Wednesday, November 30, 2011

A Mocking Review

I recently finished the book Mockingjay, and with it The Hunger Games trilogy. Though I did enjoy the book, it left me with an odd feeling about the series overall. I've read several criticisms of the first book, all saying the premise and plot lift heavily from other sources. And yet, now that I've read the whole trilogy, I definitely feel like that first book was the best of the three.

What to make of that? Is "someone else's idea" the best part of The Hunger Games? Or can author Suzanne Collins be credited for a putting a good new spin on things, even though she didn't conclude her story as well as it began? (How many countless authors have fallen victim to that?)

I compared book two, Catching Fire, to The Empire Strikes Back, in that it went out on a big "middle chapter" cliffhanger. In other ways, I could compare Mockingjay to Return of the Jedi. The book travels a predictable path, in pursuit of a predictable conclusion. The double-edged sword of setting up specific story expectations over a series is that you must then write what you've telegraphed.

Perhaps sensing this issue, Collins pulls up in the last 30 pages and has an entirely different and unexpected ending to her book. And this too is a double-edged sword. It pulls the story off the rails, but isn't really earned. It's not an illogical ending, just an out-of-the-blue one. And it's capped with one more lift from existing work; the book has an epilogue that felt very reminiscent of Harry Potter to me.

All that sounds like I'm pretty down on the book, but that's not really the case. The characterizations remain strong here as they've been all along. A fair amount of what makes the story predictable is that the characters are all so well drawn that you easily anticipate what they'll do next as the plot unfolds. Collins' writing style remains fast-paced and compelling, pulling you through the story swiftly.

All told, I'd rate the book a B. So, while the series certainly doesn't end as strongly as it began, the final volume is definitely at a high enough level that I can recommend the series overall.

We'll see how it all comes together on film, when the first movie adaptation opens next March.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

I Kissed a Girl

Oh, what a mixed reaction I had to tonight's new installment of Glee. There were several great things in it, but some bad things too.

On the great side, the storyline of Santana's coming out continued, and culminated in a scene the show really needed to have -- a rejection from a family member. We've seen the positive side of coming out through Kurt (though he has had to deal with bullying); an equally important story (and message) to present is someone coming out, being rejected by someone close, but still carrying on.

But... this story about Santana was in equal -- perhaps even in larger -- measure about Finn. And I'm pretty conflicted about that. The motivation seemed sincere, that he saw Santana going down a dark road, and wanted to turn her off of it at all costs. But it played out in a rather unsatisfying way. A string of people pour out their support to Santana in words and in song, including Blaine and Kurt, who I think really ought to know better than just about anyone on the show. But it takes Finn to finally get through? Finn, all-American jock? I worry this robbed Santana's character of some strength in her great moment of triumph.

The touching relationship between Bieste and Cooter hit a too-typical TV manufactured rough patch. And while it did lead to a nice solo for Bieste with some great staging, it did leave the overall taste of a plot done to death on countless other television series.

But not the bad taste of the Puck-Shelby plot. Just when I was praising Shelby for taking the appropriate high road, her daughter falls on a table, so she falls into bed? What?! And no, I can't give points to Puck for telling Quinn what a hot mess she's become, because I'm too creeped out at the shag the teacher storyline right now.

The Rachel plot, at least, seemed solid all the way. The only way I could ever really see her character do something selfless like help Kurt was when, in her mind, it was selfishly to help herself. Her motivation seemed perfect and genuine. And to then have her get caught, and risk her own future? That'll teach her to ever do anything nice. It could be interesting to see where things go for her from here.

So, the music. Set aside the oh-so-bland practice room staging of half the numbers, and the songs themselves were actually pretty strong. Kurt and Blaine's duet worked, Puck's take on Melissa Etheridge was solid (despite the creepiness), and the episode title number "I Kissed a Girl" was a definite highlight. Not sure what to make of the slow version of "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." I do like when Glee rises above karaoke and presents a truly different version of a song, but I'm just not sure the song is that elastic. (And if it is, I'm definitely sure that Cory Monteith just doesn't have to vocal chops to stretch it there.)

Bieste's "Jolene" was a surprisingly strong number. Dot-Marie Jones doesn't have the strongest voice either, but she still poured emotion into the song, and the staging of the number helped amplify that. Meanwhile, the episode conclusion, "Constant Craving," was rather the opposite -- strong vocal performances, but a bit lacking in the emotion.

So... what, I don't know here. Maybe a B on the strength of good song performances? On the strength of the good moments in the plot overpowering the sketchier ones? I might have to digest this one a bit more.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Iron Mayhem

I've written before about how Joss Whedon's role as writer and director of the upcoming movie The Avengers has made it a must-see for me, even though I don't tend to think too highly of comic book movies. (A friend once told me that you could add a full letter grade --at least -- to my review of a comic book movie and get a reasonable guess how the "average" movie-goer would receive it.)

Unfortunately for me (but fortunately for Marvel Studios), a whole suite of movies seems to be a required prerequisite for The Avengers. In some cases, I probably would have seen the movie in question anyway (exhibit: Captain America). In others, I almost certainly would not have (exhibit: Thor).

Somewhere in between falls Iron Man 2. I gave a B- to the first Iron Man movie, which is to say that I liked it overall, but felt it had quite a few flaws. The commercials for Iron Man 2 led me to suspect the sequel would be more of the same, which was enough of a deterrent that I never bothered catching it in the theater. But... required viewing and all.

Reading now what I wrote of the first Iron Man, "more of the same" feels right on the nose to me for describing the sequel. Once again, Robert Downey Jr. is fantastic, effortlessly portraying a smug asshole you ought to hate, but love instead. Gwyneth Paltrow brings fun spark to the always thankless role of the non-super-powered character in the superhero movie. The movie succeeds whenever it focuses on these characters.

Once again, the villain feels too cartoonish in comparison to the tone of the heroes. Sam Rockwell tears into an amped-up egghead with relish, but hits all the same notes he did as the heavy in Charlie's Angels. Mickey Roarke is a better anchor as a dark and brooding villain, but doesn't get enough screen time to really drive the story as much as he should. (Once again, for what must be the hundredth time, I have to ask why movie-makers feel the need to have more than one villain when making a superhero sequel?)

As with the first movie, the big action climax is so stuffed with CG that it starts to feel lifeless. It's better CG than the first film, I'd say, so my fatigue point came later -- but when the fight is literally against an army of robot drones, and your hero is wearing invulnerable armor, it's hard to feel any sense of stakes.

