Sunday, July 31, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Trash

We've come to the first of three Firefly episodes that never aired on FOX during the series' original run. It's also my favorite of those three. Hello, it's another heist episode! And Christina Hendricks is back as the wonderful character of Saffron. Of course I'm going to love it.

This heist doesn't feel quite as elaborate or entertaining as the one in Ariel, but it still has plenty of action and tension. It also focuses largely on different characters than the Ariel heist, with Wash, Kaylee, and Jayne taking key roles. (Along with Mal, of course.) There's also the fun twist at the end, of a sort of "meta-heist" to con Saffron herself, which brings Inara into the caper as well.

One great thing about having Saffron back in the mix is that this time out, the characters all know exactly who and what she is. As a result, a lot of the tension and fun in the episode comes in waiting for her to double-cross our gang, and seeing if they'll be smart enough to outmaneuver her. But she does get fleshed out a bit more in this episode too. Well, maybe. We definitely see her in a few vulnerable and more tender moments, but your guess is as good as mine as to whether any of it is genuine emotion.

As far as the comedy goes, this episode is one of the series' very best. Jokes about Saffron's trustiworthiness abound, bested only by the jokes on her multiple identities. Also, River can kill you with her brain.

That last reference is to a scene near the end of the episode that further pays off Jayne's betrayal in Ariel. Simon learns that Jayne tried to sell them out, and confronts him in a chillingly calm way.

My one quibble would be with the stale old framing device of beginning the episode after the action (in this case, with Mal naked in the desert), then flashing back to show how we got there. There was a time this structure seemed novel, but it's so long past that I can't remember it. Nowadays when I see it, I just think that the episode wasn't running long enough for broadcast time, or that the writers weren't sure the opening tease was enticing enough, so they constructed an artificial teaser to keep people from tuning out. It does generate a laugh here, I won't deny that -- it just still feels like sloppy and/or lazy writing to me.

Either way, it's still a solid, fun episode. I rate it an A-.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Words Without Friends

At some point, somewhere, I can't recall exactly when or where, I heard there was this documentary called Wordplay that I ought to check out. I was either given the wrong impression, or I was confused, because I thought it was a documentary about the game of Scrabble. For you readers, let me clear up my misconception.

Wordplay is actually a documentary about crossword puzzles. Specifically, it revolves around the editor of the notorious New York Times crossword puzzle, who has been doing it for decades. It's two distinctly different documentaries blended together.

In one "film," we meet enthusiasts of the puzzle, including some celebrities. Jon Stewart, Bill Clinton, and more weigh in on "what it is about crossword puzzles," sometimes just as a way to have fun, other times as a metaphor or training for other aspects of life.

We meet one of the puzzle makers whose work is regularly published in that newspaper. This is a man known by name in the elite circles of puzzle solving, who is referred to by one puzzle enthusiast as a true artist. (We learn how quality work by him, which deserves a "Friday or Saturday slot," is squandered when published on a Monday or Tuesday. And we learn what that means, in case you don't already know.)

The other "film" follows the annual crossword tournament organized by the Times editor, and the cream of the crop players vying for top honors in the event. It's a look at competition in general, and allows some intellectual distance because the competition isn't taking a form everyone is used to. You're dazzled by the skills of the tournament elite, and eager to see which of the people you've met will come out on top.

This half of the movie isn't as compelling as it might have been, I think because the filmmakers basically play it straight. I found myself thinking back to the documentary King of Kong, which set up a real David and Goliath scenario for the audience, and became richly entertaining as a result. This movie doesn't tell you who to root for, or offer its own perspective on events. That arguably makes it a more pure documentary... but it makes a less entertaining one too.

If you have any interest in games or puzzles in general, or certainly crosswords in particular, you'll probably find something worthwhile here. Still, I found the individual parts more compelling than the whole. I'd rate it a B-.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What a Maroon / High-Altitude Training

Last night, I went to Red Rocks to see Maroon 5 and Train in concert, a night out suggested by a longtime friend who loves both bands. I myself am far more familiar with Maroon 5, having all three of their studio albums. Train, on the other hand, is a band whose music I like well enough, but often in an "I didn't know they did that song" kind of way.

Predictably, I enjoyed the Maroon 5 portion of the concert most. They opened their set strong, with a nonstop run of half a dozen up-tempo songs. They literally never stopped playing, just blending one song into the next for 20 minutes straight. A nice, high-energy start to the night, I thought -- though it kind of worked against the mood when they slowed down later and did two or three back-to-back low key songs. Still, they finished out strong and played lots of energetic music.

Listening to Maroon 5 albums, I've often wondered how lead singer Adam Levine can sing for long stretches in his style. He's awfully high on the scale, riding the falsetto break and belting out in almost equal measure. I now have my answer: he can't. Many of the songs were transposed to lower keys in the concert, and many vocal phrases that were a falsetto/full-voice mix on the album were entirely one or the other in concert. I don't say this to mean that he sounds bad live; but the studio takes are definitely well-cultivated. Basically, the band sounds rather different in concert than on their albums. Which is arguably a good thing, if you're looking for some variation.

So then came Train, and I'm still not sure just what I thought of them overall. Their approach seemed to be, if you don't like this bit, maybe you'll like the next; they tried a lot of different gimmicks over the course of the night, and I certainly didn't like them all, though your mileage may vary.

Lead singer Patrick Monahan changed shirts six times in a 65-minute set, starting out as a Neil Diamond look-alike and passing through something vaguely Brian Johnson (meets Freddy Mercury?) before ending up with something I think I saw Belinda Carlisle wear once in a video.

A prolonged (and if you ask me, painful) bit had them bring 20 women up on stage from the audience to sing and dance as "Trainettes." Later, there was a walk-out-into-the-audience treatment of "Marry Me" that would have been hokey, but was actually pretty funny when the singer acknowledged mid-verse that his at-altitude hike up 200 stairs was more work than he'd expected.

They did an acoustic set of songs from Blondie, U2, and others. They sounded really great, and I was quite enjoying it... though I wondered with a faint twinge why they were doing some of their best work on other people's songs. Still, their set did include every Train song I think I know, so you were probably getting the main material you were looking for, if you're a longtime fan.

A good night, overall. If you're a fan of either band, I'm sure you'd enjoy the show if it comes to your town.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Firefly Flashback: War Stories

Given how short a run Firefly had, it's an unlikely but pleasant surprise that several guest characters showed up for more than one episode. I think the villain of this episode (and The Train Job), Niska, comes out on the bottom of the rankings -- but only because he's in the illustrious company of Badger and Saffron. His reappearance here is great not just because he's a compelling nemesis of a very different style, but because he shows that actions in the Firefly 'verse have consequences. Mal crossed him earlier, and now Mal most definitely has to pay for it.

This is the most brutal and graphic episode of the series, with multiple scenes of torture (including a severed ear). And as I noted in Out of Gas, few can sell pain as believably as Nathan Fillion. You cringe to see what happens to Mal in this episode... and cheer all the more because of it when he triumphs at the end.

Mal is far from the only badass on display in this episode, though. Zoe has the awesome moment where she doesn't hesitate for an instant when forced to choose between her husband and captain. Book gives us another taste of his dark side when informing us that the Bible isn't quite clear on the subject of kneecaps. Inara takes on a female client and the only issue made of it is how gorgeous and graceful half the crew finds her. (Ah, an enlightened future!)

And, of course, there's River's big moment at the end. This is the first taste we get of the River we would ultimately see in the movie. Until this point, River (and Summer Glau) has given us plenty of humor, and many moments of emotion and gravitas. But when she picks up a gun here and kills three people literally without looking, we see an entirely new side of her.

Also great is Wash's role in all of this. You could argue that his jealousy of the relationship between Zoe and Mal seems awfully (in)convenient to come up right here, right now. They all seemed to be getting along well enough so far. Yet you really have to accept this would have been an issue either at some point in the past or at some point in the future. Better that the series actually dramatizes it and we get to see it. And, as always with Firefly, some great jokes come with it too. ("She promised to obey?")

I rate this episode an A-. Maybe the minus shouldn't even be on there. I'm not sure I can exactly point to one "off" element of the episode to explain it; I just know that while I liked this episode a lot, I didn't love it quite as much as the many grade A episodes I've reviewed so far.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Mirror Universe

Over a decade ago, back when all seven cast members of the original Star Trek series were still alive, and the series Enterprise had yet to arrive on the scene, a documentary film was made about Star Trek fans, called Trekkies. I'd been aware of it for a while, but was in no particular hurry to watch it. I've been to my share of Star Trek conventions both for business and pleasure, and I'm well aware of just how much a Trek fan can remind you that "fan" is short for fanatic. Still, I did throw it into my Netflix queue at some point, and sooner or later, everything will bubble to the top.

