Thursday, June 30, 2011

Feeling Blue

On the second night of our Orlando trip, we went to see the Blue Man Group. I've long wanted to see one of their performances, but it just never quite worked out.

Which is not the entire truth. I've been on several trips to Las Vegas, and I've seen at least one show every time I've been there. There is a Blue Man Group performing there, and I could very easily have gone on many occasions. And yet, every time I'm in Vegas, I find myself thinking: "Blue Man Group has a touring company. It has come to Denver before and will again. Sooner or later, I will get to see it. While I'm in Las Vegas, doesn't it make more sense to see one of the dozens of shows that only plays there?" And so I've always decided to skip it, despite my great desire to go.

Orlando changed the equation. Yes, there are unique shows in Orlando too, not to mention all the theme parks you can find only there. But this time there just wasn't enough piled up on the other side of the scale to outweigh my desire to finally see Blue Man Group.

I was aware ahead of time just what an unusual melange of stuff you'll see in a Blue Man Group show. I knew it was part concert, part comedy, part improv show, part modern pop art exhibit. I even knew about some of the specific routines they do in every show, such as "paint on the drum heads," "heads in the TV," and of course, "PVC pipe music."

Even still, my experience was that you can know a lot about what Blue Man Group is and still be surprised by and unprepared for the actual reality of their performance. It's funny, inspirational, offbeat, energetic, and more -- sometimes in turns, sometimes all at once.

There are over a dozen different "segments" in the show, and I thought there was only one that didn't quite work. It involved taking a draftee from the audience backstage and slathering him with paint while the rest of us watched via an on-stage screen. It felt like it was more slow-paced than the bulk of the show, and lost the immediacy of being right there in front of our eyes. It was just plain less effective than other "let's make art right now" segments they'd already performed earlier in the show.

Still, that was just one misstep in a show that was otherwise rock solid. Highlights for me were an extended "dinner" segment that seemed to provide endless laughs, a critique of rock concert behavior that managed to be snarky and moving at the same time, and a wonderful finale that involved the entire audience.

I loved the show, and would rate it an A-. I would absolutely go to see it again. (Particularly since, according to my boyfriend -- who has seen a Blue Man Group show before -- about half the material was all-new and apparently unique to this particular production.) Perhaps next Las Vegas trip, that tired excuse about not going will finally break down.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

US Tour

Day two of my Orlando vacation! We spent the first few hours returning to Islands of Adventure (for a second dose of Harry, and some of the rides I mentioned yesterday). Then we moved over to the second Universal Studios park in Florida, appropriately titled -- get this -- Universal Studios Florida. Here's the rundown of the fun there:

Shrek 4-D. This was our first ride of the park, and almost punished us for forgetting our "no test seat out front equals boring" policy. You stand around and watch a video as a performer cracks lame jokes for five minutes. Good for getting out of the heat, but not for much else. But then you're ushered into a theater for a big screen, 10 minute mini-movie. Unlike most films released these days, the 3-D effects didn't suck. And there were lots of good gags with seats that jounced you and sprayed you with air or water. We waited maybe 10 minutes to get in, which I'd say is about the appropriate threshold for this ride.

(An aside: I learned later on this trip that "jounce" is actually a word. As far as I can tell, it means exactly the same thing as "bounce," right down to being both a noun and a verb, but is worth more points in Words With Friends.)

Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. This is a neat roller coaster that begins by taking you straight up a 90 degree incline and dropping you down the other side. Loaded with hills, inversions, and twists, it's a challenging ride even for a roller coaster enthusiast. I confess that I got a bit light-headed during the ride; I thought to myself at one point, "if this keeps going at this intensity, there is a chance I'm actually going to black out here." (It didn't, nor did I.)

So that's all the cool part. Then there's the strange part, the "plot" of the ride, if you will. You are helping two animated "cool characters" make a music video. You select one of 30 songs at the start of the ride, and that song will play in speakers right by your head for the entire duration. Then there are video cameras for each pair of riders that record your entire ride (which you can purchase at the end for an astronomically laughable price). I chose Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" so that now when I hear the song, an image might spring to mind other than people writing on their hands/bodies with Sharpees.

Twister... Ride It Out. No test seat out front. We went anyway because there was no wait. And it was looking like it wasn't going to be worth it even for no wait. The first half of the roughly 10 minute experience is basically a glorified museum exhibit about the making of the film, the most novel feature of which is seeing videos of 15-years-younger Bill Paxton and Helen Hunt talking to you, the amusement park goer.

Then comes the final room, where the effects of a tornado play out on a stage-like area in front of you. Actually, this wasn't very special either. Except that for some reason, most of the people there really seemed to think it was. Every spray of water, blast of wind, flash of lights, and shake of scenery had pockets of people screaming like their lives were actually in jeopardy. Which kind of made the whole experience worthwhile. I wouldn't bet on getting lucky with a paranoid bunch of screamers in your group, though; this is probably one attraction you should skip.

Revenge of the Mummy. This is an indoor roller coaster based on the film The Mummy. I remember thinking at the time that it wasn't half bad. And yet the fact that I can recall no real details of it now, not even a week later, suggests to me that it's obviously not as good as most of the rides I enjoyed on the trip.

Men in Black Alien Attack. I don't remember a lot about this ride either, but for a very different reason. This is an indoor coaster-like ride; coaster-like in that it has all the sharp turns and spins, but none of the hills. It also incorporates laser tag. You take a gun from a holster in front of you, and have to shoot aliens as you move through the ride. It even shows you your score as you madly fire away, taking advantage of your unlimited ammunition.

So I don't really remember many details of the ride itself, because I was too focused on the shooting gallery aspect. And I didn't even do that well, placing third overall in a car of six passengers. My boyfriend outpaced me by about 20%, and this woman next to us practically doubled our two scores put together. Embarrassingly, this happened after I joked as the ride began that we two would obviously have to do the lion's share of the work in our car. So, a reminder that looks can be deceiving. And I totally want that little blonde mom watching my back when the aliens invade.

The Simpsons Ride. This a motion simulator ride ostensibly built by Krusty the Clown and sabotaged by Sideshow Bob. And it's more entertaining that the actual Simpsons TV show has been in a decade. To clarify for those who think, "well that's not saying much," it is pretty fun. Not the best motion simulator we rode during the trip, but not the worst either.

By the time we made it through all that (after our morning back at Islands of Adventure), it was time to head out to one of the two shows we'd scheduled during the trip. And that seems like a pretty good point to stop my meandering narrative for the day. I'll be back with more tomorrow (whether you like it or not).

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Rest of the Adventure

So, as I mentioned yesterday, the Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the "main attraction" drawing we two Slytherins to Orlando. But we did plenty of other things while we were there. We spent day one of the trip at Islands of Adventure, and came back for a few more hours on the morning of day two, and on our final night. Here's a meandering batch of comments on our non-Harry Potter experiences there:

Poseidon's Fury. This was my first experience with a "thrill ride" that was neither thrilling nor a ride. You're herded from room to room with fifty other people, standing for about three minutes in each while a too-perky blonde recites too-hokey dialogue about a too-cliché archaeological expedition. The rooms get progressively more elaborate, beginning with black light and sound effects, and eventually working up to fire and water effects. But it never truly gets interesting. Actually, if you've ever been to Casa Bonita in Denver, it's a lot like one of their waterfall sketches, but with higher production values.