That would probably all average out to a C+ in my book (knocking off points from the first film for the "been there, seen that" nature of the second), but then I have to count one more strike against it. The "required reading" for The Avengers feels far too transparent here. A lot of screen time is devoted to setting up Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, and Samuel Jackson as a Nick Fury who does more than cameo for 40 seconds in other movies. At least one of the two really needed their own movie, in my opinion. (In fact, I feel like the Black Widow movie would have been pretty cool, had they made it. Scarlett Johansson's action scenes are the best action beats in the movie.)

In any case, their collective presence here feels like it's crowding out Tony Stark in this story -- a "hero creep" problem to mirror the "villain creep" problem of superhero sequels. Multi-hero movies can work (such as X-Men: First Class), but I think the movie has to be carefully crafted that way. As The Avengers will be. This movie, trying to serve the "team" master at the same time it's trying to be an Iron Man solo movie, slips in both categories as a result.

So overall, I'd rate Iron Man 2 a C. That puts it squarely in the center of my curve, and in the spectrum of Marvel "prep films" too. Of course, if you believe my friend, you should bump that up to a B to get to what you might think of it.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Maid to Order

There was a lot of critical buzz earlier this year around the comedy Bridesmaids. Some of the talk simply focused on the quality of the film. Others trumpeted it as a sign that, "see? Female-driven comedies can succeed at the box office; the sexist notion of comedy as a man's game should be dispensed with." Well, that second notion is clearly true. But regardless, how is the film itself?

Well, in my opinion, not bad. It's a simple buddy premise, where a woman with her life in relative shambles is asked by her best friend to be the maid of honor at her wedding. As the woman is barely able to hold her own life together, her efforts to plan all the festivities that conventionally lead up to a wedding are predictably chaotic. And rather funny.

Kristen Wiig is the star of the film, and anchors it wonderfully. Her comedy is razor-sharp, and she's a likeable protagonist you want to root for. The supporting cast is just as strong. Maya Rudolph is great as the bride-to-be, and effectively plays a realistic and normal person, quite unlike her Saturday Night Live characters (or her current Oprah parody on Up All Night). Rose Byrne, so great in the drama of the TV show Damages, proves equally skilled here at comedy. Melissa McCarthy, now an Emmy winner for Mike and Molly, is powerful. Ellie Kemper, always a strong supporter on The Office, is just as strong here.

When a good scene hits its stride in this film, it delivers solid belly laughs. You'll laugh, you'll cringe; it's great stuff. But the weakness of the movie is that oftentimes, the scenes take a while to hit that stride. The movie clocks in at 2 hours and 5 minutes. That's a ponderous length for a comedy, really; most top out an an hour and 45 minutes, tops, and there's a good reason for that. Slow pace is the death of comedy.

The director and editor needed to cut around 20 minutes out of the movie. And it's not even that I'd suggest they cut the "non-funny" parts. The movie actually had a nice sweetness to it, and that sentiment is a large part of what makes it work overall. But if they'd just trim a bit off the front (and some off the back) of almost every scene, a tighter film would result.

For example, there's a sequence on an airplane as the bachelorette party flies to Vegas. It does deliver plenty of laughs -- but only after nearly five minutes of relatively unfunny setup. Or take a sequence near the end of the movie, where Kristen Wiig's character is trying to get the attention of her cop boyfriend by committing traffic violations in front of his patrol car. She drives by him perhaps 8 or 9 times, each time with a different joke. We'd have appreciated the scene just fine if they'd just stuck with maybe the three best gags.

But even though the movie does often have to build back up the pace that it itself deflates, it never fails to indeed build that pace back up. Bridesmaids is a keeper overall, and worth catching if you haven't already. I grade it a B.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Sensational, Inspirational, Celebrational...

This afternoon, I went to see the new movie, The Muppets. I'd been looking forward to this one -- probably a little too much -- for most of the year. But in the last few weeks leading up to the release, I read about how Frank Oz had decided to dump all over the script, proclaim it not faithful to the core of what the Muppets are, and decline to participate.

I'm only barely getting used to the idea of a Kermit not voiced by Jim Henson. Now I have to accept a Fozzie and Piggy not voiced by Frank Oz? Needless to say, my enthusiasm for the movie took a hit.

It turns out, that might have been just the thing I needed to realign my expectations to something reasonable. To a place where the movie was then able to soar over them.

I think Frank Oz must have just had a chip on his shoulder over someone else from outside "the fold" coming in to write a Muppet movie. Understandable, I suppose, but unfair. This movie was respectful, even reverent of the Muppets. There were plenty of references thrown in for fans who watched their original show and the classic Muppet film trilogy. And aside from a fart joke that felt out of place (written for Fozzie -- so okay, Frank Oz, I'll give you that), it felt pitch perfect for all the characters.

The movie was stuffed full of the humor that made the Muppets great -- from dumb puns to fourth wall breaking commentary to celebrity cameo foolishness and everything in between. There were musical numbers, from fun originals to a touching new performance of the all-time Muppet great, Rainbow Connection. And there was a lot of true and tender sentiment too. If you ever loved the Muppets, you'll get swept up in it.

The human cast is solid too. Jason Segel and Amy Adams anchor the film well, and are particularly funny in their musical numbers. Chris Cooper is a wonderful villain in the tradition of Doc Hopper from the original Muppet Movie. And cameos abound, too many to list, and at least one that should definitely not be spoiled.

I'd say overall, the movie doesn't quite reach the heights of the original Muppet Movie. But it sure comes close, and is a far sight better than any Muppet film has been since the 1980s. I give it an A-, which is high enough to make it officially my favorite movie of the year so far.

Friday, November 25, 2011

One Last Tale of San Francisco

I've reached the final evening of my San Francisco vacation. Well, afternoon and evening. We stopped off at a second winery on the drive back from Napa, the Robert Mondavi Winery. We passed on a second tour to follow our experience at Sterling Vineyards, opting instead for a tasting.

Whatever alchemy was going on earlier wasn't really present in this second tasting. Generally, I found the Mondavi wines to be quite representative of what I usually think of wine, and why I don't drink it often. There was one exception, a Moscato D'Oro dessert wine, though I hesitate to even mention it. It's crazy-sweet, sweeter even than a typical bottle of sparkling cider that serves as a champagne substitute for many social events. It was like drinking soda. So sure, that was great. But it felt like it hardly counts. (Except in the wallet, where it would cost you significantly more than said sparkling cider.)

A good friend of mine had suggested one more stop we should get in on our trip, the Marin Headlands. Just on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge, the Headlands offers a beautiful view of the city skyline. And you don't even have to hike for it; just park your car, step out, and you're basically there.

