Duet by Glen Keane

This man is a master of art and animation. The genius behind Ariel, the Beast, Aladdin, Tarzan, and more, Glen Keane left Disney Studios about a year ago after decades of service. Here is a first look at his new project, where he teamed up with Google I/O to create an animated story for mobile devices.

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Jersey Boys

ImageWhen my parents came out to New York for my college graduation last year, my mom and I were determined to take my dad to a Broadway musical so he could get the whole “New York experience”. But my dad is more of a baseball guy than a musical guy, so we weren’t sure if he would enjoy musicals as much as my mom and I. Trying to find something a guy’s guy would enjoy, we picked Jersey Boys over plays like Wicked and Mary Poppins. And, to our surprise and delight, my dad loved it. He loved the songs, all original songs from Franki Valli and the Four Seasons, so no overly theatrical musical numbers. He loved the story, the inside scoop on the journey of four guys from the streets of Jersey to the top of the Billboard charts. Jersey Boys became a good memory for my dad—despite the fact that there were no strikeouts or stolen bases—so when we found out that Clint Eastwood (a favorite of my dad’s) was turning the musical into a movie, my dad insisted that we go.

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From left to right: Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Erich Bergen as Bob Guadio, John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi singing Sherry over the phone.

Anyone who liked the musical will enjoy the movie. The movie follows mostly the same structure as the musical, starting with the formation of the group in “the old neighborhood” in Jersey and going all the way to the induction of the Four Seasons into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Each member of the group—Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Guadio, and Nick Massi—take turns addressing the audience, offering their own perspective on the story of the band. The songs are worked into the story mostly chronologically as Guadio wrote their hits. Emotions and tensions run high in almost every scene. The only thing that didn’t translate perfectly from the stage to film was the pacing. The pacing of the play is very fast, the fluid transition of scenes and the movement of one song to the next really pushing the story forward. Though the movie followed the same pacing structure of the play, the story didn’t seem to move quite as fast, but that was my only complaint about the film.

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Director Clint Eastwood and his Jersey Boys.

There are a lot of things that makes Jersey Boys an interesting story. It’s rags-to-riches theme, the fact that it’s a true story, the drama between the band members, and, of course, the catchy songs. It’s a good movie for people who like the Four Seasons, musicals, tales from the wrong side of the tracks, or stories based on real events. Each of the four band members is lovable, despite all their many faults, and the stories of loyalty, betrayal, family, friendship, and music will keep anyone engaged. The movie is almost as good as the musical, which means it’s pretty good. There is some language and loose morals throughout the story, but what would you expect from Jersey?

The Championships

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Murray winning Wimbledon in 2014.

Important things are happening today in the world of international sports, but I am not referring the FIFA World Cup, though the tournament goes on in Rio, Brazil. But far away, in another time zone, today is the first day of Wimbledon, the most prestigious tennis tournament in the world. Last year I wrote about the Heritage of Tennis, as it relates to Wimbledon. The Championships was especially exciting last year because it was the first I watched Wimbledon after touring the place with Emily when we were in London. Last year was also exciting because Andy Murray became the first U.K. (I won’t say British, because he’s actually Scottish and people tend to forget that and think that he’s English but he’s NOT) player to win since 1936. It was a Wimbledon that Murray and all of England will not soon forget, but now that another year has come around, it is time for Murray to defend his title.

Last year before the tournament, I wrote a short post on the players to watch, and honestly that hasn’t changed much this year. Roger Federer (current world No. 4) is a year older but grass remains his best surface. I wouldn’t expect him to win, but he’ll play excellent tennis. Novak Djokovic (No. 2) will be eager for his first Grand Slam title of the year, and Rafael Nadal (No. 1) will be ready to reclaim the title after winning the French Open several weeks ago. In addition to these major players, Australian Open winner Stanislas Wawrinka (No. 3), as well as Germany’s Thomas Berdych (No. 6), Spain’s David Ferrer (No. 7), and Argentina’s Juan Del Potro (No. 8) will be fighting to be holding the sacred golden trophy.

