Monday, July 15, 2019

I Didn't Believe in Yesterday

This past weekend, I went to see the new movie Yesterday. It's the story of struggling singer-songwriter Jack Malik who, after an accident, wakes up to discover he's the only person in the world who remembers the music of The Beatles. This becomes his ticket to fame and fortune, as he begins to "write" the greatest music the world has ever heard.

I'm enough of a fan of The Beatles to have been instantly intrigued by the premise of this movie. Added to that was another significant draw for me -- the screenwriter of this movie is Richard Curtis, whose many credits include Love Actually and About Time (among a number of other widely beloved movies I should really get around to seeing).

Unfortunately, there's simply not much to this movie beyond the idea itself. "No one remembers The Beatles" is a fun springboard, but it turns out to be an idea without enough meat on the bone to sustain a full length movie. An improv sketch or a short story, perhaps. But as a nearly two-hour film, it sort of devolves into using classic Beatles songs as filler to pad out a simplistic and familiar romantic comedy -- one that's only occasionally all that romantic or comedic.

The movie is directed by Danny Boyle, the man behind Trainspotting, The Beach, Slumdog Millionaire, and more. His movies have often been hit-or-miss for me, but it always depends on the relative strength of the script. He's not an especially flashy director, and though that non-intrusiveness could be argued as a virtue, it means in this case that there isn't much visual panache to elevate the proceedings.

The cast is likeable enough. The leads are more well known in England than the U.S., but Himesh Patel (of EastEnders) and Lily James (of Downton Abbey) are an easy enough pair to root for. Patel in particular has the heavier lift of singing throughout the film (and playing piano and guitar as well). But the script doesn't really put any too-serious obstacles in the couple's way that might have brought more emotional heft to the film. It's perhaps a deliberate choice to just "make room for the songs," but it hollows out the already lightweight story.

There are a few small delights along the way. Kate McKinnon cuts loose as a sleazy producer-manager who takes over Jack's career and steers it for her own gain. Ed Sheeran appears as himself and gets to poke a little fun at his own image along the way. Robert Carlyle has a small scene that nevertheless serves as one of the film's few deeper moments.

If you're a fan of The Beatles, you might find the movie a pleasant enough distraction. But ultimately, it's the band's famous music that sticks with you as you're leaving the theater. The story is a trifle that begins to evaporate almost instantly. I'd grade the movie a C.

Friday, July 12, 2019

DS9 Flashback: Civil Defense

One winning method for building tension in a story is to line up problems a mile deep. Every effort by the characters to solve a problem only makes the problem worse. It's a technique deployed to good effect in the third season Deep Space Nine episode "Civil Defense."

A dormant Cardassian program in the station's computer is triggered, locking down Deep Space Nine as though in response to a revolt by Bajoran prisoners. The crew must race against the clock to regain control, but it won't be easy with everyone divided by force fields and counter measures. And matters get worse when the real Gul Dukat arrives to gloat and exploit the situation for personal gain.

This episode reportedly was one of the hardest to craft of the entire season, though the results don't seem particularly troubled. The writers were looking for an idea that would be more action-oriented, and were also looking for a "bottle" show that could be produced on existing sets (and thus be cheaper to produce). They thought they'd found both things in a pitch from outside writer Mike Krohn, who suggested the rough "man-vs.-machine" angle of the story. Though once the staff was working on it, they found it hard to get at any emotional level to the situation.

Virtually every DS9 writer took a run at the script. Then, with filming about to start (and producer Michael Piller still unsatisfied), they carved the story up in pieces and worked on it all together. They subdivided the characters much like in the Next Generation's "Disaster," and that finally did the trick. Characters aren't even necessarily put together in "odd couples," yet the small groups still give each of them a chance to shine.

Ben and Jake Sisko get to show how their father/son relationship holds up under pressure. This is a subconscious reminder that Jake has lived through tough things, and Ben doesn't need to shield or coddle him in a crisis. Jake is active in solving problems, and never buckles to stress. Why Jake is still apprenticing with O'Brien when he's already stated that he doesn't want to join Starfleet is an unanswered question, but O'Brien did need to be used somewhere -- and keeping him out of Ops works best for this story.

Odo and Quark are an obvious but fun pairing. Forcing them into proximity starts off predictably with jokes and barbs (which do work; Quark having higher Cardassian security clearance than Odo is a funny idea). Ultimately, their story moves into more serious territory, with each paying a heartfelt compliment to the other during the crisis... before reverting to their cynical norm at the end.

