Archive for the ‘jp’ Category

My Favorite Things by Jason Panella

March 20, 2008

I started cooking curries last spring, a wild idea born from memories of a meal prepared for my family over a decade ago by an Englishman. But that’s another story. I’ve since learned that “curry,” an Anglicized word attempting to lump any spicy Pan-Asian dish together for descriptive ease, is not a type or spice or sauce. But I’ve also learned the joy of cooking in the process.

I stocked up on then-unfamiliar ingredients (tamarind pulp, ground turmeric, ghee, fenugreek) and found new uses for old favorites (cloves, coconut, ginger, cumin seeds). I’ve learned how to dry roast, how to use a pestle and mortar, how to prepare onions and tomatoes in ways I’d never imagined.

Some of these incredibly healthy dishes take upwards of three hours to make, but those hours are never wasted. I feel at ease heating oil up on the wok, a sense of calm as I grind fennel seed and cinnamon together in my spice mill. I’ve learned to relax through cooking, a gift that I hope continues for years to come.

-Jason Panella

Auralia’s Colors – Jeffrey Overstreet (2007)

February 25, 2008

The people of House Abascar are in perpetual winter — not only are the citizens are under constant threat from marauding beastmen, but the kingdom was stripped of color years before by the since-vanished queen. Now, only the royalty can enjoy color while the rest of the people are draped in grays and murky brown. Morale is low. Fear and paranoia are a given. All await a spring — a grand return of color and joy — that may never come.

At the center of Jeffrey Overstreet’s debut novel is Auralia, a young girl living with the outcasts and criminals camped outside of Abascar’s walls. She spends her time exploring, often collecting materials for the richly-colored weavings she makes. Her joy and compassion are a blessing for the downtrodden outside the city gates, as are the magnificent — and illegal — gifts she makes for everyone.

But while Auralia is the heart of the book and the catalyst for much of what happens, she isn’t the focus; Overstreet populates the Expanse with a great cast. There’s King Cal-marcus, broken by his wife’s disappearance and the ghosts of the past; Prince Cal-raven haunts the woods outside of the kingdom’s walls, drawn more to the outcasts than the aristocrats; and a humble, un-named ale boy who is quickly swept into the adventure. There are also numerous minor characters that richly populate the story.

Overstreet sidesteps some of the standard fantasy tropes and delivers something different, something wonderful. None of the characters fit into the standard fantasy archetypes — Auralia isn’t a harmless waif or tough princess, but a complex, tattered young girl that has a deep love and faith in things she doesn’t entirely understand. And instead of a novel based around swords-and-sorcery action or medieval political intrigue, Auralia’s Colors gives the cast room to breathe and move about and take their own path.

Sometimes the prose is a little too lush, but Overstreet writes beautifully. He’s not writing the story of Abascar — he’s painting it. I also wish the book could’ve fleshed out a few things that seemed glossed over. But that almost seems like a minor afterthought; Overstreet gets everything else right.

The allegorical aspects and themes are also woven into the story well enough that they don’t fall out on to your lap. It’s all pretty powerful stuff, from the children’s whispers and trust in the Keeper that haunts their dreams, to the power of imagination and beauty, no matter how rugged or worn it may seem. The attention to detail and nuance that he’s gained as a film critic (for Christianity Today, among others) pays off. Auralia’s Colors is an accomplished and satisfying debut, minor blemishes and all.

-Jason Panella

Looking Closer Blog
Auralia’s Colors on Amazon

Paul McCartney – Memory Almost Full (2007)

November 30, 2007

Let’s get the Beatles name-dropping out of the way: Paul McCartney was in the Beatles. The Beatles were influential, and – depending on who you ask – possibly
one of the (if not the) most important band of the past 50 years. That said, the four members never really escaped the shadow of the band with their solo careers. George Harrison’s solo releases were generally well-regarded, but the rest are a mixed bag: John Lennon was the epitome of this, and Ringo – poor Ringo – has released albums that veered wildly between insanely awesome and insanely bad. And then there’s Paul.

Memory Almost Full is McCartney’s umpteenth post-Beatles release; some have been good, some haven’t. But honestly, there hasn’t been a great one in years. The guy can write great songs, though. Memory Almost Full has some solid songs (“Dance Tonight,” “Gratitude”), but the bulk of the tracks sound like, oh, something mildly distracting that plays over the end credits to a romantic comedy. And the lyrics are nostalgia-soaked, so much so that I was left with the impression that Sir Paul spends every waking hour pining away for the days of yore.

