Friday, June 23, 2017

Tube Talk

Not long ago, I finished reading a book about TV -- specifically, one with the unwieldy but illuminating title: "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time." In their introduction, co-authors Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz observe that while countless film critics have published "Best Movie" books that serve as fuel for debate, there aren't really any comparable books about television. And in a world where TV is widely acknowledged to have caught up with (or even surpassed) films in quality, that seems an unfortunate oversight.

Sepinwall and Seitz qualify their endeavor in a number of ways. They stick to shows produced principally in America (feeling that their knowledge of foreign shows isn't expansive enough to do otherwise). Their official Top 100 list sticks only to shows that have completed their runs (with one notable exception); a special section gets into several dozen currently running shows that could conceivably make the list if their quality holds over time. They also build their list with a formula, applying points to each show in a variety of categories and then ranking them by score, in an effort to apply some semblance of rigor to a subjective task.

Each of their picks is expounded upon in an essay. They write (sometimes at length) about a show's best qualities and its influence on television that followed. This is the most intriguing part about the book, not just because they are engaging writers, but because the order of their picks itself is suspect. They themselves acknowledge this in their introduction, insofar as they write that they hope their list spurs debate and perhaps more books of the same style, with differing opinions.

I won't go into too much detail about their picks; you can read the book yourself for that. But I will say this much: while I think their Top 100 list overall includes almost everything that deserves it, I really take issue with their ordering. They generally give higher marks to a show that "gets there first" over a show that "does it better." For example, they rightly identify The Sopranos as the progenitor of modern television's obsession with anti-heroic main characters, but I think they elevate it too highly for that. (Then again, I've never been much for mobster tales, so take my view with a grain of salt.) They also fall into the typical television critics' trap of deifying The Wire (a good show, to be sure, but I think just as surely overrated).

And this much I will spoil: their number 1 pick is The Simpsons, which just seems to me to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Hell, they spend a significant portion of their essay on The Simpsons apologizing for the poor quality of later episodes and urging you to focus on early episodes, which seems to acknowledge right there that they know their pick is dubious. (Not to mention that "quality over time" is supposed to be one of the criteria factoring into their scoring system.) But hey, healthy debate, right?

Still, the writing is very good, and the overall list is a great representation of what's been great on American television. I'd give TV (The Book) a B+. I'm sure any fan of quality television would enjoy it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Split Decision

I'd heard a gamut of responses on M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, Split, ranging from "he's finally back" to "it's better than most of the crap he's done lately anyway" to "it's as bad as anything he's ever made." I was too curious to skip it, not because I wanted to watch the M. Night trainwreck (or root for the M. Night revival), but because I wanted to see the performance of the star, James McAvoy.

McAvoy plays a man inhabited by 23 distinct personalities (we're told; we actually see perhaps a third of those). But this goes far beyond any typical fictional portrayal of multiple personality disorder; this man undergoes physiological changes whenever a new personality takes hold. He's an evolving being, his therapist believes. He's also a psychopath (in part); the movie revolves around one of his personalities abducting three teenage girls and imprisoning them in a mysterious subterranean shelter.

The writing here is middling. The premise is fascinating enough, and the actual plot does manage to touch on most of the moments you'd want to see mined for entertainment. But the script is also unnaturally structured for the sake of surprise. (I'm not talking about a "twist ending" here, but we'll get to that.) Sprinkled throughout the movie are flashbacks to the childhood of young Casey, the central of the three imprisoned victims. Also sprinkled throughout are interactions between the abductor and his therapist. I think making you wait to see these scenes hurts the overall experience.

Once you've seen all of these separated flashbacks and interviews, the behavior of both Casey and her captor do make sense, at least within the film's logic. But until you have that full picture, nothing either of them does seems to track. Casey seems unreasonably docile, while McAvoy's abductor seems to switch personalities for no reason other than plot convenience. Both of these issues have explanations -- a solid one for Casey, an "I guess it'll do" one for the villain. But by the time you understand all that, there's maybe just 15 minutes left in the movie, and you've spent too much of what's come before thinking, "oh, come on."

