Category: Review


Favorite Music-Centric Movies

Today, I offer a run-down of some of my favorite music-centered movies. My humble list doesn’t include popular films and documentaries like the Beatles’ “Hard Day’s Night” or the Martin Scorsese flick about Bob Dylan, “No Direction Home.” However, I think these movies show the interesting blend of music in films, whether through fictional bands or semi-biographical retellings.

“Almost Famous” (2000)

Cameron Crowe’s flick about a teenage journalist who follows a rock band called Stillwater on the road during the ‘70s has resonated in the hearts and minds of many. With the unforgettable scene in which the bus full of musicians, managers and friends burst into Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the movie has cemented itself into pop culture history (did anyone catch that Super Bowl ad?). Apparently based on Crowe’s own adventures hanging with the Allman Brothers Band, the film has the perfect mix of an amazing soundtrack, lovable characters and skilled acting. Patrick Fugit’s portrayal of William, the teen who is eager to become pals with his rocker friends, and Kate Hudson’s role as Penny Lane, who leads a group of self-professed “band-aids” (not groupies, she claims), are both memorable.

“That Thing You Do” (1996)

I remember at a young age seeing the film that tells the story of the quick rise and fall of a rock band in the ‘60s. The poppy tracks that the fictional group – “The Wonders” – played caught my ear, and I remember loving the vintage nostalgia of the costumes and sets. As the small-town musicians rocket from obscurity to billboard-hit fame, tensions among members inevitably rise and success is short lived. Catch winning performances from Tom Hanks as the savvy manager, Tom Everett Scott as the sunglasses-sporting drummer and Liv Tyler as the spurned girlfriend of the egocentric lead singer.

“Blues Brothers” (1980)

Building on the success of a SNL skit by cast members Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi, the comedians took their act to the big screen to make the hilarious “Blues Brothers” film. After Jake (Belushi) springs from a stint in jail, the brothers go on a mission to reassemble their old band, win a competition and save the Catholic home where the siblings were raised. My favorite scene has to be when the band, which dabbles in – you guessed it – blues and rock ‘n’ roll, book a gig at a country-western bar. After initially playing their usual material and being booed, the band switches to a rendition of the “Rawhide” theme and a Tammy Wynette hit called “Stand by Your Man”.

“I’m Not There” (2007)

Surprisingly, this is the only film on my list that profiles a real-life musician. This ambitious semi-biographical film takes a look at various stages of Bob Dylan’s life, along with different facets of his personality and music. A share of actors portrays Dylan during various scenes, settings and interpretations; the list includes Heath Ledger, Richard Gere, and Cate Blanchett among others. The soundtrack is almost a character of its own, with a range of musicians covering some of Dylan’s best tracks. Some of my favorites are Roger McGuinn (of The Byrds) and Calexico’s “One More Cup of Coffee,” Cat Power’s “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again” and Stephen Malkmus (of Pavement) and The Million Dollar Bashers’ “Ballad of a Thin Man.”

“Flight of the Conchords” (2007-2009)

Ok, so I know this isn’t a movie, but I can’t leave out the unforgettable HBO show about a duo hailing from New Zealand. The show follows Bret and Jemaine as they go about their daily lives, trying to book gigs and penning hilarious songs along the way. The comedians/band members blurred the lines between fiction and reality, releasing two albums and going on tour. It’s often hard to listen to their songs with a straight face, and they often parody different musical styles. Some of the best include the rap battle of “Hiphopopatamus vs. Rhymenoceros,” the song praising a girl for her mediocre looks in “Most Beautiful Girl in the Room,” and the tribute to fashion and hipsters, “Fashion is Danger.”

-Margot Pien

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“Queen of Palmyra” Book Review

I just finished reading Queen of Palmyra by Minrose Gwin.  I highly recommend this book— the writing is honest and beautiful. Plus, Minrose Gwin is a Kenan Eminent Professor of English at UNC and Co-Editor of the Southern Literary Journal.

