I also haven't yet seen any of The Wire). But I'm glad I stuck the first and second seasons into my Netflix queue earlier this year -- Homicide may be set in a police precinct in Baltimore, but it focuses more on the character dramas and conflicts than on proper police procedure. Some of the social issues the series tackles are a bit dated a decade-and-a-half later, but Homicide's mix of younger and older actors, from Kyle Secor as the rookie Homicide detective to Ned Beatty's curmudgeonly old-timer gives the series an authenticity rarely achieved by later, glossier efforts. Of particular note is Andre Braugher's Frank Pembleton, a brilliant African-American detective who hides his social insecurities under a veneer of arrogance.

Deadwood: I've only seen the first four episodes of the series so far, but David Milch's Western drama seems to deserve every bit of the critical acclaim it accumulated over the three seasons it ran on HBO. The TV format allows its characters room to breathe, to live and grow, and while I'm not sure which direction this series is moving in, I know that I'm endlessly fascinated by the tale of an aging Wild Bill Hickock and the ex Federal Marshall who befriends him in this mining town in South Dakota. Special note also goes to Ian McShane as the violent saloon-owner Al Swearengen, who seems to have his fingers in every pie.

Mad Men: Again, I've only seen the first six episodes of season one at the time of this writing, and I'm not sure how some of the subplots are really going to play out, but this dramatization of the birth of modern society during the Civil Rights era played out against the world of advertising seems pitch-perfect in the way it develops characters with sometimes-overlapping, sometimes-conflicting motives. The show is rarely sentimental, but it contains some of the best-drawn characters I've ever seen on television, realistic and full of the kinds of moral conflict normally reserved for Shakespeare.

Paranoia Agent: This is an animated series from Japan that starts out as the story of a city stricken with panic over a series of brutal crimes committed by a child, but by the end becomes something far stranger. Personally, I like the first half of this twelve-part series better than the second half, but it's hard to deny that this series' attempts to weave muddy realism with spiritual lyrical fantasy are fascinating entertainment.

The Office: I've been watching this show almost since day one, but I missed about half of season two and almost all of season four, catching them only out-of-order in repeats. Through Netflix I watched seasons two, three, and four in their original order and fell in love with the series all over again. Casual viewers will catch the wonderful chemistry between the luminous Jim and Pam (John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer) and the inspired lunacy of Steve Carell (a favorite of mine since his work on The Daily Show), but they will miss some of the quieter brilliance of the show's smaller players, like the quiet dignity of Oscar, the injured humanity of Toby, and the grumpy professionalism and sneering dislike that Stanley has for his crazy boss.

Veronica Mars: I've only watched Season One so far, but this series literally hooked me from the very first minutes of the first episode. An engaging heroine who uses her brain rather than her brawn to solve problems and catch the bad guys, witty and relevant pop-culture references that illuminate rather than grate, and a wonderful supporting cast all the way around make this show a winner. And that's even before you get to the two season-long mysteries of the first season and the cleverly-convoluted smaller ones that Veronica works in between. Add in the amazing humanity shown by the main characters and the lessons learned by the titular heroine that somehow are devoid of any hint of saccharine and you have what may be my favorite show that I saw for the first time this year.

All in all, it was a great year for TV for me (in particular TV-on-DVD), and I can't wait to complete the series I began here and start trying out new ones that I haven't seen. I hear there's some about mobsters that's worth seeing....

Beer Review, Hop Devil

Victory Hop Devil
Downingtown, PA
6.7% ABV

Appearance: Transparent orange-red body, moderate white heat full of bubbles. Very slight effervescence. Head leaves significant lacing. 4.0/5

Smell: Very sweet, grapefruit-laced, with a strong citrus aroma. This is followed quickly by the refreshing scents of crisp white hops. 4.5/5

Taste: Now the hops are up front. Crisp floral hoppy flavor, followed by a mellow, sweet middle and a dry finish. Clean and refreshing. Despite the name and reputation, seems to be a pretty well-balanced IPA. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, low carbonation, heavy with hops. Goes down clean and smooth. 4.0/5