We were getting back from wine country at sundown, but decided to stop all the same. A beautiful view at night is still a beautiful view, isn't it? The added bonus of this was that everyone had thoroughly cleared out, and we had the entire place to ourselves.

There was a cold wind blowing, and it was getting really dark, so we chose to stay only for a few minutes. To give you an idea of how fast it was getting dark, here are three pictures I took within a five minute period (blurry for lack of a tripod):

In any case, this place was as advertised by my friend -- an inspiring view. And as close as it is to the city, there's really no excuse for not going if you should visit.

We closed out our evening (and our vacation) with a crab dinner on Fisherman's Wharf, and then headed back to Denver -- exhausted, with aching feet, but happy. It was a fantastic trip.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Happy T/B-day

It's a double holiday for me -- Thanksgiving and my birthday. (A conjunction that occurs every few years.) I'm taking all that as an excuse to take the day off on the blog today.

To my U.S. readers, enjoy the holiday. To all, I'll be back with more tomorrow.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

A Sterling Experience

I've never been much of a wine drinker. (See, the fact that I said "wine drinker" and not "wine enthusiast" should say a lot.) But one of the things my boyfriend wanted to do on our San Francisco trip was drive up into wine country, Sonoma or Napa Valley. I thought the idea sounded like fun too, so we dedicated the bulk of our last full day to the adventure.

We didn't have a particular destination in mind, but on advice from the hotel concierge, we headed toward Sterling Vineyards. Afterward, an old high school buddy would dub it "Disneyland Napa" -- the words of a true wine enthusiast, I'd imagine. And that may be true. But I have two responses: one, my uncultured taste buds weren't going to know the difference; and two, would you take a vacation to Anaheim and not go to Disneyland?

In any case, it was a great chapter in the vacation saga. Sterling Vineyards is everything the mind would conjure for a sun-drenched, wine paradise. I mean, here's the stereotype you drive through at the gate, for pete's sake:

It just gets better from there. They have an aerial tram that takes you from the valley floor up to their palatial winery...

...where they have a rooftop patio that affords you a view like this:

Insane. I have a whole arsenal of photos of their wine making process, but I'll spare you the photo-shelling. Suffice it to say, it was a fun and interesting tour, and punctuated with samples of seven different wines they make there. Oh yeah, good times. This non-wine-enthusiast was motivated to bring back a couple bottles for a future Flashback to a Great Vacation. (For the moment, they join the Vampire wine I mentioned not long ago. And yes, despite the fact that I now own three bottles of wine more than the average non-wine-drinker owns, I maintain that I'm not a wine drinker. But don't go all Betty Ford on me here.)

Perhaps the best highlight of the Sterling Vineyards tour is that it provided the one photo I have from the entire trip of the two of us together. All along, we'd been taking pictures of each other and everything around us, but a nice old couple saw us going through that routine and kindly helped us out:

So, wine enthusiast or not, I'd definitely recommend the Sterling Vineyards tour, if you're ever within a stone's throw of Napa Valley.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Say Hi to Caesar

Muir Woods is a park close to San Francisco where you can go to see the famous giant Redwood trees of California. It's featured heavily as the place where ape Caesar loved to visit in the recent movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Well, at least the idea of it is. What's actually depicted in the movie is more like a fusion of the Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands, and isn't really quite like either. But in any case, you can see some really big, really old trees at the Muir Woods, an environment not quite like any other -- and certainly not like any forest in Colorado. This was high on our list.

At first, it was looking like this visit might be a bit of a disappointment. For a place that's supposed to be nature at its purest, it comes off quite unnatural at first. Actually, it comes off like a Natural History Museum. Sidewalks of asphalt have been paved through the woods, lined with wooden fences on either side, providing a simple and easy path to walk. Signposts -- just out of reach -- explain to visitors the various points of interest. And the light that manages to poke its way down through the hundred-foot trees is so diffuse that the whole place starts to look like a diorama. It was neat... but not what I was expecting.

But it you keep walking along the mile-and-a-half paved loop through the forest, you'll reach a few actual trail heads near the back. Head back on to one of these trails, and you leave behind the sidewalk, the fence, and all the oddly false trappings. Now you're out for real among the ancient, giant forest.

I'd only thought to hike back up a few minutes, get far enough away from the high-traffic sidewalk for some solitude, and sit to enjoy the surroundings. But then we heard from another hiker coming down that an amazing view of the ocean could be had if you hiked 45 minutes up the trail. Well, we had our hiking boots on; we'd come to see some amazing sights; sure!

When you leave the official Muir Woods loop, you almost immediately leave the helpful map provided at the visitor center. And then you start to come to some forks in the trail. We spent maybe three minutes walking the wrong way down the wrong trail before my boyfriend pointed out the obvious: we're trying for an ocean view, the sun is setting in that direction, we should be chasing it.

The thing is, the sun seemed like it was starting to set rather rapidly. It was about 4:15 in the afternoon, and being in the already sun-challenged woods, we figured we really didn't have much time to reach our destination before we'd have to turn back, not being prepared in the slightest for a night hike. Ten more minutes, we resolved, and we'd have to turn back regardless.

In five minutes, we made it to this:

And this:

And this:

Stunning. I could have stayed there for hours. I would have loved to watch the sun set there. Except for the aforementioned issue of the hour return hike at night. So we lingered around ten, maybe fifteen minutes, got tons of pictures, and then started back.

I can't recommend this experience highly enough, if you're ever in San Francisco and up for a hike. Go to the Muir Woods, then follow the Ben Johnson Trail up to where it intersects with the Dipsea Trail. Follow the Dipsea Trail upward for about 10 minutes. If the hike hasn't taken your breath away by that point, the view surely will.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Basic Cable

I have to backtrack in my San Francisco narrative now, because I left out soemthing from Saturday night, that followed our Chinatown visit.

One of the things on the SF "to do" list was to ride a cable car. Pretty cliché, I admit, but these are the things you do when you're a tourist. But it seems that time has taken the old notion of the San Francisco cable car and fractured it in two.

On the one hand, you have a number of trolleys that travel around the city. These run on tracks, and get power from an overhead line. But they don't look like the cable cars conjured in your mind when you think of San Francisco. In fact, they deliberately evoke other cities. On the interior of each trolley car is a poster that tells you which U.S. city the car originated from; the exterior is painted up to evoke the mood of that city.

On the other hand, things that look just like "old fashioned cable cars" still run limited routes around the city. But they have no overhead connection to any power cable.

