I Blame Netflix

One of the reasons that I am not reading much is, in part, because of Netflix, as I mentioned. TV on demand is hard for me to resist. (Also, I am lacking in time to go to the library. I have to fix that.) (Also: Netflix is making some damn fine television.)

I couldn’t tell you what exactly made me watch anyone of these shows. Maybe friends of mine were talking about them, or they were trending on Twitter, or a combination of the two. Dan and I usually pick shows to watch together, but I confess to watching Stranger Things and Jane the Virgin on my own. He watches The Walking Dead. To be fair, he did ask me to watch TWD with him, but I can’t do zombies.

Here are the shows that I am letting keep me away from books. (Spoilers are possible.)

1. Stranger Things

If you haven’t heard of this show yet, I question if you even Netflix. The night I decided to start it, Dan was out with a friend. Within the first five minutes, I was curled in a ball on my couch with a blanket clutched to my mouth. Hooked from the get-go, pretty much. To sum up, it takes place in 1983 in a small town. Stranger Things involves a group of four boys, one of whom goes missing, the boys’ families, a mysterious government building, a weird girl, and a terrifying monster.

Or, to put in another way: Stephen Spielberg directs Stephen King, with a little John Carpenter thrown in.

The story-telling is non-stop. You barely get time to breathe throughout each episode (or was that just me? I felt like I was holding my breath the whole time). Even as the episode careens from plot point to credits, character development builds. The 1980s references, look, and feel are spot on.

But what made this show an absolute stand out for me was the trio of Winona Ryder, Millie Bobby Brown, and Natalia Dyer, as Joyce Byers, Eleven, and Nancy Wheeler, respectively. Yes, the four boys were great actors, with Finn Wolfhound simply heartbreaking in his boundless loyalty and optimism. David Harbour made Jim Hopper incredibly layered and complex.

But, damn, the ladies. Joyce Byers could have been a one-note character: bereaved mother loses her mind. Instead, Ryder gives us a nuanced portrait of a hard-luck mom who loves her boys, and even as she confronts the impossible and horrifying, is going to do her damnedest to protect them. I almost dismissed Wheeler from the get-go — I even wondered “aloud” on Twitter if the teenage romance storyline had any purpose.

It does. Hoo boy does it. #RIPBarb

But as far as I am concerned, Brown stole the whole entire show. At turns fierce and vulnerable, she brings such a touching humanity to a specially gifted, and fairly terrifying, girl. Every flicker of emotion across her face was breathtaking. She knows her life has not been normal, and while her character reaches for normalcy, she also strives to protect her new friends from some bad truths.

2. Jane the Virgin

When I first heard the premise of this show, I thought, “No way they make that plausible.” But of all the things in this modern day telenovella, Jane’s unexpected pregnancy is the most plausible. This is a delightful show, again lead by an amazing female cast, with real touches about what it means to be a daughter, a mother, and a woman, all at the same time.

3. Daredevil / Jessica Jones

I enjoyed the heck out of the first season of Daredevil.
I felt obligated to watch Jessica Jones at first, and in the middle of the season I was frustrated, wondering if the plot was going anywhere. And then it switched into high gear, and was completely mind-blowing. Solid characters, all amazingly flawed yet human (except for Kilgrave, of course, that guy was a whackjob). Hoping season 2 (there is a season 2, right??) is just as good.
Season 2 of Daredevil is disappointing. Too violent, too graphic, too profane. I am totally over Karen Page, Murdock/Daredevil’s martyr act, and the relationship angst – and I mean *all* the relationships: Murdock and Nelson, Matt and Karen, Daredevil and Electra, Electra and Stick. My current favorite character is Marci. I’m not even sure I care what’s in that sarcophagus. Dan and I have two more episodes to go. I doubt the series is going to redeem itself in my eyes.

4. Person of Interest

Formulaic, ridiculously violent (but not graphically bloody), the characters take themselves a wee bit too seriously, but still a pretty good romp for a network show. We’re currently waiting for Season 5 to get to Netflix. A satisfying watch.

5. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Dan and I have to rewatch the last two episodes of Season 2, so we can get on with Season 3 (we’ve forgotten everything). I’ve really enjoyed this Marvel Universe creation on the small screen. Clark Gregg has too much fun as Agent Coulson, and I would watch it just for him. But I do enjoy the implausibility the various super powers and of secret organizations both sanctioned and evil, the interplay between Fitz and Simmons, and checking out Mack’s physique. (I ain’t gonna lie.)

What are you watching?

Image credit: Copyright: enki / 123RF Stock Photo

Year in Review: Top Ten Albums of 2015

I will say, it was another fantastic year for music. Unlike last year, though, I don’t have a stand-out artist.

Here are the albums I listened to the most this year, ranked alphabetically. Links go to the albums on Spotify, which if you don’t have it yet, why not?

The Arcs, Yours, Dreamily
I might pretty much love anything Dan Auerbach does. Maybe. I don’t know why. He just goes digging around in his box of musical tools, and throws it out there.

Chvrches, Every Open Eye
This Scottish electro-pop band makes the list on the strength of Lauren Mayberry’s voice: sweet singing, bitter words.

Florence + The Machine, How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful
I’m a big fan of Florence Welch’s big voice on this album, especially on “Ship to Wreck” and “What Kind of Man.” She infuses her offering this go-round with more emotion than ever before.

Foals, What Went Down
These guys were new to me, and I primarily gave them a listen because a music journalist I admire (Ed Masley, formerly of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and now of AZCentral, Arizona) compared frontman Yannis Philippakis to Greg Dulli of the Afghan Whigs. Which, while I’m not feeling that 100 percent, I did find “Mountain at My Gates” compelling enough to put on the Spotify playlist I call “Can’t Stop Listening 2015”. The Foals are dark and brooding, your emo teenage boyfriend all grown up. And hot. Very, very hot.

Mark Ronson, Uptown Special
It’s true I gave this album a spin (if you will) on the inescapable hook of “Uptown Funk,” but after hearing a few interviews with Mr. Ronson, I was sold. It is, without question, a night in Vegas, from the mellow contentment of a cigar-smoking fat cat, to the fast-paced action of the casino floor, to a down-on-his-luck guy trying to get off the Strip. Along with Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder and Andrew Wyatt fill out the talent here, and Ronson introduces Kevin Parker and Keyone Starr to the world.

The Weeknd, Beauty Behind the Madness
Pop Radio done lost its mind putting this guy front and center in 2015. Aside from the undeniable earworm, “Can’t Feel My Face” — which is all about drugs — this is the dirtiest, raunchiest pop album EVER. It doesn’t *sound* raunchy; it sounds like mellow R & B. The Weeknd has a nice voice, reminiscent of Michael Jackson. But, I mean, if you haven’t listened to the entire explicit album, just put on the non-radio edit of “Often” or “The Hills”. This crazy, horny, drug-addled dude makes Taylor Swift look like the choir girl she probably is.

Worriers, Imaginary Life
At turns rollicking and vulnerable, The Worriers are powering through the daily grind on Imaginary Life.

File Under: Call it a Comeback
A number of artists came out with albums this year after a long hiatus. Here are my top three of those:

New Order, Music Complete
I just love how, after all their disappearances and reformations, New Order hit 2015 with an unchanged sound and are cocky enough to call their release Music Complete. If you have questions, direct them to Bernard Sumner.

Veruca Salt, Ghost Notes
This album from Veruca Salt is the best they have done since American Thighs. Vital and longing, this is what it sounds like when girl-lead punk rock grows up.

Sleater-Kinney, No Cities to Love
Carrie Brownstein, Corin Tucker, and Janet Weiss released their first album in ten years. It is a rocker, and my top pick of 2015. I understand that they are an acquired taste — Tucker’s voice and the absence of a bass make them an odd-sounding trio — but they have their fingers on the pulse of feminist, anti-consumerist commentary. Sleater-Kinney pick up where they left off, and as a punk chick from the 1990s, I am so, SO glad.