Drinkability: A very nice IPA, well worth its reputation. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.35/5

25 December 2008

Beer Review, Big Daddy IPA

Speakeasy Big Daddy IPA
San Francisco, CA
6.5% ABV

Appearance: Cloudy yellow appearance, thick white head that floats on top of the beer. Head leaves significant lacing, no effervescence. 4.5/5

Smell: The refreshing aroma of crisp white hops. Beautiful cascade aroma, with hints of a grapefruity goodness underneath. It's not balanced, but for hopheads it's pretty amazing. 4.0/5

Taste: Again, mostly hops with a slight grapefruit underbelly. Slightly dry on the finish, but goes down clean with only a slight bitterness. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin and easy-to-drink. The hops are very present but not painful to the palate. Low carbonation. 3.5/5

Drinkability: I know I've complained about "liquid hop-juice" before, but this one is a nicely constructed West Coast IPA. It's pretty much pure hops, but sometimes that's exactly what you want in a beer. For hopheads only. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.1/5

23 December 2008

Beer Review, Magic Hat #9

Magic Hat #9 Not Quite Pale ALe
South Burlington, VT
4.6% ABV

Appearance: Clear yellow-orange body, thick foamy white head. Slight effervescence. 4.0/5

Smell: Very very sweet, citrusy. Very cloying, syrupy. Has that kind of "soapy" aroma that some pale ales seem to have. 2.0/5

Taste: Strong glavors of oranges, slightly acidic. Malty and yet very dry on the finish. Slightly yeasty. It's sweet and refreshing like orange juice, but doesn't have a lot of complexity. 3.0/5

Mouthfeel: On a scale of one to ten, this is a six for thickness. Low carbonation. 3.5/5

Drinkability: I can drink this, but it certainly isn't a "good" beer by any reasonable standard. There are much better pale ales out there, although people looking for a very citrusy beer might enjoy this. 2.5/5

Overall: 3.0/5

22 December 2008

A to Z Meme

I saw this floating around the net a while ago, but seeing Chad Orzel's version made me decide to just step up and do it myself. It's the A-Z movie meme, in which the idea is to pick a movie beginning with each letter of the alphabet. I'm kind of just going with what sticks in my head first, here, so don't think that I'm picking the absolute best movie for each letter or anything. I'm deliberately picking only movies I've seen, so some of these might be a little weird. Here goes.

A: American Beauty. The first entry on my list is the first movie directed by Sam Mendes (also the first movie written by Six Feet Under's Alan Ball). I haven't seen this since its original release, and the backlash generated around the film is in full force, but I'm guessing that it holds up pretty well despite that.

B: Blade Runner. Proof that a slightly off-kilter plot will never be able to kill a great story. See also The Dark Knight for more evidence in favor of this.

C: Citizen Kane. Cause you just have to.

D: Die Hard. You mean this isn't everyone's favorite Christmas movie? The birth of the modern-day Bruce Willis, as opposed to affable-comedy-guy-Blind Date/Moonlighting Bruce Willis, or (even worse) poor-man's Billy Joel Bruce Willis.

E: Edward Scissorhands. This strange fairy tale may be Tim Burton's best movie.

F: Fargo. This or No Country for Old Men is probably the Coen Brothers' best film. Plus my backyard kind of looks like this movie right now.

G: Ghostbusters. I've seen this movie so many times I could probably reconstruct it scene for scene from memory after the apocalypse.

H: Home Alone. I feel terrible that I can't think of a great "H" movie, but isn't this still the highest-grossing comedy of all time?

I: Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Just finished watching this a half hour ago. A bit dated, but a classic of the genre.

J: Jackie Brown. Underrated Tarantino masterpiece, with great performances from Pam Grier and Robert Forster.

K: Knife in the Water. Polanski's first directorial effort, a low-budget film with only three actors but with enough tension for six.

L: Lake of Fire. Tony Kaye's three-hour documentary about abortion is dispassionate enough to be work seeing no matter where you stand on the issue.