The former mode of "cable car" was what we rode down to the Castro, but that left us still wanting to do the touristy thing we'd set out to do. So Saturday night, we were searching for a place to get a drink. (Actually, we were trying against impossible odds to find a sports bar that might be showing the Avs game. But on college football night, that was an enterprise doomed to failure.) We found a candidate online, and decided that even though it was walking distance, we'd ride the cable car for six blocks or so, so we could cross that off the list.

We didn't realize the protocol for boarding a cable car. Basically, you have to lay down on the tracks in front of the thing, or it is NOT stopping. At least, that's what it felt like. We stood under the sidewalk sign where the car was marked to stop... and it flew right on by us. Some locals then informed us that you have to jump out in front them to get their attention, but we'd already been waiting for ten minutes, and didn't feel like waiting any longer. I mean, we'd already waited longer than it would have taken to walk the distance.

When the bar was a bust (as I mentioned earlier), we decided to try one more time and grab the cable car on the way back. When a cable car finally rolled by, it looked like it might be out of service, but I still dutifully jumped out into the road and flagged it down. In service, it turned out... just empty. The operator and the money taker were aboard, and that was it. I imagine they wondered why we were so lazy to pay for the seven block trip to the end of the line, but they took our money all the same.

The up side was, we got a whole cable car to ourselves for a few brief minutes. A cool experience that perfectly satisfied our original touristy instinct.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Putting in Time at Alcatraz

Sunday morning in San Francisco, we'd booked tickets on the ferry to Alcatraz Island, and went to tour the old prison. Though it was a beautiful, sunny day, the place felt dark and haunted. I can't think of another place I've visited that felt so oppressive and ominous. My boyfriend mentioned his visit to the Anne Frank house. I'm certain a visit to a German concentration camp would rank. In any case, you can easily get a sense for the tone of the place.

I suppose in my mind, I had a picture of the place being larger, even confined on a small island as it is. But the truth is, there just aren't that many rooms needed for a prison. The island has a number of outbuildings that provided housing for some of the prison guards, but the prison itself is straightforward: a basement area for processing and showering prisoners, the cell block above, a library, an office, an exercise yard, a dining hall. That's about it.

I perhaps had a mental image of multiple cell blocks in different wings or something, but all the cells were basically in one large room, stacked three high, divided by three "hallways." More like stacked shipyard crates than anything else -- though there was a separate corridor used for maximum security, and six cells for solitary confinement, in pitch blackness. (Stepping in one of those definitely made my heart speed up.)

Alcatraz is in a beat-up, rundown condition:

One of the reasons it was closed as a prison in the first place was that the cost of maintaining it had grown too high. Intellectually, you know you're looking at 50 years of decay, and that the place surely didn't look like this -- smashed windows, encroaching mold -- in its heyday. And yet, it's probably more appropriate that it does look this way. I imagine that it captures the feel of the place perfectly.

It might not seem like a souvenir of this place would be high on the list, but a unique option presented itself, and I couldn't pass it up. Near the end of the prison's run, surplus naval pea coats were issued to the inmates as cold weather gear for time in the yard -- simple, black wool coats. They didn't really look any different from coats many people have and wear today. The Alcatraz gift shop had these coats for sale. An old photo of the prison is sewn into the inner lining to mark it a souvenir, but when you're wearing it? It just looks like a black pea coat. So I picked it up, a souvenir unique in being completely functional.

That took care of the morning. In the evening, we'd head to Muir Woods -- an excursion I'll pick up next time.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Down to Chinatown

Let me pick up my San Francisco adventure where I left off. That evening, we decided to visit Chinatown. San Francisco is said to have the largest Chinatown district in the U.S., and having been there now, I believe it. It runs at least 10 blocks in one direction and five in the other, and is crammed full with enough stuff that would seem crowded in twice the space. The roads are suddenly narrower, the buildings smaller. On one side of the street, you're in San Francisco; on the other, you're in what feels like another place entirely.

Of course, you have to sample some food when you go to Chinatown, and I was given the recommendation to check out the House of Nanking. It's rated a top 10 area restaurant in many guidebooks, and is known for its sesame chicken. I like sesame chicken. Let's do it! The food was indeed pretty good, though also rather salty. I didn't mind, but your mileage may vary.

If you're a souvenir hound, Chinatown is definitely a place you should visit if you go to San Francisco. Or maybe not; it could be very dangerous for you. I was tempted to pick up a number of things, though none quite said "perfect" enough for me to give in. But whether you collect fountains or bobbleheads, weapons or playing cards, there's something in Chinatown for you.

Walking out of Chinatown, we also came upon what for my money is the strangest street in San Francisco. Now, perhaps you've heard of Lombard Street, which has one block billed as the "crookedest street" in the city. (And we drove that later on in the trip.) But cool as that is, I think it had nothing on this bit of weirdness... and sadly I think only an aerial photo could really do it justice.

This tunnel, maybe two or three blocks long, continues the road on the other side. That road above it? Not perpendicular. It's a dead end of another road on top of this one. Strangest bit of traffic layout I've ever seen.

And with that, we came to the end of a fun, full day. With two more full days to come.

Friday, November 18, 2011

From the Wharf to the Castro

The second full day of my vacation to San Francisco was the first full day actually in San Francisco. When we'd made it to our hotel the night before, we wandered out to find dinner close by, but held on to any real exploration until the morning.

That morning began with Fisherman's Wharf. We walked down to Ghirardelli Square, then out to the bay and back along the water. Chocolate I could get at home held only brief appeal for me, I must say, but the walk from there was pretty cool. The view from Fisherman's Wharf is fantastic, from one iconic bridge to the other, with Alcatraz and other neat sights in between.

A number of old ships are anchored in a sort of museum along the pier, and that is officially part of the Golden Gate National Park system. So once again, it being Veterans' Day weekend, we got to enjoy the attraction for free. We went aboard one of the ships and had a look around:

The San Francisco skyline is just really different to look at. It's not quite like any other city I can think of. Parts of it look almost Asian to my eye, though the whole is too sparsely packed (and too peppered with other influences) to come off like an Asian city. Really neat.

We took a few minutes to enjoy the sea lions that have been sunning for two decades near Pier 39, and then took a train to what turned out to perhaps the one disappointment of the trip, the Castro District.

The Castro is the largest "gay neighborhood" in America. I'm not sure what I was expecting to see there, but I figured there would be things to see there. I did grab this amusing picture...

...but basically, I found the Castro to be surprisingly unextreme. I think if you were to take an average person to both the Castro and to a Star Trek convention, that person would definitely find the Star Trek convention to be the stranger experience. I mean, I don't really know what I was looking for, but my experience in San Francisco's Chinatown (which I'll get to) was much more the "trip to another world" I thought I'd be seeing here.

