Inside Llewyn Davis

ImageLeading up to the release of the Coen brother’s newest film Inside Llewyn Davis, the soundtrack got more press than the movie. After watching the movie, I realize why. Inside Llewyn Davis follows the story of folk singer Llewyn Davis as he navigates the music scene of Greenwich Village in the 1960’s. Naturally, the soundtrack is loaded with classic folk songs such as “500 Miles” and “The Last Thing On My Mind” performed by artists like Justin Timberlake, Marcus Mumford, and the film’s star Oscar Isaac. I cannot recommend this soundtrack enough. The music is superb. Pop star Justin Timberlake surprises with a gentle cover of “500 Miles”, while Oscar Isaac wins over listeners with soulful and heart-wrenching performances like “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me”, “Fare Thee Well”, and “The Death of Queen Jane”. I’ve been listening to this soundtrack non-stop since I first heard it. I am in love with the music. The movie, however, is a different story.

The actors all give great performances. Oscar Isaac is not only a heartfelt singer, but he also does an excellent job drawing the audience into his character—his complications, flaws, and soulfulness. The ever-talented Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan are also wonderful, both in their singing and their acting. The other supporting actors that come in and out of the film are all singular and lively as well. The actors carry the story, but the problem is that there isn’t much of a story to carry. Llewyn Davis travels from couch to couch, singing along the way, and making a quick detour to Chicago, but English professors would wince at the plot structure. There’s no rising action, no climax, and no resolution. Knowing the Coen brothers, that may well be the point. There is no resolution for a folk singer lost in his own way in 1961 New York City. But even if that is the theme, it doesn’t make the movie enjoyable.

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Oscar Isaac (right) and Justin Timberlake (center) in a scene from the movie.

Inside Llewyn Davis offers a sharply real look at the life of a lost soul in the 1960’s. Llelwyn Davis deals with the suicide of his friend and singing partner, a string of meaningless sexual relationships, a bleak future, and a sense of hopelessness that is characteristic of the 60’s. This makes him interesting as a character, but the story is as stagnant as Llewyn’s music career. At the end, the viewer is left wondering—like Llewyn—what is the point?

Maybe that is the point. There is no point. And that’s fine. But it doesn’t make for a very good movie. Redemption is important in a story. Resolution is important. So is a dynamic story. Llewyn’s story is on repeat, and it gets old quickly, despite the good acting and singing. It’s a fine movie to watch once, but instead of ever watching it again, I would just put the soundtrack on repeat.

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Founding Farmers

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Founding Farmers in Washington DC is one of our new favorite restaurants.

Have you ever heard of love languages? You know, words of affirmation, acts of service, receiving gifts, quality time, and physical touch? According to the premise, these are the ways in which we show others that we care, and the way in which others show that they care about us. I’m not 100% sure of how much I buy into this concept, but I do know one thing for certain. One of the major ways that I like to show that I care for someone is through giving them gifts.

Clare is the same way, and we always joke that buying Christmas and birthday presents for each other is so easy that we could go broke. I cannot tell you how many times I have texted her in July saying that I found her Christmas present, or how many times Clare has told me that she found my birthday present 11 months early! Part of this is that the two of us are so similar that it is easy to shop for Clare, and I am always on the lookout for little pick-me-ups that I could send her or books that I want to share with her, and vice versa.

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The bacon lollys were strips of bacon caramelized in brown sugar and other spices. And they are just as incredible as they sound!

But in the past few years, I have realized that my favorite gift to give a person is an experience. What I love about experience gifts is that they last forever in pictures and in memories. While a t-shirt can rip or fade, and experience lives on in stories that we tell and memories that we share.

This year I was so excited to be able to celebrate Clare’s birthday with her in person! So while Clare was visiting me and my family in DC, I decided to take her to see a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Kennedy Center. There were good things about the show (puppets and a set that helped the audience imagine much of the scenery and characters in our minds) and bad things (a costume change that took Bottom’s transformation into an ass literally and left no room for the imagination).

But I think that both of us agree that the best part of the experience was the meal we shared beforehand at one of my favorite restaurants, Founding Farmers. Founding Farmers is an award-winning restaurant in Washington DC that has also won many fans among residents due to its fresh, utterly delicious food. The restaurant is located three blocks west of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue, and usually the line of people waiting for tables spills out onto the street. And with good reason.