It's an interesting documentary to watch. It remains carefully neutral, not really positing an opinion or viewpoint of its own. It simply presents a 90-minute procession of Trek fans expressing their love for the franchise in a wide variety of ways. In maintaining such a blank slate approach, the film essentially holds a mirror up at its audience; whether you're a Star Trek fan yourself (and to whatever degree you are one, if you are), I think your reaction to this film would differ very much accordingly.

I myself have had a very interesting journey as a Star Trek fan, and so my reaction to the film felt complicated. I began when I was younger as an ever more enthusiastic lover of the original series and The Next Generation, and then Deep Space Nine. I never reached a point where I wanted to dress up in costume at a convention, but I certainly had a good collection of Trek memorabilia going -- loaded with items of little real value or use.

Then I went to work at Decipher, making the Star Trek CCG. Watching Star Trek was no longer a recreational activity for me. And this coincided roughly with the Voyager and Enterprise era of Trek, a period where I think we can all objectively agree that the quality of the franchise plummeted. I would say this didn't actually diminish my love of Trek, but it certainly transformed it.

I never would look down on a fellow Star Trek fan who chose to express his passion in a more extreme way than I. For one, we're geeky brethren in a world that largely looks down on us. We should have each others' back, not stab it. Not to mention that these kinds of people paid my salary for over five years. And yet my own love of Star Trek I basically put it in a drawer, like a photo album that could conceivably be brought out to look at fondly on occasion -- but which never actually is. I haven't actually watched an episode of any Star Trek series in any context since I was laid off from that job more than six years ago.

Ummm... I was talking about a movie here at one point, wasn't I? My point being that watching this documentary, confronted with some really enthusiastic fans doing some fairly outrageous things, I didn't look down on them -- but I did think to myself, "man, if I was ever anywhere close to that point, that just feels way, way past me now." So it was a vaguely melancholy experience, which I would imagine very few other viewers of the film would have.

The host of the documentary is Denise Crosby, the actress who played Tasha Yar on The Next Generation. Her own Trek journey is an interesting one too. After fighting to make it on the show, she asked to leave before the first season was even completed. At the time, she was thinking only of her unfulfilled needs as an actress; she was clearly not thinking about how her departure might well feel like a slap in the face to fans and fandom. And so I think this documentary for her was an olive branch (much like her later return to the series as an occasional guest star). "No, really, I do like Star Trek and especially Star Trek fans." And yet you do feel her occasionally stifling a reaction to her interview subjects -- for example, to the woman with a borderline stalker obsession with Brent Spiner.

The only real point the film makes is one I wholeheartedly agree with: liking something like Star Trek should be no less socially accepted than liking something like a professional sports team. Beyond that, the movie is just a nice bit of confection that's easy to watch, if not an excellent piece of filmmaking. I grade it a B. Your mileage will probably vary, based on your own relationship with Star Trek.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Ariel

There's really just one thing I don't like about this episode of Firefly, and I'll lead straight out with it: Shepherd Book does not appear in the episode. It's not that he's a favorite character as such, or that I have a clear vision on just what role he might have served in this plot. And I understand the realities of television budgets; some actors are sometimes contracted for fewer episodes than others as a cost-cutting measure. But the problem is that there turned out to only be 14 episodes of the series. And mixed with the mountains of salt in that wound is this extra pinch -- that for Shepherd Book (and actor Ron Glass), it wasn't even that many episodes. Sigh. (Inara does only a little better, appearing only briefly at the beginning and end of the episode.)

Other than that, I find Ariel an exceptional episode of the series -- my second favorite, in fact. It's a heist! It's personal taste, I'm sure, but when a heist story is well executed (in film or television), I find it virtually impossible not to love. Adventure! Tension! Cleverness! What's not to love?!

And I do find this an incredibly well executed heist. First, bonus points in that the entire idea comes from Simon. He seems an unlikely person to embrace criminal behavior like this, but the fact he does so is a huge step for his character. He has a goal to achieve (getting help for River), and he won't let morality stand in the way. And it makes sense that he'd be really good at planning a heist. We've been told what killer "book smarts" he has, and now we get to see that in action.

We see Simon effectively coach Zoe, Mal, and Jayne in the parts they must play. We see a new side of Mal, that he will "take orders" when it's called for. We see Zoe and Mal work together effectively as they must have in their war days, improvising in the hospital when there are complications in the plan. And we get the hilarious "trying to train a monkey" thread of teaching Jayne to behave like a paramedic. Plus, you get some fun moments on the side of Wash and Kaylee building the phony medical shuttle. (Including a throwaway joke where they find in the junkyard the exact part that nearly cost them their lives in Out of Gas, and discard it without a thought.) All great stuff.

But the greatest element of the episode is that it dares to turn one of the main characters into the "bad guy." Jayne makes good on his threat of several episodes to sell out River and Simon (and, as stated explicitly in the pilot, turn his back on Mal when the money was good enough). No, it's not the first time that a hero became a villain on a Joss Whedon show. Nor the second or third. Nor for the longest period of time. Nevertheless, this is still territory that to this day few television shows dare to venture into. And even the ones that do rarely do it so well. What makes Jayne's betrayal here particularly interesting to watch is that he gets caught. Not only does the person he deals with turn on him, but Mal easily figures out what happened and punishes Jayne for it. The scene at the end, where Mal confronts and threatens Jayne, is incredibly effective. Nathan Fillion serves up Mal's anger in the most chilling way. And Adam Baldwin makes you actually feel bad for Jayne when you realize he seems willing to pay the ultimate price for his actions -- so long as the others never find out what he did and don't think bad of him.

Great stuff. Another grade A episode of Firefly.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Invitation to the Dance

This weekend, I finished A Dance With Dragons, the fifth book of George R.R. Martin's series, A Song of Ice and Fire. I know many of you will not yet have finished the book. (It is a weighty tome.) I also know that some of you only know the books from the HBO series Game of Thrones, and thus know only events through the end of book one. I'm going to try to keep this spoiler free for both camps, so I apologize if this review comes off frustratingly vague.

It's been a long six years since book four (A Feast for Crows) was released, but in many ways, A Dance With Dragons is a book that we long-time fans have been waiting for for eleven years. That's because Martin decided to break up a ponderously long book into two pieces, and divided them geographically rather than chronologically. That is, he left some characters out of book four entirely, only bringing us the continuation of their stories now.

Put more simply, odds are that whoever your favorite character in the books is, you haven't read a new chapter about them in eleven years. Yikes.

By that standard, there's simply no way this book could measure up. No book, even written by Martin, could be "the book you waited a decade for!" But it is a good book. I'd nestle in right in the middle of them all in terms of quality; I found it to be better and more engaging than books two (A Clash of Kings) or four (A Feast for Crows), but not as riveting as books one (A Game of Thrones) or three (A Storm of Swords).

What pulled it away from the "top of the heap" is that for large stretches of the book, not much is happening to several of the characters. Most of the major characters of Dragons aren't on a mission, aren't even moving at all. Two in particular have become settled in one specific location, and the bulk of their stories in the book are all about them trying to negotiate the trials of leadership. Managing people, managing resources, trying to make changes for the better. It's realistic, but it frankly isn't always interesting -- particularly for these characters, who I think most readers want to see out mixing things up and booting some heads.

But on the up side, other main characters absent from book four are back and as entertaining as ever. One in particular is having to learn to deal with not being in control for the first time in a while, and watching the character adapt is great fun.

Around two-thirds of the way through the novel, the story "catches up" with book four. That is, the events meant to run concurrently between the two books finally align, and then the rest of book five moves forward with plots for characters from both novels. That's when things really start to heat up and get interesting for everybody, and that's what easily pulls the book off the bottom of the Ice and Fire pack. Things get exciting for even the stationary characters I mentioned. Also, a character who has been around for a while in the story becomes a "narrative character," with chapters told from his perspective. (And they're among the most compelling chapters in the book.)

Another pleasant surprise in reading the book was that there were two characters I had decidedly not enjoyed reading about in earlier books, who became quite compelling in this book. Martin has done it before, making you suddenly cheer for villains, or doubt heroes -- so that in and of itself is not the surprise. That I would ever look forward to a chapter around this character or that character is, though. It's not that I necessarily found either of these people to be vastly more sympathetic, but I still very much wanted to read what happened next to them.

I think I'd grade A Dance With Dragons a B+ overall. Maybe an A-, since what's "average" for A Song of Ice and Fire is still "really damn good" for most books.