Book description:

*”I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . .”

In the turbulent southern summer of 1963, Millwood’s white population steers clear of “Shake Rag,” the black section of town. Young Florence Forrest is one of the few who crosses the line. The daughter of a burial insurance salesman with dark secrets and the town’s “cake lady,” whose backcountry bootleg runs lead further and further away from a brutal marriage, Florence attaches herself to her grandparents’ longtime maid, Zenie Johnson. Named for Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra, Zenie treats the unwanted girl as just another chore, while telling her stories of the legendary queen’s courage and cunning. The more time Florence spends in Shake Rag, the more she recognizes how completely race divides her town, and her story, far from ordinary, bears witness to the truth and brutality of her times—a truth brought to a shattering conclusion when Zenie’s vibrant college-student niece, Eva Greene, arrives that fateful Mississippi summer. Minrose Gwin’s The Queen of Palmyra is an unforgettable evocation of a time and a place in America—a nuanced, gripping story of race and identity.*

The beauty of this book is Gwin’s style of writing.  She captures the innocence of Florence through her pure, naive observations. There is a soft spot in our hearts for Florence because she is the only character we meet who is untainted by the racial issues seeping in to her town.

Gwin also has a way of letting the reader see the larger problems before Florence does- because, presumably, we are less naive than she is.  For example, Gwin describes a box that Florence’s daddy has- a box that he keeps in the basement and brings out with him every night.  As Florence describes the box from a very young perspective, our faces start to bunch up because we realize what evil Florence’s dad possesses before she even knows it.  On the back of the book is written: “I need you to understand how ordinary it all was. . . .” We soon realize how important this statement is throughout the entire novel and, also, how heartbreakingly true it is.

This novel is so inspiring, I was so motivated to write my own stories while reading it. Gwin tells us this story from a fresh perspective.  She also teaches us that we don’t always have to pull out fancy words and the thesaurus when writing a novel.  Sometimes, simplicity is the best way to let a story shine.

-Sarah Diedrick

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“Room” Book Review

I loved this book! I couldn’t put it down, and finished it in three days.

*Book Description: To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it’s where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.

Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it’s not enough…not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son’s bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work. 

Told entirely through the perspective of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.


The perspective of this novel–young, optimistic, naive and sheltered–is what makes it so great. At first, it is hard to situate yourself in Jack’s voice because he is never grammatically correct. For instance, he says things like, “I get on Rocker to take a pin from Kit on Shelf, minus one means now there’ll be zero left of the five.” Jack refers to objects as if they are people and he tends to speak without conjunctions. After about 15 pages, however, you start to fall in love with his language so much that you miss it during the times when Donoghue falls out of this style.
This is the only criticism I have about the book: Jack’s language is not always consistent–his language suddenly becomes mature during some moments in the novel and it takes the reader away from the story for a second. This only happens a few times, and is not enough to detract from the brilliance of the novel.

The beauty of this novel is rooted in Jack’s discovery of the world. He has lived in Room since he was born and knows nothing except this small, windowless space. In a way, this creates an innocence about him that almost makes us think, maybe it would be nice to be sheltered from a world that can so easily destroy the optimism and fragility that we possess as children. On the other hand, we are reminded of all the beauty in the world that Jack is missing. It seems like a double-edged sword. There are so many great lines from Jack in the novel that capture this disturbing beauty. Jack points out small idiosyncrasies that we would never notice because we are born into this world that he has been hidden from. He questions the small actions in every day life that our society has stigmatized, such as “Why don’t we hug strangers?”

The novel ends in a way that offers subtle closure. It both restores Jack’s innocence and simultaneously gives him a new sense of maturity. It is Jack’s isolation from the world and ultimately his discovery of the world that offers the reader a reminder of what we take for granted. Through Jack’s endearing nature, he rediscovers these things for us and makes them new again. Jack will leave a permanent mark on your memory.