I suppose I did get what I came to see, though -- a pretty good performance from James McAvoy. It's not at a Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black level of greatness, but there are distinct characters here, and many feel more legit that just affecting a voice as a gag. The movie wouldn't hold together as well without McAvoy.

It's M. Night Shyamalan, so there's a twist ending, right? Well, sort of. Not really, in the way you're probably thinking of it. There is scene at the end, a tag on the film itself, that places the entire story into a different context that you'll either appreciate or roll your eyes at, depending on your take on Shyamalan's earlier work (back when everyone loved him without shame or irony).

I'm not sure this movie is totally worth recommending, though, even for a good performance. I'd call it about a C+. I suppose that puts me in the "better than a lot of Shyamalan, but not great" camp.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In the General Aria

I mentioned on the blog last week that the end of our New York trip was not quite the end of our traveling. After a week back home in Denver, we were back out to the airport for three days in Las Vegas.

This wasn't a carefully planned vacation so much as a nice opportunity. For my husband, it wasn't even actually a vacation. He was being sent to a conference for work. He already had the hotel room, and flights from Denver to Vegas are quite reasonably priced. So I got a ticket and tagged along. I'd have the days to myself as my husband worked; we'd have time together in the evenings -- though that might not be all that much.

It was a good trip, though it turned out we had even less time together than I think I'd expected. I don't have many stories to share, but maybe enough highlights here for one blog post:
  • We stayed at the Aria, which was far nicer than other hotels I've stayed in on previous Vegas trips. Be warned, though, about using the bedside tablet to set a wake-up call. Said call turned on the lights, opened the window shades, and turned on the TV all at once. We did that on the first night, awoke to what seemed like an air raid, and did not repeat the mistake for the rest of the trip.
  • We went to a couple of local breweries. Since we were staying on the Strip and weren't up for much of a trek (not even downtown), the options were a bit limited. It's not Denver, where you can sometimes find half a dozen breweries in one square mile. We weren't able to hit a friend's recommendation (Banger; that's downtown), but we did make it to two other places. Sin City was decent enough, but only had a very limited selection of regular beers. (They seemed to exist more to sell cheeky merchandise than beer.) Then there was Ellis Island, a casino with an on-site brewery, which was horrible. Every beer was only $2.50, which would seem like a plus, but it felt like that's all they could really get away with charging.
  • I played poker for the trip. Though I won some very nice hands, I lost some big ones too and wound up down for the trip. One of my losses I can blame on luck; an opponent I'd put all-in hit a two-outer on the river to take the hand. That said, my play is a bit rusty these days, so I must chalk up some of my losses to bad play.
  • The final day of my husband's convention ended with a keynote address by a neat guest speaker: Stephen J. Dubner, of Freakonomics fame (book and podcast). Both my husband and his boss recognized the appeal this might have for me, and encouraged me to sneak in to watch. Dubner's 45-minute speech jumped humorously from turkey sex to hospital cleanliness to monkey prostitution, but was overall a talk about a topic that applies just as much to my work as my husband's: what to make of a big pile of data you have on hand. Gathering accurate information on how people behave can be tricky enough, but it can be trickier still to understand why they behave as they do. Much of Dubner's speech talked about one step farther still: the challenges of making people adjust their behavior in the ways you want them to. That comes up in my job, directly or indirectly, basically every day. The talk was a fun end to the trip (and made me realize I should probably be subscribing to the Freakonomics Radio podcast).
There was a time when it seemed like I was visiting Las Vegas every year or two; it was sort of a favorite destination of mine. Times have changed. It had been nearly seven years since my last Vegas trip. I've been lucky enough to go to a variety of great places since then (and luckier still to go to them with the man I love). Vegas just didn't seem as special this time. It was a fun enough diversion for a few days, but won't stick with me for as long as the New York trip.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Elementary, My Dear

Every summer, sprinkled in between the many concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater, they run a series of movies, projected for a massive crowd on an appropriately massive screen. I'd never been before, mostly waiting for the right film to come along. (The Princess Bride ran once, but the "Quote Along" screening I'd attended not long before at Alamo Drafthouse had scratched that itch.) Last night, the right film came along: The Fifth Element.