And now, the wait for the next Martin book begins all over again.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Out of Gas

Here it is, my very favorite episode of Firefly. The writing of this episode is simply incredible, like a flawless high-wire act in how beautifully it handles multiple timelines. This was two years before Lost would premiere on television, so an hour of television with a heavy flashback structure was a much more daring proposition then than it might seem now. What's more, this episode juggles not two, but three timelines: Mal trying to fix the ship in the present, the recent events that led to the ship's current state, and more distant flashbacks that show how the crew of Serenity first came together.

I've read that the Fox executives did indeed balk at all this, but fortunately the writers stuck to their guns and served up this dense and rewarding hour of television. Had they caved, might it have bought them one or two more episodes? Doubtful, but it wouldn't have bought them the rest of a full season in any case. I'm very happy for the uncompromised episode we did get, even if it probably did burn the last of the bridge Joss Whedon and his writers had with the network at this point.

Of course, it's not just Tim Minear's brilliant writing that deserves praise here. Director David Solomon filmed everything in a way that easily helps you through the story without the need for a single messy "24 hours earlier" card. Each timeline has its own color treatments, camera angles, and cutting rhythm -- all of which serve to anchor you at every moment of the story.

All the technique in the world wouldn't matter much if the content weren't also brilliant. Each flashback is an inspired look into the character it features: we see that Zoe did not even like her eventual husband when they first met; Jayne came into the group the same greedy mercenary he remains today; Kaylee has a serious rebellious streak under her innocent exterior. And then that perfect, sweet scene at the end, when we see the moment Mal first laid eyes on Serenity. I get chills just thinking about it.

There are endless and wonderful juxtapositions throughout the episode. We cut from past happy moments to present serious ones. Simon's joyous birthday celebration is shattered by the ship's disaster (and he ruefully mourns this fact later). And once again, the last scene gives the greatest juxtaposition of all: all the banter about how great a ship Mal was shopping for turns out to be about some other ship, not Serenity.

It might go without saying by this point how wonderful the actors on this show are in their roles, yet it would be wrong not to praise Nathan Fillion's masterful effort in this episode. Some actors can't "take a punch"; when they act injured, it's never quite believable. Mal's bleeding gut shot is an utterly credible and truly perilous obstacle in this episode. You shudder when he falls to the deck. You cringe when he administers his own adreneline shot. You groan when he drops the replacement part for the engine. You never doubt that he's in some serious pain. Nathan Fillion is a more recognized star now that the TV series Castle has become a hit, but even still it's less than he deserves.

The other thing that gets me watching this episode is the element of Wash's "recall button." Mal orders everyone else off this ship, but Wash sets up a special button on the bridge in case Mal gets the engine fixed. "When your miracle gets here...", push the button to call back both shuttles. Actor Alan Tudyk tells a wonderful story about this in the DVD special features (of he movie Serenity, perhaps?). When Firefly was canceled, and Joss Whedon promised them all that somehow, some day, he would continue the story, Alan Tudyk stole this button from the set and gave it to Joss as a gift. "When your miracle gets here, you push this button and we'll all come back." Even with all the emotion in the episode itself, that story might get me most of all.

Anyone who doesn't like this episode of Firefly doesn't have taste, doesn't like television... choose your appropriate condemnation. I don't stick plusses after A ratings for emphasis, but if I did, I'd empty my stash here. One of the best episodes of television, period.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Telling It Like It Is

I've read most of Chuck Palahniuk's novels, though I wouldn't necessarily call him a "favorite author." For one thing, I'm never itching to read his new novel whenever it drops. Case in point, I thought I was current with his writing -- the last book of his I've read being Snuff. Nope, it turns out he's published two more since then, and has a third on the way this fall.

I decided to check out the generally more well-reviewed of the two recent books, Tell-All. It's a story told from the point of view of a much put-upon employee and caretaker of an aging movie actress. Basically, imagine that Norma Desmond (of Sunset Boulevard) had a much-suffering house-/life-keeper who wrote a book.

I'd try to give you a taste of the plot, but therein lies the major problem with the book. It barely has a plot. It's under 200 pages, and you really don't have a sense of "what's happening," what it's really all "about," until over halfway through.

What fills the pages until that point (and still dominates them after) comes arguably closer to poetry than prose. Palahniuk is more interested in how to turn a phrase, how to express an image, than how to tell a story. He plays a lot with sentence structure, establishing haiku-like patterns that he repeats often. He highlights every proper name in the book in a bold-faced font. And he repeats the same ideas often, giving the sense that an already-slim book was padded out considerably just to get here.

I'd call the entire thing a bust, except that the "poetry" is fairly evocative and interesting. The patterns of language do work, and get you into the mindset of the main character. There are many clever turns of phrase, and more than a few smiles to be found among the pages. The technique and style kept me going long past the point of frustration at the lack of narrative momentum. (Indeed, it literally kept me going until the narrative finally presented itself.)

In short, it's not a bad piece of writing. But it's a terrible piece of storytelling. It doesn't have far to travel, and doesn't get there fast. Whether you find a "scenic journey" interesting will basically determine whether you'd want to read the book or not. In my analysis, it's a C+ overall. It's possibly Chuck Palahniuk's weakest effort, and has dulled my enthusiasm to read his other recent book that I missed.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Jaynestown

"Jayne! The man they call Jayne!"

This episode is Firefly's best take on an episode structure that Joss Whedon had established well on Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- a breezy, comedic story that takes a late turn to deliver an emotional, dramatic ending.

Writer Ben Edlund delivered top notch work here. The first two-thirds of Jaynestown are almost wall-to-wall jokes -- and they're all funny too. First, there's the endless well of humor about Jayne's heroic status and statue. ("This must be what going mad feels like." "We gotta go to the crappy town where I'm the hero.") Second, there are several other amusing side elements. (Simon swearing only when it's appropriate. River's reaction to Book's unrestrained hair.)

Then comes the powerful punch of the ending, where Jayne learns that the problem with being a "Hero" is that good people will sacrifice their lives for you. This actually isn't the most vulnerable we would see Jayne in the course of the show (that's yet to come), but it is the most emotionally raw and true. And it's the first time we've seen him in any capacity other than "tough guy" or "comic relief." The writing serves this turn up perfectly, and actor Adam Baldwin rises to the challenge brilliantly.

If I had any reservation about the episode, it would be the way the ship and crew manage to escape so easily at the end. The son of the local villain intervenes somewhat anticlimactically, lifting the land lock on Serenity. But it's hard even to quibble with that, as you can easily argue that it was really Inara who made that possible, and it connects her subplot to the episode in any case.

So, another grade A episode of Firefly in my book.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Long Khan

Sometimes, I use my blog to share meaningful insights, or provoke deep thought. Occasionally, I just share silly stuff like this:

KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN!

The above link goes to "The Long Khan" -- a web site devoted to the moment in Star Trek II where Admiral Kirk screams his adversary's name endlessly into a communicator. Not "endlessly" enough, say the folks behind the web site. You can upload a video of yourself screaming "Khan!!!" and have it spliced into a sequence of other Kirk-loving screamers to form (in their words) "the longest Khan in history."

Enjoy.

(No, I didn't upload a video of myself.)

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

You Rubber, You Brought 'Er

When I first heard of the movie Rubber earlier this year, I thought it was a joke. The trailer even trumpeted an April 1 release date in limited theaters. Totally an April Fools' Day joke, right?

I should back up here... maybe you've never heard of Rubber. It is a "slasher" film in which the villainous murderer is a tire. As in, one of the four you would find on a car. This tire rolls around the desert like your typical animate tire would... plus it has the ability to channel psychokinetic energy to make things explode, Scanners-style. Things and people. And it uses this ability on basically anyone and anything that gets in its way.

It sounds like a joke, but it is indeed an actual movie -- made by a French director, though an English language film. And it's actually even weirder than what I just described. Because part of the movie involves a small audience in the desert somewhere actually watching the action from a distance, through binoculars, like it's some sort of play being put on for their enjoyment. (Though they speak of it like a movie, not a play.)

This movie just earned the "wtf?" tag.

It does start out strong. A character delivers a lengthy monologue to the audience (in the film, but clearly to us), explaining that some movies just have elements that exist for "no reason." Warning us that we're about to see such a movie. So don't bother getting uppity trying to question why a killer tire is making people explode. It's really funny, and a great table setter.

Unfortunately, the movie starts a slow downhill slide from the moment the monologue ends. The big problem is that there's enough of an idea here for maybe a 15 minute short, and it's stretched into a 90 minute movie. The first 25 minutes are an endless parade of watching the tire blow things up, with no semblance of plot making any appearance. Even once a story arrives, most scenes end up just being repetitions of earlier scenes in the movie. The simple premise wears out its welcome, then becomes boring.