It was after this ride that we began to develop our ride policy for the rest of the trip: if there wasn't a "test seat" out in front of the line ("make sure you can fit in this"), we probably didn't want to do it. I'd say by the end of the trip, I personally had refined the policy to this: if it was something pregnant women aren't supposed to do, we probably wanted to. (I've known my share of pregnant women, and I think many of them would agree that's also true of actually being pregnant.)

River Adventure. This was a water ride in the Jurassic Park area of Islands of Adventure. (It was the only ride in that area to do, since the glider flight ride requires you to ride with a child.) Amusement park water rides are frankly all the same to me. Float around looking at animatronic critters, go up a big hill, splash down the other side and get wet. There's really only a narrow window in which to be much better or worse than "average water ride." I think we both must have felt this way, as we skipped most of the other water rides for the rest of the trip without actually discussing it.

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. This is a pretty good motion simulator ride. We'd already ridden the Harry Potter ride (Forbidden Journey) by this point, and that made every other motion simulator ride seem worse by comparison. But setting that aside, this was pretty cool. Several fun moments built around interesting effects including "fire" and falling. Well worth the wait.

Doctor Doom's Fearfall. Most amusement parks these days have some form of this ride -- the "shoot you straight up a several hundred foot tower at blinding speed, then freefall back down" ride. This one tried to have some story around it about Doctor Doom harvesting the riders' fear. I don't really see the need. Though the best form of this ride is on top of the Stratosphere hotel in Las Vegas, it's still a rush in any venue. Rides like this are among the few that can still give me that "pit in my stomach"/"why am I doing this?" feeling right before launch. Great stuff.

Incredible Hulk Coaster. A good roller coaster with one really solid gimmick that makes it great. A friend told me that there was a gimmick, but not what it was. In fact, she urged me not to even look at the ride before getting on it, if possible, so as not to spoil it. And that was awesome advice. So I'll pass it on to you. Ride this ride. I'm not going to tell you why. I'll just say that if you like roller coasters, you'll really like this one.

One extra fun bonus to our experience on this ride was that some seriously bad weather was rolling into Orlando about the time we were waiting in line for it -- ominous thunder clouds and such. A recorded voice was coming over the speakers every few minutes while we waited, warning us that inclement weather would possibly force them to close the ride soon. Nevertheless, we rolled the dice and waited in the longer line to ride in the front seat.

While we were actually mid-ride, that's when the sky opened up. It started to rain, splashing in our faces (but not too hard) the entire time. Better still, just as we were upside down in the middle of a loop, a huge, multi-forked bolt of lightning split the sky on the horizon directly in front of us. It was a perfect accent that couldn't possibly have been choreographed better. And when our coaster pulled back into the boarding station, they were launching the next one completely empty -- they had just decided to close the ride for the night, and ours was the last trip to go.

Yes, stop to think about this for a moment, and we probably had a too dangerous ride. But I lived to tell the tale, and that tale was freakin' sweet. Loved this ride.

Seuss Landing. For those of you who might go to Islands of Adventure with kids, there's a whole area themed like the books of Dr. Seuss. It all looked cool, but as you'd expect, the rides there were all kid-oriented and didn't really meet our "policy." So we walked right on through.

I did feel sorry for anyone who has to work The Cat in the Hat ride, though. The whole waiting area is done up like some Rube Goldberg-esque whirling device that makes a high-pitched "Sneetch" noise about every 1.5 seconds. I practically got a headache from it before I could even get out of earshot. Stand there for eight hours a day? No jury would convict you of anything you did as a result.

Actually, there was one other problem with the Dr. Seuss area. They had a food stand named "Green Eggs and Ham." But it didn't actually serve green eggs and ham; it was just one more place to get burgers and what-not. Disappointing! What a sham! I would have tried green eggs and ham!

Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company. Okay, this isn't actually in Islands of Adventure. It's in the mall-like area just outside of the park, and the place we ate dinner that first night. I may have misgivings about the movie (Forrest Gump), but none at all about the restaurant. It was damn good. I had Shrimp New Orleans, and it was awesome. I say this as a person who isn't often moved to rave about food. This was damn good shrimp, and I really need to find a good Shrimp New Orleans recipe somewhere and attempt to recreate the experience myself some time.

So... that ought to about cover Islands of Adventure. Still more trip stories to come. At the rate I'm going, I'll probably spend more days writing about the trip than I did actually taking it. What can I say? Good times.

Oh, and one more parting thought, an observation that applies to the entire trip. Smart phones have made the experience of waiting in amusement park lines so much less painful! While you're waiting, you can surf the web, check your Facebook, play some games, and next thing you know, you're at the front of the line. What's more, there are also a number of apps available that track amusement park ride times. You can find out with reasonable accuracy how long the wait is for a ride without having to walk across the whole park to find out for yourself. And when you report a wait time for a ride you just did, you get a tiny thrill of having performed a minor public service. (Very minor.)

Of course, depending on who you're waiting with, just talking can be a decent option too.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Back from Hogwarts

Well, I've returned to Denver after my vacation to Orlando. It was an exhausting, leg-hurting, sweaty, wonderful, incredible, amazing, unforgettable trip. We were there four days. It was enough time to do everything we wanted to do, and to be happy again at the thought of returning home... yet I also wouldn't have minded to be there one day longer so we could have maybe taken things at a more leisurely pace and not run ourselves quite so ragged.

Still, did I mention it was wonderful, incredible, amazing and unforgettable?

Day one, we decided to proceed straight to the thing we most wanted to do. After stopping at the hotel for mere minutes to drop off our stuff, we proceeded straight to Universal Studios, specifically Islands of Adventure, specifically the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.

So, let's talk about Butterbeer (pictured). In the end, yes, I decided it's every bit as good as people say it is. Even though it's probably something only slightly different from cream soda. The problem is, my first Butterbeer experience came less than ten minutes after I'd downed a rather large Coke. And came less than five minutes before the Dragon Challenge roller coaster. Twice. Five minutes apart. (Once on the red track, once on the blue track.)

No, my stomach did not "refund" the Butterbeer. But my mind decided to blame the not-altogether-pleasant sensation of sweet-on-sweet-on-coaster-on-coaster on the Butterbeer. I convinced myself on day two that the frozen Butterbeer was better (despite what most people will tell you), and it was only on the last day of the trip that I came back around.

Yes, to those of you parsing that sentence carefully, we went to "visit Harry" on three different days of the trip. And it was everything you want from "the main reason you decided to take a trip." Well, except maybe for one thing. See, my companion on this trip... he and I are a bit different from most people. We share a love that not everybody completely understands and embraces. It's no less valid than what the masses know, but it frightens a few close-minded folks out there.

We love House Slytherin.

Years before we met, we'd both taken online tests by the Sorting Hat with a bunch of our friends, nearly all of whom were sorted into Gryffindor. Not us. Each of us were the only ones in our respective circles to be sorted into Slytherin.