Maybe you have to be there late at night. Or maybe -- and I think I'll choose to go with this -- gay is gradually becoming mainstream enough that the neighborhood doesn't offer the same culture shock it did in the 1970s.

In any case, that was enough time walking around that we decided to head back to the hotel for a break in the late afternoon. But, oh! One side detail probably worth mentioning: the trip down to the Castro took us by the place where the Occupy Wall Street protesters in San Francisco have set up camp. Literally. That was an interesting thing so see -- a park filled corner to corner with tents, with all manner of protest signs in evidence. Pay toilets rolled up everywhere like an outdoor rock concert was going on. A very laid back vibe for a protest that some news outlets would have you believe is a threat to our very society. Too laid back to bring about any actual change? Food for thought.

I've still got the evening to cover, but I think I've rambled enough for one blog post. So, look for my continuing adventures in San Francisco soon.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Mash Off

I'm taking a brief break from vacation stories here to catch up on the new episode of Glee that ran earlier this week. This episode, Mash Off, started off with a some big strikes against it in my book. First, it was continuing the oh-so-creepy storyline of Puck and Shelby's kiss. Secondly, it was to be an episode featuring mash-ups, which I generally speaking find to be some of Glee's least compelling musical numbers (for reasons we'll get to).

Imagine my surprise to find it a pretty great episode. It certainly helped that Shelby immediately took the right course of action with Puck and rebuffed his advances as those of a schoolboy crush. She walked the tightrope she probably had to walk to keep the biological father of her daughter as a possible presence in her life, but never left any room for romance on the table. As it should be.

That plot also concluded in the only reasonable place for Quinn -- Shelby finding out the truth of what Quinn tried to do, and putting her in her place. As I said of the prior episode, Quinn's actions were unforgivable, and I'm glad the show is not asking us to forgive them (right away at least). Instead, we're going to see Quinn spiral on downward.

The class president storyline took an interesting turn as Rachel performed an uncharacteristically selfless act (spurred on some by Shelby) and backed Kurt for the job. Her speech to the small assembly was good, but her explanation later to Kurt was better still -- that part of the dream for college was sharing it with Kurt. These two really are one of the best character pairings on the show, and this moment really showed why.

The same storyline gave us Kurt's impassioned speech against dodgeball. That made me want to stand up from my couch and cheer. I have no idea whether dodgeball is actually still played in schools, but it was when I was in elementary school. And it's exactly what Kurt described: brutal, institutionalized bullying, sanctioned by the school system. From the picking of teams that batters esteem to the game itself that batters the kids, it's horrible. And the writer of Kurt's speech spoke of it with the voice that could only come from someone whose experience sucked as bad as mine. Alright, I don't suppose it scarred me for life or anything -- I honestly haven't thought of it in forever. But if I had a kid, I wouldn't want him or her going through the same experience, not as it was for me, and certainly not as the bullier either. Nice shot close to home, Glee.

Speaking of which, we then had the plot of Santana's outing by Finn. It was tough to watch, because it was painfully honest. And everyone was equally to be liked and disliked, too. Santana's insults have been dialed up a few notches in the last few episodes, to a point where I think many of us were asking, "wait, wasn't she spearheading an anti-bullying group last season?" Now we see that it was all part of a plan (wow, Glee had a plan and executed it!) to build to this moment.

Santana went too far with Finn this week, unprovoked, for no good reason. So you can't fault Finn for firing back. And yet, you can't forgive him for the bullet he fired back with. For someone who hasn't lived it, I simply can't think of an analogy for the sense of terror that goes with leading a life in the closet, afraid that somebody is going to "find out" when you aren't ready to acknowledge it on your terms. But I can tell you exactly what it looks like; Naya Rivera's reaction as Santana in that scene was the one of the most brilliant and subtle moments of acting that's ever been shown on the series. Yes, the later scene in Sue's office (with Will and Burt) was strong too, but the fear and horror of that first reaction was amazing. I'd put her up for an Emmy. I'm not kidding.

I'd be on my way to giving this episode an A, but it stumbled a couple times musically. So here's my problem with mash-ups. Sometimes -- and I think this is the exception -- the two songs in question do actually blend together in a satisfying way. The Adele finale of this episode ("Rumour Has It"/"Someone Like You") was one such rare example. Each song is sparse enough to leave room for the other to have equal voice.

But then you have the Hall & Oates number ("I Can't Go For That"/"You Make My Dreams Come True"). The staging and fake mustaches were pretty awesome, but musically, it sounded like one group of people trying to sing a song while another group of people were rudely interrupting with a repetitious single phrase from another song. No blending at all. (And the entire number was heavily auto-tuned all around for extra injury.)

Somewhere in the middle was the dodgeball number ("Hit Me With Your Best Shot"/"One Way or Another"). It started off in the "will you shut up a second, I'm trying to sing this song!" camp, but finally reached a place of almost-meshing near the end. It didn't help that Naya Rivera's voice completely outclasses Cory Monteith's.

The Shelby/Will mashup of Lady Gaga (really? again?) and Eddie Rabbitt with Crystal Gayle wasn't as potent as I would have hoped two of the stronger voices on the show could deliver, and the staging was pretty dull too. Necessary shoe leather to push the plot along, and little more.

But we did kick off with the pretty awesome "Hot for Teacher," complete with an avalanche of homages to the Van Halen video. And kind of totally dirty, just like the original too. So call the episode of bookend of strong musical numbers with some questionable stuff in the middle.

In all, I'd call the episode an A-. Solid stuff from Glee.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Tales of Yosemite

Hello again, readers! I'm back from my San Francisco trip, and I thank all of you for indulging me the time off from the blog. I had an amazing time, full of amazing adventures I'll probably spend the next week or so sharing.

I'll start from the beginning, which was not actually a San Francisco adventure. When my boyfriend and I were planning out things we might do on the trip, the thought of Yosemite National Park came up. We knew it wasn't quite "close" to San Francisco (it's a four-hour drive away in fact), but it's certainly closer to there than it is to Denver. It seemed like it would be a shame to be that close and not to go.

So that became the plan -- we'd fly in on our first afternoon, then just drive straight out to the last significant town west of Yosemite, stay there, and spend "day one" in the Yosemite Valley, the seven-mile stretch of the park that contains its most well known attractions.

You drive into the Valley right by the famous El Capitan, and pass four huge waterfalls on your way to the visitor's center. We got in several good pictures...