Bashir and Dax make for another obvious pairing -- though how their story line plays out isn't quite so obvious. This might be the moment when Bashir's rehabilitation as a character is finally complete. He started out brash, unlikable, and skeevy. Bit by bit, we saw professionalism replace his naivete, and a friendship with O'Brien that showed he could be likeable. Now, at last, his distasteful lust for Jadzia Dax is put behind him. He's trapped with her for hours and doesn't try to play the situation for romance. (Though perhaps him commenting on this isn't quite necessary?)

That's not to say there isn't lecherous behavior on display in this episode. The writers had felt like Dukat had been too friendly in recent appearances, and so deliberately set out to make him more villainous in this episode. His arrival on the scene is the moment that really separates this plot from "Disaster," and the joy he takes in the situation is great. He feuds with Garak, knocks Sisko's baseball off the desk, and tries to extort Kira. All properly villainous.

He also flirts with Kira. This too is villainous... and the writers seem not to be aware of just how much. In a throwaway comedic moment, we see that Cardassian flirting takes the form of pompous posturing (well... for Dukat, it does) as he makes a pass at Kira. Garak calls him out, but from this scene, the writers would ultimately begin toying with the idea of putting Kira and Dukat in a relationship together.

Nana Visitor rightly shut that shit down. Knowing her own character better than anyone, she strongly lobbied against it, pointing out that Dukat's role in the occupation, to Kira, made him "Hitler." As Visitor explained in an interview: "She's not ever going to get over that. She can never forgive him, and that is important to me. Kira may have started to see Cardassians as individuals, but she will always hate Dukat." And while her argument won in the long run, she still wished this moment hadn't gone by so lightly: "I would have liked my character to make the point that only a few years earlier, Dukat's wanting me would have meant that he could have had me, and I wouldn't have been able to do a thing about it."

Dukat does at least get something of a comeuppance in the episode, though. His gloating backfires, and his own program turns on him when he's perceived to be fleeing the station. This is another great moment where the jeopardy deepens. Unfortunately, though, we never really get to see Dukat eat crow. Once the program is actually disabled, the episode ends on Odo and Quark. We never get back to Ops to see Dukat lamely return to his ship, defeated.

Indeed, the climax of the episode is generally a bit of a letdown next to the rest of the episode. After layer upon layer of great escalating danger, the final minutes are resolved in a thick cloud of technobabble. That, and a lot of people moving far too slowly too convey any of the urgency their situation deserves.

Other observations:
  • Even though Garak has already revealed himself to be an exiled Cardassian spy, he still has fun playing the "is he / isn't he?" game, pretending not to know where everything is in Ops. Indeed, he seems to be having a fun time in general this episode, needling Dukat at every opportunity.
  • Quark first mentions his cousin Gaila, who owns a moon. We'd meet the character in person in later seasons.
  • Odo's new third season belt disappears in this episode. Rene Auberjonois had lobbied for the costume change after "Crossover," but ultimately felt that the belt only worked in the darker color of that mirror universe costume. Seeing it with his regular beige, he thought it looked "Buck Rogers-y," so he asked to change back.
Although the final minutes of the episode are a bit of a letdown, there's a lot of fun here leading up to it. I give "Civil Defense" a B+. Despite the episode's troubled creation, the results turned out well.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Getting All Up in That Grill

I rarely go for reality shows, and when I do, they're almost never about food. But somehow, I've found a soft spot for Netflix's Nailed It! Hosted by the hilarious Nicole Byer (who manages just the right blend of sweet and caustic), this is a bake-off show featuring contestants who can't bake. Each episode presents impossible challenges of elaborate cakes to be made on ridiculously short timetables, and the results are predictably (and laughably) horrible.

In my circle of friends, I'm not the only one who has been enjoying Nailed It! Indeed, it seems I'm not even the one enjoying it most, because someone floated the idea to do a "Nailed It party" and try it ourselves -- an event that came together this past weekend. We selected a particular cake from an episode of the show that seemed not too far out of reach, stocked up on fondant, dyes, edible markers, and colored sprays of all sorts, and gathered together to try our luck.

We selected the "Barbecue Grill" cake from a second season episode:


This involved multiple stacked-and-carved cake layers, fondant covering and replica food, Rice Krispies beer bottles... and a lot of effort.