This doesn’t jive with the breezy, upbeat nature of the music. Paul plays all of the instruments, and sounds like he’s having great fun doing so. But that’s one of the album’s few saving graces. Again, nothing is bad here; but nothing really stands out. Much of my favorite music is “average” compared to what some critics love, but at least I can remember the songs. I wish I could say the same for the stuff on Memory Almost Full.

-Jason Panella

Carrie Underwood – Carnival Ride (2007)

November 28, 2007

American Idol sweetheart Carrie Underwood took some flak initially from country purists. Her debut Some Hearts, they said, was saddled with too many pop-clichés to really be a good country record.

Underwood settles into a more twangy mode for most of Carnival Ride, her second album. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate response to her naysayers, but whatever – it works. Her lyrics are sharper, the music better; Underwood has even penned some of her own tunes, as she has four co-songwriting credits. This isn’t Merle Haggard/rickety porch/backwoods country music, mind you; there are still plenty of pop moments. But the stronger emphasis on country instrumental and “traditional” songwriting really, really suits her well. This is best exemplified on “I Know You Won’t,” a great fusion of pop ballad and country torch burner. Man, the gal has a voice.

Underwood still hasn’t been around long enough to build up a rapport to challenge any legends in her genre, but Carnival Ride is a good start. If she keeps this up, she’ll be one of those legends soon enough.

-Jason Panella

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. – Shadow of Chernobyl (2007)

October 30, 2007

S.T.A.L.K.E.R.–Shadow of Chernobyl spent years in development and was rushed out of the door. That the game feels partially complete and has an array of technical flaws is a major strike against it. But that aside, these are minor flaws when compared to what the game actually accomplishes.

Based loosely on elements from the Strugatsky brothers’ classic novel Roadside Picnic and Andrei Tarkovsky’s landmark 1979 film Stalker, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is set in an alternate near-future near the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Ukraine. A second nuclear disaster has warped reality around ‘the Zone,’ the quarantined area around the power plant.

You play a stalker, a cross between an explorer and scavenger that braves the hazards of the Zone for profit. Thanks to the well-worn “amnesia” plot device, your protagonist aims to find out who he is, why he has “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.” tattooed on his arm, and why he’s carrying instructions to kill someone named Strelok.

And, despite some breath-taking cut-scenes, the plot staggers along fairly incoherently. It’s interesting, if you follow it; and believe me, you don’t have to. The game is so open-ended that you could literally spend weeks just roaming the radiated countryside.

And this is where the game really shines. I’ve never seen a video game that has such a fully realized game world. Thunder sends bandits scrambling for shelter before cold rain arrives. Friendly traders make space around their campfire for you, some of them chatting quietly in Russian. Mercenaries guard train yards and shout warnings before opening fire. And while the game is technically a first-person shooter, it’s the polar opposite of dumb action game. You can’t carry a million weapons, since guns weigh a lot…and food is maybe more important than ammunition; bullets kill easily and are affected by weather and hard surfaces; and enemies are smart and use teamwork. It makes more sense to avoid confrontation than to go in with guns blazing.

S.T.A.L.K.E.R. is saddled with technical quirks, goofy English translation and a semi-confusing main story arc, but these can be brushed aside if you’re willing to dive into the beautiful atmosphere. I hope I never forget the first time the game made me gasp–fading sunlight poked through an overcast sky, illuminating leaves as they danced along the road and eventually stuck to the side of an abandoned bus depot. This is the sort of thing that makes me want to go back and play it again.

-Jason Panella

Radiohead, Music Distribution and You

October 8, 2007

On Saturday, Sept. 30, English rock band Radiohead announced that they were releasing their new album In Rainbows on Oct. 10. This came as a surprise; most bands alert the public to forthcoming releases months ahead of time, not 10 days prior.

But the real shocker was the band’s distribution method. Not currently signed to any recording label, Radiohead announced that In Rainbows would be available for download on their website on the 10th. The price is up to the buyer. That means you can get it for free, or donate however much you like. I, for the record, am paying $6 for it.

Radiohead has essentially kept their album under wraps so they could leak it themselves onto the Internet. Letting fans decide what they pay isn’t anything new–Quote Unquote Records has always been a donation-based label, and a variety of artists (Derek Webb, Wilco, R.E.M.) have released albums for free on their websites. But this is the first time a Grammy-winning, platinum-selling band has tried this with a brand new release.

