Thursday, October 2, 2014

Humility, The Beauty of Yom Kippur

Every fall, Jews all over the world come together for the holiest day of the year, our Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur. For approximately 26 hours, we refrain from eating, drinking and partaking in worldly pleasures and instead spend the day in synagogue, often literally on our knees, asking God to forgive the sins we committed over the prior year.

Yom Kippur is a day of awe and judgment, but because God is loving and merciful He forgives all our sins if our repentance is sincere—with one critically important caveat: though God will “automatically” forgive all sins made against Him, He will not forgive sins we’ve made against other people unless those people forgive us first.

Thus in order for our sin slate to be wiped clean, we must spend the days leading up to Yom Kippur seeking out those we’ve wronged to ask their forgiveness.

For me personally, this aspect of the day is the most meaningful. Examining my relationships and apologizing to those I’ve mistreated is profoundly humbling. Having to acknowledge that there were moments when I was not kind or considerate, that there were times when I stepped out of line, and that some of my actions negatively impacted someone I hold most dear reminds me to stay grounded.

In this way, Yom Kippur is a tough but a wonderful day for it reminds us that the path to Godliness is not only paved with our relationship with God Himself, but also our relationships with each other.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Pop Music With A Message: Kylie Sizzles and Inspires In 'Kiss Me Once'

I love sex and a good party as much as the next guy, but I hate that contemporary pop music is filled with repetitive, unimaginative lyrics about this subject matter. There was a time when big stars like Janet Jackson and Madonna sang about sex and dancing to raise questions, push the envelope and empower people, but this trend has devolved into Auto-Tune hacks alla Kesha (notice the missing $ following her stint in rehab) regaling listeners with idiotic lines like “I want to get naked and you’re wasted.”

It’s bad enough that songs like “Tik Tok” kill adult brain cells with their vapidity, but it’s especially concerning that young kids listen to this garbage and emulate these twigged out pop tarts. Sure, Madonna is still around and we have Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to provide some balance with their relatively sweet and thoughtful songs, but there is a dearth of role models in the contemporary pop landscape nonetheless.

Fortunately, one sadly under-appreciated pop princess, duchess, queen, and countess is coming to our rescue!

Releasing Kiss Me Once, her 12th studio album, on March 14, Ms. Kylie Minogue once again proves herself to be a sexy, confident and thoughtful woman to legitimately admire.

At first glance the album may appear to be exactly the same kind of pop trash as the aforementioned Kesha single, seeing as the word “sex” appears in the titles of three of the record's 11 tracks. However, Ms. Minogue explores the themes of sex and love with fresh beats and silky smooth sophistication that set her a “Million Miles” (that’s a track reference) apart from others in the current pop scene.

Minogue owns herself from the very first lines of “Into The Blue,” the opening track that sets the funky, fun electronic tone for the rest of the record. “I drew the smile upon my face / I paved the road that would one day leave me lonely,” she sings soothingly over an easy beat, demonstrating an insightful woman who acknowledges responsibility for her own destiny. “When I got my back up against the wall / Don’t need no one to rescue me,” she continues in the chorus, leading to the song’s most empowering line: “‘Cause I ain’t waiting up for no miracle / Yeah tonight I’m running free.”

Up next is “Million Miles,” a song about the glorious thrills of mind-blowing sex that gets complicated by mixed emotions and uncertainty. “When you touch my body / I go weak but you’re so hard for me to reach,” she coos. It’s a place where many no doubt have found themselves, which is why the song titillates and resonates at the same time.

“I Was Gonna Cancel” follows with a look back on the day when Kylie almost cancelled on Pharrell Williams, who produced the track. A minor bad day for Kylie turned into an understated but inspiring anthem for her listeners about turning things around and making good out of bad.
Shut out all the doubt
Just get up and go
What's on the other side?
You will never know unless you
Go, go, go, gi-i-irl
From there the album go, go, goes to two of the three sex titles.

Its title suggests that “Sexy Love” could be about nothing, but it finds Kylie deep in love and craving the passion that comes with that. There is sizzle mixed with an easy to sway to beat, but the emotional exploration makes this song about more than a casual tryst.