But, much like last year, the eyes of the host country will be focused on Andy Murray (No. 5). It’s a lot of pressure for one player, but last year Murray won the tournament with the same, if not more, pressure from his country. He’s a player you can’t help but root for, and I will definitely be cheering for him these next to weeks as we settle into some of the best tennis of the year. There will be upsets, emotional wins and losses, amazing plays and saves, and plenty of athleticism until a new champion is crowned. But whether it’s Murray, Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, or a new tennis king, these next two weeks of tennis will give the World Cup a run for it’s money.

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A picture of Court No. 1 from my trip to England.

A Subtle Commentary

ImageWhen most people think of John Steinbeck, they think of titles like The Grapes of Wrath or East of Eden, two of Steinbeck’s epic novels that are long, famous, and usually mandatory reads in high school. But people rarely think of Steinbeck’s last work, a short novel called The Winter of Our Discontent.

The Winter of Our Discontent follows the story of a man named Ethan Hawley, a middle aged man with a wife, son, and daughter. He was from a well off family, but that wealth has disappeared. Now he works as a grocery store clerk, and his family is discontent with their middle class lot in life. But Hawley doesn’t share his family’s discontent. He is comfortable with his station in life, supported by his sense of morality and integrity. These are the things that matter to him, and as long as he has those he is content.

But as the novel progresses, Hawley interacts with various characters who question or challenge his honest and content character. They plant ideas for misdeeds, whether bank robberies of infidelity. Through dealings with other characters Hawley’s integrity is tested—and often found wanting. He regains some of his affluence, but through less than honest means. The book culminates in a relatively quiet climax. Hawley discovers that his son has won an essay contest but only because he plagiarized like there was no tomorrow. This irritates Hawley’s sense of integrity, but then he realizes that he has slowly lost the integrity he once had.

The Winter of Our Discontent is not an epic book like Steinbeck’s two most famous novels. There is no grand journey traversing the country. It is not 600 pages long, nor is it a dramatic story like Of Mice And Men. But the book won Steinbeck the Nobel Prize in Literature 1962, and though American critics were skeptical at first, the book slowly won critical acclaim over the years.

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John Steinbeck

Steinbeck said the book was a commentary on the disintegration of American morality during the 1950s and 1960s. It is a quiet commentary, a quiet story about the man next door and the internal struggles of life in middle class America. But that’s the beauty of it. The writing is subtle, but beautiful. The themes are calmer than in books like The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck muses on the effect money has on people, the importance of honesty and morality, and how small flaws in a child grow to become detrimental to a generation.

This is my favorite Steinbeck book. Though I love his grand stories in The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, and though I love the short but sweet and heart-breaking Of Mice and Men, The Winter of Our Discontent is beautifully written and its subtlety underappreciated. If you are a fan of American literature or were forced to read Steinbeck in high school or just looking for a great book, read The Winter of Our Discontent. Then take a look in the mirror and ask yourself the same questions Ethan Hawley asks himself. Hopefully your answers are better than his.

P.S. The title of the book is a reference to William Shakespeare’s play Richard III:

“Now is the winter of our discontent / Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”

How To Train Your Dragon 2

ImageAnimated movie sequels tend to get a bad rep. By the time you get to Cinderella 37, the movies have lost all meaning. The quality is not the same, the plot has faded into nothing, all the actors have changed, and even the original movie—which you loved—feels tainted. The same can be true of books sometimes. Not in the case of Harry Potter or the Queen’s Thief series, where the respective authors J.K. Rowling and Megan Whalen Turner took the time to make each sequential book as good as the first. But in the case of the third Hunger Games books, the quality suffered terribly because of the author’s rush to publish. So sometimes it can be nerve-racking to hear that one of your favorite movies is getting a sequel. After all, it could turn out to be terrible. But in the case of Dreamworks’ incredible movie How To Train Your Dragon, this is far from true.

I don’t think there was anyone who did not love How To Train Your Dragon. The animation was stellar, the plot was solid, the characters were well-developed. Overall, the creative team put out an almost spotless movie. And after the success of HTTYD, it would not have been surprising if Dreamworks had rushed to put out a sequel, but creative integrity won out over money, and the team behind HTTYD took the time to produce a second, just as wonderful movie as the first one.