Amazingly, so many of us went in on this crazy way to spend an evening that we had couples, families, and friends all teaming up to create six different cakes! Obviously, we didn't have enough oven space or mixers in one place for all that, so we made a few concessions on the time limit: everyone baked their cakes ahead of time, and got a chance to make their butter cream icing before the time officially started.

We gave ourselves two hours. This is as much time as contestants on the show had to do the entire thing -- without partners. But then, they had so many supplies on hand that there was no need to share, as well as professional tips should they need them. Oh, and a $10,000 prize for motivation. (No such stakes for us.)

It turns out that cake decorating done this elaborate is -- unsurprisingly -- both fun and really hard. Fondant is really hard to work with. You want to roll it out as thin as possible to minimize the weight you're adding to a precariously stacked cake. (Also, does anyone actually like the taste of fondant?) But roll it out too thin, and it tears as you try to drape it onto your cake. Oh, and good luck smoothing out the wrinkles, hiding the joins, or dyeing it to the right color.

The grill itself turned out to be quite the challenge. That inward slope to the stacked cakes caused more than one of our group's efforts to collapse at some point during the night.

...but hey! Paste it together with butter cream and cover it up with fondant. It still tastes good, right? (Good enough, in fact, that the cake above would, after all was said and done, "win" our little "competition!")

Where everyone seemed to shine was in sculpting the food for the top of the grill. Every one of the six cakes had one piece or another that looked really good -- from shrimp kebabs to perfectly browned hot dogs to convincing corn to Swiss cheese on a tasty-looking burger. There were some great beer bottles too.

The cake me and my husband made landed somewhere in the middle of the pack, but we had a good time making it. (Even if hunching over the table to work on it for two hours gave me a backache that followed me all the way to bed.)

I'm in no rush to do this sort of thing again. For one thing, it results in a truly preposterous amount of dessert. I doubt that I'll be looking to make some fondant-draped piece of cake art for the next special occasion that comes along. Still, we all had great fun at this unconventional party.

Perhaps you have yet to discover that cake is your true medium as an artist. Give it a try! How hard could it be?

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Collision Course, Part I

We're now about two-thirds into the latest season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., and at last the season seems to have revealed its ultimate shape: Sarge vs. Izel. Neither one exactly the "good guy," but Izel most likely the "Big Bad." Right?

FitzSimmons are arriving back on Earth aboard Izel's ship, not knowing that she is the destructive entity who controls the Shrikes that threaten the planet. Meanwhile, Sarge is racing toward the ship's landing site, planning to be there to destroy Izel. But his idea of "acceptable losses" to win that battle doesn't sit well with Mack and the heroes... who also don't know that the ship they're thinking about shooting out of the sky carries their friends.

It's kind of a foundation of drama (and even more, comedy) to have characters hide information from each other. Often, if characters would just reveal all they know to one another, they could untangle the knotted plot easily, leaving no story to tell. The trick of the writer, then, is to make it believable that everyone is withholding from one another -- giving them a reason to keep their secrets. And hopefully, not making anyone look too foolish.

The lack of trust between Sarge and the heroes is playing well enough. Everyone is concealing secrets from one another, in a believable way. The "not making anyone look too foolish" part, though? Well, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been dancing right on that line this season, stepping on one side or the other in different episodes. Here, Mack knows not to trust Sarge, enough to put his agents on the scene and shadow him in the air... but he isn't quite savvy enough to avoid the double cross. Right on the line, I guess. The audience would prefer the guy we've known so long be a bit smarter; but if he were, we wouldn't really have a story.

If the foundation of the story isn't quite rock solid, the adornments at least were super fun. There was nice stunt work this week, with Sarge climbing out on the roof of his vehicle for some thrills with teleporting. (The portal gags have been great every time they've come along, enough to make me wish they'd be an even bigger part of the season.)

The more comedic elements worked for me too. Sarge's psychotic team member Snowflake was just beginning to wear thin for me; adding a new horny dimension to her wild-eyed intensity made for a fun change of pace. (And Deke continues to be a good character for comedy.) Yo-Yo's confrontation with the other two members of Sarge's team made for a fun moment, and Simmons' embarrassed callbacks to her recent alien drug trip were amusing too.

Now that the big conflict of the season has been laid out, it feels like just two big questions remain. Why does Sarge look like Coulson... and who's really the bad guy here: Izel or Sarge? We'll see if next week's episode answers either question. As for this installment? I give it a B.

Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Flights of All Kinds

The last full day of our Napa Valley trip... wasn't spent in Napa. We headed to the neighboring Sonoma Valley instead, starting our day in downtown Sonoma. We walked around, checking out random stores -- and looking for one place in particular.