-Sarah Diedrick

*Source: “Room” blurb

Okay, so this year has been pretty tough on movies. We had a long series of summer flops saved only by the box-office success of “Inception,” and the fall-winter line up didn’t look to be much more impressive. I was just about to hand in the towel and give up on 2010 as a year for movies when The Social Network came along. I’ll admit it, I was more than a little skeptical that the “Facebook” movie was already here, but from all accounts, it was supposed to be a good movie.

Well, all accounts were wrong.  The Social Network isn’t a good movie; it’s a great movie, and possibly one of the most culturally relevant films to come out in the past several years. The movie follows Mark Zuckerberg, the creator of Facebook, from his days at Harvard trying to get into a Final Club through the creation of Facebook, its success and ultimately his legal battles with those who helped get him there, including his best friend and co-founder, Eduardo Saverin.

The movie moves quickly and keeps audiences captivated with some of the wittiest dialogue I’ve heard in years and a solid use of flashback/flashforwards as narrative devices.  The acting was solid and the film boasts one of the most impressive scores ever. The boating crew race, set to a rock adaptation of “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” is quite possibly one of the best scenes I have ever seen and will make any film fan geek out with joy.

The movie tracks not only the path of Zuckerberg as he becomes the youngest billionaire in the world, but also follows the growing social impact of Facebook itself. Let’s face it, it’s difficult to remember a time before Facebook came around. If you’re a senior, you were a sophomore in high school when it began, freshmen were still in middle school, and it has changed the way people, especially college students, socialize.

Social Networking used to be limited to personal blogs and other sites such as MySpace; Facebook, however, took the whole game to a new level and now dominates not only the social networking scene, but the entire internet. Google recently released a list of the top 13 websites visited in 2010. Facebook was No. 1 with over 570 billion page visits, consuming more than 35 percent of all Internet use in the United States. The No. 2 website, Yahoo, received 70 billion page visits – a mere 12 percent of Facebook’s traffic.

Anyone who has a Facebook account should definitely make a point to go see this movie because whether you would like to admit it or not, this movie is in part about you and how one little website created by a Harvard computer science geek changed the way you share your lives with your friends, family and the world.

Also, buy the soundtrack. It’s amazing.

– Samantha Ryan

So, unfortunately I missed the opening act, Beach House.  I did get to hear them from afar as I approached the downtown Raleigh Amphitheatre.  They sounded really good and I was pretty sad I only got to catch the end of them. I’d never been to this venue before, but it is surprisingly and pleasantly small. It’s right in the middle of the city, so close to the streets that a passerby could enjoy a concert if he were just strolling the streets after a nice dinner. The inside of the venue is a simple layout — most of the ground is covered with seats and in the back there is a small strip of grass that is considered the “lawn.”  I had lawn tickets but I sat there for all of five minutes before my friends and I joined the mob of people that rushed toward the front.

Vampire Weekend was fashionably late, coming on stage at 9:00 p.m. instead of 8:30 as scheduled. I assumed that they would mostly plays songs from their newest album, Contra. Instead, their set list was a mix of both Contra and their self-titled 2008 debut, Vampire Weekend; they alternated pretty much every song. After the band walked on stage to a Ludacris song, they got right into the set list by playing “Holiday.”

I was a fan before I went to this concert but my appreciation for this band dramatically increased after attending this concert. They sounded even better than they do on their albums. They remixed some of their songs and added in guitar solos (which was highlighted by a light shining down on Ezra Koenig, the lead singer and guitarist). They were also more alive on stage — they were louder and had even more personality (which I didn’t think was possible). Their improvisations at this concert were a true mark of their artistic ability and just one of the reasons why I gained even more appreciation for them.

The light show really complimented the energy, keeping up with the beats and changing colors with each song. The light always illuminated the back of the stage, where a supersized version of their disk hung. When Ezra started playing a guitar solo, the light would cut out in the back of the stage and focus solely on him for a minute or so, mesmerizing the audience as he improvised.

