Wednesday, July 29, 2015

San Returnio

Hello, readers! I welcome you back to the blog after a few days of radio silence. I was out of town on a short vacation down to San Antonio, Texas. You might regard it as an unlikely destination, but my boyfriend and I were looking for something quick and close, and we were inspired in part by the first trip we took together -- to hit a bunch of theme park rides in Orlando. Looking for near-ish amusement parks with highly rated or talked-about rides that neither of us had been to, we came up with Six Flags Fiesta Texas -- and a handful of other things to do while there.

After arriving in town on our first afternoon, we decided to seek out some of the local beer. Knowing of course that we'd left the craft beer mecca of Denver behind us, we nevertheless found a few places that seemed worth seeking out while we were in San Antonio. That afternoon, it was a brewery-in-restaurant (with sort of a Rock Bottom Brewery vibe) called BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. With a solid Blonde and Hefeweisen, and a really good Berry Burst Cider, the place made for a good start to the trip.

It also made for immediate exposure to the "everything's bigger in Texas" attitude. Not only were the "tasters" in the flight 5 ounces rather than the more common 3...

...but the ravioli I ordered for dinner was one big ravioli served in a pan (basically, lasagna with the edges crimped together). It was circular, though, which is more than I can say for the waffle I had for breakfast the next morning.

That waffle? I'd be seeing it again, after a full day at Six Flags Fiesta. But I'll get to that story, and others from San Antonio, in the days ahead.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Heavens, No!

I'd hardly say I'm a "fan" of Christopher Rice. I'd read only two of several novels he'd published (though I apparently only blogged about one). Still, I liked those two well enough to circle back around eventually and try another -- which I recently did when I read The Heavens Rise.

This novel is perhaps the closest thing to Rice following in the footsteps of his mother (Anne Rice). It's certainly the most "horror" of his books. It centers on a small cluster of friends whose high school past is catching up with them after nearly 10 years. A young, angry man has been in a coma all that time since trying to force himself on a girl he liked (and the revenge-plan-gone-wrong he cooked up afterward). Now he's awakened from the coma, to discover he's developed the power to subvert a person's mind and force them to do what he wants.

The first two-thirds of this book are quite solid, with Rice deftly handling a number of elements. His characters are diverse and interesting. The sense of creeping dread is chilling. The New Orleans setting is conveyed vividly. Time hopping between events in the present and the past is effective in escalating tension and building interest.

But then the book takes the most bizarre turn at the start of the final act. The novel makes a jump from psychological horror to visceral horror, when a completely new dimension to the villain's power is exposed. The new facet is nonsensical, untelegraphed, and unearned. The book then launches into a bizarre "superpowers vs. superpowers" conclusion -- at least hinted at in the novel's buildup, but no less bizarre.

The result is a book that coaxes you in under false pretenses only to jump off the deep end. This isn't a case of a final act twist not delivered well; it's more like someone else took over writing for the original author 60 pages or so from the end.

The Heavens Rise is certainly my least favorite of the Christopher Rice novels I've read. I give it a C+. There's enough great technique early on in the book to save it from a truly scathing grade (and to encourage me to try Christopher Rice again some day). But I feel so pranked by the bizarre ending that I really couldn't recommend it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

TNG Flashback: Frame of Mind

With "Frame of Mind," things behind the scenes at Star Trek: The Next Generation were more under the gun than ever. Nevertheless, the series scored another hit.

Commander Riker is preparing for an undercover mission to an alien planet. He's also playing the lead role in "Frame of Mind," a psychological play set in an insane asylum. Just when the stress is threatening to consume him, he suddenly finds himself in an actual mental hospital. His doctor tells him that his life on the Enterprise has been a delusion he's been struggling to break free of. And as Riker begins to bounce back and forth between realities, he loses his certainty of just what is real.

The 22 episode seasons favored by network television shows can be quite demanding. Star Trek: The Next Generation actually produced even more than that -- 26 episodes a season. As each year was racing to the conclusion, creativity was often taxed to the limit, and the writers would get increasingly desperate for the next idea to put before the cameras.

In season six, with Deep Space Nine now also on the air, the late season crunch was reportedly the worst it ever got. In "The Chase," a year-and-a-half old idea was resurrected for lack of anything else to work from. With "Frame of Mind," episode writer Brannon Braga never even had time to develop his original idea. He had the barest of ideas: "What if Riker woke up in an asylum and was told he was crazy?" From the short memo pitching that idea, the staff developed the outline in three furious days, then Braga proceeded to write the script for production.