...and then picked out a trail to hike to take us to Mirror Lake. Well, it turns out that a major rock slide in 2009 has blocked off that path completely, though we only found this out when we'd driven back in there, hiked as far as the "trail closed .7 miles ahead" sign, and decided we'd already committed too much time to this trail to go back and choose a different one. So chose to hike on in as far as the trail closure anyway, and maybe see some of the rock slide.

One advantage of taking the trail marked "closed ahead" is that very few other people are hiking it. We had the place pretty much to ourselves -- or at least, as much to ourselves as I could ever imagine getting in such a popular tourist destination. (And by the way, entrance to the park was free for Veterans' Day weekend.)

I was never a big nature guy as a kid, and the journey from there is let's say still a work in progress. But this was a really enjoyable hike in a beautiful place. A great way to kick off the trip.

We finished up in the mid-afternoon and started the long drive back to San Francisco, where we'd wake up to begin our second full day. And I'll pick up from there in an upcoming entry.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

On the Road Again

Faithful readers, I am once again heading off on a vacation, this time to San Francisco, the City by the Bay. I've never been before, and I'm really looking forward to it.

When I took my last trip to Orlando, I was prepared ahead of time, with enough content prewritten to keep the blog trucking along every day while I was gone. This time out? Well, sorry, but I just haven't got it together. Nor do I have any desire to take time out while I'm vacationing to write here. So for next few days, there aren't going to be any updates. But I'll be back early next week, and I'm sure full of vacation stories to tell.

So... until then!

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

The First Time

Years ago, I stopped watching the "next week on _________" teasers that run at the end of television episodes. One too many things got spoiled for me that way, and I thought to myself, "I know I'm going to watch this show next week regardless, so why not just be surprised?" I found that almost instantly increased my enjoyment of that show, and the others I followed, and from there my policy developed into active avoidance of spoilers.

But with tonight's Glee, there was no avoiding it. I mean, I suppose I could have stopped reading the various entertainment web sites I check out, but short of that, there was no way to avoid the full court press of promotion for tonight's Glee episode. The creators were pushing it; the cast was pushing it. Then the Parents Television Council did that stupid thing they always do and got preemptively angry about the awful, naughty things that young kids in the heartland would see (providing greater publicity in the process).

There was no way not to know that this was going to be the episode where some of the characters had sex for -- as it spoiled right in the title -- The First Time. And I'm sorry to say, I felt the episode didn't really live up to all that hype.

First off, let me be clear that I thought this was by no means a "bad" episode of Glee. The heart was certainly in the right place. The episode was built entirely around strong character stories for the couples of Finn and Rachel, and Blaine and Kurt. As a bonus, there was a great subplot for Coach Bieste, a nice runner for Artie, and some nice moments for both Tina and Puck. And the writers wisely didn't seem to mind that this focus meant that characters who don't normally sit on the bench would have to this time. (Schu has never appeared so little in an episode, to my recollection.)

But the episode didn't quite feel natural to me either. In order to grease the skids for this particular drama, a lot of the characters had to be unusually direct and say things I just couldn't buy them saying. It started right away in the teaser, with Artie confronting Blaine and Rachel -- in front of two teachers! -- about their sexual histories. In any reality, a school teacher would tug that student into place so fast, your head would spin; never mind the unlikelihood that historically shy Artie would say such a thing in the first place.

But the unusual candor was just getting started. There was Bieste confiding her feelings and her love life in Artie (even less appropriate). There was the too-together-for-a-high-school-student Sebastian, unbelievably aggressive in his pursuit of Blaine. There was Tina, who believably shared a magical "first time" with Mike -- but less believably seemed to sully that more than a bit by sharing it with the other girls. There was the crazy-directness of Mike's father, who tore into Chang a bit too fast and brutally, just because the script only had time and space for a 30 second scene. There was the touching check in with Karofsky, seeing how he's found his way since leaving McKinley -- yet unbelievably opening up at the drop of a hat to Kurt about all that. There was Artie's unusually vulnerable speech to his entire cast on opening night; it's believable that this is how he feels, but hard to believe he'd share that with all those people.

All of this was set to a soundtrack of many of the blander songs from the mostly bland West Side Story. Oh, and a song that even Billy Joel won't perform in concert any more. (And speaking of inappropriate and unrealistic -- that woman the Warblers were borderline harassing had to be a teacher, right? Since Dalton Academy is an all-boy school, I mean? That felt really wrong.)

So, on the one hand, I really want to applaud the nuanced portrayal of teen sexuality. But on the other, the execution of the idea just wasn't up to Glee's best. Unless of course the point was that it was supposed to be a bit awkward, just like a teenage sexual encounter. Nah... I doubt very much that was intentional.

I grade the episode a B-. The idea would get an A, but the script really needed a few more drafts for polish.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A Little Respect

I rarely discuss politics here on my blog, but I'm going to take a moment tonight to talk to my fellow U.S. residents.

This week, the Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to take a vote on the Respect for Marriage Act. This legislation is designed to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act, the law passed in 1996 that defines and restricts marriage in the U.S. at the federal level to "a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife."

This may be one of the few laws on the books designed to legally force a group of Americans into a state of second-class citizenship. So long as it remains in effect, any victories in forward-thinking (or, more accurately, non-archaic thinking) states to legalize gay marriage are essentially hollow ones. While the Defense of Marriage Act remains in effect, these married couples enjoy none of the legal benefits of their union at a federal level:

They can't file taxes jointly. They're not able to collect survivor benefits for each other's Social Security if one dies. No green card can be obtained to allow one spouse from a foreign country to avoid deportation. I won't go on, because I've read a figure that puts the number of federal rights conferred by marriage at over 1,100 specific items. That's over 1,000 benefits every other married couple likely takes for granted.

If the Respect for Marriage Act passes this committee, it will proceed to a vote in the Senate at large. The best case is that it will pass there (and in the House of Representatives), and the prejudicial law will be struck down. In any case, a vote will force any bigoted members of Congress to go publicly on record with their intolerance and face the consequences; even that would be some step forward.

To this end, the Human Rights Campaign is dedicated to supporting the Respect for Marriage Act. Maybe you can't donate time or money to their efforts. But surely you can do this:

The HRC is collecting signatures for a petition to be delivered to Committee members in advance of the vote. Please take a moment and go sign their petition. Seriously, it won't take more than about 15 seconds, tops.

We now return to the lightweight blather normally associated with this blog. Thank you for your time.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

The Beat Goes On

All this week, I've been having fun with the new Dance Central 2, Harmonix's sequel to their Kinect-capable dancing hit.