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How To Train Your Dragon 2 takes place about five years after the first movie. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Astrid (America Ferrera), and their friends are no longer kids struggling to prove themselves as Vikings, but rather young adults coming into their own, Hiccup especially. Dragons are no longer threats, but rather family. And, of course, Toothless is still the most adorable dragon ever, with more personality than most human characters in film and books. Life is good in Berk, but soon that life—and the peace the Vikings have found with the dragons—is in danger.

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Valka (Cate Blanchett)

While exploring, Hiccup comes across a dragon trapper (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harrington) and learns about Drago Bloodfist, a violent and cruel Viking who is building a dragon army. Hiccup’s father Stoick (Gerard Butler) thinks the best way to deal with this threat is to defend Berk from the coming invasion, but Hiccup is determined to meet with Drago and change his mind before war erupts. So he leaves, and on his way finds help from an unexpected source.

How To Train Your Dragon 2 possesses much of the same appeal as the first movie. Toothless is adorable. Hiccup is quirky and well-meaning, and their bond is central to the story. Hiccup’s friends, Astrid, Snoutlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut, and Ruffnut are all entertaining, and the adults in the story, Stoick, Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and Valka (Cate Blanchett) provide good balance to the story. The themes of this movie are as strong as the first, and, of course, there are plenty of dragons.

This is one of the best sequels I have ever seen, both animated and live action. The plot is as good as the first movie and still packs an emotional punch. The characters are as lovable, even though they are growing up. The script is deep, but funny when it needs to be. The animation is incredible and the music is perfect for each frame. It may not be as novel as the first movie, but no sequel can ever be that. But How To Train Your Dragon 2 is just as good as the first one. Viewers will not be disappointed. Rather, we will settle down and wait (im)patiently for HTTYD 3.

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Ship Breaker

ImageThe New York Times Best Seller list used to be a good place to get book recommendations. Though now books like Fifty Shades of Gray make that list so it isn’t exactly reliable anymore. But the Michael L. Printz Award, or just Printz award, is still a guarantee for a good read, so if you’re ever fishing for book recommendations, simply scroll through the list of winners. When you hit the year 2011, you’ll see the book Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Ship Breaker is a young adult novel, and while it is dystopian, it is very different than the current popular strain of young adult dystopian novels. There is no love triangle. There is hardly a love duo. The dystopian setting has a very different feeling than Marie Lu’s series, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, or Veronica Roth’s Divergent. The story takes place in a futuristic America, around the Gulf of Mexico to be specific. Like many dystopian novels, society in Ship Breaker is divided sharply into the haves and the have-nots. The have nots are dirt poor and mostly work as scavengers, tearing apart old ships for scrap metal.

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Paolo Bacigalupi

One of these scavengers is a fifteen-year-old boy named Nailer. I know nowadays male protagonists in dystopian young adult fiction, or any young adult fiction really, is rare, so this alone is a breath of fresh air. Nailer lives the hard live of a ship breaker, working a dangerous job and living with an abusive father. Once in a while he dreams about making it out, but the only way to do that is to get lucky and find a preserved store of oil, and the chances of that happening is one in a million. But then Nailer gets his break. He finds a ship washed up on the shore after the shore. At first, the ship seems to be the lucky find, but a survivor in the wreckage of the ship’s cabin proves to be even more valuable.

Nita is one of the haves. She belongs to a rich and powerful business family, and Nailer soon realizes that she is worth more alive than dead. She is his ticket of his life of poverty and away from his abusive father. But returning Nita to her family becomes more and more difficult as Nailer’s father and enemies within Nita’s own family come after the pair.

Bacigalupi’s world is well built and different than other dystopian worlds you may have read about. And even more differently, Ship Breaker is a “boy” book. Not that girls won’t like it—after all, Emily and I both liked it—but being a “boy” book shifts the focus of the story. Bacigalupi doesn’t waste time with a love triangle or girlish day dreaming about love—no offense Katniss or Bella. Bacigalupi spends his time world building, presenting a gritty depiction of poverty and the depravity of human nature. He also explores themes like trust, loyalty, prejudice, the social gap, and many other nonromantic ideas. The focus of the book is on action, not relationships, though it doesn’t sacrifice character or relational development.

For readers who enjoy dystopian novels but are looking for something a little different than the dystopian books that are popular now, Ship Breaker is a good read. And since it won the Printz award, you can be certain that the writing, characters, and themes are all worth your time.