“Sexercize” is not so thoughtful though. Its hard beat just makes the listener want to get down. Unlike the other sex-themed songs on the album, this track is unabashedly, unapologetically about getting dirty and losing oneself in the euphoria. It’s a fun listen, and given that Ms. Minogue devotes much of the album to exploring actual sexual intimacy, she cannot be faulted for simply wanting to have fun in the moment.

The next track, “Feel So Good,” is playful, like a Saturday afternoon that new lovers might spend in bed. It’s a little moment in an otherwise big album, and an easy listen that really does feel so good.

“If Only” follows up with a poignant melody reinforced by funky electronic drumbeats similar to the clanking in Martin Garrix's "Animals." It’s a sonic delight and pulls on the heartstrings with its lyrics about finding true love.

“Kiss Me Once,” the album’s title track, is a sweet declaration of Kylie’s capacity to love. “Kiss me once / And you will watch me fall / Kiss me twice / And I will give you my all,” she sings over a lovely melody that harkens to the 80’s glory days of pop.

“Beautiful,” a beautiful song about long-lasting love featuring Enrique Iglesias, begins to close the album. It’s romantic and lovely and will probably make us all wish for decades-long relationships.

Finally, the album concludes with “Fine,” in which Kylie reassures us that we’re going to be, well… “Fi-i-ine, you're gonna be fi-i-ine / It's gonna be OK a brighter day will come, come, come.”

Kiss Me Once is a superb sonic experience that challenges the listener not to dance while embarking on a journey in which sex is much more than a mistake during a drunken stupor. Kylie Minogue demonstrates dimensionality and class in every track, thereby illustrating that a woman—and, by extension, any person—can have fun with her sexuality without exploiting it for its own sake and devolving it to mindless babble. A+

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Peter Jackson Thrills and Delights in 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Samug'

The first installment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy is like the undressed raw vegetables the dwarves were served in Rivendell, devoid of flavor and unsatisfying. Thankfully, the epic second chapter, The Desolation of Smaug, delivers the savory meat (or tofu or seitan for the non-carnivores) that thrills and delights the senses.
Gone are the painful digressions into song or the pointless, humorless gags. This film sets its tone—fast-paced danger—from the very moment the opening theme plays against the studio logos and doesn’t relent until the very end.
Though the last film ends fairly happily, declaring that “the worst is behind” the dwarfish company, this film immediately ups the stakes. The opening prologue expertly sets the edge-of-your-seat experience to follow by showcasing that even months before his quest began, Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) is already being hunted by an unknown entity. However, Thorin is saved by the Wizard Gandalf (the ever fabulous Ian McKellan), who helps set the quest in motion.
From there, the film is one thrill ride after another as Thorin’s company overcomes orcs, spiders and wood elves. The scenes with the spiders are exciting and showcase Bilbo Baggins’ (the ever expressive Martin Freeman) growing courage… and obsession with a certain ring. Despite the greater number of spiders, the sequence doesn’t feel as dangerous as the Shelob sequence in The Return of the King, but that’s one of the downfalls of prequels—we’ve seen a lot of it before. Still, this time around there are more breathtaking New Zealand vistas than in the first film, creating a sense of wonder and excitement with Middle-earth once more.
The spider attack leads to a confrontation between the dwarves and wood elves of the Green Wood, which brings us to one of the film’s highlights: Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Legolas (reprised by a slightly puffier looking Orlando Bloom).Though Tauriel is not part of any written J.R.R. Tolkien material, her character adds some much needed tenderness in an otherwise intense film. Legolas is a much different elf 60 years prior to the War of the Ring, and Tauriel’s desire to help others in the world plays nicely against hisand his father Thranduil's (Lee Pace) stubbornness. Also at play is her developing relationship with Kili (Aidan Turner, the prettiest dwarf). It's a cute, and thankfully understated love triangle.
After the dwarves escape from the elves by what has been called an amusement park ride (anyone want to raft in a barrel?) the film continues the tight action pace. Gandalf is called away on an urgent mission. Meanwhile, the dwarves struggle to reach the Lonely Mountain before the sun sets on Durin’s Day.
Suffice it to say they reach the mountain after overcoming several more obstacles, leading to Bilbo’s first meeting with the mighty Dragon Smaug (voiced by the leathery in his own right Benedict Cumberbatch).The fight with the Balrog is a mere skirmish compared to the battle with Smaug! One cannot help but be mesmerized by the cunning dragon and get lost in the deep, expansive caverns and halls of Eribor. These moments that compose most of the last third of the film are perhaps the most impressive of Jackson’s five interpretations of Tolkien’s work that we’ve seen so far!
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is a fun, action-packed adventure that gives viewers new thrills and delights. While some of the action scenes still run a little too long, they are far more imaginative than the overstuffed spectacle of the first film. Film two is an incredible improvement over An Unexpected Journey and will keep audiences exhilarated for years to come.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

