Tuesday, September 25, 2018

A Hole in My Movie Viewing

I was aware of the 2003 movie Holes, in as much as I knew the title and knew it was the movie that gave us (inflicted upon us?) Shia LaBeouf. I didn't really have it in my mind as something ever to watch. But it showed up on HBO or something one night, and my husband suggested we watch it.

Let me tell you, this is a really strange movie to go into not knowing just what it is you're going to see. Twenty minutes in, it appears that it's going to be Cool Hand Luke with teenagers. ("Are we watching a child prison movie?!") Then you get these strange flashbacks that initially feel untethered to anything else in the plot, a who's who of 2000s television starring Patricia Arquette and Dulé Hill. Next thing I know... "wait, Sigourney Weaver is in this movie?"

The movie pretty much continues on like that, whipping this way and that, and surprising at pretty much every step. Only after a considerable chunk of its two hour run time do the pieces begin to come together and indicate that yes, there is a method to the madness. Say whatever else you want about the film, it certainly fits together tightly. In a mostly satisfying way, too.

But it's also so lightweight in tone that it's hard for it to ever get that satisfying. There is some truly serious stuff at play in this movie: institutional poverty, child detention policy, racism, illiteracy. And it's not like I seriously expect a kids movie to treat all that in the most dramatic manner. But it's all yoked to other material of a jarringingly different tone. The lead character's family feels ripped from the Nutty Professor or Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. A plot thread about the pursuit of hidden gold is like adding a dash of The Goonies. An incapable and ineffective authority figure (played by Jon Voight) is a pinch of Dukes of Hazzard or something. This movie shops at the "story grocery" like a Supermarket Sweep contestant, something hapzahardly tossed into the cart from every aisle.

Still, some of the performances rise to the top like cream. Sigourney Weaver makes a delicious villain -- and I wonder if this was among the first in her string of such roles. Patricia Arquette might feel like she's in an entirely different movie, but she's perfect for the "movie" she's in. There's something a bit Westworld about her vibe here, something that Evan Rachel Wood might have been inspired by for her performance in that show. Hell, even Shia LaBoeuf isn't half bad.

Though the parts of the movie do ultimately connect, it's nothing to blow your mind. It was a pleasant enough watch, if a bit of an odd choice to pluck out of the air. I give Holes a B-.

Monday, September 24, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Paradise

One of Jean-Luc Picard's finest moments in the entire 7-year run of Star Trek: The Next Generation was his defiance in the face of torture in "Chain of Command." The Deep Space Nine writers may have had that moment in their minds in crafting "Paradise," intending something similar for Benjamin Sisko.

Sisko and O'Brien beam down to a planet to investigate a Federation ship that crashed a decade ago. They find their technology rendered non-functional on the planet, and discover a small colony that has been built in the face of this hardship. Our heroes expect a quick rescue, but the leader of the colony, a forceful woman named Alixus, presses them to abandon these expectations and join the colonists in their endeavors. This sets up a clash of wills between her and Sisko.

This episode resulted from the confluence of several ideas. Writer Jim Trombetta was interested in exploring the anti-technology philosophy of the real-world Khmer Rouge within a Star Trek setting. His pitch revolved around a cult leader figure, which intrigued show runner Michael Piller, who had a family member that had actually become involved with a cult for a time. (Piller was also keenly aware that it had been a while since there had been a Sisko-centered episode.)

The result is something of a mixed bag. The opposition to technology is on the bad side of it. The whole philosophy seems silly (to me, at least) in the real world. Not having access to the latest advances is one thing, but actively refusing them where they're available out of some sense of nobility or piety? I simply don't get it. And it seems especially peculiar in a Star Trek context, weirdly retrograde in a show that otherwise praises the wonder of the possible. It's no surprise that the episode struggles to make life in this colony something that anyone would actually prefer to "Trek normal." It would be the equivalent of us today living not just as the Amish do, but in a pre-printing press world.

The beliefs of cult leader Alixus may be strange, but the character herself is still intriguing. It's great that they wrote the character as a woman. In the real world, this sort of figure is pretty much always male. It's a fascinating twist to see a woman meting out harsh punishment, exerting total control over people right down to their sexual autonomy, and ordering Sisko around. It's certainly a more interesting examination of a cult that The Next Generation did when Lore took control of a group of Borg.

The racial component of the episode is also powerful. True, there is no indication that Alixus is motivated by racism, and her quarrel with Sisko is amply defined in other ways. But it's impossible not to watch what she does to Sisko and not think about race. "Sweatboxing" was not an uncommon punishment for unruly slaves in the Antebellum South, and it's notable that Alixus inflicts this torture on Sisko and not O'Brien (even if she has an articulated and believable reason for this).