My favorite singles:

  • Beck, “Dreams”
  • Santigold, “Radio”
  • Missy Elliot, “WTF (Where They From)” (Another comeback track, and my nominee for Video of the Year)
  • Courtney Barrnett, “Pedestrian at Best”
  • J. D. McPherson, “Head Over Heels”

What music rose to the top for you in 2015?

An Unsolicited Review of Magic Mike XXL

I had the great joy to travel to the South Side to see Magic Mike XXL with my friend Dana (@toastismyjam on Twitter), and two friends of hers — who were utter delights. Before I get to my unsolicited review, I just want to tell you how lovely these women were.

First, they taught me a packing trip that may have changed my entire life. When packing for children, put an entire outfit in a ziploc bag for each day you are away OR roll up an entire outfit — pants, shirts, socks, underwear — and secure it with a rubber band. Harkening back to our Chicago trip, this would’ve made such a difference to daily organization.

Second, they thought I was much younger than I am, closer to their age (if my math is right, they are 11 years younger than I), and I could’ve kissed them both when I told them when I graduated from high school, and they were genuinely surprised. That is always a delight.

Okay, onto the show.

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Magic Mike XXL was unadulterated joy. Unlike the first Magic Mike, XXL had no pretensions to art film. It was a buddy/road trip film full of buff bodies and tons of laughter. Although we get a Channing Tatum dance in the first 10 minutes, a very self-deprecating dance I might add, we don’t get nudity too quickly. Of course, the first ass we see is Joe Manganiello’s, so I can’t complain.

**SPOILER ALERT**

The story, such as it is, is told through little vignettes of the boys dancing their way at various locations up the coast on their way from Florida to Charleston, South Carolina. Dallas has absconded to China with The Kid; Brooke has decamped for other pastures; and while Mike has fulfilled his dream of starting his own business, he is struggling with the burdens of being his own boss. When Tarzan calls him out of the blue, Magic Mike XXL kicks into all its simplistic glory.

The male entertainers that are the former Kings of Tampa embark on a trip to a stripper convention, which if such a thing exists, I would like to attend someday. Minor drama ensues along the way — Ken and Mike need to work some things out (Matt Bomer is a revelation as an over-the-top spiritual dude); the boys talk about their futures after stripping; Tarzan waxes unexpectedly poignant in the living room of a Southern belle — Andie MacDowell in probably the only role I’ve liked her in since… ever. Aside: Andie MacDowell is kind of the Natalie Portman of her generation, IMO; the characters she plays don’t require much from her aside from looking pretty and pensive. She’s got surprisingly sharp bite in her little role here.

What Magic Mike XXL does best is show off the male physique to the hungry female gaze. It’s pretty fun. Tatum moves, as Dana says, “like water.” His fluid grace is matched in this film by Stephen Boss, who plays Malik. Magic Mike XXL shows every shade of skin and every female body type without comment. The “cameos” in the film are all great fun as well; Donald Glover is adorable, and Elizabeth Banks, as always, is a delight.

But, in my opinion, the movie belongs to Joe Manganiello as Big Dick Richie. His, er, great attribute is also his great burden. (I am saddened to report that we don’t even get a glimpse of Richie’s sidekick, unlike in Magic Mike.) Manganiello plays Richie like a big dummy with a surprisingly sweet and vulnerable side. The expression on his mobile face throughout XXL is baffled concentration to figure out what’s going on around him. His future is the most uncertain because he is, to his impressive core, a male entertainer. Tatum may move like water, but Manganiello muscles his way through his routines. Quite literally. His Christian Gray turn in his closing routine, set to Nine Inch Nails’ “Animal” is… wow.

*whew* I gotta take a minute.