Now, we'd both proudly wear our colors and support our allegiance, but there just isn't very much cool Slytherin merchandise to be had, even at Islands of Adventure. For example, there was this truly awesome rugby jersey -- we probably would have broken down and bought a cliché matching pair. But it was Gryffindor only. Who wants to dress up in that goody-goody junk?

And by the way, I feel even more sorry for anyone sorted in Ravenclaw or Hufflepuff. Slytherin at least had a couple of extra shirts, a leather bound journal, and a cool looking throw pillow for the couch. Ravenclaw and Hufflepuff had a luggage tag, a mug, a scarf, and one kind of t-shirt. I'm pretty sure that was about it.

So, sorry to put this out there, but the Wizarding World of Harry Potter is totally Housist.

And while I'm not saying that's okay, I confess I was having enough fun to forget that most of the time. That Dragon Challenge roller coaster was one of the best of the trip. And the featured ride of the area, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, was in fact the best ride of the trip. We road it three times, once each day we went to Islands of Adventure, and I was in no danger of getting tired of it. Awesome walk through Hogwarts (complete with moving paintings) to get to the ride, awesome ride.

The Hogsmeade area of the theme park was very authentic (though not quite enough for me to believe the snow on the rooftops amid the sometimes sweltering heat). The shops were fun. Even the little wand show at Ollivanders was fairly entertaining -- though honestly, probably not worth more than a half hour wait if you go yourself. (I saw others waiting in a line easily twice as long.)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter was the planned and actual highlight of the trip. Well worth planning your own trip if you're a fan of the books and/or movies, and certainly worth going to even if you aren't, if you're in Orlando for other reasons.

Of course, there was plenty of other stuff we did on the trip, enough that I suspect I'll spend several days yet here on the blog recounting it all. If you're the sort of person bored by trip stories and pictures, I apologize in advance if the blog is less enjoyable for you for a stretch here. What can I say? I had an amazing time, and won't likely feel like I want to stop talking about it any time soon.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Love Story

I recently watched the film I Love You Phillip Morris. It's an odd movie by any measure. It's headlined by Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor, suggesting an A-list kind of movie, but it's decidedly "art house" fare. It has a title that suggests an instant connection to the tobacco industry, but has absolutely nothing to do with that subject. It was seen years ago (and praised) by many critics, suggesting a sure-fire success, and yet couldn't secure a studio to release it until just last year.

All of this oddness is increased (or perhaps because of) the unusual plot of the movie. A long-time family man is in a serious accident, and decides afterward that he needs to turn his life around: he comes out as a gay man, and begins a life of white collar crime to scheme the money he wants to live a lavish lifestyle. When he's caught and sent to prison, he meets the love of his life in a fellow inmate. But while his love is sincere, his lies and con games continue. Weirdness, sentiment, and hilarity all ensue.

It sounds rather bizarre on paper, but flows quite well on the screen. In fact, if anything, the plot might just be conventional despite the unconventional trappings -- I found the movie to be rather predictable. But then, it's based on a true story, so the plot is what it is/was.

Many critics praised Jim Carrey for giving a career-best performance in this film, but I don't necessarily agree. He does a fine job, and isn't at the manic peak of a film like Ace Ventura or The Mask... but neither is he transformed or more restrained as he was in films like Man on the Moon or The Truman Show. To a large extent, he's still just Jim Carrey. But it's probably worth noting that on some level, that may be a service to the film. The love story is completely legit; you're not watching Jim Carrey try to "play" gay.

For my money, the better performance in the film is given by the always-wonderful-except-when-directed-by-George-Lucas Ewan McGregor. He is portraying a character here, and it is a more effeminate version of a man than he's embodied in any other movie. And yet it doesn't feel like a put-on or a cliché. So he too is doing service to the story by, pardon the horrible turn of phrase, playing it straight.

In the end, you get a movie that isn't worthy of either the wait or the hype, but is certainly worthy of your time. I'd rate it a B-.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 29

Day 29: A song from your childhood.

I don't actually remember the first album I ever bought for myself. But I do remember the first non-childrens' album that anyone ever bought for me. My aunt bought me a copy of Lionel Richie's album Dancing on the Ceiling. The vintage 80s cheese that is the title track (and the even cheesier music video to go with it) demonstrates exactly why I can't make it my official pick in this category. Too silly.

So instead, I'm going with an orchestral track, from the score to my favorite movie, Back to the Future. I've already written about the memorable circumstances where I saw it twice in one day when I was a kid. Let me now focus on the amazingly tense sequence at the climax of the film, the Clock Tower sequence.

Composer Alan Silvestri composed an epic 10 minutes of non-stop action music for this. It was only at last made available on a soundtrack album a couple of years ago, and I listen to that album (and this track in particular) all the time. It may be my favorite bit of film music ever:

Friday, June 24, 2011

On the Move

It's something of a rock cliché: a band breaks up, with one or more members proclaiming "we will never get back together." But then time heals whatever wounds were there, and a decade or two later, the band releases a new album. A group from the 80s that I love just completed this journey -- The Cars recently released a new album entitled Move Like This.

Imagine that The Cars had somehow recorded another album in the mid-80s, then for whatever reason put it in a time capsule marked "do not open until 2011." That's what this album sounds like, a blast from 25 years past. And that's exactly what I was hoping for. Their sound has evolved in a few very small ways, in much the way a band would naturally change between albums made just a couple years apart. Fundamentally, though, this is the sound I've always loved.

Every track manages to skate this perfect line between familiarity and freshness. A certain keyboard run, guitar riff, or drum beat will come on for a few bars and I'll think "that reminds me of 'You Might Think'" or 'Just What I Needed' or 'Bye Bye Love.' But never long enough for me to think of any one song as a clone of an earlier tune.

Not that many people listen to a whole album in order anymore, but for what it's worth, this one is very well sequenced. The best two tracks on it are the first two, "Blue Tip" and "Too Late." The former is a vintage New Wave dance track, the latter lightly evokes the feeling of their famous song "Magic."

Technically, this is not a complete reunion of The Cars, as bassist Benjamin Orr died of cancer in 2000. (He also took lead vocals on some of the group's hits, like "Drive" and "Moving in Stereo.") But it feels to me like the band tried to remain conscious of what he brought to the mix. In fact, one of the two band members who split bass duties this time out claims to have played his parts of a bass that was used by Orr himself.

I wouldn't call this the best Cars album, but if you've ever liked any of their music, I can't imagine you wouldn't like this. I'd grade it an A-.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 28

Day 28: A song that makes you feel guilty.

Back in high school, I once had the most irrational argument with a very close friend. I am shamed by my behavior, and feel that sting just as sharply today whenever I think back on that moment. Worst of all, it wasn't actually over anything important -- it was over the song "Happy Together". No particular version; I'm highlighting the one by The Nylons here:

That's all the detail you're going to get. Too embarrassing. Thankfully, though, we're still friends.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Accio Orlando!

Hey, all! I'm going on vacation!

Blog-wise, this probably isn't going to mean very much. I've got some stuff lined up to post automatically over the next few days while I'm gone. You can come here on whatever schedule you usually come, make comments if you like, and I'll catch up when I return.