The episode certainly is a strong one for Sisko, as Michael Piller wanted. He makes the biggest and best stand for Starfleet principles to date on the series. Sisko's integrity is so lofty that even when left alone with water he could drink without much consequence, he ignores it and walks back outside to crawl into the sweatbox again himself. There's also character building of a different kind; we learn here that Sisko has brothers!

It's a decent episode for O'Brien too, who demonstrates his skills by solving in a few days a problem that another engineer couldn't unravel in 10 years. O'Brien bonds with his commander both through their struggles here, and in agreeing to mentor Jake (who Benjamin still imagines joining Starfleet someday). A bit more of his backstory is painted in too, when we learn that he didn't discover his own technical aptitude until his service during the Cardassian war.

It's not really a good episode for anyone else, though. Bashir, Odo, Quark, and Jake don't even appear on screen. Kira and Dax have a bit of a "buddy adventure" hunting down Sisko and O'Brien, but neither of them look very clever in the process. Dax gets a fun quip about how being a science officer means "it's my job to have a better idea," but misses the obvious solution of remote control piloting a runabout to a safe stop.

Other observations:
  • Some of the episode is filmed on location. As always, it's good bang for the production buck.
  • Sisko talks about how his father "was" a chef, implying once again that he's no longer alive.
This episode might have been much stronger if the cult had been about something other than opposition to technology, with a leader whose charisma was demonstrated more effectively. Still, the hour has its moments. I give "Paradise" a B-.

Friday, September 21, 2018

Vengeance Is Mine

While I've seen the original Die Hard a few times, I'd never seen any of the sequels until this most recent Christmas, when I watched the far inferior Die Hard 2. Now I can add to that the also-inferior-though-not-quite-as-much Die Hard With a Vengeance.

This third installment of the franchise isn't without its delights. The movie does seem to know how silly it is, and plants its tongue satisfyingly in cheek. For all its flaws, it remains mostly fun throughout.

The pairing of Bruce Willis and Samuel L. Jackson is simply great. There's solid chemistry there (a fact M. Night Shyamalan would recognize and leverage later for Unbreakable). And then, of course, there's the basic thrill of watching both of them (especially Jackson) curse up a storm.

Things blow up good. While this doesn't always literally take the form of explosions (though for the moments that matter most, it does), mayhem abounds. Mad driving through Central Park, a spectacular subway crash, huge trucks driving through sewer tunnels.... the action is inspired and different, and generally works. The backbone of this franchise is to watch Bruce Willis slowly get beat up over two hours, and this movie knows it.

But there's also a quality here like a gushing fire hose with no one holding onto it. The plot sprays everywhere without thought, twisting in nonsensical ways just to get to the next moment. There's a little of connective tissue in the form of a riddling villain, but it is a patently ludicrous conceit. Willis and Jackson become some sort of Everyman version of Batman and Robin, made to suffer hijinks and solve problems every bit as laughable as Adam West and Burt Ward faced. What writer/director/studio exec really thinks that the "get 1 gallon of water from a 3- and 5-gallon jug" puzzle is action movie gold? Or finds a presidential riddle compelling? ("Fun" fact, though: in this 1995 movie, both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump get name-dropped.)

The bad guy isn't a total loss, though, thanks to an unashamed and over-the-top performance by Jeremy Irons. It's both unbelievably stupid and exactly what the movie needs, and a totally credible take on what you imagine Hans Gruber's (or Alan Rickman's) brother would be like.

Die Hard With a Vengeance isn't terrible, but as with the second installment, it suffers from comparison to the movie that started it all. I can't imagine watching Vengeance again in a world where I could watch Die Hard instead. I give the movie a C.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Spatial Paradox

Our next day in San Diego was our last, though our flight back home wasn't until late in the afternoon. There was still time to enjoy more, so after breakfast we headed to the retired aircraft carrier USS Midway, now a museum.

I've toured a decommissioned battleship before (back in the years I lived on the East Coast), and I'd imagined that would give me some sense of what was in store. Hardly. Touring the Midway was like plugging all those sensations into an amplifier.

Obviously, the Midway is huge as it sits there permanently moored in the harbor. And while that is impressive, it's easy not to feel the full impact of that when you look around at what else is nearby. An enormous Princess Cruise ship was docked just a bit further down, while across the bay you could see two identical (and enormous) cargo ships loaded down with containers. So yes, the Midway was giant, but it rested among other giants.