Manganiello also has THE BEST scene in the movie, in the convenience store. I’m not sure how it plays out of context — context is important to this scene, actually — but it had me literally cheering for Richie. By the end of the movie, I wanted to start throwing dollar bills at the screen.

Magic Mike XXL is not the nuanced look at female desire that the original film was. It is much more straightforward, a full on romp.

Magic Mike XXL poster

And I may never look at cookies the same way again.

Image Source

Have you seen it? What did you think?

The Pop Diva Landscape

For my purposes, a pop diva is a female singer who is played on one of the pop music stations in my area. She may or may not have also appeared recently on the Grammys.

I’m sure album sales and/or downloads figure into both of those things — radio play and Grammy appearances. But as I am not an industry analyst, I’m not sweating those details.

I have always been intrigued by pop music, especially female pop artists, and have been probably since the advent of Madonna. I primarily try to keep up now because I know it’s the type of music that my children are most likely to overhear in the public space.

Also, I’m simply not willing to dismiss all forms of popular entertainment as dreck, and/or people who decide what is popular as sheep. Even if privately I don’t get it or like it.

Let’s take the pop queen to top all pop queens, current reigning diva Taylor Swift. Her popularity utterly escapes me, and I know for me her ubiquity is a real turn off. She is EVERYWHERE. I will not deny that her songs are damn catchy; those things are ear worms extraordinaire.

But given the choice, I’m changing the station.

What amusing me is that my daughters can definitely tell that I don’t like certain pop artists and pop songs. They play it cool in the car. “Oh, sure, it’s okay. You can leave it on, if you want, mom.” Or, “Well, let’s just let the radio play, okay, mom?”

Sure, kiddos.

Here are the three pop stars that I do not prefer at this time, and a little bit on why I, personally, don’t like them:

Katie Perry — I find her music trite. To say she’s not groundbreaking is an understatement. I like the sentiment behind “Roar”: don’t be a push over, stand up and speak for yourself, girls! But the song is one lyrical cliche after another.

Taylor Swift — As I said before, this young woman is ubiquitous. The music industry loves her. All well and good. But I’m just not interested.

Arianna Grande — This little wisp of a singer needs to learn how to enunciate, for goodness sake.

Here’s a short list of the pop singers who are current that I DO like:
Lorde
Sia
Ellie Goulding
Rihanna
Nicki Minaj (Is she pop? I’m not even 100% sure she goes in this category.)
Charlie XCX

I don’t know why I like Lorde but not Katie Perry, or Ellie Goulding but not Ms. Swift. I think the pop singers I like have something — a little sass, a little darkness, a little rebel — in them. They aren’t quite EVERYWHERE — although Lorde is coming close. And I probably won’t even hold it against her. Something about her smoky voice hooks me.

I’m unsure where Megan Trainor goes. I haven’t listened to her closely. My overall impression is that she’s sassy, yes, but she’s released two songs that sound nearly identical to me.

I’m sure I’m missing whole swatches of the pop diva landscape. Got someone on pop radio that you love (or love to hate)?

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Aside: It’s too loud and all sounds the same anyway. It’s SCIENCE!

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If you like a good female chanteuse outside of the pop mainstream, make it a point to check out Charlotte OC.

Year in Review: Album of the Year/Artist of the Year, 2014

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photo credit for banner image: Brad Searles

Early in 2014, I was patiently awaiting the new Black Keys album; their single “Fever” clearly pointed a band in a new direction, and I was looking forward to Turn Blue.

In the meantime, I needed something new to listen to. I poked around on Spotify, but didn’t find anything interesting to me. I headed over the First Listen on NPR Music.

“After a 16-year-hiatus,” I read, “the Afghan Whigs are back with Do to the Beast.”

Oh, yeah, I’d heard of them. I had never really listened to them, though. Wonder if they are going to be any good after a 16-year-hiatus.*

*click play*

The opening track kicked down the door to my aural pleasure center, and I was utterly, completely hooked.