The new game has added a lot of bells and whistles that I've barely scratched the surface on, but the big upgrade is that it now simultaneously supports two dancers. No more of the awkward dance-offs of the first game. Another big upgrade is to the recognition capabilities of the software in general; I find that this game tracks your movements much more accurately and effectively than the original. It's not that the original was bad in this regard, it's just that the improvement really makes a difference when space is tight in your place as it is in mine.

But, on the down side, I think the set list is a bit weaker this time out. There are some gems in there, sure. But there seems to be a lot more hip hop and R&B in Dance Central 2 than its predecessor. Or maybe it's that the handful of "classic" songs (if you will) don't make me think "ooo, I love this song" as much as the ones in the original. It's not too big a deal, though; you can export all your songs from the first Dance Central to keep on playing them in the new one. (Along with any downloadable content you've purchased.)

Still, new tunes, new moves, new fun -- it's all I was looking for, and I have yet to even really explore the many improvements they've made to their navigation (which now supports speech recognition), their training and workout tracking modes, and so forth. In all, a fun game, one not to miss if you own a Kinect. I'd rate it an A-.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A Very Merry Christmas

Last night, I went to see the new movie, A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. The first Harold & Kumar film was a pleasant surprise to me. I went almost on a whim, and ended up liking the movie far more than I expected I would. The second film was an unfortunate disappointment to me. I was hoping for the some of the same fun and laughs of the original, but found that this sequel to a "dumb comedy" had gone far too "dumb" and not nearly far enough with the "comedy." For this third movie, I was hoping/expecting something between those two extremes.

I was pleasantly surprised to find this movie the best of the three Harold and Kumar films. It worked on several levels. The humor was sharp, without being overly raunchy. But best of all, it was often smart humor too. There were clever in-jokes made for all of the key actors, and the work they've been doing since making the last H&K film.

On television lately, there's been a lot of humorous mileage out of "cute babies," particularly on Modern Family and Raising Hope. This movie threw its hat into that ring by bringing a baby into the mix, and the hilarity that ensues is some of the best in the movie. (Assuming you don't take it too seriously and end up offended.)

But the best mileage by far is milked from the 3D conceit of the movie. This is no simple 2D conversion of an existing movie. And while I'm not sold on 3D in the movies in general, it was absolutely integral here -- more so even than in a movie like Avatar. From the Platoon-style parody that opens the film, through the Tarantino-esque shootout in the middle of the film, to the final shot of Santa driving his sleigh right at you, the movie is crammed full of hilarious 3D gags. And no matter how many times you see wisps of pot smoke wafting toward you in 3D, it keeps being funny. In short: if you think you're ever going to want to see this movie, do yourself a favor and go see it in 3D at the theater.

The comedy pairing of John Cho and Kal Penn is in perfect form here, and the two bring some surprising and genuine sentiment to the movie as well. There's a holiday sweetness to the movie that I found unexpected, but didn't feel at all forced. And then, of course, Neil Patrick Harris kills his cameo, just as he did in the first two movies. There's an extra added "meta" level to the joke this time out, making his appearance once again a highlight of the movie.

I might be surprised to say it, and you might be even more surprised to read it, but I'd rate A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas an A-. It's one of the better movies (and best comedies) I've seen this year. It gets my enthusiastic recommendation.

Friday, November 04, 2011

A Fiery Sequel

This week, I finished Catching Fire, the sequel to The Hunger Games, and the middle book of a trilogy. There are some people who compared the original book to Battle Royale, a Japanese novel written ten years prior. I can't comment on that, not being familiar with that other work. But this second book did call to mind a different similarity -- to The Empire Strikes Back.

See, The Hunger Games was a relatively self-contained book. There were threads to imply where the story would go if continued, but it seemed equally poised not to continue, like the original Star Wars. Then along came Catching Fire, a book that continued the story, but took it straight up to a cliffhanger, leaving nothing resolved at all.

That's not to say that the book was unsatisfying. Indeed, I found the first half of the book to be quite compelling, perhaps even more so than the first book. Things took a political turn in this second book, with the main character having to deal with the fallout of her actions in the first book. Because of what she's done, the whole society is on the brink of upheaval, and in particular, the lives of her family and friends are in danger.

But after this intriguing setup, author Suzanne Collins takes a bit of a misstep in my opinion, by making the second half of her book a retread of book one. Oh, you liked the arena battle concept of the first book? Well, here -- let's do it again! This puts her in a difficult position of having to innovate more clever things that the first book presented, and having to do it in a slimmer page count, as this only represents the back half of the book.

Now granted, there is a little more to it than that. Characters and plot points are being set up in a way I expect will be paid off in the final book. Nevertheless, I was disappointed that the book veered away from new territory to re-tread familiar ground. It was still interesting enough to easily pull me through to the final page, but didn't finish on as solid footing as it started out.

So in that respect -- not being better than the original -- I suppose Catching Fire isn't like The Empire Strikes Back. I'd rate this book a B+, which is to say it's really only a letdown by comparison. I'm still looking forward to the end of the trilogy, and will probably jump right into the final book next time I start reading.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

A New Dawn

I always try to watch some appropriate movie for Halloween every year. For a while, it was actually Halloween, John Carpenter's classic boogeyman movie. This year, I decided on the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead.

It would probably only be a slight exaggeration to say that I was blown away by the film when I first saw it in theaters. It took the amped up "fast zombies" of 28 Days Later, mixed in some humor and effective tension, and wowed me. Watching it again now, I saw some flaws that I either didn't notice or overlooked that first time around. And it basically comes down to using character stupidity to grease the plot.

The opening act of the movie is fantastic. We follow the lead character as she discovers the zombie apocalypse and fights for her life -- believably -- against something she doesn't understand. The middle chunk of the movie is almost as good. New characters get introduced, and they all behave rather reasonably for the circumstances, not immediately trusting each other, but doing things you logically would in order to survive.

But the logic police fall asleep on the job as the movie enters the final act. (Spoilers here for the rest of this paragraph, if you haven't seen it.) First, you've got the deranged father than wants to see the birth of his zombie baby. Then there's the girl that loves the freaking dog so much that she literally gets everyone killed. Because she goes after the dog, everybody has to go after her before they're able to form a good plan. Without a good plan, they don't make it back to safety without letting the zombies in, and so they have to go through with their plan to flee before that plan is fully ready to execute. Every death that follows as a result of this is basically on that dumb girl's need to save the dog. Which, by the way, didn't need saving, as the movie had established well by that point, the zombies have no interest in the dog. Sigh.