Life-wise, on the other hand, this trip is a bigger deal. It's part getaway for two with my boyfriend, part geeky pilgrimage -- we both wanted to see the Harry Potter area at Universal Studios, and do other fun touristy things. It should beat the hell out of my only other trip to Orlando, for DecipherCon around a decade ago. (I got to see lots of players I consider friends, and I did have fun... but I was still working the whole time, and didn't actually get to see or do any of the things most people go to Orlando for.)

So, soldier on bravely everyone, and I'll be back "live" on Monday.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Fracking Awful

I recently watched the documentary film GasLand. It's an examination of the natural gas mining process of hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as "fracking." Essentially, a massive cocktail of chemicals is injected into subterranean fissures at high pressure, opening up more space underground and releasing the gas. The chemicals are then pumped back out... theoretically.

As presented dramatically in the documentary, the process is far from perfect. Hundreds of chemicals are leeched into the ground as a byproduct of this process. It pollutes natural wells, poisons wildlife, and even renders some landowners' drinking water so toxic that it can actually be lit on fire as it pours from the faucet.

The facts of this situation, of the serious danger fracking poses to land and life, are so extreme that I believe anyone and everyone should be made aware of them. That might be from watching this movie, or could come from reading books, doing some web research, what have you. From that standpoint, I would recommend that everyone see this movie.

That said, the movie itself isn't perfect. It's made very much on the cheap, by a man named Josh Fox -- an ordinary guy with a couple of camcorders. I don't mean to suggest that compelling work can't be done under those circumstances, but I do feel that Fox has a whole lot of learning and growing to do before he could truly be called a documentary filmmaker. He's forthcoming about the fact that he's just a guy whose own water supply was endangered by a company's efforts to buy his land for fracking; nevertheless, he remains less a movie maker and more a guy telling a story no one else was telling.

Props to him for that, by the way. And yet, his own low-energy personality is one of the biggest drags on the movie. His editing is also dry at times; we don't need a whole 10 minute sequence of people igniting their tap water to get the point. The drama of the subject matter itself has to make up for a lack of dramatic documentary film making in some cases.

But, as I said, regardless of the quality here (and what's here is more than passable), anyone who isn't aware of the facts about fracking needs to watch this film (or otherwise educate themselves). I give the movie just a B-, but still give it my strongest endorsement.

And one footnote here, dragging this post even further into the political territory with which I'm already flirting. The film also chronicles the efforts of some representatives in Congress, trying to pass a bill to ban fracking. One of those representatives is the woman from my very district here in the Denver area, Diana DeGette. I had already been fairly well aware of her, as she has vocally supported and championed a number of causes I firmly believe in. To see her pop up again here, at the front of the charge against fracking, just gave me the warm fuzzies all over again. There may be a lot of buffoons in the U.S. Congress, but I feel like at least I've done my part here in my district -- we've got one of the "good ones."

Monday, June 20, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 27

Day 27 – A song that you wish you could play.

I was just talking about how my level of guitar playing skill barely qualifies as actually playing guitar. I simply don't practice enough to get as good as I wish I could be... which is to be good enough to play "Big Love." The song was written by Lindsey Buckingham, and originally released on the Fleetwood Mac album "Tango in the Night." And that was a fine rendition.

After leaving the band, however, he crafted a new solo take on the song that blows my damn mind wide open. I wish I could play this:

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Fire and Blood

After last week's episode of Game of Thrones, I was trying to take a mental inventory. What still had to happen in the final episode? But I found that I could only clearly remember what happened to Daenerys. No surprise why, and I'll come back to that in a moment. But what about the rest of the characters? I couldn't remember what happened to them in the final chapters of the book.

Part of the problem was bleed-over between that first book and the next, A Clash of Kings. I picked up the second book immediately and began reading. Some events I was convinced were due to happen some time in season one, it became readily apparent as the season wore on were things I'd misplaced from the second book.

But part of the problem is that after the punchy, sit up and take notice impact of Eddard's execution, nearly everything else doesn't seem like such a big deal. Even when it's an important development, such as Robb Stark's countrymen proclaiming him "King of the North," it just doesn't leave the indelible mark of Eddard's final moments. So yes, there was the sense of a season finale in that things were being set into place for the next book/season -- Arya on the run, Sansa having to cope with new horrors at court, Tyrion being sent to King's Landing to try to reign in Joffrey, Jon Snow embarking on his mission beyond The Wall... but none of it felt quite "finale-like," right?

But then of course, there was the last big reveal, which anyone who'd read the books would have told you for sure would be the final moments of the season's final episode. I've had the same group of people at my house every week to watch the series -- mostly people who have read the books, but one who hasn't. And his comment as Dany was revealed in the ashes: "is that a dragon?!" pretty well says it all.

I think part of what makes this moment so big in the story is that until this point, there's been virtually no magic in this fantasy tale. Okay, so there are zombies -- but you get that in other stories with no magic. And yes, there were those spooky sounds coming from Drogo's tent last week as the witch worked her spell. But aside from those minor elements, A Song of Ice and Fire is much more "War of the Roses" than "War of the Ring," until...

Holy crap, dragons!

So yeah, the right note to end on. And hopefully, everyone is eager to come back next season and see book two adapted for the screen. I'm even more eager to dive into book five, due to be released now in just over three weeks. (At long last!) But either way, it was a great season of television.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Truth Returns

Last month, La La Land Records released a limited edition, 4-disc soundtrack of music from The X-Files. It's over five hours of music, spanning 40 episodes throughout the entire 9-year run of the series. I decided to pick up a copy.

The X-Files is a good candidate for a "cherry picked" selection of soundtrack music like this. Much of the music that composer Mark Snow wrote for the series is eerie and atmospheric material -- sometimes soft, sometimes dissonant, sometimes amorphous. It all worked great within the context of the episodes themselves; not all of it would be great on your MP3 player, divorced from that context.

In that respect, this set was exactly what I was hoping for. There are just a handful of those quieter, moody tracks to remind you of the overall feeling of The X-Files. But mostly, the soundtrack delivers action cues of different intensities, rhythms, and instrumentations. Were you to listen to the CDs from beginning to end, you might be bored in spots -- but who does that anymore? The overall effect is a good one.

That said, there's another aspect to the music selection here that I'm not so sure about. Over 15 years ago, during the series' actual run, another single-disc soundtrack was released, subtitled "The Truth and the Light." Until now, it had been the only place (I knew of) that music from the score had been made available. And while the track selections there were excellent, their arrangement was not. All the music was arranged into an endless suite, one track fading into the next. And sprinkled over all of it like an over-seasoned dinner, audio clips of dialogue from episodes intruded on the music. It was distracting at some times, and outright annoying at others. (And not all of the dialogue was matched up to the episodes from which the music was taken.)

Nearly every music cue from that original soundtrack appears here on the new 4-disc set. (In fact, it might be every cue, though I haven't meticulously checked.) On the one hand, I'm happy to have all this material at last, without the unwanted dialogue samples. But from another point of view, I already had all this music, and didn't exactly need it again. They could have released a CD's worth of "all new" material; there was certainly enough in 200 episodes of television to choose from.