Do to the Beast (D2TB) got more listens from me this year than any album on my top 10 list. It’s not an album of singles, for one thing. Almost any other album today, I can pick or choose a song or two, and then move onto another artist. But with Do to the Beast, I have to start at the top and listen all the way through.

The music is driving and virile, haunting, full of dark imagery, vengeful wishes, and regret. Front man Greg Dulli is a charismatic motherfucker. He is not a pretty boy; he doesn’t have a huge vocal range. But he unmistakably knows how to get a listener’s attention. “If time can incinerate what I was to you,” he wails on “Parked Outside”, “Allow me to illustrate how the hand becomes the fuse.”

Greg Dulli, leader of Afghan Whigs
Greg Dulli, image by Janet Gray

Like its predecessor Gentlemen — released this year as Gentlemen at 21 — Do to the Beast seems to be about the dissolution of a significant relationship. Unlike Gentlemen, which Dulli fully acknowledges is about an explosive breakup, Do to the Beast is the fuller, more mature reflection on the way things fall apart. There is a third player in this dynamic — “It kills to watch you love another,” Dulli sings on “It Kills.” On “Lost in the Woods”, my favorite on D2TB, he sneers, “Surprise, surprise, I’ll have you know I’ve come to see you die.” Later on the same track, he laments, “Baby, sitting outside in the cold, I can see that you’re not alone. That’s vanity swallowing you.”

The other outstanding track, for me, on D2TB is the no-holds-barred “Matamoros.” Clocking in at a lean 2:43, in the midst of a chugging bass line and swooping guitars, Dulli blows up the scene, hurt and lashing out at a betrayal. “I’m so excited you decided to come over and beg,” he sings, and one can picture him leaning back and lighting up a cigar, enjoying the groveling. “I’m over you.”

The great thing about discovering a band that’s relaunched itself is that there’s a whole backlog of great music to plunge into. Dulli, having disbanded the Whigs in 2001, continued to make music with the Twilight Singers, and with Mark Lanegan of Screaming Trees fame, as the Gutter Twins. (Hence my earlier * — this guy never stopped making music.) This iteration of the Afghan Whigs features Dulli and bassist John Curley, the only two original members. Yet the music explores the themes of earlier Afghan Whigs albums, fusing bombastic rock sensibility with swaggering R&B sensuality to talk about love, lust, betrayal, longing, and revenge.

John Curley of the Afghan Whigs
John Curley, image by Janet Gray

The other great thing about discovering the Afghan Whigs now is getting to see them hit the tour circuit again. I saw them in September, and got to meet the band members after the show (along with about 100 of their biggest fans). This band is known for their stage show, their loyal and obsessed fan base (among which I can now count myself), and for sticking around afterward for meet and greets. And hugs.

The author and Greg Dulli
Me and Greg Dulli after the Pittsburgh show. I can’t stop grinning.

Who topped your list musically or artistically in 2014?

Year in Review: Top Albums of 2014

2014 was a fantastic year for music. Whether you are a fan of pop, country, rock, punk, or alternative, lots of new music hit the airwaves this year.

And it was good.

Here’s a short list of albums that did not make it onto my top 10:

The Both, The Both
Pixies, Indie Cindy
Jack White, Lazarreto
Little Daylight, Hello Memory
KONGOS, Lunatic
Future Islands, Singles
St. Vincent, St. Vincent

Plus Sleater-Kinney released a single, “Bury Our Friends”, which bodes very well for their upcoming 2015 album, No Cities to Love.

I cannot wait.

Here are my top 10 albums for 2014.

10. Hunger Games, Mockingjay: Part I Soundtrack. 

Although I feel they made a faux pas by not including Jennifer Lawrence’s version of “The Hanging Tree” on this release, it makes it onto my list on the strength of the Lorde’s contributions, including “Yellow Flicker Beat.”

9. Weezer, Everything is Going to Be Alright in the End

This album captures the idea “return to form” for this long-lasting and prolific band. In my opinion, Weezer’s album’s have been uneven at best. This makes me recall the heydays of The Blue Album and The Green Album, and I believe Rivers Cuomo may be right: Everything is going to be okay.

