Watching "Her"
Published on January 30, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Spike Jonze movie "Her."

Here's an excerpt:

"When I was little, I had two imaginary friends named Waxy and Jenny. Most people assume I played with Waxy and Jenny when I was lonely and none of my real friends could come over. But this isn’t true. Sometimes I broke away from my real friends to go hang out with Waxy and Jenny. One of my best childhood friends remembers me wandering off into the woods to look for them.

I no longer abandon my real friends to spend time with my imaginary friends. But I often have to repress the urge to check my email or social media when I’m with other people.

And I’m not alone. Whenever I go to a bar or a restaurant, it seems like at least half the people in the room are looking at their phones, checking for messages and updates.

Why do we do this? Is it because we’re addicted to instantaneous feedback and commentary, and fearful of missing something? Because we imagine we’re more important than we are? Or because it’s easy to trick ourselves into believing that the friends who aren’t with us are more interesting than the friends who are?

Whatever the case, the new Spike Jonze movie imagines a world where people don’t just communicate with friends and family through gadgets. They communicate with the gadgets themselves. Why bother the messiness of real-world relationships when you can have a rewarding relationship with a machine that caters and responds to all of your needs?"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Five Songs
Published on January 29, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about five songs I'm really enjoying.

Click here to see what they are.

For-Profit Colleges Are the Worst
Published on January 27, 2014 by Sara Foss

My good friend Adam Rust has written a piece for Salon about how for-profit colleges are the worst.

Click here to read it.

Struggling to Finish a Book
Published on January 23, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about my attempt to read the Roberto Bolano novel "2666," and other unfinished business.

Here's an excerpt:

"I can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish a book. I think it was middle school, when I failed to complete 'The Red Badge of Courage.' And I managed to get through Stephen Crane’s classic war novel in high school, so it no longer counts as an unread book.

It’s been a long time, but I’m now faced with the question of whether to bail on a book: Chilean writer Roberto Bolano’s massive 2004 novel '2666.'

I’d heard nothing but good things about '2666,' and when I started reading it, months ago, I was excited. I usually enjoy long, acclaimed literary novels. I liked 'Infinite Jest.' I love 'Moby Dick.' I’m a fan of both 'War and Peace' and 'Anna Karenina.' But I’m struggling with '2666.' And because I always finish the books I start, I feel like I’m trapped in a novel I cannot get out of. For various reasons, I cannot bring myself to stop reading. But I feel like, at my current pace, it’s going to take me another three years to read '2666,' and that there are a lot of books I’d rather read instead.

So why can’t I stop reading '2666'? Well, it was so widely praised I feel like at some point it must all come together and start to make sense. I mean, sometimes long literary novels require a certain amount of patience. But I’ve read about 300 pages, and I’m still puzzled by the book’s reason for existence. What is this book about? What is it trying to say? I have no idea. I’m worried that I’ll read all 900 pages and feel like I’ve wasted months and months of precious reading time."

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "Nebraska"
Published on January 23, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I review the new Alexander Payne movie "Nebraska."

Here's an excerpt:

"The new Alexander Payne film 'Nebraska' is one of the funniest sad films I can recall, a tender and melancholy movie about a son trying to connect with a dad who is deteriorating mentally and has never been emotionally available or particularly fatherly.

The dad is played by the great Bruce Dern, and the son by Will Forte, who is best known for his comedic work on 'Saturday Night Live.' Dern has been nominated for best actor and is receiving well-deserved praise for his performance, but Forte is the key to the film. We see the father, an irascible alcoholic named Woody Grant, through Forte’s eyes, and relate to every other character — Forte’s mother, his brother, his cousins and aunts and uncles — through Forte. And it is Forte who provides the emotional core of the film. There’s an aspect of Woody that is distant and unknowable. But the son, named David, is a likable everyman. He is put-upon and weary, yes, but also kind-hearted and generous and clearly trying to do right by his ailing father, who has failed him in many ways.