But the upside is that the first time you see any given idea in the movie, it's pretty good. Original, entertaining, funny, over-the-top. I laughed out loud on several occasions, and smiled on several others. It was just later, seeing the same basic scene for the third or fourth time, that I had a hard time remembering that original joy.

Overall, I think I'd call it a C+. I think you'd have to be a real slasher film enthusiast to like it. Everyone else should probably content themselves watching the quirky trailer and leave it at that.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Our Mrs. Reynolds

Oh, how I do love this episode of Firefly. It's a perfect example of a story you can only do effectively when you have a strong cast of characters. The plot is simple (or at least starts out that way): Mal unknowingly marries a submissive woman from a backwater planet; complications and hilarity ensue.

The reason that complications and hilarity ensue is because there are eight other characters on the show, most of whom have an opinion on what has happened, and most of them different. Book is consumed with the moral implications of the situation (but not so deeply that he can't crack jokes about it). Inara is offended -- ostensibly because of how this civilian intrudes upon her profession, but in large measure because of her hidden feelings for Mal. Jayne is jealous it didn't happen to him. Wash and Zoe hit some minor bumps in their marriage when faced with a very different take on how a marriage "should" be. And so on. The character of Saffron is a stone thrown into the pond, and we get to watch the interesting ripples she creates.

Of course, there's an extra wrinkle in it all, as Saffron is not at all what she seems. She's actually an incredibly clever and skilled con artist that manages to get the drop on the entire crew. She becomes a very likeable adversary, and yet our heroes don't have to be too dumb for it to work. (Inara, for example, figures out the ruse but is still unable to stop Saffron.)

The performances in this episode are perfection. Many of the characters find mirth in Mal's situation that's so genuine, you have to believe the actors' own laughter and entertainment at this story is showing through. And what a find was Christina Hendricks as Saffron?! Years before more people would come to know her from Mad Men, she played this wonderful part that I think was just as nuanced and interesting. Maybe even more so. One of the many great losses in the cancellation of Firefly was in not getting to see Saffron come back for more adventures (though I'm very glad we got at least one more after this).

Firefly started strong, and then got just a little bit rocky in some of its first few episodes -- as rocky as it would ever get, anyway. But starting with this episode, I think it began firing on all cylinders almost each and every time. An absolute grade A episode of the series.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Protagonist's Paper Progenitor

I've been a fan of the TV series Dexter for some time now, and for most of that time, I've been curious to check out the books on which it was originally based. I finally got around to it, recently finishing the first book of the series, Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

I had been warned in advance that the first season of the series was modeled very closely after this first book. (Only in subsequent seasons/books did the two stories diverge substantially.) Still, I felt compelled to start at the beginning, rather than pick up with a later book. I wanted to get a feel for the author's writing style, and see just how much of what ended up on the screen was there on the page.

In my opinion, the series represented a significant improvement over the original source material. I did like the book, I just felt that the series fleshed everything out in greater detail and to better effect. Part of that is that author Jeff Lindsay has a very minimalist style. He doesn't describe the settings or the characters in any great detail. He's much more enamored with language -- sentence and paragraph structure, use of alliteration, staccato dialogue, and the like.

I was sometimes combing for any little detail to modify my mental image of a character, as opposed to simply picturing the actor who plays him/her on the show. I couldn't do it. The book avoids almost entirely even basic details like hair color or height. For good or ill, a reader might have once felt free to give reign to his imagination; now, it just means you will envision Michael C. Hall and his co-stars.

That said, much of what made the series so great was definitely established in this novel first. The story is told in the first person, from Dexter's point of view. Dexter's ever-present voice-over in the show is absolutely a way to capture this device. The behavior of all the characters, from Deb to Doakes, from Harry to Masuka (here named Masuoka), is all what was brought to the screen.

And yes, the plot is very, very close to what unfolds in the first season of the series. But there are a few key differences, particularly in the final chapters. Mostly, the differences are clearly inspired by the medium. Jeff Lindsay takes a bit of a "burn the house down" approach at the end, the tactics of an author who isn't thinking about what might come in the next book (or season). The makers of the show moved some things around a bit to keep the show going if it were renewed, but finish the season with an unambiguous conclusion.

Indeed, the conclusion of the book has me wondering just what the author did do when faced with the prospect of a follow-up. (Even one, never mind the several he's done.) So yes, I do think I'll be moving on to the next Dexter book in the not too distant future. As for this book? Well, I liked the series better, but I still liked the book well enough. I rate it a B.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Safe

Safe is a bit of a mixed bag episode of Firefly in my book. Of course, this is Firefly, which means it's still a very enjoyable hour of television. Still, some parts of it really work for me, and others don't.

Many episodes of the show did a great job of blending the Western and Science Fiction sensibilities of the show in a satisfying and smooth way. Here, they feel a bit too oil-and-water to me. It just doesn't mesh with the way I perceive the conceit of the show.

The idea is that future technology has allowed dozens of planets and moons to be terraformed -- more than could be effectively colonized so much as "settled." The Western part of the show is the frontier planets and moons, on the borders of the 'verse, where lack of high technology required the settlers to sometimes resort to low tech solutions. But they will have some laser pistols, some rare advanced comforts. The main thing is that no matter how rough an existence they're carving out, they still are aware of the "civilized" worlds and their technologies.

And that's where this episode breaks down for me a bit. In Safe, a group of backwater settlers brand River as a witch. Literally, Salem-style. They want to burn her at the stake. And this makes absolutely no sense to me. I think you'd be hard-pressed to find many places on Earth today where people would want to burn somebody as a witch. (Sure, they'd kill you for all sorts of other stupid reasons, but because you're a techno-pagan in congress with demons? Not so much.) So I just don't buy that 500 years in our future, there could be a group that somehow regressed 500 years into our past. Even if it does set up the admittedly awesome rescue at the end of the episode. ("Yeah, but she's our witch. So cut her the hell down.")

But aside from that, it's a good episode, full of tantalizing character material. It's a particularly great episode for Simon. His joyously aggravating "why can't they just get together" romance with Kaylee is in top form. And we get a greater understanding -- both in the present and in flashbacks -- why he cares so deeply for his sister River. (And yes, that is Zac Efron playing "Young Simon" at the start of the episode.) We also see a tougher Simon for the first time, neither dandy nor pushover, as he stands up to his abductors.

Much is also revealed of Malcolm Reynolds' character, though in a more "read between the lines" kind of way. You get a taste of the kind of military leader he was in the way he reacts to Book being shot. He acts quickly, willing to potentially sacrifice some of "soldiers" to save others, and doesn't care how his decisions may be perceived by his crew. He also does something he personally doesn't want to do (going to the Alliance for help) in order to get the job done.

Speaking of Book, among the many episodes that hint at his secretive background, this is the one that makes a full-blown mystery of it. Whoever he is, whatever his past, he's important enough to receive top-notch medical care from Alliance military just at the flash of his ID card. It's a mystery that was never explained in the series, but was later addressed years later in the comic, "The Shepherd's Tale." (Personally, as is often the case with a mysterious backstory, I found the actual story to be less compelling than what I had imagined -- that Book was once an Operative like the one who chases River in the movie.)

So, once you buy into (or agree to ignore) a somewhat shaky premise, you get the usual, pleasant Firefly cocktail of humor, character, heart, and adventure. I rate this episode a B+.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pottering Around

Well, the saga of Harry Potter has "re-ended." (I mean, first the book series concluded, and now the movies-- oh, never mind.) I joined the throng last night to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2. (And I've rarely encountered such a well-behaved sold out house of movie patrons. Maybe movie manners aren't quite dead yet.) The critical feedback has been largely positive, with many happily reporting the franchise came to a fitting conclusion.

To that, I say: duh! The seven preceding films have all been good to great; the novel itself brought the series to a fantastic conclusion. What, are they somehow going to screw everything up right now at the end?

It wasn't quite perfect, though. Well, that might be too harsh. I think it would be more accurate to say that this film just wasn't quite as good as Part 1. I say this having just re-watched Part 1 the night before, as "prep" for the final chapter. In doing so, I was struck all over again by just how many powerfully dramatic and emotional moments are in that movie, and all of them pitch perfect.

Part 2 has its share of these moments too, chiefly as it marches into the final act. Specifically... well, hang on. The next three paragraphs are spoiler laden. If you haven't read the book or seen the movie yet, skip ahead to the bold text below.

Okay, just us now? Alright, the drama really kicks in when Alan Rickman takes center stage. No surprise there; I've praised his emotional work in many other films (even a comedy like Galaxy Quest). Snape's death lands with surprising weight, and then things get deeper still when Harry views his memories in the Pensieve. We get just two, maybe three minutes, to reform our entire eight movie opinion of Snape around the new knowledge that he was in love with Harry's mother. That could easily not work. But fear not when you have Alan Rickman in the role. Thanks to him, the reformation is so believable, so thorough, that the moment of the movie that brought me closest to tears was in the epilogue, when Harry tells his son that Snape was the bravest man he ever knew.