8. Protomartyr, Under Color of Unofficial Light

This band brings forth a dark and brooding sound that gets into my bloodstream and won’t leave. The lead singer sounds like someone, but I haven’t been able to place my finger on whom. Part ’90s-influenced, and part utterly unique, I can’t stop listening to what Protomartyr is creating.

7. TV on the Radio, Seeds

This was a late entry, and I had to rewrite my list because of it. Seeds is a continuation of TV on the Radio’s exploration of music and sound. They can bring the poppy, like the do on “Could You”, and they can bring the noise experimentation like they do on the opening track, “Quartz”. Seeds needs a lot of listening, and it deserves it.

6. Azealia Banks, Broke with Expensive Taste

Pretenders to the throne, step aside. I’m looking at you, Iggy and Ariana. Azealia Banks puts you all to shame. Sassy, dirty, and not afraid of her quirks, Azealia is going to school all y’all.

5. The Both, The Both

This came out early in 2014, and stood the test of time. Aimee Mann and Ted Leo team up to make the most of both of their talents. Pretty and poignant, funny and bittersharp, these features two veteran artists at the top of their game.

4. Jenny Lewis, The Voyager

Another veteran of the singer-songerwriter/pop life, sweet-voiced chanteuse Jenny Lewis comes back to the scene with wry observations on being the oldest, singlest woman in the room.

3. FKA Twigs, LP1

This is the weirdest, sexiest album of the century so far. Deceptively cute-looking, FKA Twigs (Tahliah Debrett Barnett) lets her darkest, most seductive fantasies flow. Her voice is high and breathy, yet powerful, and she captures a lot of desire, insecurity, and longing over the course of these 10 tracks.

2. The Black Keys, Turn Blue

I am surprised that this came in second place on this list. I truly feel it was one of the best albums this year. I have enjoyed hearing the evolution of The Black Keys from a two-piece garage band into their current iteration. Given access to the toys in the production room, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney turned the story of a bad year into a classic rock album. From the seven-minute opus of “The Weight of Love”, I knew they were doing something different. I know long-time fans are not in love with this one, but I Turn Blue leave no question, to me, that The Black Keys have more to show us.

My number 1 pick and Artist of the Year coming before Jan. 1, I promise. In the meantime, what was your favorite album of 2014?

Year in Review: Books of 2014

I’ve read 38 books this year, and I’m on track to read 40 (according to Goodreads, and my stab at tracking my reading there). Last year, I apparently only read 22 books, so I’m managing to read more. Good news for me!

I am currently reading Clothes, Clothes, Clothes, Music, Music, Music, Boys, Boys, Boys, a memoir by Viv Albertine of The Slits. It is an excellent and unsentimental memoir of the U.K. punk scene of the late 1970s, and I’m really liking it. If you consider yourself a fan of punk at all, it’s a must-read.

Here are the other books that I liked most this year. They weren’t necessarily written this year, and I’m presenting them in no particular order.

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell
I discovered Rowell this year, and I’ve read a bunch of her stuff: Landline, Eleanor & Park, and Attachments. I love her modern romantic sensibilities. Her books about relationships are sweet, and frantic, and hopeful. Of the ones I read this year, Attachments is my favorite. I would highly recommend Landlines as well.

Horns, by Joe Hill
A weird and extraordinary thing happens to an Average Joe. Told in a mix of flashback and present day, Hill captures the magic and innocence of childhood friendship and love, as well as the allegorical terror of being a nominally responsible adult.

The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith
If you don’t know by now, Galbraith is the pen name of J.K. Rowling. This is her second book centering about the private detective Cormoran Strike. I’m not a huge fan of mystery books, but I’ve enjoyed the characters and stories spun around Strike. It’s clear that writing under a nom de plume is liberating for Rowling. Say what you will, but she’s a good storyteller. Her editors were definitely on for these books as well; there’s no word vomit, which is something even I, a fan, recognize Rowling has a propensity for. These books are brisk moving with enough twists to keep you guessing.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern
This is probably my favorite read of 2014. It’s lyrical and fantastical, a love story, a story about grand rivals, and magic, and longing. It was recommended to me, and I’m so glad I remembered it next time I was checking out books for my Kindle.