No 'Glee' for One Million Moms Who Miss The Big Picture

The Christmas Wars (better known to conservatives as the War on Christmas) rage on. One Million Moms, the organization of about 500 uptight mothers, recently took to the Internet to denounce Glee’s 2013 Christmas episode. The result of its outrage: Glee will continue to air new episodes, but I get an excuse to combine my two favorite topics—conservatives and pop-culture—as I review OMM and Glee in one swoop!
As it was allegedly unaired last year, Glee’s latest Christmas spectacular takes place in 2012. (Spoiler alert) Kurt and Blaine are still broken up and Santana hasn’t moved to New York yet. Still, she finds herself in the city hanging out with Kurt and Rachel as the three of them play elves at a mall. After drunkard Santa abandons them, a younger, Sexy Bisexual Santa saves the day by getting them to throw a party in their ridiculously huge flat and making out with all three of them… before robbing them blind (and blindfolded). Meanwhile, the gang back at McKinley puts on a live nativity scene in which Unique, the transsexual student, plays the Virgin Mary and tosses her Baby Jesus doll from one costar to another.

And so, OMM declares that “The mockery of the Christmas story was blasphemous and an abomination.” Chief among their woes is that “Baby Jesus is tossed around like a rag doll and shown no respect,” but they’re also angry about Santana’s sexy elf costume and counseling kids to download porn on their smart phones as a holiday gift. Sexy Santa’s bisexuality is also an issue. “Other religions do not tolerate this behavior and as Christians we will not either,” they proclaim.
OMM’s complaints are easily defensible. Tossing Baby Jesus around can justifiably be interpreted as disrespectful, or even blasphemous, and teaching kids to download porn on their smartphones is anything but wholesome in any context.
Nevertheless, the organization’s outrage over this particular episode is disingenuous. Firstly, why is bisexual Sexy Santa offensive but drunk Santa who abandons his post is not? Secondly, Glee doesn’t give Judaism better treatment than it gives Christianity. Many Orthodox Jews would find Rachel’s engagement to Finn to be blasphemous because he was not Jewish. True, it’s not the same action as tossing around a Jesus doll, but at the core it is still blasphemy. (As a side note, also consider that though Jesus may be the Christian savior, but he was born a Jew.) But most critically, OMM acknowledges that “[t]his is not the first time the show has aired blasphemous content in their program.” Then why is this particular episode where the line is being drawn?
This season more than any other, Glee has indeed done many offensive things. In the episode preceding the Christmas episode, the opening recap called Jake a “man-slut.” This is hardly a productive exercise in a time when people are fighting to phase out the word “slut” for all of its negative connotations. Then there’s Becky Jackson, the handycapable student whose story arc of fearing a world away from Sue Sylvester’s warm treatment has been turned into portraying her as barely anything other than sex-obsessed. These jokes used to be infrequent and were used to depict her empowerment and equality with her peers. Now they’re excessive and paint her as a rather one dimensional character. There is also a larger issue of how Glee portrays teen sexuality that I will not go into here.
Its own statement is evidence that OMM is not ignorant of the show’s many issues. So where was the outrage and public awareness campaign prior to the Christmas episode? Could it be that they, like many other conservative groups, are latching onto one generally less significant issue while ignoring the countless other Christian values that Glee tramples over?
Despite the aforementioned criticism, Glee has had lots of great story arcs over the years. Its treatment of Kurt and Santana’s coming out, as well as Sue’s care for her handycapable sister and student was poignant and no doubt continues to serve as a beacon to young people across the country. But in typical Ryan Murphy fashion, as the show has aged it’s veered into offensive, ludicrous territory. I hope that individual viewers and organizations can and will engage in constructive dialogue that might help Glee’s writers and producers steer the show in a better direction, but in order for that to happen organizations like OMM need to drop the selective righteousness and focus on the content as a whole.
Glee airs Thursday nights at 9:00 pm on Fox, of all places.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Giving Thanks on Thanksgiving

Like many Americans probably do, I spent the days leading up to Thanksgiving thinking about the things I am grateful for. The list is extensive and includes a loving family, supportive friends, a stable job and my wonderful readers. But it occurred to me that what I am most thankful for is what I consider to be a “guardian angel” that helps guide my life. This might not be the literal sort of angel described in scripture (though I am open to the possibility that it could be), but some sort of guiding force that helps things “work out for the best,” as is the saying. At the very least, it can be described as good fortune.