Founding Farmers is owned by a collective of American farms run by families (hence the name). All of the food in the restaurant is provided by those families, which ensures that the food is fresh, seasonal, and so, so delicious.

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The burgers are fresh, homemade, and to die for.

If you are lucky enough to live in the Washington DC area, you should definitely check out the restaurant for a special occasion or a fun night out on the town. Clare and I highly recommend the bacon lolly appetizer (it’s as amazing and life-expectancy-reducing as it sounds), the dogs & rolls (the homemade potato chips that come as a side are also incredible), and the chicken bolognese with bucatini (all of the pasta is handmade daily and is such a treat). From past trips, I can also recommend the fried green tomato appetizer (at its best during the summer), the GCS Burger (which is topped with fresh goat cheese, spinach, and pickled cucumbers and onions), and the goat cheese ravioli with chicken cutlet (a perfect blending of sweet and savory that melts in your mouth). Their made-to-order beignets are one dessert that I now crave on a regular basis.

Chicken Bolognese with Bucatini

And if you live outside the DC area, fear not! The restaurant has also put out an amazing cookbook! That you can buy on Amazon! I just purchased this for a loved one, and cannot wait to look through the cookbook and decide what amazing dishes to make at home.

Clare and I made so many fun memories that evening at Founding Farmers, and look forward to going again in the future to make some more.

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Order the beignets at the beginning of your meal, and they are made from scratch for you while you eat the rest of your incredible meal.

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Tolkien Reading Day

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J.R.R. Tolkien

March 25 is an international holiday. Okay, not really, but it is a very important day. Can anyone guess what March 25 celebrates? It’s the day that Frodo destroyed the Ring and Sauron was defeated. It’s the day that ushers in the new year in the Gondorian calendar. But for those of us not in Middle Earth, it’s what we celebrate as Tolkien Reading Day. As I wrote in an earlier post, I am HUGE Tolkien fan, so obviously this day excites me. In the past, I’ve done various questionably sane things to celebrate Tolkien and his work, from learning trying to learn Elvish to running around in a hobbit cape. Obviously, I am a wealth of knowledge when it comes to celebrating the one and only John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, so here are some ideas for how you might celebrate Tolkien Reading Day 2014.

1. Bake.

I love decorating cakes and I love Lord of the Rings, so I have made many a LOTR themed cake in my day. Some have featured a cozy little hobbit hole while others have featured the fires of Mt. Doom. But if you’re not into baking cakes, try making lembas bread. Or google other “Lord of the Rings” recipes to make and eat throughout the day.

2. Read.

Reread your favorite parts of Tolkien’s books. Read his poems out loud. Read your favorite scenes with your friends. Tolkien’s incredible story is only topped by his remarkable way with words. Here are some of my favorite excerpts:

“Where there’s life there’s hope, and need of vittles.” (see ‘Bake’ above)

“Never laugh at live dragons.” –The Hobbit

“I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun; and behold! The Shadow has departed! I will be a Shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.” –Eowyn, The Return of the King

“You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin – to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours – closer than you yourself keep it. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the ring. We are horribly afraid–but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds.” –Merry, The Fellowship of the Ring

3. Marathon.

One of my favorite things to do when I have the time is watch Peter Jackson’s trilogy. I understand that Tolkien purists may not be as fond of the movies as I am, but for me the extended editions of the film trilogy are great ways to experience Tolkien’s story when I don’t have time to reread the books at the time. During my more hardcore phases I watch all three extended editions in a row. Yes, it takes all day, but like I said, I can be hardcore. But if you don’t have 12 hours to spare and you can only free up 4, take the time to watch one of the movies.

And lastly, take some time to appreciate the creator of the myth we all love so much. Tolkien was an English citizen born in South Africa, an orphan who took a keen interest in languages, a man knew what it meant to be in love, a soldier who survived a world war, a professor, and a writer. Today is a day to celebrate the man that J.R.R. Tolkien was, as well as the legacy of the work he left behind for us grateful readers. So on this the day of the defeat of Sauron and the beginning of the Fourth Age, I say:

“The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” –The Two Towers

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P.S. This summer Emily and I will be reading through The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings, so remember to tune in if you are interested in joining us!