I've loved The Fifth Element from the moment I first saw it. Maybe I should say "the moments" I first saw it, because I recall seeing in twice in the same day with different friends back during its original run in 1997. A shared love of the movie was one of the first things my husband and I learned we had in common.

Though it has been many years since I last watched The Fifth Element, I quickly found my love of it hadn't diminished. It had maybe even grown this time around, because even the few flaws I maybe hadn't noticed before just seemed like part of its considerable charms.

I'm not usually one to love a movie for its visuals, but The Fifth Element is something special. It's full of iconic images, memorable characters, and clever designs. In many ways, and much like Star Wars, it's really a fantasy masquerading as science fiction, completely unrestrained by actual laws of nature and marching to its own drum.

It's also filled with wonderful flourishes, some hilarious, some nonsensical, that somehow make the world seem more credible. Why would a mugger break out in a dance? Well, of course he would. Why would anyone make that up? Same goes if you question the name "Iceborg," the purpose of a gun with a self-destruct button, how a radio DJ could be so famous (or how radio could even be a thing) 300 years in the future, and so on. It all just works.

It even works that the movie's protagonist and antagonist never meet or even talk to each other. (There's exactly one shot in the film where they're both on screen, and it's a pointed joke that they just miss each other.) Who the hell writes a story that way? And yet it doesn't detract in any way. The conflict is simple to grasp, and the characters don't need each other to be larger than life.

Of course, those characters are a huge draw, thanks to the great cast that plays them. Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman... each is better than the last. And I knew I was watching this movie with a throng of true fans when, in the opening credits, Chris Tucker got maybe the loudest applause at all. That performance as Ruby Rhod is from outer space, but it's just the right accent, in just the right amount (in my opinion) to cement the movie as one of my favorites ever.

It's not often you can share a favorite movie with 9000 other fans. I don't know that I'd sit through an unknown band and unknown comedian again for just any movie, but I'm super grateful to have done it here. The Fifth Element is an absolute grade A movie for me. Whatever your grade A might be, I hope you have the chance to see it at Red Rocks someday.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Come to Jesus

And there we have it. In just eight short weeks, American Gods has swept onto our screens and scampered off again. (In a way, it's giving us practice for the coming season of Game of Thrones, which will be just 7 episodes instead of the usual 10.) While this season one finale of American Gods did pay off several of ongoing story elements, its large role was to set the scene for the bigger story to come.

For those who hadn't guessed it from his ravens, Mr. Wednesday was revealed this week as Odin, providing context for his warmongering stance toward the new gods. I believe this reveal has come much earlier in the series than it did in the book, which sets up interesting possibilities for future seasons. The television incarnation of American Gods has already worked in a lot of new material, lingering longer on characters and fleshing them out. Neil Gaiman has just released his own tellings of Norse Mythology, and I'd be curious to see if any material from the book might work its way into an episode of the show.

American Gods is fine making plenty of room for just that kind of back story, after all -- as it did this week. Much of the episode was dedicated to Bilquis, and teed her up to be caught in the middle of this war between old gods and new. Unlike Vulcan of a few episodes earlier, Bilquis had fallen so far that she had no choice but to seize the lifeline offered her by the new gods. Side with them or starve out of existence; side with Wednesday or be beheaded. Seems it can be quite rough being a god.

But the big star of the show this week was Easter, as played by Bryan Fuller veteran Kristin Chenoweth. She brought the greatest sense of danger the show has yet depicted, as the climax of the episode had her withdrawing spring itself from the country. But mostly, she brought great humor and lightness to the proceedings, playing well off every character she interacted with -- Wednesday and Shadow, Mad Sweeney and Laura, and Media and Technical Boy. (And once again, Gillian Anderson got to ham it up, this time as an incarnation of Judy Garland.)

There was also wry humor in the gaggle of Jesuses hanging out at Easter's mansion. Lost alum Jeremy Davies was fun as the particular Jesus to get the most screen time, but the idea itself was better still: that there are so many different conceptions of Jesus that dozens or hundreds have manifested according to the "rules" of this universe.

And that's what we'll have to chew on until, presumably, some time next year when American Gods returns for season two. But the show did go out on a great note, with an episode I'd call an A-.