M: Magnolia. Paul Thomas Anderson's third movie, a masterpiece of coincidence, love, loss, and pain.

N: Night of the Living Dead. George Romero's first zombie movie, wildly influential, hugely successful. Invented the modern zombie story.

O: Oleanna. David Mamet's study of sexual harassment, a two-person show that is amazing in its ambiguity. We see everything that happens, but we have no idea what it means.

P: The Princess Bride. I'm sure there are other movies I could put here, but I keep coming back to this classic tale from William Goldman. One of the most quotable movies ever.

Q: Quiz Show. I loved this movie in my late teens -- whether it holds up now is another question. My guess is that seen metaphorically it'd seem remarkably prescient as a metaphor for the loss of national innocence.

R: The Rules of Attraction. Roger Avary's low-budget, deeply strange, widely misunderstood loose adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis's novel. Victor's trip to Europe is one of the greatest four minutes or so of film I've ever seen.

S: Six String Samurai. How has this movie not developed a massive online cult following? Just watch the trailer and tell me why.

T: Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Still possibly James Cameron's best film, one of the greatest action pictures ever made.

U: UHF. At first I thought that the only ones I could think of were movies I haven't seen: Unforgiven, The Untouchables, Under the Cherry Moon. And IMDB is no help. But finally I thought of this Weird Al Yankovic vehicle from the mid-eighties.

V: V for Vendetta. Another hard one. It's a great graphic novel that got turned into a good movie.

W: Who Framed Roger Rabbit? A technical milestone and a classic of family entertainment.

X: eXistenz. Yes, I know it's cheating a bit, but this remarkable David Cronenberg flick deserves a look if you haven't seen it already.

Y: Young Einstein. Because no movie list is complete without a Yahoo Serious inclusion.

Z: Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Kevin Smith saves me from having to list Zelig.

Now let's do something a bit different: I'll name twenty-six movies that I haven't yet seen, but want to. This should be a bit easier than naming movies I've already seen.

A: Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Love to see some more Werner Herzog movies.
B: The Big Sleep. Film noir's always in season, right?
C: Clockwatchers. Ebert gave this indie flick three-and-a-half stars -- it sounds like Office Space for temp workers.
D: Dog Day Afternoon. For the Pacino performance.
E: El Topo. Because I'm fucked in the head.
F: Falling Down.
G: The Godfather. That's right, I've never seen the Godfather movies. So sue me.
H: House of Games. David Mamet. 'Nuff said.
I: Intolerance. My knowledge of silent movies is sadly lacking.
J: Jarhead.
K: King Kong. I've never seen the 1933 original.
L: Lolita. Although I'd like to read the book first.
M: McCabe & Mrs. Miller. You can never have too much Robert Altman.
N: Nosferatu. Have wanted to see this ever since I saw Shadow of the Vampire.
O: Once Upon a Time in America. I so love ...in the West that I'm looking forward to seeing this 1984 thematic-follow-up.
P: Pink Flamingos. The film that gave John Waters to the world.
Q: The Quiet American. Both versions.
R: Rashomon. And:
S: Seven Samurai. Because I need to see more Kurosawa movies.
T: Talk Radio. One of the few films of Oliver Stone I haven't seen.
U: Unforgiven.
V: Vertigo.
W: Walkabout.
X: Xanadu. For my gay friends.
Y: You Can Count on Me. For Laura Linney and Matthew Broderick in indie-mode.
Z: Zulu. I've heard it's a great indie film.

Okay, that's enough alphabet for now. I feel like my brain is turning to soup.

21 December 2008

My Year in Netflix

I've been very lax on writing up movies the last couple of months, partly because I've been adjusting to my new environment, partly because I haven't been watching as many movies as I used to, and partly because I'm just damned lazy most of the time. I also haven't seen more than a handful of movies this year in theaters, due to lack of money, time, or availability of the really interesting films that have come out this year. (Oh, Synecdoche, New York, why won't you play near me?) So as it comes towards the end of the year, that time in which all of those who style themselves critics feel the compulsive need to assemble a "best-of" list, I find myself pretty much shit-out-of-luck.