It's likely that in this mad rush, nobody realized just how much this episode was a fusion of two others that came before it -- Riker-centric episodes to boot. As in "First Contact," Riker is captured while undercover on an alien planet. And as in "Future Imperfect," he is made to believe in a false reality. Still, the details do count for something, and here they synthesize those repeated plot elements into something pleasingly different.

The psychological angle is a rather extreme departure for the show, considerably darker than most Next Generation episodes. Director James L. Conway, returning to the series for the first time since season one, uses a lot of clever staging and camera work to heighten the tension. The opening scene is a long single take on Riker as he performs the play, dropping us into a strange place and setting up the uncertainty the character himself will experience later in the episode. Quick cuts from one reality to another, the unsettling Greek chorus quality of the "reflection therapy" scene, specifically avoiding physical contact in moments that might confirm what is real... all are effective storytelling choices.

The behind-the-scenes departments really stepped up too, in telling this borderline horror story. The set of the play and the set of the actual alien asylum are created in just the perfect ways to make the former seem false and the latter real. The mirror hanging in the cell reflects an appropriately distorted image. Jay Chattaway's music makes everything seem just a bit "off," with more prominent stings and a melody for the asylum played on a tinny piano. And the "shattering reality" visual effects in the story's climax are an eye-catching image.

Of course, this being weekly television, the script can never truly make us believe that Riker imagined the whole series. Still, it has a lot of playful fun along the way -- the crazy "Starfleet officer" talking to her ship through her spoon, the different versions of Riker's performance in the play, and the ways that characters from one reality cross into the other. It's a solid script, which fellow staffer Naren Shankar praised as the best Brannon Braga wrote for the show. (And writers for other shows seemed to like it too. "Main character wakes up in an asylum" episodes later showed up on a few other series -- including another fan favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Jonathan Frakes was very appreciative of the script, which put him in every scene of the episode after a season that had underutilized him. Generally, he gives a good performance, making Riker's breakdown seem quite real. (Alright, he does perhaps have one or two over-the-top moments, but screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" has become such a cliché that I don't think any actor could possibly sell it anymore.)

Frakes is supported here by several guest stars that might be recognized by Star Trek fans. Susanna Thompson had already appeared as a Romulan on The Next Generation, and would later appear on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager (taking over the role of the Borg Queen in the latter). Actor Andrew Prine would also later appear of Deep Space Nine. And Riker's "doctor" is played by David Selburg, who had appeared as the historian Whalen back in "The Big Goodbye."

Other observations:
  • Data makes a truly bad actor in this episode. Oh, not in his performance as the doctor in "Frame of Mind." (His dispassionate delivery seems more than appropriate, in fact.) No, his crime is when he jumps in during a break in rehearsal to suggests notes to Riker, his fellow actor. Proving to be a skillful director, Dr. Crusher gracefully nips that in the bud and steers her star back on course.
  • Jokes about Picard being a bad or reluctant actor always work. Here is no different, when he worries about having to replace Riker in the play.
  • The Blu-ray edition of this episode includes a commentary rather different than the other Next Generation episodes to receive one. This is by episode director James Conway, and director of photography Jonathan West. You don't get a lot of insight into the creation of this episode's script, but they have a lot to say about the actual process of filming, from preparation to execution to editing -- and including comparisons to other television series. If you're a fan of how movies and television actually get made, you'll likely find it interesting.
Surprisingly good given its turbulent creation, I give "Frame of Mind" an A-. In this case, desperation led to a very solid episode.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Very Much Later Years of Sherlock Holmes

The new film Mr. Holmes presents a very different tale of Sherlock Holmes -- and not only because the story doesn't come from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Based on the book A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, it shows Holmes beyond World War II, at the age of 93. He has outlived his few other friends and family, and now lives with a housekeeper and her young boy as he faces his own growing infirmity and senility. He's unable even to remember the details of his crucial last case, though he's certain Watson's published account has dressed up events in his customary fiction. Had the case not ended in failure, why would he have retired at all? But perhaps with the encouragement of Roger, the housekeeper's boy, he can piece together his memories and write a true account before he meets his end.

Mr. Holmes is very much a character piece, and actors' film. So the cast means everything. Ian McKellen portrays Sherlock Holmes, and is the perfect choice. He plays both older and younger than his own age in the film, aging 20 years to play the fading Holmes, and perhaps some 10 years younger in flashbacks of him on his final case. It's a marvelous performance on many levels. McKellen captures the maladies of extreme age in a completely convincing way, and skillfully presents the sleuth still on top of his game in his 60s. He also plays wonderfully off the other two major characters in the story, showing a man yearning for human contact without really giving lie to Holmes' famed eschewing of such attachments.

Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, is played by Laura Linney, who arguably has the heaviest lifting to do in the film. She's at her wit's end trying to raise her brilliant young son alone after losing her husband in the war. She has many powerful scenes with both the boy and Holmes, and Linney makes you feel for the character even more deeply than Holmes, the film's ostensible protagonist.

Then there's a new, young child actor named Milo Parker. While this isn't the most demanding of child roles (Roger is, for the most part, bright-eyed and eager), Parker is nevertheless called on in every scene to stand toe-to-toe with either Ian McKellen or Laura Linney. (Or both!) He never misses a beat, and always seems to be feeding an energy into the scene for others to play off of. It's the perfect performance for the movie.

Skilled though the acting is, though, the story is rather simplistic. It's presented in a challenging way to spice up the proceedings, bouncing around between three different time frames. But one of the time frame takes a long time to reveal its purpose in the narrative, and so the pace does feel a bit slack in places. Still, it does reach a fairly powerful ending that has something meaningful to say about the importance of human interaction.

If you don't mind a quiet, contained film -- and you like Ian McKellen or Laura Linney -- then the film is probably worth your consideration. If you need adventure to boost the contemplation, you're not likely to find any entertainment here. I give Mr. Holmes a B-.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kurioser and Kurioser

After more than a month here in Denver, Cirque du Soleil's newest touring show is leaving at the end of this week. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the company's best shows in years; if you're able to catch it before it's gone, I highly recommend it. (And if you're near Chicago, start making plans for its next stop in August.)

With around three dozen different shows in its 30 year history, wholly new Cirque productions are quite rare. In this, Kurios is not truly an exception. But in the ways the show manages to present tried and true acts in clever new ways, while blending in a handful of new ideas and a clever setting, Kurios stands out.

Each Cirque show has a loose story and theme used to connect the different acrobatic performances. For Kurios, the protagonist is a mad inventor whose machine bends time and space -- all presented with a lavish steampunk vibe. Costumes, sets, musical style... everything suggests a 19th-century vision of technological future.

Where Kurios really shines is in presenting some of Cirque's most iconic acts with a surprising new twist. Instead of a trapeze performance, there's a Russian cradle duo that comes off more daring and difficult. The excellent juggler is accompanied on stage by a Stomp-like percussion performance, and doesn't miss a beat even when he's hoisted dozens of feet into the air! A balancing act took on seemingly impossible dimensions as a performer teetered on a tower of perpendicular cylinders.

My favorite act was a triumph not only of gymnastics, but of creative presentation. I've seen before a Cirque act in which a man builds a precarious-looking tower of chairs and climbs ever higher to perform feats of balance and strength. This version took place at a dinner party, and halfway through the act another dinner party was revealed in the rafters high above the stage, with a duplicate set of performers staging the same act upside-down to reach the original performers in the middle!

I found the show thrilling even though at least two of the acts were altered (probably due to performer injury or exhaustion). The descriptions of Kurios mention a group of four contortionists (where I saw only three) and a dual aerial straps performance (which was performed solo at my show). An Aerial Bike act also described online (and featured in a lot of the production's advertisements) was omitted entirely. Yet the show didn't feel compromised to me in any way.

Whether you've never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance before, or you've seen as many as I have, I can't recommend Kurios highly enough. It's a grade A night of entertainment. The clock is ticking (except in the world of Kurios' steampunk protagonist), so look for tickets now!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

That's How You Get Ants

Marvel's latest film, Ant-Man, brings the so-called "Phase 2" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close. As one of only two non-sequels in that group of movies, it's naturally drawing a lot of comparisons to the other one, Guardians of the Galaxy. And it seems a particularly fair comparison to me; both are quite entertaining movies, although both are in good measure re-packaged versions of earlier Marvel films.

But let's start with what Ant-Man brings to the table that's new. This is easily the most humorous entry in the canon. It features the most unlikeliest of the "unlikely heroes" yet seen in Marvel, not-entirely-reformed burglar Scott Lang. It also features the franchise's first real mentor/pupil relationship, as shrinking-tech inventor Hank Pym trains Lang to become Ant-Man. Much of the story is cast in the mold of one of my favorite film sub-genres, the "heist" movie. Not only do all of these elements stake out new Marvel territory (or push farther than they have before), they all do so quite successfully.

