Monday, December 3, 2007

Kid Nation

CBS’ new reality show Kid Nation is definitely my favorite show on television. KN takes forty children, ages eight through fifteen, places them in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico, and leaves them to fend for themselves for forty days. The kids’ mission is to recreate the Western ghost town of Bonanza City, originally a gold-mining establishment that ultimately failed. This time, Bonanza City will be made into a better civilization than the outside world, run completely by children. The forty children are split into for districts, each with a district council member. Every episode includes a “showdown,” which is a competition for a weekly reward and creates the class structure for the week. The first place district in the competition earns upper class, which includes no work and all play for the week. The second place district becomes the merchants, whose job includes selling items (candy, bottled soda, books, supplies) at the dry goods store. Third place receives the job of cooking for the town, and fourth (last) place are known as the laborers, who must clean the town and wash the ungodly amount of dishes that pile up every week. Every week ends with a town meeting, during which the council members appoint a gold star (an actual pure gold star worth $20,000) to one of the civilians.

The show began by dropping thirty-six of the children into the barren desert with the only adult seen on the show, the over-the-top host Jonathan. The four CBS-appointed council members descend upon the lowly kids in helicopters, already setting the precedent that the council members have much more power than the other members of Bonanza City.

The show has become an allegory of class, race, religion, and other elements of American life. There are kids of various statuses (like the humble, Chicago-bred D.K. and the stubborn pageant queen Taylor), ethnicities (black, white, Asian, Latino), and belief systems (like the Southern Protestant Hunter and Jewish Zack). Contestants hail from all parts of the countryAll types of people are represented, and somehow the children come together with little conflict.

Taylor, Laurel, Anjay, and Mike

The first four council members are Mike, an overdramatic boy scout in charge of the Red District, Anjay, an Indian spelling-bee winner and boy-genius in charge of the Blue District, Laurel, a caring redhead from Boston in charge of the Green district, and for the Yellow District the fore mentioned Taylor, who becomes known for her solution to problems: “Deal with it.” Most of the difficulties surround Georgian Taylor, whose twang and bossy attitude fit the Southern Belle stereotype, refusing to participate in the difficult jobs (like cleaning and cooking) with the rest of the children.

Soon the council becomes unsatisfying for the rest of the town: Taylor and Mike are overthrown in a town election, and replaced by Zack (yellow), and Guylan (red). Zack slowly regains momentum for the yellow team with his campaign cry, “Viva la revolucion!”, and Guylan is a revival for the stagnant Mike. Taylor gracefully resigns with tears but continues to wreak havoc in the town with a Mean Girlsesque entourage.

Each challenge contains both physical and intellectual components, like putting presidents and inventions in order chronologically combined with sling-shots or chewing gum. At the end of the challenge, if all districts meet a specified goal, the host Jonathan offers a choice between two rewards: a practical reward and a fun reward (think a library versus a free arcade or a pony express system versus letters from the kids’ families).

My favorite kid on the show is the Red District’s oddity Jared, a bizarre eleven year-old from Georgia. Clad in tie-dyed t-shirts and a red bandana, Jared’s citizenship in Bonanza City offers unique insight to the situation. When the town decides to hold a talent show, Jared performs a dramatic monologue from Shakespeare’s Henry V and still loses to a freakish comedy act by Kentuckian Kennedy. When Divad, a girl striving desperately for the gold star, starts a snack shop in the town, Jared turns over the tables a la Jesus in the temple and claims Divan to be monopolizing the economy of the town. He then proceeds to create his own line of personalized wooden necklaces and keychains and earns enough money to outfit himself in an enormous hat and coat.

The show has been called “Lord of the Flies meets the Wild West,” but I think it’s brilliant. Yes, it is most likely scripted, but oh well. It’s reality tv that’s family-safe and applicable to all ages.

For more information and episodes:
Kid Nation on CBS

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Police: Atlanta, Georgia

Somehow I was lucky enough to see the Police last night in Atlanta, Georgia. After several failed attempts (sold-out Bonnaroo tickets, three lost contests, and insufficient funds from my part time retail job), I was given a ticket to see one of my favorite bands on the last leg of their tour. The Police are composed of Sting (lead vocals and bass), Andy Summers (guitar and backup vocals), and Stewart Copeland (drums).

Aside from some cheesy graphics and being twenty years younger than most of the people in the crowd, the show was amazing. The Police were definitely there to please the crowd; the band played a compilation of their greatest hits, and Sting encouraged everyone to sing along. All the songs were played slightly differently than the originals. A lot of songs combined the classic Police catalog with a jazzier sound, especially in the area of percussion.