The Eagle

MV5BMTY1MjYwNTQ4Ml5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjYwNzAxNA@@._V1_SX640_SY720_I have some exciting news, dear readers. Clare and I are reunited at last! Clare has been visiting since Tuesday, and we have been having a blast! This is the first time we’ve seen each other face to face since last April, and we are both very excited.

When Clare and I get together, we have a lot of traditions that we like to uphold. This means that we travel, go to museums, and explore. But let’s be honest– it mainly means that we eat good food and watch bad movies.

One of our favorite so-bad-it’s-good movies is one that came out in 2011. It’s called The Eagle, and its leads are Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell.

Now, let’s be even more honest– Clare and I did not go to this movie expecting much. We went in expecting to see Jamie Bell at a more appropriate age than in his Billy Elliot days. But it was actually a decent movie! That we enjoyed because of its characters and its moral complexities!

Jamie Bell as Esca.

This is mostly due to the fact that the movie is based on a book by the incredibly talented and wonderful Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth

The story takes place in Roman occupied Britain. Many years before, the Ninth Legion marched past Hadrian’s Wall and into northern Britain, never to return. Thousands of men and their eagle standard, a symbol of Rome, were lost. Marcus, the son of the legion’s leader, now searches for the eagle standard and for information about what happened to his father and the Ninth Legion all those years ago. Marcus travels north of the wall with Esca, a British slave whose family was slaughtered at the hands of Roman troops almost a decade earlier. Their relationship is one of the reasons that Clare and I fell in love with this story, which is incredibly complex as you can see in this clip from the film:

But the other reason that we fell in love with the film is the time period in which it takes place. I had not previously read much about Britain during the time that it was occupied by the Romans. But I have done so since, and have thoroughly enjoyed reading about this time in British history. I’ve read many more of Rosemary Sutcliff’s books, and can heartily recommend them all.

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Channing Tatum, Mark Strong, Jamie Bell

So while you are hoping and praying for winter to end (or is that just me?) and enjoying your spring (ha) break, The Eagle is a fun movie that takes place in a fascinating period of history and brings up moral issues about duty, honor, and freedom… but can also be used to poke fun at Channing Tatum’s acting. And if you ask me and Clare, that’s pretty much the best of both worlds.

Veronica Mars

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Kristen Bell is beloved by fans for her turn as snarky sleuth Veronica Mars.

I moved across the country right before my junior year of high school. I went from a huge public high school to a private school with a graduating class of 22. I was shy, scared, and very, very lonely for that first year. There were many things that helped me get through that year: my family, my faith, my friendship with Clare, several girls in my class with whom I was slowly becoming friends, and a television character named Veronica Mars. Perhaps that sounds crazy. And, maybe, it is. But it’s the truth.

Veronica Mars is a television show that aired from 2004 to 2007. The plot is as follows:

CAPRA  DOHRINGVeronica (played by the amazing Kristen Bell) has a good life– loving parents, cute boyfriend, popularity at school– until her best friend Lilly Kane (Amanda Seyfried) is murdered. Veronica’s father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), who is the sheriff in the fictional California beach town Neptune, accuses Lilly’s father of the murder. Keith is fired, Veronica’s mother abandons them, and everyone in Neptune turns against Veronica and her father. A year later, as the show begins, Veronica works for her father, who is now a private investigator. She helps her father solve cases, navigates the hostile social waters at her high school with plenty of snark, and works to solve Lilly’s murder.

The show’s creator, Rob Thomas, recently said that, “Veronica’s superpower is that she just doesn’t give a s*** what people think about her”. Veronica Mars is more than a Nancy Drew figure for teenage girls growing up in the 21st century. She is a flawed character who faces many challenges and hard knocks, but has the strength and courage to pick herself back up again time after time. She’s dealt a bad hand, but she faces the world with sass and snark and refuses to back down. She stands her ground, stands up for others who can’t, and makes sure that people who abuse their power pay. Veronica Mars is a hero.