But I'd argue that maybe the moment that should have been the big tear-jerker was the deaths of Professor Lupin and Tonks (leaving behind an orphaned son), and Fred Weasley. That was what choked me up reading the books, and I think it breezed by so quickly in the film that I wonder if someone who hadn't read the books could even fully realize what had happened.

Fortunately, plenty of other moments succeeded where that one was rushed. Harry's encounter with his dead family and friends in the forest was wonderful, and the scene with Dumbledore in the train station better still. And again, that epilogue was perfect. That was the ideal way for the books to have ended, and was absolutely necessary for the films too -- but was no small risk, considering how hokey it could have come off trying to age the kids 19 years.

Alright, the rest of you can come back now. Seriously, though. Maybe you could pick up a book now and then?

Though I said I'd rank Part 1 a little higher, Part 2 wasn't far enough below it to drop a grade in my book. The two films really are of a piece anyway. I rate Part 2 an A-. Obviously, my review isn't going to push anybody to see it that wasn't going to anyway (or hasn't already), but I'm still putting it out there -- a great end to a great story.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Putting on the Bossypants

So, what was the first book I read on my new Nook? Well, it might sound like an unusual choice, perhaps unworthy of the "inaugural run" for my new toy, but it was Bossypants, by Tina Fey. It's a collection of stories from and observations about her life, from childhood, through her up-and-coming years in Second City, then to Saturday Night Live and now 30 Rock.

What it isn't is an autobiography. I had no illusions about that going in, and neither should you, despite how my brief description above might make it sound. Though the book is full of episodes from Fey's past, they aren't meant to form a single, clear narrative. Nor are they meant to really give you great insight into who she is as a person. They're just meant to make you laugh.

And they do that. Often. Whether I was reading this book alone at home, or on a crowded airplane, I was moved to laugh out loud several times each chapter, and didn't fight the urge. All of Tina Fey's signature wit and quirkiness are on full display here.

Things to start to lag just a little bit as you're coming around the final stretch of the book, though. The chapter about her current 30 Rock writers is just an extended thank you to her co-workers, loaded with page-long excerpts from episodes that -- if you watch the show -- you've already seen. Still, it's more than made up for by the heaps of original laughs you get in the first three-quarters-and-more of the book.

Along the way, you get a few very choice paragraphs with great things to say about feminism, gay rights, parenting, and other subjects. But no matter how clever the point, the foremost agenda is comedy, and the book always delivers. I'd rate Bossypants an A-. It's great fun, better "pound for pound" than 30 Rock itself was in this most recent season, I'd say.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Musical Review

I've recently embarked on a project that's going to take me many, many months to complete: re-rating all my MP3s. I have over 11,000. I realize that for some of you with your 250 GB server drives stuffed with stuff you've never even listened to, this might not seem like much. I am convinced, however, that this is significantly above the norm. According to iTunes, I could just click play and walk away for well over a month of continuous tunes with no repeats, running 24/7. Indeed, I believe it took me around seven months to listen to them all and rate them the first time around.

So why am I doing this? Why go to the trouble? Well, I've decided that whatever "system" I was using to rate them before doesn't cut it. That system was basically, "Ooo! I really love this song! 5 stars!" or "Ooo! I really like this song! 4 stars!" and so forth. Shouldn't that cut it? It's my music collection, right?

Well, here's the problem (if indeed that's the right word). Less than 1% of my collection is rated 1 star. And this stands to reason -- why would I fill my player with songs I don't like? Conversely, nearly 20% of my collection is clumped up in this too-large-to-be-quite-useful clump of 5 star songs. Basically, Apple and/or Microsoft saw fit to give me five different levels of rating, and I've only used four of them. So I've decided it will be worthwhile to basically spread things out.

I've also decided that I need a bit more of a "plan" this time, if I'm really going to spend the rest of this year and then some re-rating songs. I'm going to share what I've worked out here as I'm getting started. Maybe you'll think it's cool and use it for yourself. Or maybe you'll share insights on the system you use for MP3 ratings, and I can incorporate any good ideas now and save myself another huge chunk of time later.

What I've come up with is pretty simple, actually -- but a bit more precise than "how much do I like this song?" I believe the question to ask is: "How often would I want to hear this song?"

In my book, the 5 star songs are the ones I really could listen to every day and not see myself getting tired of them. Real cream of the crop stuff. 4 stars are songs I could listen to once a week. 3 stars, once a month. 2 stars, once a quarter. 1 star, once a year is enough.

The way it's been shaping up so far, 1 star is still going to be one of the smallest categories -- but already I'm putting more songs there than I had before. (There are plenty of songs I don't dislike enough to delete, but I don't want to listen to them often either.) And things are definitely decompressing off the top of the scale.

I'm also finding this rating system to be a much better blend of the objective and the subjective. I've been coming across a lot of songs I'd rated 3 stars before -- sometimes even 4 -- that were clearly rated so highly because "I love this band! Even if I don't particularly like this song of theirs." Now, my love of a given artist is more effectively removed from the equation in my mind. Would I want this song to come bubbling back to the top of the playlist again any time soon? No? 1 star!

Admittedly, Christmas music is a bit of a wrinkle in this scheme. But I have all my main playlists configured to ignore Christmas music for the bulk of the year anyway. I figure I can work out what to do with those several months from now.

So there it is. I'm probably putting way more thought into all this than most people do.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Shindig

Shindig makes my Firefly top 3. It's a great example of taking an incredibly simple "stock plot" and letting these characters provide the wrinkles that make this telling of the story unique.

The episode is simply Mal trying to make a social connection, and accidentally landing in hot water by running afoul of local customs. Star Trek: The Next Generation did this exact plot in the first season ("Justice") -- in fact, about as many episodes into its run as this episode was into Firefly's. And yet that Star Trek episode -- sorry, TNG, you know I love you but... -- really just stank, while this hour of television soars.

The humor in this episode feels effortless even when it's clearly being staged by the writers. ("You couldn't buy an invite without a diamond the size of a testicle, but I happened to get my hands on a couple." "Use of a sw-what?") It's partly that the writers know better than to take such a stock plot too seriously, but partly that the comedic current of Firefly had already been well-established by this point.

But again, it comes back to how wonderful the characters are in this episode. For Kaylee in particular, this hour represents a full meal. The audience feels her heartbreak when Mal casually insults her desire to buy a frilly dress. We smile at her joy to attend the party. We're crushed when she's tormented by the privileged woman there, and cheer when someone at the party comes to her defense. We laugh when her technical know-how makes her the belle of the ball, and love her wistful gazing at her dress as she remembers her experience at the end of the episode.

Mal and Inara have a wonderful arc together in this episode. The former convincingly argues the difference between disrespecting Inara's profession and disrespecting Inara herself. The latter showcases that her skills extend beyond frippery and seduction; she has some claws that can come out when needed.

Even the guest characters in this episode are outstanding. Badger, in his second appearance, is a perfect blend of villain -- oafish enough that you can believe Mal outfoxes him, but menacing enough that he remains a credible threat. Atherton is a brilliant heel to boo and hiss at. Even minor characters like the noble Mal is seeking to do business with, and the old man that defends Kaylee at the party, get true zinger lines that would never be wasted on a guest star on any other TV show. (And it's okay, because the main characters get as good or better!)

This is top notch Firefly, in my opinion -- an absolute grade A episode.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Unfunny Valentine

With a field of 10 movies up for last year's Academy Award for Best Picture, it seems unlikely a worthy film would be left out. Indeed, most critics complained that the field was too large, forcing the inclusion of unworthy nominees. (And as a result, the Academy has changed their system for next year.)

And yet, there was one film that I heard mentioned by several critics as deserving. Blue Valentine stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as a couple whose marriage has hit the skids. Their personal conflict in the present is interspersed with flashback scenes of their early dating in the past. It's not a "see the path that led to here" sort of tale, but rather a "compare and contrast" juxtaposition of good and bad times.

Plot-wise, it's not much at all. It's more like a concept for an improv sketch: "you're a married couple and you hate each other... aaaaaaand go." It's played entirely for drama, though, a relentlessly dark journey with few moments of levity. I don't have a problem with a downbeat film on principle, but I do feel I want more of a message from such a film than "wouldn't it suck to be these people?"

But the glue holding the film together -- and the element critics were most widely praising -- is the acting of the two stars. Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams both give fantastic performances. They are by turns subtle and restrained, boisterous and explosive, and everything in between. They present their characters at two distinctly different points in life, and each is a distinctly different (yet completely compatible) performance. Really top quality work.