The day before, while at Cakebread Cellars, we got to talking about our plan for an afternoon picnic somewhere in Sonoma. We were advised to check out the Vella Cheese Company near Sonoma Plaza, not just to pick up some great cheese, but also a purportedly phenomenal butter. A San Francisco local, also sampling wines at Cakebread, jumped in to endorse the suggestion. The butter is "amazing," we were assured. So first thing on our Sonoma day, we tracked down the place and bought both cheese and butter to tuck in our cooler, all the while wondering how good it could possibly be.

Next we had an hour drive ahead of us. We were headed closer to the coast, and to the Redwoods. The drive took us through Petaluma, California -- and the most acrid, rancid, shockingly bad odor any of us has ever encountered. Colorado residents: think Commerce City and Greeley somehow combined and amplified. I dubbed this memorable smell the "Petaluma Funk." I Googled after the trip was over and learned it has the far more clever name of the "Sonoma Aroma," which can be attributed to local dairies, the seasonal spreading of cow manure over local fields, or both. It is haunting. Fortunately, we planned no stops in the area.

We made our way to Sonoma Canopy Tours, a zipline course through the Redwoods. It was the first time my husband and I had ever been ziplining, and a great location to try it out.

Seven different lines (plus two Temple of Doom style rope bridges and a "rappel" off a platform at the end) led throughout the Redwoods.

At heights of up to 250 feet, speeds of up to 40 MPH, and with one line 1500 feet long, it was great fun.

Afterward, we headed over to Kendall-Jackson Wine Estates. K-J is another kind of wine widely available here in Denver, but there were opportunities there at their tasting room to try things you couldn't get elsewhere. We enjoyed a flight, then selected our favorite and bought a full bottle to take outside to a gazebo on their grounds.

Picnic time had arrived. There at Kendall-Jackson, we pull out a variety of cheese, bread, crackers, and fruit we'd brought with us. Plus, of course, the famous Vella Cheese Company butter. Maybe it was the power of suggestion, or maybe the buzz of the wine, or the lovely view, or the fond feelings of the trip overall... but that butter was everything it was promised to be and more. Somehow it was both light and rich, airy but also flavorful. It was damn good butter, and we'd wished we'd brought about twice as much bread as we did. (We took the rest back home for toast the next morning.)

The special alchemy of scenery, butter, and Kendall-Jackson wine finally wore us down. All trip, every winery we'd visited had sought to sign us up for their wine club. Special bottles only available from the winery! Personal shipments multiple times a year! (And, in many cases, exorbitant prices for the service.) Cakebread Cellars had almost convinced us. Kendall-Jackson, with a more reasonably priced club that still included Sonoma exclusives we couldn't get back in Denver, finally closed the deal. A few times a year, we can look forward to shipments from the winery that also double as reminders of the great time we had on the trip.

One last dinner back in Napa, and our vacation was basically over. We drove back into San Francisco the next morning and caught a rather turbulent flight home to Denver. (A nervous old woman in our row wailed dramatically with each shake, declaring repeatedly that "this is the worst it's ever been!") But a few bumps at the end of a flight were nothing compared to great times we'd had flitting through wine country. At more than a dozen wineries in five days, maybe we overdid it a bit? But hey, that's why we went.

We got everything we'd hoped for.

Monday, July 08, 2019

Let Them Drink Cakebread

Our fourth day in Napa Valley began at Cakebread Cellars, one of the few places on the trip we'd picked out more for the wine than the sights. We arrived a bit earlier than our reservation time, and were treated to a mini-tour of the facilities -- including a more rare sample or two they don't always pour. (That's what they tell all the guests, I'm sure.)

Cakebread is a wine my husband and I discovered at a fancy dinner years ago, that we pick up now and then for special occasions. The name didn't quite stick in our heads the first time around, which led to our discovery of Cupcake wine -- a less expensive but "decent for cheap wine" wine. Hilariously, as our guide at Cakebread Cellars was leading us through the tasting tour, he brought up this name confusion unprompted. Cupcake Vineyards named themselves on purpose, he opined, to capitalize on "accidental purchases" meant for the more respected, higher quality Cakebread Cellars. If true, we certainly fell for it. The genuine article does taste better though. Enough to be worth the notably higher price? Perhaps not... so we resisted the temptation to join their pricey wine club.