My friends and I also managed to head to the front and we landed the perfect seats without realizing it at first. There was a big gap between our seats and the seats in front of us — this big walkway became a sort of runway. Some people danced along it as they made their way to the designated smoking area, and for some it was the drunken walk of shame. One guy had two or five too many and he drunkenly made his way down the cement path, dancing with the audience.  I was even lucky enough to get a shimmy from him. Security escorted him out, but they definitely had a fun time watching this guy.

My only problem with this show was that it was way too short. Vampire Weekend only played for about an hour and ten minutes. I was wanting more from them but I guess that is kind of hard when they only have two albums. They were so electric, vibrant, colorful and energetic. It is hard to dance to their music; you don’t know whether to bob, sway your hips or jump up and down. It didn’t matter; Vampire Weekend managed to get everybody moving in their seats or on the lawn.

As the band left the stage, Ezra announced that they might not be playing for a while in the U.S.  I got a little emotional when he said this but I am still waiting for their next album or concert. This band still has a lot to offer us. This show was just a delicious taste of what is to come from this New York-based band.

– Sarah Diedrick

Book Review: Light Boxes by Shane Jones

While perusing the shelves of current paperbacks at Bull’s Head Bookshop, I saw a very slim book that had a very interesting cover design.  I know, I know, don’t judge a book by a cover, but it’s my MO for picking which books I’m going to read if I have no previous recommendations.  Light Boxes is less than 150 pages long and easily can be finished in a matter of hours.  By the end of the first chapter (which comprised of a single sentence in giant font), I was intrigued by this book.  It’s a little post-modern and uses techniques such as point-of-view changes and different fonts and font sizes to tell the story, but it is still a very interesting read.

The story revolves around Thaddeus and the rest of the citizens of a little town which has been experiencing the season of February for almost two-hundred days.  They blame February, personified into a creator god figure, for all of their sadness and the kidnapping of many local children, and eventually plot to start a war against him.  I can’t say much more without revealing the interesting plot twists (and this book certainly has a lot of them for being so short), but the revelation is one that you don’t see coming and is one of the more interesting plot twists I’ve read in a very long, long time.  It’s a great read if you want something to pass the time with quickly.

Overall rating:  A.

Put this on your summer reading list, for sure.

– Samantha Ryan

Macbeth on Stage

Q: What do you get when you mix post-modern design, World War II, and Elizabethan English?

A: The Department of Dramatic Arts Production of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth.

Alright, to be fair, I’m a sucker for traditionalist adaptations of Shakespeare because usually when someone tries to set the Bard in the 20th Century, it is a disaster (take the 2000 version of “Hamlet” staring Ethan Hawke and Bill Murray).  Of course, there are som

Macbeth (Kahlil Gonzalez-Garcia) and Lady Macbeth (Alice Whitley) in DDA's 2010 Production of Macbeth. Photo by Stephen Ashley .

e exceptions such as Baz Lurhmann’s “Romeo + Juliet,” but those are unfortunately few and far between.

Back to DDA’s Macbeth First of all, I was a little underwhelmed by their time period of choice because last spring’s production of Much Ado About Nothing was also set in the 1940’s and while it could have been considered an innovative choice then, to do it a second time is rather unimpressive.   Not that World War II was a terrible fit but due to DDA’s production history, they should have branched out and done something different.

As far as production quality, for college theatre it was very good. The giant white screens that would turn red during dramatic scenes added a nice, albeit anachronistically modern, effect throughout the production and some of the director’s choices were very good – especially in the scene where Banquo’s ghost returns to haunt Macbeth. Another choice that I thought was rather interesting was to have the Weird Sisters onstage for most of the show, serving as Macbeth’s servants in his home. This played out well during the Banquo’s ghost scene when it was obvious that they were also aware of the ghost’s presence and were perhaps the cause for his appearance to the distraught Macbeth.