But again, it's a good set overall. I'd rate this release a B. If you're a soundtrack fan like me, you'll probably want to grab a copy while it's available. You can order directly from the publisher, or try hunting through some other avenue.

Friday, June 17, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 26

Day 26: A song that you can play on an instrument.

There are two ways I figure I could go with this. On the one hand, there are a couple of instruments I can play, but only barely -- piano and (to a much lesser extent) guitar. I could acknowledge this minimal level of skill and pick a dirt simple song I can stumble my way through, such as "I Wanna Be Sedated" by The Ramones. I can mostly-sorta play it on guitar.

But instead, I think I'm going to go with the instrument I actually can play decently: drums. And for my choice, "Spiderwebs" by No Doubt:

I love songs that cycle through more than one drum pattern, and this song has several. Though in my opinion, the best musician in that band is the bass player, Tony Kanal.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Rock Out

The touring production of the Broadway musical Rock of Ages has rolled into Denver. A friend of mine happens to have worked before with one of the actors in the cast, so she asked me to go along and check out the show.

Here's everything I knew about Rock of Ages before last night: its plot (of which I knew nothing) is built around existing 80s music that was licensed for use in the show; it stars some guy who was on American Idol (that I'd never watched); they are currently making a film version of it to be released some time next year. It turns out there isn't really much more you need to know. The plot is a paper-thin concoction to hold the songs. Those songs skew rather heavily toward "hair metal" (or, if it's not your thing, "butt rock"); whether that's a plus or a minus depends on you.

It was a really odd atmosphere for a show. Rock of Ages was part theater, part concert, and so was the audience seeing it. You could see an old-fogie theater enthusiast couple seated right next to a guy in a Def Leppard t-shirt and his girlfriend dressed like a Valley Girl. People were hooting and hollering most of the time... and yet didn't get on their feet until the final curtain call.

As such, it was quite hard to evaluate just what it was I was seeing. Pretty soon, I stopped actively trying and just sort of let the experience take me. And I'd say for the first act, that more or less worked. The story wasn't really that engaging, nor were most of the characters... but it kind of didn't matter when you only had to wait maybe 90 seconds before getting to some rockin' 80s tune.

But by the second act, the sheen had worn off. The joke writing got lazy, stooping constantly for low-grade "Two and a Half Men" caliber laughs. The forced plot stumbled to a forced conclusion. All the glitz and flash had started to become tiresome. There was no "there" there.

Not helping matters at all was the horrible sound quality of the entire production. The mixing was piss-poor. You could hear the singing well, and the balance of instruments in the band was fine -- but oftentimes the music swallowed up the dialogue almost entirely. Good thing the plot was so simple, because there were times I felt like I was watching a bad childrens' TV program -- lots of noise, motion, and color, with little sense of what's actually going on.

I do have to give praise to a high energy cast. They were a good mix of voices from rock to soul, and really injected power into the performance that made me buy into the "just go with it, it's a concert!" vibe for a lot longer than the show would have sustained on its own.

Also worth a mention is that this show, which first debuted several years ago, totally got there first with the Journey song "Don't Stop Believing." Before Glee, and I think maybe even before The Sopranos, the writers of this show had figured out the song made for both a good chorus number and a good finale. (If only that same cleverness had been applied to more of the script.)

But all told, I'd give Rock of Ages a D+. That forthcoming movie incarnation? I have absolutely no interest in seeing it now.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Mostly Super

I was not one of the masses that went to see the new movie Super 8 over the weekend, but I did get the chance to catch up with it last night. This is the latest "better if you don't quite know exactly what it is" movie, written and directed by J.J. Abrams, and produced (in part) by Steven Spielberg.

If you don't know exactly what the movie is about, then... well, like I just said, it's probably better if you don't. I'll simply describe how to make the cocktail that is Super 8. Take two parts The Goonies and one part Cloverfield; shake vigorously and serve with a wedge of E.T., in a glass rimmed with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. More or less. In other words, you get some summer action movie, but some monster/suspense movie, all with more character development and plot than is conventional for any of those kind of movies.

That character development is really where the movie shines. The people involved are compelling, and you do care about what happens to them, root for them, and generally "get involved."

What also shines is that those characters are mostly children, and they've been wonderfully cast by a half-dozen young performers who really can act. With a story built so much around kids, the movie would have fallen flat without good talent to play them. While some shine especially in the bunch (Joel Courtney and Elle Fanning), there isn't a weak link among them.

What didn't quite work for me so well was the pacing. The flow between action and character didn't always feel quite natural to me. The movie started out as a slow burn in the first act, rather reminiscent of the movies made in the year being depicted (1979). And that worked, except that when it seemed things were starting to accelerate, they slowed down again throughout the middle chunk of the movie. The ending too was a bit unusual in this regard -- after an intense race to the finish line, the last scene itself felt low-key by comparison.

But really, all I'm saying is that I wouldn't listen to the critics who have declared this "what all summer movies should be," or the "best film so far this year." It is good. It's just not that good. I grade it a B. Worth seeing for sure, and probably even in the theater. Just don't let any hype set your expectations unreasonably high.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 25

Day 25: A song that makes you laugh.

There are a lot of "comedy" artists I enjoy, so when I was considering this category, it was tough to know where to begin. "Weird Al" Yankovic? Tom Lehrer? Jonathan Coulton? (That last artist was a particularly tempting choice; his "Skullcrusher Mountain" still makes me grin, and gets played most times I host a Rock Band night.)

But then a single, clear choice came over the horizon -- the song that literally does make me laugh every time I hear it, and probably will continue to do so for many times to come...

That's "Let's Go to the Mall," by Robin Sparkles (aka Robin Scherbatsky, aka Cobie Smulders), as presented in the what to this day remains the funniest episode of How I Met Your Mother ever, "Slapbet." I don't think you need to have seen that episode (or the show, for that matter) to laugh at this song. But if you have, then you know how "holy crap, that's funny!" this was.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Firefly Flashback: The Train Job

I think the second episode of Firefly, The Train Job, is a great example of why the series was so fantastic. It was an episode that was basically crippled from conception. Joss Whedon and Tim Minear wrote it over a weekend at the demand of FOX executives, who had decided not to start the show with the original two-hour pilot, and who had basically give them a command to come up with a new, "better" pilot by Monday morning, or lose the show.

They had to start all over again, crafting a plot contrived for more action beats than the first episode. They had to reintroduce all nine characters all over again and explain their relationships, since viewers would be starting here. They had to do everything in half the screen time they'd done it the first time around.

The result isn't flawless. In fact, it ranks in the bottom 5 for me, if I list my favorite episodes in order. And yet, I still call the result an A-. Compromised, "bottom of the heap," and it's still that good compared to most television.

So what are those minor flaws? Well, one is that the character exposition isn't handled quite so deftly here. I honestly don't know how it could have been done any better given the situation. But with only minutes to spare, and with the "best" ways to introduce the characters already used up in the true pilot, everything here had to be done in a "second best" shorthand. There are a few lines in the first act that sound overly manufactured, like characters are saying things that don't come out quite natural just for the benefit of an audience they shouldn't really be aware of.