In driving all around Napa Valley over the previous few days, we'd driven by Robert Mondavi Winery several times. My husband and I had stopped there years ago and not been particularly impressed. Still, their place looks beautiful and inviting. And their wine is widely distributed all over Denver; if you've ever paid even a little attention in the wine section of a liquor store, Robert Mondavi is a name you'd probably recognize. So after three days of "Ooo.... Robert Mondavi." / "Yeah, but they aren't very good.", day four finally wore us down. "Ooo.... Robert Mondavi." / "Should we just go there?"

The wine, as remembered, didn't really hold up next to many others we'd had during the trip. But the stop was still worthwhile. Their wide open courtyard is still a picturesque spot, and two of us picked up hats in the gift shop that seemed appropriately summery and suited to the trip.

Our next reservation of the day was at Rutherford Hill Winery, which we'd chosen after hearing about its caves. Getting out of the hot sun, touring a barrel-filled wine cave... it sounded like fun. It was perhaps a little less special than imagined. We'd been conjuring notions of naturally occurring caves converted into elaborate wine cellars. Instead, the "caves" had been methodically constructed in the hillside.

The facade was still impressive, and the inside as cool and comfortable as hoped for, but inside it felt almost more like a warehouse than a cave. Still, here we were, approaching our dozenth winery stop of the trip, and each place had had its own particular feeling about it. That in and of itself made Rutherford Hill feel like a fun addition to our "collection." (Randomly running into someone my husband knew, also on vacation from Denver, was an unexpected moment too.)

We were feeling done with wine for the day, but nevertheless stopped at one more winery in the late afternoon: Beringer Vineyards. This place was more about the sight-seeing and the history, in any case. Its photogenic Rhine House was something to see.

Beringer is also the oldest operating winery in Napa Valley (dating back to the 1870s), and has been offering tours and tastings since the repeal of Prohibition. Most of us opted out of any sampling, but we all enjoyed a short walk around the grounds.

Before heading back to our house, we stopped briefly at Mad Fritz Brewery. The switch away from wine was welcome, and their approach to beer an interesting one -- they used no added fruits or extracts to flavor their beers, but neither did they rigidly adhere to particular yeasts or malts for particular styles. The result was a range of beers all pure and refreshing, but a bit different the norm in a satisfying way.

The evening concluded with steaks we'd picked up at the Oxbow Public Market, and a few chapters of our various books before bed. We had one more full day of the trip, and plans that (for once) didn't center on wine.

Friday, July 05, 2019

Toldja

The latest episode of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was one of the few this season to feature all the characters in their various, separated story lines. But after the excellence of the FitzSimmons-centered "Inescapable," I found it far less compelling.

Sarge has been brought to the Lighthouse, and Mack is trying to learn more from him about the Shrikes and the threat they pose to Earth. But Sarge isn't giving up his secrets easily. Indeed, he cockily predicts he won't be a prisoner for long, and that our heroes will be looking to him as their leader before the day is up. Meanwhile, FitzSimmons' hasty escape from the Chronicoms has landed them back on the planet Kitson, whose evil ruler is looking to maintain his grip on power by making an example of them.

The FitzSimmons part of this hour can't help but be a letdown after the preceding installment. The episode is just more of them trying to escape, lacking both the strong emotional elements of "Inescapable" and a true sense of agency on their parts. They escape this time not by their own wits, but because someone else swoops in to the rescue. I suppose if this new character Izel eventually grows into a long-running character on this show, we might one day look back fondly on this episode as her first appearance. But she's fairly inscrutable here, trying to come off as a mysterious badass while ultimately being a little too nice and helpful in general to really fit that mold.

The Earth-bound story line of the episode is a disappointment in that it relies on our heroes making a series of stupid decisions just to keep the plot in motion. What little bits of information Sarge does give them is clearly being doled out in a cagey and manipulative way, and Mack and the others just swallow it all, hook, line, and sinker.

Worst of all, the team already knows that the Shrikes are looking to unite with each other at specific locations on the planet to wreak havoc. Yet it doesn't seem to occur to any of them that bringing two Shrikes together in one place might be a Very Bad Thing. So most of the jeopardy in the episode is of the heroes' own foolish making. Sarge winds up looking smart in this episode only because the regular characters are dumbed down from usual to make him so.

I'd grade "Toldja" a B-. It's a necessary part of the ongoing story line, but it doesn't unfold naturally enough. It shows too much of the construction, too much of the deliberate moving of pieces (characters) into their necessary positions. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has been more deft with this sort of thing in the past.