I have faced challenges both large and small in my young life. Though I credit good advice, helpful people and hard work for overcoming most of the trials, I also believe that some invisible force guides me to those right people and things at the right time to solve my problems. After all, my right people, place and time started right at birth, as I was born to parents who were able to emigrate to the zenith of First World civilization so that I could have a promising future.

A difficult but overall fortunate series of events has led me to this moment of sitting in my New York apartment at my top of the line computer to write this article. But at this very moment, there are 1.3 BILLION people who do not have access to enough electricity to turn on a light bulb, let alone fire up an Internet connected computer. And as I sit and salivate over the turkey and trimmings I will enjoy in just a few hours, 870 million people don’t have enough food to sustain proper nourishment, let alone eat the estimated 4,500 calories on a typical Thanksgiving plate.

How is it that my life has worked out so fortunately when such an astronomical number of people lack even the most basic essentials that I often take for granted?

It is a question I cannot answer, but it is one that I find important to consider because it puts life in perspective. When I was younger, I used to think that the seemingly endless amount of financial hardship and health problems my family and I have faced for the majority of our American experience made me someone because together we’d been to hell and back. But in my adult life, as I have been able to pursue my dreams and goals, I slowly learned that the thing that makes me someone is being thankful for the many blessings I do have and giving something back to those that have less.

I write this piece not to be self-righteous or to manipulate my readers into feeling guilty over enjoying their Thanksgiving meals and life’s myriad blessings. I will certainly enjoy mine. And, despite my best intentions, I’m sure there will be many moments in the coming year when I slip and again take my blessings for granted. To be human is to be fallible. But to be human is also to reason and strive. With this piece, it is my hope and intention merely to encourage reflection. Though I do not believe this is true of my readers, it is becoming an indisputable fact that the holiday America created to give thanks is turning into nothing more than an excuse for Americans to gorge themselves before heading out to stand in long lines and trample each other to buy huge amounts of stuff they do not need. I hope this article can serve as a drop in the pond to encourage all of usmyself includedto strive to appreciate our lives (even) more.

On a deeper, personal note, I wish a happy Thanksgiving to my dear readers! On this day of gratitude, I am especially thankful for your continued interest, insightful comments and warm support. Some of you are strangers whom I have never met while others are friends or family members. However, whether you know me personally or not, you haven't given me a free pass when my writing has been off or my analysis missed an essential point. Thank you for considering what I have to say, the intellectual discourse you provide, and encouraging me to continue to evolve and strengthen my craft. As Pulse of My Nation proceeds into its second year, I look forward to sharing more of my work with you and receiving your ideas and encouragement.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Hobbit Extended Edition: An Improved But Still Tedious Journey