So if you're a fan of well-acted movies, you might want to check this one out. Generally speaking, though, it's probably a pass unless you have a streak of schadenfreude or want to work your way through a quart of ice cream in one sitting. I give it a C+.

Monday, July 11, 2011

It Doesn't Suck

You may recall my account of the Arctic Monkeys concert several weeks back. Now I bring you a few quick thoughts on their CD that has been released since then: Suck It and See.

One thing that struck me about their concert was that they had a pretty good variety of song styles. When I went to hunt down some of their earlier CDs, I learned that this was because they changed up their music a fair amount from album to album. That trend continues here on their latest. Generally speaking, Suck It and See has a lighter tone than their previous material. It's a bit less intense, a bit more "airy." It's sort of like they took their last recipe and injected a dose of The Cure into their music.

This is particularly apparent in the opening track of the album, "She's Thunderstorms." No rocking lick to grab you immediately. It's not a bad song, but it's a rather laid back intro for an indie rock album. (Though it does work in this context.)

Another good example of this more restrained tone is the lead single from the album, "Don't Sit Down 'Cause I've Moved Your Chair." Again, a fine song, but it has a slower tempo and less drive than their past hits.

Even the more up tempo stuff on the album isn't as frenetic, and has slower sections. "Brick By Brick" is almost as high octane as it gets, save for the closest-to-classic-Arctic-Monkeys track on the album, "Library Pictures." (And even that song has a "slow break" in the middle.)

I respect the changing nature of the band's music, though I wonder if fans who've been around longer than I will be a bit disappointed here. In my opinion, the album rates a B, which is certainly good enough to pick up if you like garage-punk-Brit-pop. (I don't think fans of that niche can afford to be too choosy, right?)

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Firefly Flashback: Bushwhacked

You could really hold up any episode of Firefly as an example of the greatness of the show, but the third episode -- Bushwhacked -- makes a particularly interesting example, I think. It's one of my least favorite episodes of the series. (Only one other ranks lower, in fact; we'll get to that in time.) And yet it's really still a solid episode of television that surpasses what most other series put on the air week in and week out.

What have I got against Bushwhacked? Well, there's a lot about it that feels unfinished and unfulfilled to me. This is the big "Reaver episode." (In fact, with FOX not airing the pilot until the very end of the TV run, this almost felt like it became the only Reaver episode.) And yet, no Reavers actually appear in the episode.

The intrepid crew of Serenity comes across a ship after the Reavers have already ravaged it and moved on. We deal only with the aftermath of their attack. In fact, no one even realizes it was Reavers until a good ways into episode, and the Reavers never do "come back" as feared. And there are other areas where the setup doesn't quite match the payoff. The Reavers leave a booby trap bomb behind that latches onto Serenity -- but Kaylee deals with this so easily that her work isn't even depicted on screen. They find a survivor on the ship driven to madness by Reavers; when Serenity's crew encounters him, he's easily subdued; yet later, when the Alliance crew faces off with him, he's somehow turned in a dangerous killing machine that's more than a match for multiple armed troops.

So yeah, more than a few holes in this one, if you ask me. And yet, as I mentioned, still a really solid hour of television. And that's because of the greatest strength of Firefly -- the characters. Their behavior, their interactions; the wonderful performances of the amazing actors. The story might not be compelling, but that's easy to overlook when there are great moments like Jayne pranking Simon about the space suit, River's wonderment at the void of space, or Mal's chilling descriptions of Reavers and their victims.

And then there's the best sequence in the episode, in which the captain of the Alliance cruiser interrogates the crew of Serenity. It's a montage of one-on-one interviews where each of the characters is utterly themselves -- perfect little bite-sized glimpses into who each of these people are. Lots of laughs, too. The juxtaposition of husband and wife, Wash and Zoe, is especially great.

So all told, I grade Bushwhacked a B. The show really doesn't have much to be sorry for when this is nearly the most they have to be sorry for.

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Nook Over Here!

If you're a long-time reader of my blog, and have an incredible memory, you may recall that it was about this time last year that I was contemplating the purchase of an e-reader. I outlined the pros and cons of it in that earlier post, and won't rehash them here. Suffice it to say, I decided at the time to "wait for the next generation" and check back.

Since then, both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have released a new Kindle and Nook, respectively. What's more, a couple of my friends had picked up one or the other device and were happy to discuss what tipped the scales for them.

Here's what did it for me:

First, my own buying habits have changed. At this time last year, I was still buying CDs more than MP3s, ripping them for my player, and then preserving them on my ever-growing shelves so I could "physically own something." These days, the only CDs I buy are limited run soundtrack albums from online sites that don't offer MP3 purchase options. I've gotten over that feeling that you only really own an album if you have something taking up space in your house. And that in turn has made me come around to thinking that if I find owning a relatively light, relatively small CD so burdensome (hell, "compact" is right there in the name CD), why am I so keen on having a much heavier, much bulkier collection of books?

The stalwart counterargument in my mind continued to be, "ah, but you can't loan an e-book out as freely as you can a real book!" (Most e-books can't be lent at all; the few that can are typically "one time only, for two weeks only.") So I decided to really challenge that point and see just how often I really did loan out books to people. In this calendar year, I have tried to loan out books three times, and was actually rejected in all three cases. Twice, the prospective reader decided they didn't really have enough time or interest for my recommendation; the third time, the person just went out and bought his own copy of the book. So that argument now had a fairly gaping hole in it.

Meanwhile, on the hardware side, the newest Nook was basically "just what I was looking for" and couldn't get this time last year. The "Simple Touch Reader" is basically all touch-screen, without dead space for a keyboard you'll rarely use at the bottom. It's small -- roughly the size of a paperback. And it's made a lot of strides in improving the "page refresh" issue of the last generation e-readers. Page turns on this device are significantly faster, fast enough to keep up with my reading speed. Plus, the full screen "black flash" only occurs maybe once every four or five page turns, rather than with every page turn.

So, just a week before I left for my Orlando trip, I took the plunge and bought myself a new Nook. Just a short time (and a few books) later, I'm already completely hooked. I've completely adjusted to reading on the Nook as opposed to the printed page. (In fact, I'm wondering how the book experience will feel to me when I go back to it -- to read the next Wheel of Time book, for example.)

I should also note the great battery life on this thing. I've had Wifi enabled on it since I opened the package (except for the days of my Orlando trip), and I've been using it quite regularly. It still has a quarter of a charge left.

Oh, now you want to borrow a new book from me? Sorry bud, but "I got mine." And I would definitely recommend it for you too, if you're an avid reader.

Friday, July 08, 2011

End of a (Space) Era

The Space Shuttle Atlantis lifted off this morning, marking the final launch of a shuttle before the retirement of the program.

On the one hand, I have no problem with the idea of retiring the Space Shuttle itself. It's a 30 year old method of launching people into space -- older by a good margin than the entire history of manned space flight prior to its creation. If you own a game console, it's more powerful (by a lot) than the computer in the shuttle. Granted, the shuttle isn't prone to the "Red Ring of Death," and there's a lot to be said for that. Still, it seems a little crazy to me that the crew of a shuttle mission has to load separate programs for launch, orbit, landing, and other such tasks one at a time, because the system can't hold any more. I got rid of my TI-99/4A ages ago, and it feels to me like it's long past time for NASA to do the same.

That said, it's sad that there's nothing waiting in the wings to immediately replace the Space Shuttle as our vehicle to the stars. It seems most people see no value in space flight, and that's both sad and ignorant. Even if you don't subscribe to the notion that exploring space has its own intrinsic value (and I do), the fact is that many inventions used every day here on Earth were first created for use in the space program. Scratch-resistant lenses for your glasses, memory foam for your mattresses and pillows, ear thermometers for your infants, cushy insoles for your running shoes, cordless power tools for your garage, water filters for your faucets --- and for crying out loud, the entire modern concept of global telecommunications. All these things and more might not exist (or, at a minimum, would not be so advanced) if they hadn't been developed first for use in space flight.

And yet it's hard for me to get too indignant over the now-essentially-hibernating U.S. manned space program, when I'm truly honest about my own level of enthusiasm for it. I lovedlovedloved everything about space, space exploration, and space travel as a kid. I continued to be interested in it, even when it had become clear it was nothing like a career path for me. But I haven't actually watched a launch in well over a decade. Not even the final launch today.