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Veronica and her dad, Keith, have one of the funniest and healthiest parent-child relationships on TV.

Veronica Mars was my hero in high school. She showed me, and countless others, what it was like to stand up for herself and others no matter the personal cost. She didn’t kick ass, never resorted to violence unless it was in self-defense. She went against a lot of “strong” women in movies who paraded around in leather, wielded swords, and were little more than eye candy or love interests when it came right down to it. Veronica used her intelligence and wit to overcome her adversaries. She helped me realize that I had the strength to do the same.

Others feel the way that I do, because last March 91,585 fans funded a Veronica Mars movie via Kickstarter, raising $5.7 million dollars in the process. The entertainment industry has been abuzz about the movie ever since, because of the revolutionary way in which the film has been made. And fans have been abuzz because the cast and crew of the film have made it clear that the movie is a labor of love and gratitude for the fans that made it possible.

veronica-mars-poster-636-longThe film Veronica Mars premiered last Friday, March 14th. And, of course, I went to see it that day. Here are my thoughts. Spoilers will follow.

Like I said, the cast and crew made it clear from the day that the movie got the green light that this was a labor of love and gratitude for the fans that made it possible in the first place.

Veronica Mars is a movie that is 100% totally and completely geared towards its fans. A street busker sings the catchy theme song for the series. Wallace (Percy Daggs III), Mac (Tina Majorino), and Dick (Ryan Hansen) are back. And, of course, Veronica’s old flame, Logan Echolls (Jason Dohring) is present and smoldering. Veronica and Keith trade barbs and witty banter. Veronica punches long time enemy Madison Sinclair in the face.

And if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll know why I’ve been listening to this song pretty much on repeat since I saw the movie:

As a fan, Veronica Mars was everything that I wanted and more. Did the movie feel more like back-to-back episodes of the television show? Yes. Did I care? No. But when the movie ended, my elation was mixed with concern. As a fan, I love the movie. As someone who saw Veronica as my hero growing up, I’m a little disappointed.

When the movie opens, Veronica has put her past behind her. She’s about to accept a job as a high powered lawyer in New York City. But when Logan is charged with murder (again), Veronica drops everything to go and help him. Throughout the movie, as she and Logan reconnect and grow closer, pieces of her life begin to slip away. Piz breaks up with her? Check. She loses her new job as a lawyer? Check.

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The cast reunited at the movie’s premier.

Her father is, understandably, worried about her. He doesn’t want Veronica to let go of the advances that she has made in her life. But Veronica doesn’t listen. It makes it a bit ironic when she sees Madison Sinclair at her high school reunion and says, trademark smirk in place, that Madison must have been waiting there since graduation. But the joke falls a little flat when the movie ends. Isn’t Veronica right back where she started? She’s given up her life in New York and is working as a P.I. I feel like Veronica didn’t grow much in the film. In fact, in some ways, it felt like she reverted. “I’m an addict,” she confesses at the end of the film, to explain the decisions she’s made.

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LoVe is truly epic.

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. I love the movie. I loved seeing all of the characters. I loved seeing a Logan who has his act together, who actually stands a chance of deserving Veronica and treating her well. I love the way that the movie sets the stage for sequels, if any (hopefully!) follow. I am a fan. This movie was tailored to me and my desires.

As a fan? I am so happy with Veronica Mars. As someone whose hero was Veronica for so long? I guess the jury’s still out.

Oxford

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The sign hanging outside the Eagle and Child pub.

Today is not only St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday celebrating the Catholic missionary to Ireland hundreds of years ago, but it is also my birthday. These combined events make March 17 very important to me, but there is one more reason why it’s such a special day. On this day exactly one year ago, Emily and I were in Oxford, England. For my last year of college and Emily’s last full year, we decided to travel to Europe during spring break. We stayed in London, took the train to Paris for the day, and most importantly, we went to Oxford on my birthday. That may not be a big deal for some people, but for me going to Oxford, or particularly the pub The Eagle and Child, was one of the highlights of my life.