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
Donna Tartt’s third novel is a beautiful use of the English language. Melancholic and (again) lyrical, the story of a lost boy who grows into a lost man, with one thing, the titular classical painting, anchoring him to his mortal coil (as well as hope and love).

Mr. Mercedes, by Stephen King
A cracking good suspense novel from the King of Horror. This was definitely the summer read of 2014 for me. Three unforgettable characters team up to take down a twisted psychopath, and King gets into the internal motivations of all of them.

Read anything good this year?

The Night Circus cover

mr-mercedes

My Favorite Christmas Music of All Time

Recently, the Washington Post did a small feature on Pentatonix. I was thrilled, because we love Pentatonix. I discovered them two years ago, and promptly shared them with the children.

These guys could probably sing a Taylor Swift song — maybe even a Bob Seger song — and I would willingly listen to it.

Anyhoo, That’s Christmas to Me debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200 — IN OCTOBER. It’s the highest charting Christmas album since 1962.

Flora likes it because, in her own words, “They turn ‘Go Tell It On the Mountain’ into a rap!” (Note to self: expose the children to actual gospel music.) Highlights for me include “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy” and “Mary Did You Know?”

Two mis-steps, in my opinion: They do a mashup of “Winter Wonderland” and “Don’t Worry Be Happy” — which if you are a child of the ’80s is a deathly ear worm. But the kids love it, so I grit my teeth through it.

They also do a tune called “White Winter Hymnal”, which is terms of Christmas music is an odd little ditty. My searching for the origins of this song turn up a lovely single from Fleet Foxes from 2008. It’s better done by them, in my opinion. The Fleet Foxes can do dark and pretty; Pentatonix are mostly just pretty.

Pentatonix do a version of “Little Drummer Boy” (which is not on That’s Christmas to Me) that actually makes me like the song. For the longest time, it’s been my absolutely least favorite Christmas carol — coincidentally, LDB was covered by Bob Seger on A Very Special Christmas. So.

Also, I know that we are all over “Let It Go” from Frozen, but I got chills listening to the version Pentatonix does. I just think any thing this little group can do with five people is pretty amazing.

Case in point: “Carol of the Bells.”


What carol would you love Pentatonix to make fresh for you?

An Unsolicited Review of Mockingjay: Part 1

*No spoilers*

It must stink to be a movie critic.

A couple of the reviews I read about Mockingjay said similar things: “Jennifer Lawrence is good enough to elevate a bad movie.” “Katniss is a drama queen, but I guess she’s allowed to be.”

Do critics get to just enjoy movies? Do they get to be entertained just to be entertained? Or do the movies have to have deeper meaning? Do they have to be based on true stories, or have unlikable characters, or end badly in order to be deemed worthy of a critic’s praise?

I am not a movie critic. I am an unabashed fan of The Hunger Games books and movies. If you want to dismiss the books as YA, that’s fine. Likewise with the movies. You read and watch what you want to, and I’ll read and watch what I want to. Cool? Cool.

I was completely sucked into Mockingjay. Edge of my seat. Chills. Reacting to Katniss’s reactions. And I’ve read the books. I know what happens. And I am still utterly captivated by the films.

Each of the actors — not just Jennifer Lawrence — embodies his or her character. Josh Hutcherson is heartbreaking as a slowly falling apart Peeta. Liam Hemsworth plays the wounded, cynical Gale to a T. Julianne Moore is chilling as the ruthless President Coin.

And Elizabeth Banks. Holy cats, that woman can act. As the ineffable, ever-loyal Effie Trinket, she almost steals the movie from Lawrence as far as I’m concerned.