On the other hand, I've spent the majority of 2008 filling in gaps in my film knowledge by using Netflix to view classic films. And while my consumption has declined in the last couple of months, according to my rental history, I've rented and viewed eighty-six films this year, excluding TV-on-DVD and a handful of movies that I didn't watch all the way through for one reason or another. So I've decided to compose a "best-of" list of the movies I saw during 2008, a list that aside from being an examination of my own personal year of film, is also a celebration of sorts of Netflix itself, and an appreciation of the ability to get to cheaply see such a variety of movies in a single year.

In that vein, I'm posting today a list of all the movies that I've seen this year. I know there are still a dozen days left (and I'll surely see at least a couple more movies before the clock strikes midnight on Dec 31), but any movies that I see this year will be considered for my 2009 list. (It'd be nice to think I'll have the stick-to-it-tiveness to do this next year, as well, isn't it?)

Here's the list of all the movies that I have returned to Netflix during the year 2008.

28 Weeks Later
3:10 to Yuma
A Fish Called Wanda
A Simple Plan
Baby Face
Battle Royale
Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
Brokeback Mountain
Bruce & Lloyd Out of Control
Catch and Release
City of God
Creation Adventure Team
CSA: Confederate States of America
Dawn of the Dead
Day of the Dead
Desk Set
Do the Right Thing
Double Indemnity
Encounters at the End of the World
For the Bible Tells Me So
Gangs of New York
Hard Candy
Husbands and Wives
Ichi the Killer
In Cold Blood
Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter
Kiss Me Deadly
Knife in the Water
Lake of Fire
Land of the Dead
Left Behind: The Movie
Once Upon a Time in the West
Patton Oswalt: Werewolves and Lollipops
Q & A
Repo Man
Romance & Cigarettes
Secret Honor
Shoot 'Em Up
Six-String Samurai
Slaughterhouse Five
South Park: The Imaginationland Trilogy
Straw Dogs
Stray Dog
Taxi to the Dark Side
The Assassination of Jesse James
The Comedians of Comedy: The Movie
The Day the Earth Stood Still
The Day the World Ended
The French Connection
The Hammer
The Long Goodbye
The Maltese Falcon
The Royal Tenenbaums
The Third Man
The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre
The Wild Child
Triple B Collection: The Dallas Connection
Undead or Alive
Versus: Director's Cut
Wild Things
Wings of Desire
Wizard of Gore

Expect my ten-best list in the next few days, along with another couple of year-end retrospectives detailing things that are of interest to this blog.

Beer Review, Breckenridge Brewery Oatmeal Stout

Breckenridge Brewery Oatmeal Stout
Denver, CO
4.95% ABV

Appearance: Dark brown/black appearance, completely opaque, no effervescence. Very thin brown head that dissipates immediately. 4.0/5

Smell: Very sweet oaty aroma, very bready with crisp caramel malts. Clean aromas of coffee and hints of chocolate. 4.5/5

Taste: Strong flavors of oatmeal, flavorful caramel malts. Slightly hoppy in the middle, dry on the finish. An amazingly complex oatmeal stout. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, with low carbonation and low hops. 3.5/5

Drinkability: Could be a bit thicker and the flavor could stick around longer, but overall this is a really amazing oatmeal stout. It's one of my girlfriend's favorites, and makes a really good "introduction beer" for oatmeal stouts. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.25/5

19 December 2008

Beer Review, Goose Island Nut Brown Ale

Goose Island Nut Brown Ale
Chicago, IL
5.2% ABV

Appearance: Dark brown coloration, clear, slight effervescence. Thin head dissipates immediately. 3.5/5

Smell: Sweet and malty. Dark roasty aroma, strong notes of roasted malts. Hints of caramel. 4.0/5

Taste: Slightly nutty, sweet in the middle, very dry in the finish. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thin, slightly watery. Low carbonation, no hops. 3.0/5

Drinkability: A decent beer but there are far superior examples of nut browns out there to choose from. Makes for an okay quaffer.3.5/5