The other (again, minor) flaw I think comes at the climax of the episode, when Malcolm Reynolds kills Niska's brawny thug by kicking him through the engine of his ship. Don't get me wrong -- it's funny. I laugh every time I see it. I even think it may have been one of the highlights of the show when I first saw it air on TV, a kind of moment I hoped to see more of in future episodes. But the thing is, it makes Mal seem completely cavalier about killing, an attitude I came not to believe when I later learned more about his background in the war. It's a funny moment; I just don't think it's quite truthful.

But these are minor quibbles in an otherwise very enjoyable episode. The heist itself is fun and adventurous, and does an excellent job of fusing the western and science fiction elements of the show's premise. There's plenty of snappy dialogue. There's the nice "criminals with hearts of gold" twist of returning the stolen goods at the end of the hour. And there's the added bonus that the kingpin they cross here in this episode comes back to haunt (and hurt) them later in the series.

So, as I said, a solid A-. (And the first time around, when I didn't know the true beginning I was missing, it seemed better still.) Classic Firefly. Great even when it's not at its very best.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Tonight's episode of Game of Thrones was a defining moment for the show, just as the events in covered from the book were defining moments there too. I still remember reading A Game of Thrones for the first time and reaching the pivotal chapter that concluded tonight's episode. What?! Wait a second! I thought he was the main character! They can't have just... Wow. Yes, King Robert's death is ultimately the one that kicks of the "game of thrones" in earnest, but Eddard's death was when I really realized that this was unlike any other fantasy series I'd ever read -- truly no character would be safe.

I've frankly been wondering all this time about the casting of Sean Bean in the role, and the way his face has been plastered all over every advertisement for it. Make no mistake, I thought he was perfect for Eddard and did a wonderful job. But first, I wondered if casting Sean Bean was a (pun intended) dead giveaway to the plot. Sean Bean dies in practically everything he has ever appeared in. It's like in his contract or something. And what's more, is it smart to make him the face of the series when he wasn't even destined to survive the first season? We'll see.

Another thing I found interesting about tonight's episode was how it handled the major battles in exactly the same manner as the books. While the Lannisters and the Starks engage in two battles in this episode (these chapters), the book didn't actually show either of them. As I've mentioned before, the book constrains itself to a narrative perspective of only specific characters. Tyrion was knocked unconscious in the book, as he was in the show, thus depriving us of the perspective from which we could have seen that battle. Meanwhile, it's Catelyn -- not Robb -- who is our window on that part of the story; as she did not participate in the battle herself, we didn't see that conflict either.

The series has presented us many great scenes so far involving "non-perspective characters." I wondered if they would therefore show us any of the massive army battles tonight. Instead, they took exactly the same approach as the books. Personally, I think it's the right approach, since showing all the slaughter might have taken some of the impact away from Eddard's death at the end. I'd like to think it was that narrative consideration, and not a simple budgetary restriction, that kept the battle off-screen in the show. Still, I again wonder if this is a moment where people who haven't read the book felt cheated.

In short, I feel like this episode really was a test of the viewers, on many levels. Will people be put off by what happened (or didn't happen) in this episode? Or will they embrace the story more as a result, as I did reading the book?

Again, we'll see.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Mormony, No Problems

Broadway's newest sensation is The Book of Mormon, a musical written in a partnership between the creators of South Park and the creator of Avenue Q. It stands to win a ton of Tony Awards tomorrow night. It's already been announced for a national tour -- which conveniently will open here in Denver, thanks to Trey Parker and Matt Stone's Colorado connection. Inconveniently, that won't happen until December 2012. So it looks to be a while before I'll get to see the show myself.

I did decide, however, to pick up the soundtrack album that was just released. And holy crap! It's seriously funny! And of course, probably quite offensive to a lot of people (not just Mormons, but potentially any religious person without an irreverent sense of humor). It's also a really classically formed incarnation of musical theater. It follows traditions and tweaks them at the same time. It's actually not all mocking; there are plenty of sweet parts too.

But mostly, it's hellaciously funny. I was laughing so hard I was literally crying the first time I listened to "Hasa Diga Eebowai," the wonderfully inappropriate chorus number that comes early in Act One. But that's just one highlight among many; the songs have humor both subtle and overt, clever and base. In short, even if you (like me) haven't seen the show, it's well worth picking up the soundtrack album.

And especially worth it if you're reading this within a day or two of me posting it. Yesterday, Amazon began a four-day special where you can buy the album in an MP3 download for a mere $1.99. I paid much more than that, and don't regret it one bit.

December 2012 can't get here fast enough, Mayans be damned.

Friday, June 10, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 24

Day 24: A song that you want to play at your funeral.

I believe that while a funeral may be about the departed, it is for those left behind. I've never laid out any plans for my funeral. Of course, this is in large part because at my age (for good or ill), most people just aren't thinking about their funerals. But I think it's also partly because I'm not sure I feel right trying to dictate very much from beyond the grave. If those I leave behind want to make me into frisbees, that's up to them. If they don't? I'm not around to complain.

But I suppose the one thing I do hope for is that there are some moments of levity and joy at my funeral. I think I've led a pretty fun life, overall. I hope that would be acknowledged after my death. So I think I'm going to pick for my funeral song "Twist and Shout" by The Beatles. No message; just fun. And if it makes you think of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, that's fine with me:

If I'm forced to try and say something profound with my selection, then I pick "Baby Seat" by Barenaked Ladies. (But I can't even find a decent version of it on YouTube, so see? I'm sticking with "just fun.")

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Back to the Grindhouse

I have a reputation for not liking "dumb movies," but I maintain that there are smart dumb movies, and I like those just fine. In my opinion, Grindhouse was a perfect example of the difference between the two; Planet Terror was a smart, well-made movie to watch with your brain switched off, while Death Proof was a plodding and monotonous dumb dumb movie.

Because Robert Rodriguez, the director behind Planet Terror, was also the force behind last year's Machete, I was willing to give it a shot. And it was fun, though not as strong as the earlier B-movie effort.

One weakness is that the "vintage violent film" conceit doesn't work as successfully here as it did for Planet Terror. Machete is doctored with fake film degradation -- scratches, washed out colors, and so forth. But the movie itself has people driving recently manufactured automobiles, referencing fairly current events, and using cell phones and texting (well, except for Machete himself, who "don't text"). Making the film look like trash to sell an impossible conceit -- that the film is decades old and has been played countless times in some crappy multiplex -- feels like it's just compromising the visuals for no good reason.

The script is a mixed bag, but with more good than bad. It's a paper thin premise that serves only to hold different set pieces -- action sequences, sex scenes, gratuitous violence and nudity. Most of the time, the movie and the audience are in on "the joke" together, and so things are entertaining. A few times, things start dragging a bit from repetition, and from awkward stretches in the plot made just so that some of the original footage from Grindhouse's fake trailer for Machete could be incorporated.