Another thing this film handles well (which has been hit and miss in past Marvel films) is giving the characters real problems and personality. I personally believe the two Captain America films have been the best of their respective Phases, in large measure because Steve Rogers had believable relationships that meant something to him (Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes). Here in Ant-Man, Scott Lang is yearning to be part of his daughter's life while trying to negotiate a difficult relationship with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. At the same time, Hank Pym is mourning the loss of his own wife, and trying to make amends for how that loss destroyed his relationship with his daughter. In short, there are personal stakes underpinning the superheroics that an audience can relate to.

Yet with all of these compelling and original threads in the weave, Marvel can't help but include the familiar. Much as Guardians of the Galaxy was a re-skin of The Avengers, Ant-Man is a re-skin of the original Iron Man. A brilliant inventor has lost control of the company he created, but has retained the secret of a powerful technology. The ambitious new man running the company is crazy for one-dimensional reasons that won't bear scrutiny, and is trying to unlock the secret of the new invention himself for profit and evil. It all builds to the creation of a supervillain just 30 minutes before the movie ends, who has a big fight with the hero.

Yes, I was disappointed in how familiar Ant-Man ended up, after so much potential for difference that it started with. Still, I liked it overall, and that has a lot to do with the cast. Paul Rudd makes a very accessible protagonist that's easy to root for -- a skill he's showcased in many non-superpowered movies before. Michael Douglas is a fun mentor with just the right amount of a mean streak. Evangeline Lilly plays great against both of them, funny and dramatic in turn. Michael Peña nearly steals the show as Scott Lang's hilarious former cellmate. And, not getting too specific, the appearances of other people from the Marvel Universe are quite effective and welcome here (including the obligatory Stan Lee cameo that, for once, I actually quite enjoyed).

In fact, to whatever degree Ant-Man does compare to Iron Man in my mind, Ant-Man comes off better on every level. It's a lot of fun, and I give it a B+.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Music to Evolve By

Earlier this week, I wrote about last year's sci-fi action flick about an evolving superhuman, Lucy. (Not amazing, but more enjoyable than you might expect.) I noted the film's effective score, composed by long-time Luc Besson collaborator Eric Serra. Since watching the movie, I've picked up the soundtrack album, and if anything, I've grown to like the music even more as I've listened to it on its own.

It shouldn't be surprising that the score for this film has a fair amount in common with Luc Besson's other big sci-fi movie, The Fifth Element. It's not that the music for the two films is overtly similar in many ways, but it's related in more of a Netflix recommendation sort of way: "if you like this, you'll probably like that." An interesting quirk of the Lucy album is the way in which the tracks have been broken up. Though the album clocks in just under 50 minutes, it contains 29 tracks; most of these are barely a minute or two long. But the album doesn't consist of 29 truly distinct cues. Instead, some pieces that run 5 minutes or more are broken up across three or more consecutive album tracks, tracks that flow uninterrupted into one another. The result is an album you're encouraged to listen to in its entirety, as opposed to letting fragments of songs bubble up on random shuffle.

The music itself decides on a few particular methods of experimentation, and then mines them deeply through the film. There are a lot of techno stylings: percussion that sounds like bursts of static, riffs built around ostinato melodies, unusual electronically generated instruments. But it's hardly a "techno" score. For one thing, the tempo of much of the music is decidedly slower than dance music -- and sometimes even free times for long sections. For another, the music has its other foot firmly planted in the orchestral world. Several tracks are punctuated with militaristic snare. All registers in the string section are used. In general, just as many sounds seem organic as synthesized.

Of course, I do allow tracks from the album to come up at random, and there are a number of them I've rated highly. "First Cells" opens the album with a very retro sci-fi sound, a vaguely Casio vibe that's what a lot of 80s movies thought the future would sound like. The two tracks presenting parts of "Mr. Wang's Bloody Suite" make marvelous alternating use of dense and sparse orchestration to build a sense of dread. "All We Have Done With It" is an odd but wonderful little jazzy riff on contrapuntal clarinets. "Taipei Airport" is a short but clever piece using electronic noises in an organized and musical manner.

There are tracks with ominous, thrumming bass. There are pensive, emotional melodies on instruments both familiar and unusual. There are tracks that skew more orchestral, and tracks that come across like Trent Reznor riffs (the Nine Inch Nails music, not Reznor's own film composing). There are amorphous soundscapes with insect-like percussion skittering over the top of it. There are tracks of interesting organized chaos. There's even a track with an operatic soloist soaring prominently above it all ("Mind Into Matter").

Indeed, I'd say that the Lucy soundtrack is better than the film for which it was created. I'd give it an A-. Though I don't imagine ever watching the film again, the album is going to stay in the rotation for some time to come.