Overall: 3.55/5

17 December 2008

Beer Review, Founders Breakfast Stout

Founders Breakfast Stout
Grand Rapids, MI
8.3% ABV

Appearance: Perfect black. Opaque to hell and back. Tiny head that dissipates immediately, not exactly unexpected given the high alcohol. 4.0/5

Smell: Very malty. Notes of dry oats, slightly sweet. Caramel malts predominate. Very interesting, very enticing. 4.0/5

Taste: Sweet, clean, malty. Strong flavors of oatmeal, very grainy and bready. Slightly hoppy in the middle. Finishes clean. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, low carbonation, low hops. Slightly chewy. 4.0/5

Drinkability: A very nice double stout. I'm not sure I'd consider it one of the best in the world (as per the BA ratings), but it's amazingly well-balanced and makes for a great drinking experience. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.25/5

13 December 2008

Beer Review, Back Burner

Southern Tier Back Burner Barleywine Style Ale
Lakewood, NY
10.0% ABV

Appearance: Dark orange-red, very hazy (almost opaque), with a thick off-white head that sticks around for a bit and leaves some lacing. Very good appearance. 4.5/5

Smell: Crisp hops up-front, with a nice solid caramel maltiness underneath. Slightly sweet. 4.0/5

Taste: Strong bitter solid hops on the front, very heavily malted in the middle, with a sweet aftertaste. Strong flavors of caramel and brown sugar. Pretty much your standard barleywine, but it doesn't quite gel as well as I'd like it to -- the hops and the malts seem like characteristics from two separate beers, and don't reinforce one another the way I'd like. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, heavy hops and low carbonation. Slightly chewy. 4.0/5

Drinkability: A very nice barleywine, one of the better examples of the style. Well worth trying if you can get it. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.1/5

11 December 2008

Beer Review, St. Bernardus Tripel

St. Bernardus Tripel
Watout, Belgium
8.0% ABV

Appearance: Light orange body, very thick white foamy head. Hazy, highly effervescent. Leaves significant lacing. 4.5/5

Smell: Citrus notes up-front, strong aroma of orange peel and a hint of lemon. Aside from that is the standard Belgian tartness and hints of grapefruit. Sweet, malty, no notes of hops. 4.0/5

Taste: Strongly citrus, notes of Belgian yeast, with a slight... saltiness in the finish. Flavors of oranges most prominent. Somewhat drying on the finish, with a bit of a bitter bite. Crisp, clean, refreshing, with the alcohol hidden beautifully. 4.5/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate, somewhat thin for the style. Slight bit of a carbonation bite to the tongue and palate. 4.0/5

Drinkability: I'm not usually a huge fan of tripels, but I'm a fan of this tripel. Very enjoyable. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.3/5

09 December 2008

Beer Review, Bell's Bourbon Barrel Aged Cherry Stout

Bell's Bourbon Barrel Aged Cherry Stout
Comstock, MI
8.5% ABV

Appearance: Dark black opaque body with a slight reddish tinge to the top, with a thick slightly pink head that dissipates quickly. Looks interesting. 4.5/5

Smell: Strong tart cherries up-front with the chocolatety coffee-ish undertones present underneath. Slightly astringent, slight notes of hops. 4.5/5

Taste: The cherries are way up top on this one, very tart, slightly astringent. The middle balances it out with the more standard "stout-like" flavors of roasted chocolate malts. Finishes sweet, dry, but clean. I've had a few bottles of this, and some are more tartly astringent than others -- it's almost a luck of the draw thing. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, coats the tongue nicely. No significant hops or carbonation. 4.0/5

Drinkability: This is one of Bell's one-off releases that is unlikely to be widely available, but if you can find it and are a fan of stouts that don't fit the "standard" definition of a stout, this might just be up your alley. 4.0/5

Overall: 4.2/5

08 December 2008


No new non-beer posts in fucking weeks. I'm a bad blogger.

The beer posts are written days if not weeks in advance now, scheduled two days apart just so I can make sure there's always something going up on the blog.