The plot concerns Woody’s belief that he has won $1 million. David informs him that his mass-mailed sweepstakes letter is really just a scam to trick him into buying magazines, but Woody’s having none of it, and tells David that he intends to walk to Lincoln, Neb., to collect his money. Realizing that his dad is too stubborn and addled to be reasoned with, David offers to drive Woody to Lincoln. When his mother Kate (the little-known June Squibb, in a fantastic performance) lambastes him for indulging Woody, David says, 'What’s the harm in letting him have his little fantasy?' packs up the car, and takes off. Of course, Woody is not the easiest traveling companion. When David asks whether he wants to stop at Mt. Rushmore, Woody replies, 'It’s just a bunch of rocks,' and when they get there, he observes, 'It looks unfinished.'"

Click here to read the whole thing.

Watching "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Published on January 16, 2014 by Sara Foss

Over at the DG, I write about Martin Scorsese's new film, "The Wolf of Wall Street."

Here's an excerpt:

“'The Wolf of Wall Street” is one of those love-it-or-hate-it movies.

Well, I loved it. This wild black comedy (yes, it’s a comedy) is the funniest movie Martin Scorsese has ever made, as well as a trenchant examination of dude culture’s uglier facets. The characters are stockbrokers, but they occupy the same moral universe as the gangsters in “Goodfellas.” Both films suggest that if your sole goal in life is to be rich, you’re probably a soulless monster.

'The Wolf of Wall Street' tells the true story of Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), who founded the corrupt firm Stratton Oakmont, made a bundle of money, abused countless drugs and was ultimate convicted of defrauding investors with fraudulent stock sales. (The story of Stratton Oakmont also inspired the 2000 film 'Boiler Room,' which is worth a look.) Scorsese films Belfort’s rise and sort-of fall in the most electrifying way possible, as an unhinged, non-stop bacchanal that DiCaprio has described as 'almost like a modern-day Caligula.'

The excess and style on display has prompted some to wring their hands and worry that Scorsese’s film glorifies the criminal and immoral actions of really bad men. But I never got the sense that Scorsese viewed his characters as good people, even as he invites us to laugh at and indulge in their antics. At heart, “The Wolf of Wall Street” is a deeply moral film, about the consequences of allowing people like Jordan Belfort to run amok and slapping them on the wrist when their crimes can no longer be ignored. For all his wrongdoing, Belfort only served 22 months in prison. This isn’t Martin Scorsese’s fault."

Click here to read more.

Favorite Albums of 2013
Published on January 14, 2014 by guest author: Eric Perkins

I'm foregoing a traditional Top 10 list this year and going for some completely made-up categories instead. I thought 2013 was a decent year for music. Nothing blew my mind, and judging by the look of other Top 10 (or however many) lists out there, there didn't seem to be much of a consensus about what was great. Anyway, here's some stuff I really liked:

Looking For the Northern Lights
Published on January 14, 2014 by Sara Foss

I did not see the northern lights last week.

But I wrote a little something about my attempt to find them.

Here's an excerpt:

"Last week a friend and I decided to take a late-night drive and see if we could catch a glimpse of the northern lights.

Also known as the Aurora Borealis, the northern lights are a natural light display. Though rarely seen south of New York’s northermost counties, astronomers reported that a massive solar had shaken up Earth’s magnetic field, expanding the reach of the Aurora Borealis. The big question, then, was weather the northern lights would be visible, or obscured by clouds — a strong possibility, according to the weather reports. Having never seen the northern lights before, my friend and I decided to err on the side of caution, and headed out to Thacher Park shortly after 11 p.m. on Thursday. We’d heard that the northern lights wouldn’t be visible until about midnight, and didn’t want to get there too early.

When we got to Thacher, we were surprised by two things: The crowd that had gathered by the side of the road, and the bright flashing lights of the four or five police cars that had pulled onto the shoulder. I liked the idea of joining a large, spontaneous gathering of amateur astronomers, but not if it meant skywatching under police watch. So we decided to drive around for a while and circle back later, as it would be hard to find a better vantage point than Thacher’s long, steep escarpment."

Click here to read more.