But what ultimately kicks the movie into "alright, I guess this is fun after all" territory is that the actors themselves seem to be having fun too. Danny Trejo is a great anchor for a cast that includes Steven Seagal, Don Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Lindsay Lohan, Jessica Alba, and Cheech Marin. And having still more fun than any of them is Robert DeNiro in an unabashedly one-note heel of a villain.

Assuming you know what you're going to get before you start watching Machete (and I assume you would), then it's not too bad. It's just not quite as much fun as Planet Terror, either. I rate it a B-.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 23

Day 23: A song that you want to play at your wedding.

The timing on this one worked out well -- my sister is actually getting married this week.

As for myself... well, this is not a simple subject. Start with all of the difficulties of picking an appropriate song for an important occasion you'll remember all the rest of your days. A song that somehow encapsulates the sense of completeness you've been waiting your whole life to feel and express. Already, that makes this without a doubt the most difficult category in this entire Challenge thing.

But then add to that my... uh... "special circumstances." Those being that, for me to get ever married in the recognized-by-law-as-an-actual-marriage sense, I don't need just one special person to say yes, I need several million complete strangers to say it too. Millions of people I don't know and will never meet are going to have to finally come to a change of heart and realize that their own lives are not in any way made safer, better, or holier by their preventing people like me from getting married. Or, if not several millions of people, at least a handful of very powerful people in the right places.

I have a soft spot for classic songs. And I believe there's one that does a pretty damn good job of wrapping all the above in one perfect package -- "At Last," as performed by Etta James:

I probably shouldn't say any more, having made my point the best way I possibly can. But I have to acknowledge that, as much as I like this version, I think Cyndi Lauper recorded an even more powerful and emotional take on the song. It's just that hers is stripped down and slow -- almost free time. In short, it can make me cry tears of joy, but you really can't dance to it.

This is supposed to be a for a wedding, after all.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Serenity

Ah, Firefly.

Among many great television series to be canceled before reaching a second season, Firefly remains my favorite. In fact, it sets the bar for brilliant-but-canceled so high, I suspect it will never be surpassed. I hope it will never be surpassed; as a fan of quality television, losing Firefly hurt so much that I don't know if I could go through it again.

The losing, I mean. Not the actually watching Firefly. On that count, I in fact could go through that again -- and very recently did. I got the thrill of watching Firefly in its entirety with someone who had never seen the series before. I figure this is as close as you can get to watching it for the first time yourself, and I loved every minute of it.

I'm now a full season and then some into my re-watching of Lost, and have been blogging about it every step of the way. I figure that a show I love (loved -- sniff) even more than Lost deserves equal attention. So here comes the first of a series of Firefly episode reviews!

It all starts with Serenity. (Except when FOX aired it, when it didn't.) ((Also, I mean "Serenity" the pilot episode, not the feature film. Though we will get there.)) This two-hour kickoff to Firefly is the perfect showcase of why losing Firefly was so sad -- the show was fantastic right out of the gate. There was no sense that the show had growing to do before finding itself. There was no need to apologize to a would-be viewer and reassure that "later episodes will get better." There was no sense that some characters weren't quite right. Serenity presents everything that would be good about the series right there at the beginning.

Series creator Joss Whedon wrote and directed this first episode. It crackles with his fantastic dialogue, and is filmed in his signature style. The actors -- regulars and guests -- all give razor-focused performances that define the show right out of the gate. Relationships are king on Firefly, and this pilot episode does an amazing job of showcasing them.

We see the history bonding Mal and Zoe, the fateful Battle of Serenity Valley. (It does make you wonder, given how cool some of the action in the Serenity movie is, what we could have seen here if the war wasn't presented on a television budget.) It's a particularly powerful sequence for Mal; even though he's a fun personality in the show's present, you see him even more open and breezy here in the past, and see that spark die in his eyes as he watches the Alliance ships land in the valley to effectively end the war.

There's Wash -- always witty, and yet not just comic relief. In the escape from the Reavers, he his the most cool and focused person on the ship.

We have the barely tamed animal in the group's midst, Jayne. The mercenary stays loyal to the crew in this episode despite temptation, but acknowledges that one day someone will make an offer he won't be able to refuse. (And we actually see this later in the show.)

Kaylee is firmly set up as the one character that everybody loves and rallies behind. When she's shot by Dobson, it's the most tense moment in the pilot. It cements him as a loathsome villain. And then it leads to one of the biggest laughs in the episode when Mal actually pranks Simon about Kaylee's death.

Inara is a fascinating focus as well; her role as "companion" is prime for all the other characters to have different opinions about. She makes ripples in the pond.

We meet rigid Simon, ever loyal to his poor sister River. River wouldn't become the graceful killing machine that got Summer Glau her job on Terminator until later, but the method-to-the-madness incarnation here is still compelling to watch.

Shepherd Book is the overtly religious character in the mix, though not the only source of spirituality by any means. He councils without condemnation, and tries to teach by example.

And this compelling group of characters are all aboard the "tenth character," the ship Serenity itself. It's no massive ship like an Enterprise or Galactica. It's home to a family, not a few characters like a Tardis. It's rundown, not cutting edge. It doesn't even have weapons. It's a very different setting for television science fiction.

We see the mashup of scifi and Western sensibilities. We're introduced to the already-formed dialogue of this (uni)verse, curious slang mixed with Western patois, spiced with Mandarin Chinese. Composer Greg Edmonson strikes a similar blend with his compelling musical score. The plot has action, intrigue, reversals, wit, and drama.

In short, it's a grade A episode of a grade A series. I don't know that the sad saga of Firefly would have gone differently if FOX had deigned to air this episode first, but you can surely see how the entire enterprise was doomed from the outset if their executives watched this and didn't see it worthy of kicking off the series run.

Monday, June 06, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 22

Day 22: A song that you listen to when you're sad.

I had considered "In My Room" by The Beach Boys for this slot, but there was a rich story behind another song that pulled me inexorably in another direction.

I'm picking "Fragile" by Sting. I find it a mournful, melancholy song that perfectly fits a melancholy mood. The original version from his album "...Nothing Like the Sun" is good, but the version from his "...All This Time" concert is even better:

The story behind the song isn't a personal one, but I find it compelling all the same. Sting had planned to give a small and intimate concert for friends at his home, record it, and release it on CD and DVD. "Fragile" was pre-selected as a single to be released in conjunction with this concert, as it was never released as a single off the original album.

But the performance date of the concert was September 11, 2001. Part of the DVD documentary concerns the decision whether to even go through with the performance after that morning's terrorist attacks. Ultimately, Sting and his assembled musicians did, but the pre-selection of "Fragile" as the opening number for the show suddenly took on extra meaning. And I think the performance is richer as a result.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Pointy End

Despite the fact that I've read all the books in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series, I found myself a bit surprised by tonight's installment of Game of Thrones. It has been many years since I read the book; while I remain clear on the big events, I have gotten a bit foggy on some of the finer details, and don't necessarily remember the pace of events.

So the surprise for me came in how tonight's episode decelerated a bit. I didn't find it at all boring or slow, but my memory of the book was that once King Robert died, things started sprinting along and never looked back. Yet rather than an avalanche of big events occurring tonight, the story seemed to pause for a short breath, setting a few things in place so that the sprint can begin next week. (If you've read the book, there were plenty of setup moments this week that you know will lead to huge things.)