On to the next obsession, for now.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Dear in the Spotlight

On our final evening in New York, we went to see a show that I'd been hearing all kinds of great buzz about: Dear Evan Hansen. That was three weeks ago; in the time since, it has won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. To that praise, I'll add my own. The hype is true.

Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a socially awkward high school student. When another student at his school commits suicide, a series of misunderstandings leads people to think he was a close friend of Evan's. White lies begin to pile up, first intended to comfort the grieving family of the student, but soon to nurture a viral wave of popularity that has swept up Evan.

This is not the relentlessly heavy night of theater it might sound like from that description. There are many fun and light moments sprinkled throughout the musical. But what makes Dear Evan Hansen so great is that it does engage, in a deep way, with grief, loneliness, divorce, and other serious topics.

The music and lyrics were created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The pair recently won an Oscar for their work on La La Land, but this is far and away the superior effort. Every time you think you've heard the best song Dear Evan Hansen has to offer, another brilliant one comes along to make you rethink that. The first act in particular is just one powerful number after another: memorable melodies that instantly set up camp in your brain, paired with thoughtful lyrics that work on your emotions once there.

The cast was uniformly excellent, though I was truly blown away by two performers in particular. (And sure enough, these were the very two who themselves won Tonys this week.) Ben Platt stars as Evan Hansen, giving such a "leave it all on the field" performance that the mind boggles how he can do it eight times a week. We got a sample of his vocal prowess a few nights earlier in the trip, when he was a guest on the Colbert episode we saw taped. Now we got the full context, a performance that fused together hyperactivity, shyness, and profound sadness, and belted it to the back of the house.

Rachel Bay Jones played Evan's mother Heidi, and was every bit as moving. Her character, a struggling single mother, essentially bookends the musical -- the very first song is about her inability to connect with her son, and the last new song is a heartbreaking confession of the feelings she hid from him all his life. Just when you think the show has wrung everything out of you, Rachel Bay Jones comes in to squeeze out more.

No doubt in the wake of its awards, Dear Evan Hansen will become a hard ticket to get. Many of my readers wouldn't have many opportunities to see a show on Broadway in any case. But if you get the chance, I can't recommend this highly enough. It was grade A, the best thing I've seen in multiple trips to New York. (And I've already mentally filed away the possibility of an "encore"; the first national tour has been announced for next year, and it happens to open here in Denver.)

That brings an end to my stories of New York. But I do have one or two more trip stories to relate. I'll get to that next week...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Well Met

I've come to the final full day of our New York trip. It was perhaps the fullest of the vacation, even though we had only one destination that day. That's because that one destination was the Met.

Wikipedia will tell you that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the U.S., but I think that still fails to convey how big it is. We were there close to six hours, and moving at a fairly swift pace most of the time (especially in the last hour or so). We saw somewhere between a third to a half of the museum. If you really wanted to dive deeply on each section, taking your time on every object, you could easily go back each day for weeks.

Even the sections of the museum themselves are striking, each almost a museum unto itself in layout and presentation. From the ornate, palatial rooms that displayed Renaissance European artifacts... a long plaza displaying great statues... an enormous chamber featuring a massive gate...

...there was something new at every turn. We probably spent the most time in the Greek section (because that's where we started), and the American section (because it was one of the larger sections we visited). But I should not fail to mention the Egyptian wing, the section devoted to arms and armor throughout history (a personal favorite), and an extensive modern art area (with an overall tone different from both MoMA and the Guggenheim)

The highlights were quite varied. Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was a shock -- it's over 21 feet wide and 12 feet tall, taking up an entire wall:

I'm not sure this photo does justice to the profoundly creepy statue "Lilith" by Kiki Smith, hanging upside-down in a stairwell and glaring with haunting eyes:

And we made plenty of irreverent comments that will immediately come back to me whenever I look through our photos. For example, there's the Greek Terminator...

...the human arm rest...

...and the actually not needing comment "Plate With Wife Beating Husband."

With so much left unseen (and the gallery regularly changing what it displays, rotating in items from their vast collection), I can't imagine ever running out of things to see at the Met. If I ever find myself in New York again, a day at the Met would be high on my list. It was a highlight of the trip, and would be followed up with another highlight in our final Broadway show that evening.