The Set List:
Message in a Bottle: The perfect opening song.
Synchronicity II: During this song, the screens (pictured above) flashed graphics from the Synchronicity album cover combined with live footage of the concert. Brushstrokes of red, blue, and yellow swept over the screens, coordinating with the movements of the three band members. These graphics were ultimately the most impressive special effects used in the show.
Walking On The Moon
Voices Inside My Head
When The World Is Running Down
Don't Stand So Close To Me: Very much a jam-version of the original song from the album Zenyattà Mondatta.
Driven To Tears
Truth Hits Everybody
Hole In My Life
Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic: One of my favorite Police songs. An absolutely amazing experience to hear it live.
Wrapped Around Your Finger
De Do Do Do De Da Da Da
Invisible Sun
Walking In Your Footsteps: For me, one of the worst parts of the show. The screens slowly revealed a walking brontosaurus skeleton: beginning with the bony foot of the dinosaur and eventually panning out into the full form of the creature walking across the three screens. I understand that the song is about dinosaurs, but this display was bizarre at best; it just didn’t fit with the rest of the show.
Can't Stand Losing You
Roxanne: Definitely not one of my favorite songs, but still good. The last song played before the encore. The song was accented by the appropriate red lighting (pictured in the second picture above). This song ended the first set.
King Of Pain: One of their absolute best songs. “King of Pain” began the four-song encore performance.
So Lonely: Including Sting’s somewhat condescending rendition of the lyrics: “Welcome to the Andy Summers/Stewart Copeland show.”
Every Breath You Take: It was amazing to see the mood of the show melt into a sappy, middle-aged love fest. Couples began to gaze into one another's eyes, lip-synching the lyrics to their partners, which is honestly a little creepy when you actually think about the lyrics of the song: "Oh, can't you see you belong to me...Every move you make, every step you take, I'll be watching you." Atleast there was no confusion as to who originally performed the song, thought by many (especially members of my generation) to be Puff Daddy with his rendition, "I'll Be Missing You."
Next To You

Sting has aged well. He seemed to genuinely enjoy performing. He used a brown sunburst bass with thick scratches along the base of the guitar. It looked like it was the same instrument Sting used when the band was still together in 1986 (a year before I was born).

Stewart Copeland still has an ego; he wants so desperately to be a rock star. Every time he played the larger percussion instruments outside his drum kit, he threw the bell mallets to the side of the stage instead of just sitting them down and reusing them. It was a little ridiculous and wasteful, but I suppose that in Andy Summer’s mind destroying instruments (well, tools used to play instruments) was the ultimate display of being a rock star (which doesn’t exactly align with the band’s promotion of going green…).

I felt a little bad for Andy Summers…he aged the most of the three members. At points I thought he was going to fall off the stage…he just seemed so old compared to Sting and Stewart Copeland. He used a red Fender Stratocaster with a white pick guard: the same guitar that chain music stores sell in starter packs for beginning guitar players. My brother has a black one at home. I was slightly bothered by this; the band can definitely afford to have better instruments (after all, Stewart Copeland had about 15 different drums), so why don’t they invest in some Gibson guitars?

I do realize that I have an unusual, obsessive love for the Police and that most people do not share in this worship. I think the Police are completely underappreciated lyrically and musically. The concert was an amazing experience and definitely worth the price of the tickets. The tour merchandise is overpriced though: $40 for a t-shirt is a little exploitative of the dedicated fans that have already spent $100+ on concert tickets.

This YouTube video is a recording of a part of “Roxanne” played during the Atlanta show:

More information:
The Police on MySpace
Sting's website
The Police Official Store

Monday, November 5, 2007

The Darjeeling Limited

The hipster highlight of the year: the opening of Wes Anderson's new film, The Darjeeling Limited. Anderson, the king of quirky comedy, creates the story of three brothers attempting to regain relationships while traveling through India on a train called the Darjeeling Limited. The film follows a typical journey/quest motif with ups and downs and minor characters who show up to either help or hurt the brothers. Owen Wilson stars as the eager Frances, who recently had a spiritual awakening due to a severe automobile accident. He lures his two younger brothers, Adrian Brody as Peter, and Jason Schwartzman (who also helped write the film) as Jack, to India, where they take a ride on the illustrious Darjeeling Limited: destination known only by Francis.

Wes Anderson

The Darjeeling Limited opens with a short film, Hotel Chevalier, a prequel centered on Jack (Jason Schwartzman) and his relationship with his nameless ex-girlfriend, played by Natalie Portman. Jack is living in a French l’hotel, filling up on room service and spending an obscene amount of money. He has escaped his dysfunctional family for now, but his unfaithful ex-girlfriend somehow finds him at his Parisian location. The couple end up being involved in an unspecified sexual act with Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To (My Lovely)” playing from Jack’s iHome (a guy behind me in the theater exclaimed, “That’s a first-generation iPod! That’s so cool!” He does know that those came out only about 5 years ago, right? I guess first-gen iPods are the new vinyl). Caution for the easily offended: this short film does contain nudity, language that might be offensive to some, and the implications of domestic abuse.

The Darjeeling Limited was a beautiful film. What impressed me most about Anderson’s film was the use of color. The sets were breathtaking: the Indian towns sparkled with vivacious open markets and ornate Hindu temples. Even the train combined bright turquoise with gold and coppery reds. Jack’s mustard yellow robe remerged in several scenes, including another glimpse of Natalie Portman near the end of the film. Bill Murray, another Anderson staple, also cameos in a few scenes.