In related news, I have a new job working retail again, and it takes up most of my time. I'm reading lots of books and watching some movies, but I seem to never want to take the time or the energy to type up reviews of anything.

So. Yeah. I'm working on it. Sorry.

07 December 2008

Beer Review, Stoudt's Blonde Double Maibock

Stoudt's Double Blonde Maibock
Adamstown, PA
7.0% ABV

Appearance: They're not kidding when they call this a "blonde" Maibock. Looks more like a witbier or a pilsner than a maibock, very clear yellow-white body with a thick white head. No effervescence present. 4.0/5

Smell: Aroma is more like a Maibock, though. Very malty, dry, strong notes of caramel malt and a touch of sweetness way down deep. Slightly hoppy. Very interesting, inviting. 4.5/5

Taste: Again with the caramel malts balanced with sharp hoppiness. Sweet and malty in the middle, very dry on the finish. Tastes like a very well-balanced and well-exectued maibock. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Thin, slightly carbonated, very hoppy. Smooth, clean. 3.5/5

Drinkability: It's a bit too cloying to be on the same level as Sam Adams Boston Lager or Rogue Dead Guy, but overall this is a decent Maibock, well worth the cost. I'll be buying it again. 3.5/5

Overall: 4.0/5

05 December 2008

Beer Review, Magic Hat Jinx

Magic Hat Jinx
South Burlington, VT
6.9% ABV

Appearance: Red-orange body, thin white head. Some bubbles present at the bottom of the glass. 3.5/5

Smell: Rich with dry malted grains, slightly sweet with cherries, with a hint of tartness and alcohol astringency. Interesting, inviting. 4.0/5

Taste: A heavy dose of malts up-front, with some sweetness in the mix in the middle and a slightly dry back-end. Bready flavors along with quite a bit of fruit. Not bad at all. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate-to-heavy thickness, about par for a Scotch Ale. Low carbonation and no hops. 4.0/5

Drinkability: One of the better Scotch Ales I've had, but no comparison to Skullsplitter (so far, the King of Scotch Ales, at least in my opinion.) 4.0/5

Overall: 3.9/5

03 December 2008

Beer Review, Lagunitas IPA

Lagunitas IPA
Petaluma, CA
5.7% ABV

Appearance: Yellow-orange body, slight effervescence, thin white head that sticks around. 4.0/5

Smell: Pure California IPA. Strong aroma of crisp hops with grapefruit and other citrus underneath. Very floral. Inviting. 4.5/5

Taste: Again, a pure California IPA. Strong crisp dry hops up front, in the middle, and in the end, with a nice balance of citrus and grapefruit balancing it out. Very dry on the finish due to the hops. This isn't exactly a hop bomb, though, as the hops are a lot less aggressive than in other IPAs I've had. 4.0/5

Mouthfeel: Moderate thickness, moderate carbonation, heavy doses of hops. Pretty much exactly what a good IPA should be. 4.5/5

Drinkability: This one doesn't supplant Bridgeport IPA or Sweetwater IPA on my list of favorites, but for my taste it's probably the canonical example of a West-Coast IPA. A must-try for fans of the style. 4.5/5

Overall: 4.2/5

01 December 2008

Beer Review, Anchor Bock

Anchor Bock (Anchor Steam Brewing Company)
San Francisco, CA
5.5% ABV

Appearance: Very dark body, brown-black, with a slight reddish tint to the bottom of the glass. Thin khaki-colored head. 3.5/5

Smell: Nutty, malty, slightly sweet, slightly dry. No hops present. 4.0/5

Taste: Richly nutty, malty, very sweet, nice notes of grains. Tastes a lot like a very subdued Nut Brown Ale, not a negative thing at all. Slight astringency on the finish. 3.5/5

Mouthfeel: Thick, luxurious mouthfeel coats the tongue. No carbonation or hops. 4.5/5

Drinkability: Bocks aren't my favorite beers ever, but this is a really good example of the style. 4.0/5

Overall: 3.75/5