For years, I've never really known at any given time whether a shuttle was in orbit or not. I haven't kept abreast of what the objectives of any given shuttle mission were. I haven't always been up to date about the latest discoveries from manned or unmanned space flights. And that's me! And I can still truthfully say that yes, I'm interested in this stuff! To lift a quote from the movie Apollo 13, "They said we make going to the moon about as exciting as a trip to Pittsburgh." If I apparently can't muster any real enthusiasm over space flight, how can I really blame the attitude of the average person who thinks space travel should be cancelled altogether to "focus on problems here on Earth?"

So, yeah... lots of thoughts and feelings about this inauspicious occasion. But one thing I know for sure. Here's hoping we're back in the manned space flight business (and not just hitchhiking on foreign launches) sooner rather than later.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

The Music of Westeros

The Game of Thrones TV series just wrapped up a few weeks back. The fifth book in the series of novels, A Dance With Dragons, is finally -- unbelievably -- due to arrive on Tuesday. And right in the midst of this Song of Ice and Fire feast (that had for years been a famine), the soundtrack album to the first season of the show arrived.

The music for the series was composed by Ramin Djawadi. He's not an especially well known composer in film or television, but he's just starting to break out. I first became aware of him for his work on all four seasons of the show Prison Break. That series went from awesome to disappointing to lame to "interesting again?" to "oh God, it's still coming, kill it, kill it!" But through it all, Ramin Djawadi was doing top notch work on the musical score.

I felt that he once again did good work on Game of Thrones. However, as I've listened to this soundtrack album more and more, I've decided that the music doesn't stand as well on its own as his work on Prison Break. That's not necessarily a criticism, seeing as how the music wasn't meant to be taken on its own -- it was composed, designed to be taken in tandem with the series itself. And it worked admirably in that context. Played solo, however, it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Much of the soundtrack is quiet, moody string music. It's literally "underscore," meant to draw up tension with an insistent but non-invasive drone. I find that most soundtracks featuring this kind of music tend to be too soft and downbeat to be effective without the visuals, and this soundtrack is no exception. With more than half the album given over to these kinds of tracks, I find my attention wanes at several points during the listening experience.

But there are still several gems. That main title is still wonderful, setting the stage with a brilliant mix of adventure and melancholy. Other tracks that deftly blend these lighter and darker tones include "The Pointy End" and "Things I Do for Love." A very Lord-of-the-Rings-esque, Howard Shore style majestic scope is invoked in "The Kingsroad." And of course, there are a few pulse-pounding action cues, like "North of the Wall" and "Fire and Blood" (the latter full to bursting with Dothraki percussion).

In all, I'd call it an album to cherry pick rather than listen to in its entirety. But then, song ratings on your MP3 player let you do just that quite easily. It's still an album I'm glad to have in my soundtrack collection, which I think means I rate it about a B overall.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Slow-Turning Wheel

This is probably not a good sign. Roughly three months after I began reading the first book of The Wheel of Time, I finally finished it (just before I left on my Orlando trip). It's not a "bad" book; I just never found it particularly engaging. Every night, faced with the prospect of either reading another chapter of the book or doing "something else," the something else usually won.

What it basically comes down to is that it feels like a pretty big regression in the fantasy genre to me. Now granted, this first book of the series was published 20 years ago. Still... plenty of fantasy authors have finally moved out from the long shadow cast by J.R.R. Tolkien, and have started to tell other stories in other ways.

Not Robert Jordan. Not in this book. The Eye of the World is a clone of The Lord of the Rings -- a clone in which "Frodo" spends about three times longer in the Shire at the start of the book before finally hitting the road. You have a company of people, led by a wizard-type and a fighter-type. One is carrying an artifact that corrupts his soul. They're all trying to reach a destination, pursued along the way by minions of a dark evil. Partway through the journey, they're split up into three different small groups, each to have their own side adventure.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

I sound way down on the book, but really I'm just trying to say that I don't see what grabbed everyone's imagination. What made so many people latch on to these books, so much so that the author saw fit to stretch it to literally more books than he could complete in a lifetime?

That said, as a Tolkien clone, I would say that it is generally done better than Tolkien at least. The pace is still slow at times, but when the action does come, it is usually engaging. The characters are a bit more rounded out, less one-dimensional than their Lord of the Rings counterparts.

I'd rate The Eye of the World a B-. It's probably too much of a slog for people who don't generally read fantasy, but was good enough that I'll probably continue on and read the next book of the series... just not as my next read.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Swag

Alright, I lied. One more post about my Orlando trip. A couple of people have asked me what souvenirs or "trip swag" I decided to bring back. So here's the rundown, if you care:

A wand from Ollivanders. Duh. My boyfriend and I each picked one up, his an Ollivanders original, mine a Narcissa Malfoy reproduction. We found out afterward that each of us had bought the other's "second choice." (Awwwwwwwww.)

A Slytherin T-shirt. I complained earlier about my inability to buy a badass Slytherin rugby jersey, but that disappointment wasn't great enough to make me not want a decent Slytherin T-shirt they did have.

A Bubba Gump Shrimp Company souvenir glass. It's not that I really wanted one, but it came free with the drink I ordered. In any case, it will serve as an occasional reminder to find a good Shrimp New Orleans recipe someday.

A scale model of the Back to the Future DeLorean. It's a toy maybe 8 inches long or so, one of a set of three. They had one for each movie, each with a different look, but I went with the original. It's my favorite movie; I had to have it.

A "Seagulls from Finding Nemo" T-shirt. It's a row of several dozen squawking seagulls, with "Mine Mine Mine Mine Mine" scrawled below them. I wanted a "Disney shirt," but not necessary a Disney shirt. This seemed the perfect solution.

Blue Man Group drum sticks. I debated between an ordinary pair of what appear to be 5A sticks painted blue, and a plastic pair with tips that light up when you strike something. I was given good advice, and agreed that the latter, while novel, were less practical. The regular sticks I did end up purchasing are with my drum kit right now, and have indeed been used.

And there it is, a pretty good mix I think of things that will get used and things that will simply get looked at. Until I figure out how to make the wand actually do magic, anyway.

Monday, July 04, 2011

30 Day Song Challenge -- Day 30

Before I got sidetracked with a week of vacation stories, I was just one entry away from completing the "30 Day Song Challenge." So, among the many things I've now piled up to write about, I think that deserves priority consideration.

Day 30: Your favorite song at this time last year.

Here we are, the end of the line. About this time last year, I was fairly obsessed with "The Treme Song" by John Boutté, having discovered the song from its use as the opening theme to the HBO series Treme. But the trouble is, I've found the second season of the show plodding and boring compared to the first, and that's probably tainted my opinion of the song a bit.

So instead, I'll end this challenge as I began it, by looking to Glee, and whatever recent track from the show I was playing incessantly in the months after season 1. I'd have to go with "The Safety Dance":



Besides the fact that I liked the original version of this song, there was a lot about this appearance in this episode that put it over the top. First of all, holy crap! Kevin McHale can dance! Second, this episode was directed by Joss Whedon! Third, how much joy (and then sorrow) do you feel for Artie in this sequence, even though you know from the moment is starts that it's all just a flight of imagination? (And why? Revisit points one and two.) A high point for Glee... that unfortunately was only matched a handful of times in the recently completed season 2.

Sunday, July 03, 2011

The Final Day

I've come at last to the fourth and final full day of my vacation. Yes, it took me longer to recount the trip on my blog than it took to actually do. We packed that much into the time we had, I'd say. I'd also ask you to forgive the indulgence here; writing all this was probably more for me than for my blog readers, I must confess. I want to remember every last moment of this trip, and getting most of them down in pixels here on the blog will be a great way for me to go back and relive it whenever I want.

We began our final day at Epcot, a park at Walt Disney World that neither of us had visited before. For the benefit of any of you planning your own Disney vacation, they may say Epcot opens at one time, but it kinda-sorta doesn't. The rides right near the front open at one time; the "World Showcase" loop around the park (along with all the restaurants and themed gift shops) opens at another, later time. You can make that work if you plan for it, but don't go there hungry first thing in the morning like we did.

Spaceship Earth. This is the signature ride of Epcot, the one inside that giant silver golf ball and the first thing you come to when you get through the door. As the signature ride, it's probably mandatory that every Epcot visitor should ride it. That said, don't do it first just because you get to it first. My experience was that there's never more than a 5-minute wait for it, while other more worthy rides built up long queues indeed. We should have waited to do this on our way out the door, I think; you should too.

As for the ride itself? Well, it's a Haunted Mansion style slow ride through a series of dioramas, but without whatever "special sauce" that made me find the Haunted Mansion so enjoyable. But it's not all bad. Judi Dench does the ride narration in its current incarnation, and there's a fun bit at the end where you become basically a Terrance & Phillip style character in a crude little cartoon. Pose for your picture at the beginning carefully for maximum effect.