The Weird Sisters

Some of the acting seemed a little too much like acting and it was obvious that some of the actors were not comfortable in Shakespeare, but the leads were excellent. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth alternated actors from show to show, between Kahlil Gonzalez-Garcia/ Alice Whitley and Matthew Ellis Murphey and Elizabeth Philips. Gonzalez-Garcia especially was a great Macbeth and captured every nuance of the troubled king’s character. Whitley as Lady Macbeth also did a fantastic job at portraying the ruthless queen on her quest for power.  Murphey and Phillips were equally as powerful in the roles and had excellent chemistry together.

Overall, I would not claim this to be one of the DDA’s better productions, though it certainly was not one of the worst, either. It was fairly average in comparison to some of DDA’s past Shakespeare productions.  The set design did not mesh well with the time period which did not mesh well with the plot. There was simply too much competing for attention when focus should have been given to the story.

2.5/5

– Samantha Ryan

This is a very strange book. Absolutely odd.  Following the story of a boy who has a makeshift heart in the form of a cuckoo clock, this story takes the reader on a very bizarre journey that is part “Moulin Rouge,” part “Phantom of the Opera” and altogether peculiar. I was unaware of the book’s background before jumping into it, which possibly made the story harder to digest, but I believe that a good book should be able to stand on its own without background knowledge required (with the obvious exception of sequels, etc.).

The premise of the story revolves around Little Jack, who has been warned to never fall in love lest his cuckoo-clock heart break from the emotional strain. The day before his tenth birthday, Jack ventures out into town for the first time (up until then, he’d been kept sheltered by his doting caregiver, Dr. Madeline the witch), and sees the little singing girl and falls madly in love with her. He tries to find her but alas, she has left for Spain, never to return again.  Several years pass and Little Jack decides to go after the little singer, with the only clue for her location being Andalusia.

The story is full of twists and turns and outrageously unrealistic circumstances (typically, a reader can only cope with one MAJOR unrealism at a time, and “Cuckoo-Clock Heart” takes that).  It’s a heartbreaking little story but more often than not, lacks true heart. It also is full to the brim with emotional baggage that is unbelievable for a ten year old to have.

Now, for that background information: the author, Mathias Malzieu, is the lead singer of the French band Dionysus, and the book is a companion piece to an eponymous album they released a few years back (the original album hit shelves in France in 2007, but didn’t reach English audiences until September 2009).  After listening to the album, I must say that while Malzieu is a talented singer/songwriter, he should avoid writing novelized versions of his albums. P.S. – Fans of Voltaire, Emilie Autumn, and Amanda Palmer/ Dresden Dolls will enjoy this album greatly and I do recommend it.

Rating: 2/5

(However, the album by Dionysos gets a solid 4/5)

Until next time, wear sunscreen!

– That Nerd Girl, Samantha Ryan

P.S. – E-mail me suggestions of books to review!  slryan@gmail.com

“The House of Tomorrow” by Peter Boganni

Now that spring has sprung at Chapel Hill, when you need that well deserved break from studying in the UL, why not curl up in the quad on a sunny day with a good book that has nothing to do with your Poli 100 class? It is certainly one of my favorite activities, at least.

This week, the book I curled up with on the quad was “The House of Tomorrow,” the debut novel from Peter Bognanni. I know you should never do this because one should never judge a book by its cover, but I picked it up from Bull’s Head because I really liked the cover art. I started reading it and found myself quickly getting sucked into the world of Sebastian and his batty grandmother, the two of whom live in an isolated geodesic dome in the middle of the woods, cut off from everything that will not lead them on their supreme path.

The main plot follows Sebastian, a sheltered 16-year-old orphan who lives with his grandmother in the woods. Now, Nana isn’t your normal over-the-river-and-through-the-woods grandma; she’s obsessed with the futurist philosophies of her former lover and teacher, R. Buckminster Fuller. They live in a geodesic dome in an attempt to fulfill his vision of a “spaceship earth.”