This has the potential to shake things up. The recording industry is rife with corruption and abuse, with the blame being dished out equally between suit-and-tie execs, greedy artists and all of us who buy records without even thinking about the ethics. And it’s especially sad when indie rock is championed as the alternative, considering that many of the big “independent” labels like Sub Pop or Tooth & Nail are tethered to major, corporate labels.

But the only reason Radiohead can do this is because they’ve already made money from countless tours and record sales. It would be hard for a band of working joes to do something similar. But the stakes have been raised; if this works–and judging by the response it’s generating online, it probably will–people may start rethinking the ethics and morals behind making music and how it relates to money.

There seems to be little middle ground regarding music; people are either getting cheated by someone or making more money than they know what to do with. At the very least, it may make people look for better alternatives to paying $18 for a new CD or paying $0.99 for a copy-protected digital song (buying directly from the artists or using eMusic are–respectively–two alternatives). This stuff matters: even something as seemingly mundane as record distribution falls under God’s sovereignty, and we need to strive to do what is just and fair for everyone involved.

Jason Panella

Buffalo Tom — Three Easy Pieces (2007)

September 17, 2007

Where have all of the good rock records gone? In a sea of dance pop, sweater rap, country-lite and effeminate sorta-folk, it feels like it’s getting increasingly hard to fish out a fun rock and roll album from all of the new releases. Straight-ahead rock music has been making a comeback of sorts, but Buffalo Tom’s Three Easy Pieces can be used as an audio textbook for how to do it right.

Their first release in nearly a decade, the Boston trio’s seventh long-player illustrates that big changes are sometimes overrated. Their music still sounds like punk through the eyes of the E Street Band, their lyrics are still wistfully easy. But the band–vocalist/guitarist Bill Janovitz, vocalist/bassist Chris Colbourn and drummer Tom Maginnis–sound more comfortable together, and the quality of the music reflects this. Unlike the recent wave of questionable reunions, Buffalo Tom took a break from their 9 to 5 jobs because they enjoy playing together.

Three Easy Pieces isn’t groundbreaking or even ‘album of the year’ material, but it’s the most consistently enjoyable thing I’ve heard this year. It’s an album of all above average songs filled with standout moments: Janovitz’s raspy, soaring tenor punches through the chorus of “September Shirt” in just the right spots; the unexpected Celtic tinge that “Gravity” takes; Colbourn’s lovably happy “Renovating;” and on and on.

Buffalo Tom may have inadvertently spawned the legion of alt.rock clones during the ’90s, but this is no nostalgia act–Three Easy Pieces is the band doing what they do best. And that’s making loud, intelligent rock music.

-jason panella

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Why I Write Film Reviews

September 5, 2007

Jason Panella interviewed Jeffrey Overstreet, film critic for Christianity Today. He also also written for Paste, Books & Culture and Image. Overstreet is also the author of the recently-released Through a Screen Darkly (Regal Books). His first novel Auralia’s Colors (WaterBrook Press) hits shelves Sept. 4. Visit his blog at lookingcloser.org.

Jason Panella (JP): When did you first realize the importance of taking a critical/thoughtful approach to viewing films?

Jeffrey Overstreet (JO): For better or worse, kids tend to develop intense curiosity about anything that’s forbidden. When I was a kid, movies were all but forbidden—partly because they were expensive and my parents were frugal, and partly because my parents wanted to protect me from unhealthy influences. However, since both of them took me to the library for recreation and read me stories every day, I was addicted to good storytelling. Moviegoing had a certain fascination. I would see the commercials, see the advertisements in the paper and grow more and more curious about what movies were about.

Then I discovered two things: movie reviews in the newspaper, which summarized the stories and then criticized them thoroughly; and Siskel and Ebert’s television show. I remember being enthralled by Siskel and Ebert’s fevered debates. I came to realize that there was more to storytelling than just sitting and listening. There was discernment involved. I needed to decide if I agreed with Siskel or Ebert. I needed to learn the difference between good storytelling and bad storytelling.

This pursuit seemed to fit in which some of the things I was hearing in church. Philippians 4:8 exhorts you to “let your mind dwell on” things that are excellent. I wanted to learn how to recognize excellence.

Instead of keeping a diary like most kids do at some point, I began to write little magazines full of amateur reviews of books I read and music I heard. I even wrote reviews of the stories I composed, and I wasn’t always a friendly critic of my own stuff. When I started going to G-rated and PG-rated films, I reviewed those too.

JP: How did you end up as a film reviewer? What is the role of the film critic?