You entered at the hangar deck, and there began to better appreciate the ship's size. Several old planes were on display, plus flight simulators, a gift shop, and (of course) hundreds of tourists from all over the world. That all of this was contained and didn't feel at all crowded was really something to behold.

Going further below decks into the guts of the ship was an entirely different experience. Hallways were impossibly narrow. Ceilings were low enough that I often had to duck. In this in particular, I thought that previously touring a battleship might have prepared me. Not even close. Because the Midway just... kept... going. Mess halls, officers' quarters, sailors' racks, sickbay, dentist's office, receiving, storage, machining, shop, laundry, tailoring, brig, on and on and on.

You'd turn a corner, descend a ladder, turn a corner, climb another ladder, and no matter what, it would just keep going. You'd hear the stories about how some of the sailors in these parts of the ship would go for weeks without seeing the sun, and your throat would tighten. It was paradoxically huge in its smallness. The claustrophobia was intense, so much so that I realized after more than 3/4 of the tour that I hadn't taken a single picture -- my mind was more consumed with lizard-brained instincts than tourist thoughts. 30-45 minutes down in the guts of the ship was more than enough to know: I could not have done this job. (Not that I'd ever entertained the notion.)

Eventually, we did escape the maze and return to the hangar deck, and proceeded from there to the flight deck. The runway of the ship was filled with planes from many eras and used for many purposes. The engineering and construction continued to impress me as much as the history, from ideas like fold-up wings to save space on the ship to the steady evolution of technology over time.

In all, touring the Midway was a memorable and potent experience I'd certainly recommend -- unless, I suppose, somehow neither history, engineering, nor the military scratches an itch for you.

With a couple of hours yet before we needed to get to the airport, we squeezed in one last stop at a small local cidery, Bivouac Ciderworks. With half their own offerings and half guest taps, there was plenty to sample (though we avoided the option from one of our least favorite places right back here in Denver). Though we'd originally thought we might hop to a second spot before flying home, the Bivouac creations were good enough that we just stayed put and relaxed until it was time to go.

And those are the tales of our impromptu trip to San Diego.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Sights, The Tastes

On our second full day in San Diego, we decided to check out La Jolla Cove.

As I said, our decision to take this trip was fast -- there were less than five hours between us booking a flight and that flight pulling away from the gate at the airport. But that did leave a short window of time for "research," and in that window I read in a couple places that there was great snorkeling to be had at La Jolla Cove. We had enough room in our bags to pack fins, snorkel, and mask to keep that option in play.

We bailed on the idea of snorkeling when we got there, though. The water was quite cold; the two or three snorkelers we spotted were all wearing full wet suits, which we had not packed. And while I suppose we could have tracked down a place to rent them, the surf looked rough and the rocks looked sharp. We'd used up our reserves of adventure just being there, I guess. We walked a bit to take in the sights (and did see a seal poking its head up in the ocean), before setting out for another destination.

Coronado Island wasn't all that far of a drive, but the weather was completely different. So was the beach we wound up at -- sandy and warm instead of rocky and cool. (We again considered snorkeling, but it was apparent there'd be nothing to look for here but dirty water... this was a beach for surfers, not snorkelers.) We people-watched for a while, both sitting in place for a time and strolling up the beach.

We figured we couldn't go to the coast without having seafood at least once, and grabbed a late lunch there on the island. From there, we slipped straight into brewery hopping that lasted the rest of the evening and took us all over the city. We hit Coronado Brewing there on the island (bringing back a six-pack of passion fruit beer my husband can enjoy in the weeks to come). We tried Modern Times, where the people watching was more memorable than the beer. (We wove stories about the five guys in identical checkered sneakers. Fraternity? Bachelor party?)

We then hit a pair of breweries as close together as any two could possibly be:

A secret revealed by our credit card statement is that these are just two arms of the same small operation, but they nevertheless had very different options and themes. Amplified, on the left, is your choice if you want a great passion fruit beer; I found Pure Project, on the right, to be fantastic at other sours, and also darker beers.

From these two places, it's a short walk to a large Ballast Point brewery and restaurant. Shorter still if you cut through the industrial park and take a short walk down a hill (which we did). It's a shame we were too far into brewery hopping (and needing to make responsible choices) to get deeper into what this place had to offer: some 50+ beers on tap. The one we tried was solid, anyway. (And the food much appreciated at that point.)

In all, it was the most freeform day of our spur-of-the-moment trip, and thus maybe the most "on brand." We ping-ponged all over the city, seeing and tasting all sorts of things, all at a lazy pace. A truly relaxing vacation day.