Fun Fact:  The term Spaceship Earth might ring a bell from your childhood… EPCOT perhaps? Yes, indeed.  That geodesic sphere “Spaceship Earth” was designed based on Fuller’s plans and is the most famous geodesic structure in the world.

Anyways, back to the book. When his grandmother suffers a stroke, Sebastian is forced to encounter the real world and there he meets the sarcastic and hard-to-love Jared Whitcomb, a heart-transplant survivor who is altogether quite obnoxious in his attempt to be all things “punk.” Together, they form an unlikely duo and an equally-as-unlikely punk rock band (The Rash), and make plans to take the local church talent show by force.  Of course, plot twists and complications arise, and well, you’ll have to read it yourself to find out what happens.

Bognanni’s characters are a little out there and most of the situations are rather far-fetched (the youth minister’s daughter running an escort service from her bedroom window?), and if you are looking for some semblance of realism, then this isn’t the book for you.  Even if you aren’t looking for realism, this book isn’t quite “fantasy” enough to justify some of the character or plot decisions. But what the novel lacks in reality, it makes up for in heart.  Deep down, it is a very sweet story about growing up and discovering who you are. While it was sometimes hard to wrap my head around some parts, I did enjoy this book and it’s a fairly quick read, so I would recommend it for a nice sunny day when studying for that Econ midterm has got you seeing spots.

Rating:  3.5/5

Until next time, keep it nerdy.

– That Nerd Girl, Samantha Ryan

A Kiss Before I Go

Some of you might recognize this title from Ryan Adams’ Jacksonville City Nights.  It’s as much an ode to forlorn love and lust as anything he’s written,  but that’s not what this column is about.

It’s about Brown.  Jackie Brown.

And love.  L’amour.

You’ve probably seen or avoided dozens of romantic comedies.  In fact, chances are you’ll probably see one this weekend.  Warner Bros. and Garry Marshall, director of Pretty Woman (1990), are hoping you’ll flock to see “Valentine’s Day.”  It’s an ensemble flick with famous faces like Julia Roberts, Jamie Foxx, Jennifer Garner and Topher Grace (?????) crammed into every possible square inch of celluloid.  Before I continue, I should tell you that Roger Ebert tagged the film with 2 out of 4 stars.  Instead of “Valentine’s Day,” I would consider another Marshall-Roberts pairing, “Runaway Bride” (1999), a critically overlooked film but one that’s well-written and provides Richard Gere with a bit more depth than he’s accustomed. Kudos to Marshall for finding a way to plug U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” into a scene that works.  Not easy.

But if you’re planning on staying in on the one holiday of the year that demands that you go out, check out Quentin Tarantino’s homage to blaxploitation cinema, “Jackie Brown” (1997).  “Jackie Brown” is one of the greatest love stories in film. Really.

The love story between the down-and-out flight attendant, Ms. Brown, and the angst-ridden Max Cherry, a bail bondsman of 19 years, is one of honesty.  Tarantino’s love poem is steeped in wisdom in which only people that have been ‘round the block can only fully understand. Cherry is in his fifties, Brown, mid-forties, but she’s told she could put a thirty-year-old to shame.  Boo yah.

Cherry and Brown meet outside of a jail to the sweet, sweet harmony of Bloodstone’s “Natural High,” said to be Tarantino’s favorite love song.  From that point on, their relationship slowly blossoms.  They share music, meet over drinks and scheme to rob a ruthless gun-runner of $500,000.

Even while Tarantino works feverishly to pay respect to Pam Grier and Robert Forster, the unsung queen and king of exploitation cinema, by the end of the film, you can’t help but wish that Max and Jackie fall away into a happy ending.   In one scene, Jackie asks Max bluntly, “If you had the chance to walk off with a half million dollars, would you take it?”  A better question for Max might be, “If you had the chance to walk off with love, would you take it?”

Other films you and your date can’t go wrong with:

  • Chungking Express (1994)
  • Sabrina (1995)
  • (500) Days of Summer (2009)
  • Remains of the Day (1993)
  • Lucky You (2007)