One of my favorite aspects of the film was the intriguing set of caramel-colored, various-sized luggage (first introduced in Hotel Chevalier), each piece numbered and embossed with an animal print. With more research, I discovered that designer Marc Jacobs (known for his kitsch, quirk, and use of white space in ads…quite possibly the incarnation of Wes Anderson if he were a fashion designer…) worked with luxurious leather designers at Louis Vuitton to create this one-of-a-kind luggage exclusively for the film. The luggage set belonged to the father of the three brothers, and now they carry all eight pieces with them on their journey. The luggage represents their only aspect of family (their mother is avoidant, at best), and soon they realize that some things, like real relationships, are more important than suitcases and broken-down Porsches.

I loved how in-character Wilson and Brody were in the film. Schwartzman, on the other hand, became less believable as baby brother Jack. I think that Schwartzman begins every film as an endearing nerd of some sorts but ultimately falls prey to the over-the-top quirkiness he is determined to exude. To me, his lines were forced and unnatural, while Wilson and Brody transformed into the older brothers.

I also loved the debut of Amara Karan as the stewardess Rita, who engages in a sexual encounter with Jack despite his emotional baggage (Anderson loves those metaphors) and her boyfriend, the captain of the train. She had an elegant presence among the men on the train, and Frances calling her “Sweet Lime” (the train’s liquid refreshment) was perfect.

Anjelica Huston also stars as the boys’ unreliable mother who does not attend their father’s funeral and races off to a tiny, tiger-ridden town in the Himalayan mountains.

I highly recommend this movie, especially to offbeat college students and twenty-somethings. It was definitely worth the trek to the Bijou (possibly the slowest theater in existence), and I hope to see it again.

Contains some sexual scenes, a comical representation of minor prescription drug use, and strong language.

More information:
The Darjeeling Limited Official Website

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Meacham Writers' Conference, Chattanooga, TN

The Meacham Writers' Conference is held every semester at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga and Chattanooga State. It is a chance for undergraduate writers to submit fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry in order for their writing to be workshopped by a visiting writer. The conference began on October 24 and ended on October 27, and there are also several public readings each day of the conference. The visting writers included Lee University's Dr. Chad Prevost, Rebecca Cook, Laurel Snyder, Richard Jackson, and Sebastian Matthews, among others.

Because of my busy school and work schedule, my participation in the conference only included the Saturday morning workshop. I submitted a short story, and my piece was group with three creative nonfiction pieces in a workshop by Laurel Snyder. Snyder was a former student and professor at UTC and a graduate of the MFA program at the University of Iowa, one of the nation's leading graduate programs in creative writing. The three other students in my workshop were students at UTC and attended for a nonfiction class requirement, and I know atleast one of the students was an English major with a writing concentration.

As far as the other three pieces go, they had potential, but that was about it. I enjoy reading other writers' work and offering suggestions. Workshopping is really easy for me because even though I am not the best writer, I understand what makes good writing. These workshops gave me an idea of the level the English students of UTC were writing at. I was hoping to find that the writers at UTC were better than I was so I could really learn from the experience. Truthfully, the pieces were either boring, unclear, or completely ridiculous. I was worried that the writers of Lee University were behind the curve, but actually, I think we are ahead (atleast ahead of UTC).

Laurel Snyder was completely helpful as the workshop moderator. She spent plenty of time on each piece (we even ran almost an hour over the scheduled time). The advice and criticism was well-spoken and clear. She did not focus much of positive aspects of the work, just commented enough for the writer to understand and moved on to something that could have been done better.

Disclaimer: Do not attend the Meacham Writers' Conference if you are an introductory writer who cannot take criticism. This workshop was created so writers know what to improve upon, not so they can continue to blindly make the same mistakes. Also, in my workshop, Laurel Snyder used language that might be offensive to sensitive writers.

I would recommend the Meacham Writers' Conference to anyone who enjoys writing, reading, and striving for improvement.

Official website: Meacham Conference
Laurel Snyder's blog: Jewishy Irishy
Laurel Snyder's webzine: Killing the Buddha

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Chicago, Illinois

This was my first trip to Chicago, Illinois, and I was surprised to see how much I enjoyed the city. I only spent about a day and a half in the city, which was not nearly enough time. I only visited 1.5 museums out of the many in the city. The transportation systems were fairly clean and relatively easy to figure out (despite missing three trains), but the fares will soon be increased; the federal government does not contribute enough funds to the transportation system. The plan of the city was easy to navigate. The streets were not nearly as crowded and dirty as New York City. Of course the pizza and shopping were great (there's a three-story H&M).

The Navy Pier turns into the "Navy Fear" in October, and the city decorates everything for Halloween. Rusty, faded cars and boats line the streets and tell stories of plunging into the lake or sinking without cause. The renowned ferris wheel seemed fun but ultimately terrifying (to say I'm acrophobic is an understatement) when the furious wind began to rock the cart at the top of the circle.

Monday, October 22, 2007