Test Track. This is an interesting roller coaster themed around the idea that you're a living test subject in an automobile testing lab. (Side note: this is where I learned about the word "jounce," that I mentioned a few posts back.) You ride in a car that looks more or less like a car. You go over bumpy terrain, brake quickly, accelerate quickly, and are exposed to heat (besides just going outside) and cold. It's a well conceived, different kind of roller coaster. Thumbs up.

Mission: SPACE. Gary Sinise, looking fresh from the set of Apollo 13 (and he probably was) is your guide in a motion simulator experience that has you traveling to Mars. There are two levels of intensity to the ride. The one we did was the more intense (and naturally, the longer wait). It was a neat ride with several exciting moments. The rocket launch experience, though much shorter than the real thing, was rather convincing. I'm sure real astronauts would quibble, but it met my expectations well enough.

But... there are a lot of air effects used on this ride. And I was apparently just the right height that these were all directed right into my eyes. I totally would have put on sunglasses mid-ride, had I not stowed them dutifully in the pocket before me before it all started. (And the way you're harnessed in, that pocket was completely inaccessible.) Blast after blast of air straight in my eyes had me bawling by the end of the ride, like I'd found out the Earth had been destroyed while I was on the way to Mars, and everyone I know and love had been lost in one fell swoop.

So, bad experience on what really is a pretty neat ride.

World Showcase. This isn't really one ride, but rather the giant circuit around the park where you pass through areas themed after different countries. Canada gives way to the UK, then France, Japan, Italy, so on, and so on. There are attractions throughout this part of the park, but they all appeared to be very much of the "stand (maybe sit) and watch a show" variety. So we skipped by all that, instead enjoying the scenery and stopping in at various "foreign" shops, mostly for unusual and authentic foreign candy that had been shipped in. We ate lunch at a French restaurant with a great lobster bisque. Later, we got the most amazing caramel squares ever from a place in "Germany."

I'd say that this area of the park is worth walking through if you're already there, but probably isn't anything to actually draw you to Epcot otherwise.

Captain EO and Soarin'. Actually, we skipped both these rides. Personally, I had no interest in Captain EO, the 3D film starring Michael Jackson. I didn't realize at the time that this attraction from the 1980s had been absent from the park for over a decade, and was only recently returned due to public demand after Jackson's death. If I'd known? Well, I still probably wouldn't have wanted to see it. Your mileage may vary.

Soarin', on the other hand, totally would have made the cut. It's apparently a hang gliding simulator ride of some kind. But here's where we made the mistake of riding Spaceship Earth first just because it was the nearest thing to the door. We should have gone straight to Soarin'. By the time we did make it there, there was a 30 minute wait. Not too bad, except that we'd skipped breakfast and were both way too hungry to wait. By the time we circled back, the wait was up to 110 minutes.

We decided instead to exercise our "park hopper" option and head over to another park, Disney Hollywood Studios. Really, there were only three rides we had any interest in there, the rest seeming firmly in the "watch a show" vein. But that was enough to warrant the visit.

Star Tours. This recently remodeled motion simulator ride imagines you on a passenger flight in the Star Wars universe, with C-3PO as your pilot. It's a far less exciting ride than Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and the Spider-Man ride. It probably even falls shy of the Simpsons Ride. But it is Star Wars, and there is still some sponge of love I have for that that George Lucas hasn't yet managed to wring out. So put me in a podrace, fly me through a Death Star superstructure, and take me through hyperspace? Yeah, I'm there. And you should be too.

The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. This is a "shoot you up a tower and freefall down" right in the model of the Doctor Doom ride over at Universal. But there is a twist. First, you're taken on a short "elevator ride" from a "haunted hotel" and into "The Twilight Zone." The ride is predominately indoors. You only see the outside world when a window briefly opens for a second or two just before your freefall begins. I found that all to be a neat idea on paper, but not so thrilling in execution. I respect the attempt to do the tower ride differently, but the fact is it's just not as scary when you can't actually see it the entire time. Basically, this is the Space Mountain of tower rides.

Rock 'n' Roller Coaster. This ride (which somehow features Aerosmith) was the third thing and final thing we wanted to do in Hollywood Studios. But we arrived to face a 70 minute wait. On day one of the trip, we'd have probably been all over that without reservation. But let's face it... the trip was winding to a close. We'd been outside in the sun all day on the one day it actually didn't rain in Orlando during our stay. So we decided instead to go back to the hotel and briefly regroup.

For those very savvy about Walt Disney World, yes, we skipped Animal Kingdom altogether. I understand there is one roller coaster there (Expedition Everest) that might just be the best in Florida. But otherwise, the park sounded like a glorified zoo. And I had no interest in watching a bunch of animals as unhappy about being in the sun as I was. Maybe if there's a "next Orlando trip." Maybe.

Instead, after recharging for a bit at our hotel, we decided to close down the trip as we'd began it -- by returning to Islands of Adventure. Orlando even had the decency to cool off considerably for us as the evening came. We ate dinner in the Wizarding World section of the park, rode Forbidden Journey one more time, and got in second trips on the Dragon Challenge, Hulk, and Doctor Doom rides (all with no waiting) before really and truly closing the book on our vacation.

To make a long story short (too late), it was an amazing vacation with amazing company.

Congratulations, reader, on reaching the end of the journey. You can now expect a return to my regular blathering about movies, television, and what-not. (Hooray?)

Saturday, July 02, 2011

Out With the Old, In With La Nouba

Las Vegas is home to more than half a dozen Cirque du Soleil shows, and I've seen most of them. I've also seen some of the touring Cirque productions that have passed through Denver. But there's also a resident Cirque show in Orlando, and I got to check it out during my recent trip.

From what I've read, La Nouba has been around for more than a decade. As such, it predates the time when each new Cirque show had to have a specific theme to differentiate it from the others. It's basically just straight up Cirque du Soleil without further gimmick, not unlike Mystère in Las Vegas. If I had to put a theme to the show, I'd say it's the most conventionally "circus-like" of the productions I've seen. There's a trapeze act, a high wire act, a juggler -- many Cirque versions of circus staples.

Of those, it was actually the juggler that most captured my imagination. In all those Cirque shows I've seen, this was really the first time I'd seen a performer displaying a skill I possess to any degree. And make no mistake, I'm no great juggler; I can just keep three roundish objects going for a while without dropping any.

I think this passing familiarity gave me greater appreciation for what this guy could do. Balls, clubs, rings... five, seven at a time... sometimes while balancing a stick or bouncing a ball on his head. Around the back, under the legs, and more stunts hard to describe. And some of the more difficult things he did -- such as going one object at a time from three to nine in rapid fire succession -- didn't even get much applause because I think people didn't really understand how crazy hard it is to do.

Needless to say, I was impressed.

I thought the other most eye-catching acts in La Nouba were things I hadn't really seen in other Cirque shows. There was a pair of BMX cyclists that did a wide array of impressive stunts. And there was a trio of young girls (maybe age seven at most?) that had an elaborate performance with Diabolos (yo-yo like flywheels juggled on a string connected by two sticks).

I kept thinking through most of their act that those three Diabolo girls maybe didn't get to have much of a "childhood" with all the practicing they must surely have had to do. And that small internal conflict was amplified when they failed to complete the "grand finale" trick of their act. I've seen a performer miss on a couple of occasions during a Cirque performance; the musicians always vamp while they reset the stunt and go again. This was the first time I'd ever seen the performers fail to complete the trick a second time. Apparently, Cirque policy in this rare case is to "just move on," though in this case it meant ending the segment of the show.

They received rapturous applause both then and at the final curtain call, and that set me wondering. Were people applauding extra just because they were little girls, and the crowd was cheering a collective "we love you anyway, bless your hearts!"? Had I become jaded about the rest of the act just because they missed the one (admittedly crazy difficult) trick at the end? I may never resolve that one.

The final act was a trampoline act, at first blush similar to that you'll find in some other Cirque shows (including Mystère). What set this one apart -- and made all the difference -- was a large three story "building" on stage. Performers would use the trampolines to spring from the ground to the rooftop, "walk" up the walls, or bounce in and out of windows. It was a truly impressive array of choreography that I think lasted over five minutes, and was one of the best Cirque finales I've seen.

The rest of the show was enjoyable, but not as outstanding. I've seen versions of the aerial acrboatics, tightrope walking, and trapeze acts in other Cirque shows. These versions had their share of impressive moments, though not any signature elements to set them apart. But they would all make for an amazing experience if you haven't seen as many Cirque shows as I have.

Overall, I'd grade La Nouba a B+. It's a great choice for an evening out in Orlando, and an absolute must-see for anyone who hasn't been to Cirque du Soleil before.