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Zoo View

I've been to San Diego for work many times before (usually for Comic Con), but I'd never been there to relax. I'd almost never gotten out of the downtown area. After all those past work trips, the first question someone would inevitably ask me upon learning I'd gotten back from San Diego was, "did you go to the Zoo?"

This time? Yes!

There's a reason people ask, as it turns out. The San Diego Zoo is immense, and beautiful. It would certainly be a highlight of many a vacation. We spent a long day there, arriving shortly after opening and staying well into the afternoon.

Arriving early is key to any summer/autumn zoo day anywhere. That's because if you're hot, the animals are hot. Show up before the sun is blazing overhead, and the animals are much more likely to be active and visible.

There's a bus tour that takes you around the enormity of the San Diego Zoo in about half an hour, so we decided to start there for a lay of the land. We got a memorable driver in Doug, who'd be right at home on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disney. He punctuated his best jokes ("best"? "jokes"?) with an "alright" that was part Quagmire from Family Guy, part Matthew McConaughey. Because we were his "#2 tour of the the day," he chose to pepper us with "#2 facts" about the animals. His favorite (and now ours): when a grizzly bear awakens from months of hibernation, it's first poo can be as long and as hard as a baseball bat. (Yikes.)

After the bus tour, we spent hours upon hours walking all over the zoo. It's as gorgeous as any amazing public park, with secluded trails intersecting in every direction, each with its own theme and animals to view. I could go on at length about the hundreds of things we saw and dozens of pictures we took, but it was quite simply the best time I've ever had going to a zoo. From the playful Allen's Swamp Monkeys to sneakily submerged hippos to the chatty flamingos to the unnaturally still crocodiles to the bright birds in the African enclosure you could enter... it was all amazing. (To say nothing of the zoos more "star attractions," the pandas, polar bears, and elephants.)

When we finally packed it in late in the afternoon, we grabbed dinner and hopped to a couple more area breweries, including one of the real stand-outs of the trip: Belching Beaver. They had an amazing variety, excelled at flavored stouts, and everything we had there was great. If they hadn't been blasting metal music, we would have stayed there until they'd closed. As it was, our taste buds demanded we linger well past the point where our ears were begging for relief. (I know.... "these kids today and their music....")

In any case, I now understand why everyone asks of San Diego if you visited the zoo. It's really as great as everyone says.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Surprise Vacation

The blog has been in hibernation for a couple of weeks here, as I have been on vacation. And keeping with tradition, I'm easing back in with a few stories of where I've been. Not where I first thought I was going, as it turned out.

My husband and I had originally planned a trip to France, but we were forced to cancel at the last minute. After a busy morning of canceling and refunding what pieces we could, we settled in at home for a couple days of "now what?" And then we awoke one morning and impulsively decided: a few days in San Diego.

We've taken trips before that have been quite methodically planned. Overplanned, you could argue, in a few instances -- with many activities stuffed into too few days. This almost entirely spontaneous trip threw things completely in the opposite direction. We'd already slotted our time and money to a trip. We still had the time, and had reclaimed enough of the money for a shorter, closer getaway. So that's what we did.

I don't have a Bucket List as such, and even if I did, I wouldn't have thought to put something like this on it. But there is an exhilarating feeling in going to sleep at night in a place you had no idea you'd be when you woke up that morning. That's what this San Diego trip was, above and beyond the things we actually did while we were there.

Day/night one was fairly short, though. We caught an afternoon flight there and checked in at our hotel. (Here, some pre-planning might have been nice. Never a good sign when the first thing you notice walking into your room are the earplugs on the nightstand in case the traffic noise outside gets to you. Fortunately, the place also had really loud air conditioning.)

We didn't have time for much that evening, but we did get some brewery recommendations from a friend. Very few U.S. cities can compete with Denver on craft breweries. If you're into beer and you live in Denver, count yourself extremely lucky. But San Diego is one of the few places that compares. I've heard that there are as many breweries in the county proper as in all the state of Colorado. So for our first, simple, "wow, we actually just got on a plane and went" night, we went to one of those breweries for a celebratory pint.

The place we chose was Hillcrest Brewing Company. They bill themselves as the world's first "Out and Proud LGBT Brewery." You'd know it from the decor, the bar staff, and the customers. But if you'd somehow missed all that, you'd get it from their cheeky beer names, which include "Crotch Rocket Irish Red," "Hop Sucker Double IPA," the "Banana Hammock Scotch Ale," the "Perle Necklace Pale Ale," and more. We went, drank the beer, got the T-shirts. It was a nice, relaxing end to a surprising and somewhat hectic day.

And there were more days to come...