The movie is not a word-for-word adaptation of the book, but it does a heck of a good job at getting at the meat of the action. Lawrence, as Katniss, brings us a reluctant symbol of rebellion. Her first “propo” is a disaster — awkward, badly acted, completely lacking the conviction that President Coin and her allies want from Katniss.

The way Katniss moves from that passionless symbol to the embodiment of the Mockingjay is convincing, to me. The way her allies — Haymitch, Plutarch, Prim, Finnick — get her to assume the mantel that Coin is obviously so hungry for Katniss to take on… it may be a little better done in the movie, because it doesn’t all take place in Katniss’s head.

Suffice it to say I was completely, utterly captivated. So much so, that when I thought the movie ended, I dropped a hissed curse word into a silent theater.

Sorry about that.

Clearly I will be back for the final installment, secure in the knowledge that they can do it again. I’m buying my tee-shirt now.

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A Completely Unsolicited Review of Frozen — Feminist Edition

I’ll get the gushing out of the way first: I love this movie. I love just about everything about this movie: it’s gorgeous, it’s funny, it’s moving, the soundtrack is amazing, the voice acting is delightful. I will also tell you right upfront: I was crying about 10 minutes into it. It hit me where I live as a mom, as a sister, and as a mom to daughters.

And what I loved and appreciated most about the movie was how girl-centric it was. Whether or not this will be a trend going forward, this is the first animated film I have seen where the girls are front and center*. The prince doesn’t ride to the rescue (quite the opposite in fact); a kiss doesn’t save the day. Frozen brings new meaning to “sisters doing it for themselves.” And I couldn’t be happier about that, especially as I took five little girls (little? They were 9, 8, 7, 7, and 6 — is that little still? Can it be little still?) to see it last Saturday.

The most striking theme for me revolved around Elsa. What her parents do to her prior to their untimely death is unconscionable in my opinion. “…be the good girl you have to be/ Conceal, don’t feel” — it’s a terrible message to give a little girl who has no control over what she is able to do.

And we, as a society, do it every day to our flesh-and-blood girls. “Be a good girl,” we tell them. “Be nice. Be quiet. Don’t be yourself.” We tell girls and women to just shush. Especially when it comes to social media and the Internet.

And it’s got to stop (or, as I put it in this post, “Down with Nice Girls!” ). For more reference points, read some Rachel Simmons (my take on her book The Curse of the Good Girl is here).

So when Elsa loses control and then takes control (or tries to), I was excited to see what embracing her power would mean.

I also found the sister relationship true to life (and heartbreaking): older sister shutting out younger sister. I’m sure I was guilty of it, and I see Flora doing it to Kate. And while I can’t make Flora act a certain way toward Kate, I hope that I can encourage them to stay close. I don’t know how Dr. Sis feels, but I like to think that we are pretty good friends now. My parents always stressed that family was the most important thing. This movie pretty much says the same.

[spoiler alert]

The other theme I liked seems like a direct contradiction to what Disney has portrayed all these years. It takes the idea of a knight in shining armor and turns it directly on its head. Apparently, some parents were very troubled by this, but I for one cheered. What teenage girl hasn’t fallen in love alarmingly fast? I’m sure my girls will too. Maybe this movie will come to mind when they find out their ‘true love’ isn’t. I certainly didn’t have to mop up any tears when Hans revealed his true motivation.

Do I think my daughters and their friends took any of these lessons away from Frozen? Probably not. When I asked about Hans’ betrayal, Flora and Kate both just shrugged. “He was the bad guy,” Flora said. Frankly, their favorite character was Olaf, the snowman who likes warm hugs.

Anyway, I would heartily recommend Frozen. Not only is it incredibly well done and entertaining, you might just learn a thing or two about yourself, just like Elsa and Anna do.

*If you want to cite Pixar’s Brave to me, go right ahead. I have issues with that movie, although I think it’s beautiful to look at and funny and entertaining. And I sobbed the last half hour.