JO: I eventually contributed music and film reviews to The Falcon, the student newspaper at Seattle Pacific University. And when I graduated, the internet was opening up, so I started posting my own reviews on my first website: Looking Closer.

This was exciting because, having graduated, I was now missing out on the kinds of rigorous critical discussions of literature I had enjoyed at Seattle Pacific. By posting movie reviews online, and by making it clear that my faith played an important part in my engagement with art, I provoked readers to respond with some rather passionate e-mail. I got a lot of hate mail from Christians who thought I was serving the devil by talking about R-rated movies in public. And I got even more enthusiastic mail from Christians around the world who were feeling lonely in their churches because they couldn’t find other passionate cinephiles who would discuss movies with them.

Then I got an email from Steve Lansingh, who had been writing a column about film for Christianity Today. He was stepping down, and he had recommended me as his replacement because he liked my website. I was astonished and overjoyed. Suddenly, I had a large audience of Christian readers who were curious about movies and quite a few readers who weren’t Christians but who were curious about why a Christian was saying about movies. The conversation became much livelier and more interesting.

In my opinion, the role of the film critic is to help moviegoers learn to look closely, consider films more carefully, develop critical discernment and discover the rich rewards that great art has to offer. Like Anton Ego says in Ratatouille, it’s not a critic’s job to sneer and be condescending, but rather to be a passionate advocate for what is new and beautiful and profound. We don’t need food critics to tell us that McDonald’s food is unhealthy and cheap… we all know that. We need food critics to teach us about the art of fine cuisine and to introduce us to that little-known, hole-in-the-wall Thai food restaurant on the edge of town, so we can all enjoy what that place has to offer. When I discover something wonderful, I can’t wait to share it with people. That’s why I write film reviews.

The National — Boxer (2007)

August 27, 2007

If albums can take on the traits of seasons, Boxer is as autumnal as they come. Arriving amidst a flurry of praise, Boxer—the National’s fourth full-length—is subdued, gray and a lot like the last of the summer’s warmth being sapped away as leaves drift groundward.

But that’s not a bad thing. The band sounds like a blend of Tom Waits-style roots music with ‘80s underground rock, with heavy measures of U2, classic music and Leonard Cohen tossed in. Vocalist Matt Berninger mumbles casual, roundabout lyrics in a lazy baritone, dredging up self-deprecating scenes that are buoyed by humor. Drummer Bryan Devendorf is the real star here—he catapults the slower piano/string section-based songs along, and hems down the few loud tracks to an intense slow burn. This flip-flopping of the whole “loud song vs. soft song” convention is amazing.

And it’s all weirdly hopeful and beautifully done. Boxer just SOUNDS better than almost any album I’ve heard in a while, and for a year full of good releases, that says a lot.

-jason panella

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The Smashing Pumpkins — Zeitgeist (2007)

August 27, 2007

The Smashing Pumpkins broke up in 2000 with over a decade’s worth of albums and tours in their pocket. Before frontman Billy Corgan announced last spring that he intended to get the band back together, he and Pumpkin drummer Jimmy Chamberlain palled around and recorded lots of music under various short-lived monikers.

And this fact hangs over Zeitgeist, the first new Smashing Pumpkins album in seven years. It comes across as more of a chance for Corgan to get back in the public’s good graces after several years of lifeless music, using the Pumpkin name as a springboard to do so. The result is a simply a fair, one-dimensional album with a handful of good songs.

Pumpkin albums during the ’90s were good because they had variety, and the band excelled no matter what hat they wore. But aside from a few mid-tempo pop songs, Zeitgeist is one giant riff-fest of over-processed robot guitar fuzz. It sounds soulless and artificial, as do the naively political lyrics. It gets old before the album is even half over.

And the culprit? Corgan’s hands are red–he plays the bulk of the instruments on the album, his ego filling the void left by much-missed guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy Wretzky (they opted not to join up last spring). The band’s current touring line-up almost plays like a bad joke, too–the new bassist (Ginger Reyes of the Halo Friendlies) and rhythm guitarist (Jeff Schroeder of the Violent Burning) are excellent musicians…but they look almost identical to Iha and Wretzky. I think I see where Corgan was going with this, and I don’t like it.

All of the negatives aspects of Zeitgeist don’t completely sink it. A handful of tracks, especially “That’s the Way (My Love Is),” are among the best the band has ever released. That said, Zeitgeist is a return all right–but not necessarily a great one.

-jason panella

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