I’ve been writing about this a lot lately, but The Lord of the Rings is my favorite book, so visiting the place where the author lived and worked was the best experience of my life. J.R.R. Tolkien studied English Language and Literature at Exeter College at Oxford University, graduating in 1915 with honors. Following his graduation, Tolkien married Edith Bratt, served as a soldier in World War I, became a father, and worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and the University of Leeds before returning to Oxford as a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College. In 1945, after World War II, Tolkien became a professor of English Language and Literature at Merton College, Oxford, where he remained until he retired. After he retired, Tolkien and Edith moved to Bournemouth, but after Edith’s death he returned to live at Oxford.

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The corner where the Inklings met at the Eagle and Child.

Tolkien was not the only literary great to live and work in Oxford. He was only one member of the writing group known as the Inklings, which also included C.S. Lewis and other famous authors. The Inklings met at a local pub, The Eagle and Child, which they fondly referred to as the “Bird and Baby”. Here, they discussed works of literature as well as their own writing.

For all Tolkien fans, Oxford is hallowed ground, especially The Eagle and Child. It had always been my life goal to one day visit the Inkling’s pub and to tour the university where Tolkien taught. Well, one year ago Emily and I went to Oxford, touring the university and eating at The Eagle and Child. We walked where Tolkien walked and ate where he ate (and discussed literature and writing). We also came across a chocolate faire and some unexpected snow. But I got to check off the number one thing on my bucket list. It was the best birthday of my life, and probably always will be. I’m lucky that I got to share it with my best friend and fellow Tolkien fanatic and Inkling appreciator.

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The Bodleian Library, where many of Tolkien’s original manuscripts and works are housed.

The Romance of Adventure

ImageA few weeks ago, Emily wrote a post about the Tumblr trend of listing your “top 10 favorite books” or the “top 10 books that changed your life” or something along those lines. I already wrote about the top book on that list—Lord of the Rings, no brainer—but now I’m going to write about another book that is both a favorite book and a book that changed my life: Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott.

As Emily reviews her top ten books, she’ll explain how each of them shaped her into the writer she is today (which is an awesome writer, by the way). Ivanhoe didn’t influence me as a writer in any major way, but it certainly shaped a large part of my childhood. From about the time I was eight to the time I was thirteen I was incredibly interested in all Romantic stories—King Arthur, Robin Hood, the middle ages, knights in shining armor, dragons, epic adventures, etc. I think a lot of kids go through this kind of phase. I certainly wasn’t the only one in my family to be very into King Arthur and Robin Hood. But for me, a lot of this interest began with the story of Ivanhoe.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t read Ivanhoe when I was eight. My parents used to buy me books from the “Great Illustrated Classic” series, classics that were abridged for younger readers like myself. That’s how I first read Ivanhoe, and I didn’t need Scott’s heavy handed English in order to be affected by the book. Rather, his characters and the romance of adventure lured me into his story.

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Walter Scott

For those of you who haven’t read the book, Ivanhoe follows several main characters. It takes place during in England during a time of high tension between the Saxons and the Normans. Ivanhoe is one of many young men who goes to fight in the Crusades, leaving behind Rowena, the Saxon noblewoman he loves. For my senior thesis in college I wrote about Rowena as the medieval heroine archetype, but she was definitely not my favorite character. The female character I wanted to be was Rebecca, the Jewish woman Ivanhoe saves from being burned at the stake. The book also features a plethora of bad guys, like Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert and Count Front-de-Boeuf. But even more exciting for an impressionable young reader, Ivanhoe includes the figure Robin Hood and King Richard the Lion Heart. Needless to say that any book featuring Robin Hood is sure to include romance and adventure.

Ivanhoe was one of my first literary exposures to the romantic and adventurous world of the Middle Ages. It had the love story between Rowena and Ivanhoe, the adventure of Robin Hood, the heroic courage of Rebecca, and anything else a developing imagination could want in a book. It was iconic literature for my Robin Hood/King Arthur phase, a phase I never fully came out of. It’s the reason I like reading about epic adventures and grand (and sometimes unresolved) love stories. Ivanhoe is a mix of many of the exciting things about the Middle Ages, as well as a few of the not-so-good things. But overall, it is a fanciful tale perfect for expanding the imagination of a young reader.

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Scene from the movie starring Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Fontaine.