What I found most interesting about all of this was that George R.R. Martin himself wrote the script for this episode. Way back when, after he'd been established as a novelist, but before he embarked on this epic series, he worked in television for several years on the series Beauty and the Beast. So it's not unthinkable that he would choose to write "his own show." (I do wish he'd spent that time working on the next book instead, but at least he decided to take on only one episode.)

But with so many events taking place here in the back half of the novel/season, I find it a bit odd that he'd choose this episode to write. He could have had last week's momentous death of the king. He could have had next week's episode, which I believe will... well, to keep things completely spoiler-free, I'll just leave it at that: he could have had next week's episode. But instead, he chose to take on this hour of "traffic cop," moving people from one place to the next.

Also interesting, though perhaps less surprising, I believe he delivered a script with no new material in it. Again, it's been a while since I've read the books, but in nearly all the prior episodes of the series, I've definitely taken notice of new scenes that were added for the show, that never appeared in the book. (And they've been among my favorite scenes.) Perhaps it was due in part to lack of time, but Martin did not take the opportunity to expand upon his own work with a new scene. I found that I missed it.

But I'd say all that is just "curious," not really "disappointing." I still found the episode to be very entertaining. There were plenty of great moments. The highlights for me this week seemed to be the combat moments: Syrio's deft dispatch of several soldiers with a mere practice sword, and Drogo's even more vicious dispatching of his opponent (with no weapon at all!). But there were also quieter moments like more golden-tongued negotiating by Tyrion (though it may have backfired a little on him this time), and Samwell is indeed "not stupid."

As always, I'm looking forward to next week.

Edit: After a little digging, I learned that the scene I liked so much, in which Drogo kicked some ass, was actually a new scene not in the original novel. So I suppose that continues the trend of me liking the new material. Interesting, though, that I had so convinced myself it wasn't new. I guess that means it was a very natural addition.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Class Act

Fall off your chair, people -- I went to see a movie based on a comic book last night, the new X-Men: First Class. You might think it an especially unlikely event, since I've found the franchise to be sliding downhill since the first film. (Well, maybe not so much "downhill" as "away from non-comic fans.") Something about the whole period setting, resetting the story approach on this film got my interest.

I found this film to be the best of the four. They got a number of things right. The emphasis of the film is very firmly on character; for example, in the five minute pre-title sequence, they do more to establish and flesh out the characters of Professor X and Magneto than was accomplished in all three previous films combined. And that continues fairly well all the way through, as the film is strongly centered around the friendship between two men who would later be rivals.

The film also does a much better job of juggling multiple characters than its predecessors. Where the earlier X-Men movies devolved into an ever larger Mutantapalooza, this movie seems much more aware of where the line of saturation is. A handful of characters get the major emphasis, another handful more appears in clearly secondary roles... and that's basically it. (Except for a number of fairly entertaining cameo-like appearances from notable character actors.)

The cast is fairly strong. James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender anchor the film in the lead performances, and have a great rapport with one another. Kevin Bacon serves up a fun villain with great relish. And Rose Byrne (from Damages) manages to be a somewhat interesting "character with no superpowers" in the superpowered movie -- no mean feat.

But occasionally, the movie stumbles and loses its way for small stretches. I suspect this will be a matter of taste, because the parts I found boring will probably be most people's favorite stuff in the film. Most of the action sequences go on a bit too long, rely a bit too much on CG, and replay a few too many of the tricks we've seen in earlier X-Men films. The movie always managed to pull back before losing me completely; nevertheless, I often found the "action movie" elements to be the weakest part of this fundamentally "action movie."

But in all, I'd call the movie a B, a pleasant surprise. Which I suppose probably means that if this kind of thing is normally up your alley, you may well find it to be one of the best comic book movies in years.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Cables, Cars

In telling my epic tale of car trouble last month, I skipped past an unimportant detail about trying to jump start my car. Many years ago, I bought this cheap roadside kit with a bare minimum of car trouble essentials -- a couple of road flares, a set of jumper cables, and so forth.

The jumper cables are frankly terrible. They're just too damn short. If I'm in a standard parking space trying to use these cables, the second car is in the space next to me, and the batteries on our cars are on the far opposite sides from one another, these jumper cables aren't long enough to make a connection. Which basically makes them useless in many -- maybe even most -- situations.

But here's the thing. I've still managed to make them work whenever I've needed them. That makes me reluctant to buy a better pair for next time. Plus, of course, the fact that I don't want there to be a next time. I mean, I don't kid myself -- car trouble happens every now and then. And yet, I can't bring myself to spend money on something I hope never to actually use -- especially having done it once already.

Am I being unreasonably cheap here?

Thursday, June 02, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 21

Day 21: A song that you listen to when you're happy.

I found it a little hard to draw a distinction between this category and an earlier one in the challenge, a song that makes you happy. I do recognize the difference between music for when you're already happy, and music that gets you there -- it's just that most songs I'd be inclined to put in one category could just as easily go in the other.

For example, I considered choosing "We Used to Be Friends" by The Dandy Warhols. But I think my main association there is that it's the theme song to Veronica Mars. So the song is more "make me happy" than "already happy," because it's a Pavlovian cue that I'm about to watch Veronica Mars. (On second thought, maybe it makes me sad that Veronica Mars didn't last longer?)

Pondering it some more, I've decided to select "Dizz Knee Land" by Dada. When there's already a smile on my face, this song somehow makes it wider.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

A Dark Star Indeed

Have you ever heard of Dark Star? I hadn't, though it seems like I should have.

I was reading through some list of the 100 greatest science fiction films, and came across Dark Star somewhere in the 90s. It was written by Dan O'Bannon (writer of Alien) and John Carpenter (writer of Halloween and The Thing). John Carpenter also directed. It was the first feature film for both, and evolved out of a student film project that managed to scrounge up a tiny bit more money to go quasi-professional.

On paper, that all sounded really promising to me. But the problem is, I think I focused too much on "the people behind Alien and The Thing" and not enough on "glorified student film from the early 1970s." Because folks, I am telling you this movie is terrible. Not "good terrible" like The Room -- no, that happens when you think you're making a serious movie and it comes out funny. With Dark Star, they were indeed trying to make a satire, and it just isn't funny. Oh sure, there are a couple of clever ideas in there, but they aren'texecuted in a way that makes you even smile, much less laugh.

The acting is bad, the production values are horrible (though that's no surprise, given the budget), the pace is languid. It's the Waiting for Godot of scifi films, but unlike that famous existential play, it has no apparent commentary to make. In fact, even though the movie is only a scant 80 minutes long, I could not make myself finish it. I switched it off before I reached the halfway point.

Which I suppose automatically means I have to rate this movie an F. ("F" for "Finished It? Hell no!") I cannot fathom what it's doing on a list of the 100 greatest scifi films. 100 Most Influential scifi films, I might grant, because this was the starting point for two great talents -- and one of the plot points even seems to be the direct inspiration for Alien.

But it isn't actually watchable. Ugh.