Ultimately though, this is all just enough revise my thinking about the movie to an A-, not enough to make me stop liking it. There's just still so much good stuff going on here. Truly gruesome and menacing zombies. Really messed up and horrific moments (like having your freshly dead husband suddenly try to kill you when you don't even understand what's going on). Plenty of humorous accents, many contributed by Ty Burrell (now best known for his Emmy-winning role on Modern Family). And a cast of actors that's great, despite none of them really being a household name.

It's a visceral, kinetic, exciting movie, a high-water mark that director Zack Snyder hasn't come close to matching in his subsequent films. (Though a mark which writer James Gunn did match -- and exceed -- when he wrote and directed Slither.)

Basically, watching it again kicked the movie out of my top 100 list. But as I said, I still consider it an A-. A must see for horror enthusiasts.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Grading the New Class, Part 2

A few weeks ago, I fired off some quick thoughts about the new TV series I've sampled this season. Since then, a few more have debuted, so I felt the need for an update:

Once Upon a Time -- One of two fairy tale-themed shows to premiere this season, and of the two, the one that got markedly better ratings and seems certain to last at least a full season. It's also the more boring of the two. I watched the first episode and was fairly unimpressed. I'd originally decided to give it one more try, but when the following Sunday rolled around, it came up against the DVR train wreck that is Sunday night. I decided not to bother, and I haven't really felt that I missed anything.

Grimm -- Only one episode of this darker fairy tale series has aired, but it put out a similar vibe to Kolchak or The X-Files. I wasn't blown away, but I did see a little promise here. I'll probably give this one another chance or two. I'm not sure whether I'm hoping for it to find its feet so I can keep watching it, or hoping for it to come unraveled so that's one less show I feel compelled to watch.

American Horror Story -- This is the latest series from Glee creator Ryan Murphy. He also created Nip/Tuck, so the totally dark and twisted tone of American Horror Story shouldn't be a total surprise. The series seemed most like Twin Peaks to me at first blush, with weird piled on top of weird and served with a side of weird. Having watched Glee, I assumed immediately that the writers didn't really have any idea where any of it was heading. On the one hand, that left me a bit concerned that none of this weirdness would ever come together or pay off. But on the other hand... I just really liked the demented tone of that first episode. As more episodes have aired, the tone has continued consistently. And a few pieces of the weirdness have been explained... or at least been elaborated on. So in all, I've been pleasantly surprised by this new show. It's definitely my favorite of the new TV season.

Coming up on Sunday (why are they all on Sunday?!) is the premiere of Hell on Wheels on AMC, which seems to be putting out a Deadwood kind of vibe in its promos during The Walking Dead. That's enough to get my interest, so I expect I'll be checking that out as well. Of course, if I'm expecting Deadwood quality, I'll probably be disappointed. We'll see.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Pot O' Gold

It's been three long weeks since the last new episode of Glee. At least the episode we got tonight was a pretty good one, continuing this third season's trend of character-focused stories. But there were several rough spots.

The story of the rival Glee club continued, with Santana and Brittany switching over before the end of the episode. Santana had such a full head of steam going that I did sort of question that she'd accept going from "singing backup for Rachel" to "singing backup for Mercedes," but I'm willing to just roll with it and say that she's just being rebellious and maybe doesn't quite know what she wants.

The Sue-for-Congress storyline continued. Sue remained a step or two on the wrong side of the cartoonish line for my tastes. But the storyline as a whole took a big step up when Burt stepped in to run against her. Once again, Burt Hummel -- best father on television. Sure, seeing him stand up to Sue was fun, and his speech to the family near the end was sweet too. But the most winning moment was when he thanked Schu (and his glee club) for saving his son's life. Maybe literally; Burt clearly believed that in his heart. Mike O'Malley, once again knocking it out of the park with his acting.

Then there was the plot introducing the new exchange student Rory, played by Glee Project winner Damian McGinty. This is the second Glee Project contestant to appear on the show, and the writers continue to do a good job with them. I didn't watch more than a few minutes of The Glee Project, and I didn't actually know until after the first episode that one of those guest stars had been culled from that group. Here, the promotion was so heavy that I knew well in advance, but I feel like it was still very natural -- like the writers were naturally just looking for a replacement for Sam. He seems like he could be a good addition to the mix.

But I have the most to say about the Quinn-Puck-Shelby storyline. I'm really torn about it. On the one hand, I'm happy that the writers have decided to plant their flag on a hill -- any hill -- and continue consistent character behavior over the course of several episodes (something they really struggled with in season two). On the other hand, I'm really hating all the characters involved right at the moment.

Quinn's attempt to jam up Shelby with Child Services was so far over the line that I'm not sure what her character can do to be redeemed in my eyes now. It's not that I don't believe she would do it. Indeed, there have been a few people in my life (and that's a few too many) that got screwed over in a custody battle because the person fighting on the other side made up complete falsehoods and got a court to believe them. So yes, people that behave as Quinn has behaved do exist. And they are villains. Period.

So then there's Shelby, who at the close of the episode is kissing a high school boy literally young enough to be her son -- Puck is in the same grade as her daughter. Ick. Unless the next episode shows Shelby instantly realizing what a horrible impulse that was and trying to set things right, she's pretty far gone as a character too.

As for Puck, the him-bo caught between the two of them? How is it that "stupid" can be so lovable on Brittany and so not on him? His character isn't looking great either in all this.

How about the music tonight?

Well, I've always had a soft spot for "Bein' Green," and it was a great song to introduce the new character. Solid vocal performance too. I liked it worlds more than the song they gave him for the end of the episode, "Take Care of Yourself."

They sent Blaine back to the Katy Perry well for "Last Friday Night," and it was hardly the sensation that last season's "Teenage Dream" was. It felt like what it was -- an overly mechanical way for the writers to drive Santana out of the glee club, though the vocal performance was strong enough (as it usually is for Darren Criss).

"Waiting for a Girl Like You" was a good choice for Puck, though the simple presentation (while appropriate) didn't really give him a chance to shine.

As for the newly minted "Troubletones?" Well, they did indeed rock their version of "Candyman." Oftentimes on Glee, when one or more characters are having an "oh my God, they're so good" reaction to another character's vocal performance, I don't usually buy it. (See Rory's finale in this very episode.) But here, when Finn and Schu looked on in shock at their new rivals, I bought it. The girls brought it.

It's really hard to overlook the damage done to Quinn and Shelby's characters here and put the whole episode into a fair context, but I figure I'll call this episode around a B. I guess that's how much goodwill you can buy from me with a good scene with Kurt's dad. (Is there any other kind?)