Here we go again. Bilbo Baggins’ already too long unexpected journey into the world just got longer. Fortunately, at least the extended edition of the first part of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy, based on just one thin children’s book, doesn’t add too much new footage and deepens our understanding of the film’s protagonist. (The last sentence was deliberately long and convoluted to evoke the experience of watching the film.) Unfortunately, much of the additional 13 minutes of footage is entirely unnecessary and only works to bog down the film with even slower pacing and throwaway nonsense.
Being a huge fan of the extended editions of the The Lord of the Rings films, I spent most of this year eagerly awaiting the release of the extended cut of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. (Despite my lackluster review of the theatrical cut, I was hoping the extended edition would fix some of the most grievous disappointments, like the lack of focus on Bilbo as the film’s protagonist.) Each extended scene in The Lord of the Rings adds something to the rich tapestry of story and visuals in Peter Jackson’s first Middle-earth trilogy. We get to see Sam actually use the Elvish rope, learn more about Aragorn’s lineage and age, and experience the ultimate demise of Saruman. The extra detail expands Jackson’s world, making it a delight to be immersed and lost in. Some extended scenes in An Unexpected Journey accomplish something similar, but others only add to the tedium.
The theatrical and extended versions of Jackson’s prior Middle-earth movies are long, but unlike An Unexpected Journey, none of them feel tedious. The theatrical cut of the first Hobbit film, on the other hand, needlessly spends time showcasing the many annoying antics of a bunch of two-dimensional dwarves whose names I cannot remember even after reading the book twice and watching the film for the fourth time now. But woohoo! The extended version showcases more of those antics at every turn.
It now takes longer for Bilbo to leave his house because the merry gathering is merrier with additional footage. We’re now subjected to more unmemorable lines, dish throwing, and singing. The mid-film break in Rivendell is also extended to include scenes of a dwarf food fight. And ever wonder what a dwarf looks like naked? Tune in to see the scene of the dwarf skinny-dipping party to find out. Also don’t forget the silly-looking Goblins. The Goblin King now gets to sing another song and provide line after line of unnecessary exposition.
Fortunately, Jackson also adds scenes that deepen Bilbo’s character and better explain his decisions. The sequence of events in the theatrical cut doesn’t make much sense. Bilbo wants to stay home one minute, runs after the dwarfs the next, almost gets killed by trolls and orcs but doesn’t seem to care until almost out of nowhere he decides to leave the company because he claims the dwarves don’t like him. The extended cut clears up the confusion by showing how the dwarves isolate themselves from Bilbo while in Rivendell. The audience is also shown a developing friendship between Bilbo and Lord Elrond that clearly tempts Bilbo to leave the adventure early.

Overall, the extended edition of An Unexpected Journey is almost as mixed a bag as the theatrical cut. However, even though some of the more annoying scenes are needlessly extended, other additional footage deepens the enjoyment of the film by better connecting the audience to Bilbo’s journey.
What would be far more effective, though, is if instead of simply extending An Unexpected Journey, Peter Jackson would sit down to create a definitive director’s cut of the film that would include some of the extended scenes that focus on Bilbo while trimming down some of the dwarves’ and goblins’ silliest, most needless antics. He’s undoubtedly too busy for such a project while still working on The Hobbit sequels, but this can be done in the future. Unfortunately, all we get instead is this slightly superior cut that still leaves much to be desired.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey Extended Edition is available now for digital download in the iTunes store and will be released on Blu-Ray 3D, Blu-Ray, and DVD on November 5.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Gaga's Just as Bad, So Why're We Blaming Miley?

The government shutdown has shutdown most of my brain. Unable to even begin to wrap my mind around this latest mess, my attention wanders to my other favorite subject that is the topic of this blog: popular culture.

Allow me to present Lady Gaga’s newest album cover for the forthcoming ArtPop.

As you can see, she appears fully nude, a “sculpture” by Jeff Koons and her hands being the only barriers between us and her …little monsters. (And this is a conservative pose. Ms. Gaga has already treated us to the full moon in her nude yoga video.)

Now take a minute to watch the video for Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.”

Notice anything (besides how surprisingly good her voice sounds)?

That’s right! Like Gaga, Miley is n-a-k-e-d NAKED! But unlike Gaga, Miley has generated controversy for her racy image across the media.

Anyone else see a double standard here?

Yes, Lady Gaga is older than Miley Cyrus (Gaga is 27 and Miley is 20), but why should that matter? Miley may be only 20, but she’s already been engaged and, judging by her twerking and barely clad image, it’s safe to say she’s no virgin. Why is America screaming at Miley to put her clothes on and behave when it doesn’t demand the same of its other pop stars? It seems to me Miley is just following in her elders’ footsteps—elders whose steps we’re not trying to restrain.

I make this point fully acknowledging that Miley's image was not painted merely in the video, but also in her recent VMA performance with Robin Thicke, which wasn't in good taste either. But it's not like we've never been exposed to Madonna and Britney Spears writhing around and simulating sex on stage.

Personally, I find Miley Cyrus’ super-“sexy” image distasteful, but I find the double standard people are promoting even less savory. I want to see the same public outcry against Lady Gaga’s latest equally distasteful image, or I want everyone to move on and stop giving any of these silly people more attention than they deserve. (Yes, I'm giving it to them too, but I hope I am at least making a point.)

And now back to avoiding chicken until the government is reopened.

October 11, 2013: The Huffington Post published an updated version of this story.