Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Boldly Go

I have here on several occasions praised the talents of film composer Jerry Goldsmith. He was a true giant of his field, writing for (ha!) scores of movies; simultaneously, he may have been one of the most underappreciated composers ever, winning only one of he 18 Academy Awards for which he was nominated. Enthusiasts of film music might have a spirited debate about which of his scores was his career best work, but they could certainly agree on the films that would adorn his Top 5 list. And right there in the upper echelons would be his score for Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

One of the reasons I think Goldsmith is less known and regarded than the famous John Williams is that, throughout his career, Williams has created one memorable theme after another. Ask anybody to hum the music from Superman, Jaws, Star Wars, Indiana Jones, or Harry Potter, and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn't remember at least one of them. Goldsmith, on the other hand, may have scared the crap out of audiences with Poltergeist and The Omen, seduced with Basic Instinct, and energized with Planet of the Apes, but only a real film music nut would be able to hum you a few bars of the themes from those films.

But there is one bright, shining exception -- Star Trek: The Motion Picture. The iconic theme for the film became the theme for the entire second age of Star Trek when it was re-used for Star Trek: The Next Generation. And as performed for the original movie, by an orchestra nearly twice the size of that used for the later TV series, Goldsmith's powerful anthem knocks you back in your seat and starts you off on an adventure.

And that's only the beginning. Jerry Goldsmith created a Klingon anthem for their brief five minutes on screen, a powerful horn blast built on musical fifth intervals, that became the basis for musically representing the Klingons for decades to come. He wrote a powerful and romantic theme for the character of Ilia that was also the basis for a three-minute overture before the opening credits (this movie and The Black Hole being the last two widely released movies to ever make use of the overture device). And he also pioneered the use of a then brand-new musical instrument known as the Blaster Beam, an enormous amplified table played by striking its wires with an artillery shell; the music personified the film's nemesis V'ger, and the distinct sound would show up extensively in other sci-fi films that followed, including the next two Star Trek films scored by James Horner.

A few years ago, for the anniversary of the film, a 2-CD version of the soundtrack was released. I cheerfully snatched it up to replace my existing copy of the soundtrack, hungry for every note of the score I could lay ears on. But now, I'm kicking that set to the curb in favor of the love letter to Jerry Goldsmith that has recently been released by La-La Land Records: an all new 3-CD version, remastered from the original source material.

This new collection has every last piece of music that appeared in the film. In addition, it has all the versions of the major cues that comprised the original soundtrack album released; sharp ears will note that not every track on that album used exactly the same recorded takes as what was used in the movie.

But that's just the beginning. This new set also includes a half-disc full of an early unused score that Goldsmith started recording before the movie's elaborate visual effects had been completed. In these early takes, you can hear a sort of primordial version of the finished product, a strangely skewed take on major cues. Several secondary themes and ideas for instrumentation are present, but Goldsmith had not yet landed on that iconic theme. (And yet, you get to hear brief passages where you can tell he almost had it.)

The set includes as a bonus the very first orchestra take ever of that iconic theme, complete with the background chatter picked up in the studio before and after the take. It includes some tracks of wild synthesizer experimentations, searching for the weird sounds that would flesh out the score. And then, just to prove the set has everything, it also includes: 1) a disco version of the Star Trek theme that was adapted for commercial release (because hey, it was the 70s and someone had done it for Star Wars); and 2) a laughably horrible love theme set to Goldsmith's music and sung by Shaun Cassidy, intended as a possible cross-promotional tool that was never widely released in the U.S.

The set also includes a lengthy booklet of liner notes that go into fantastic detail about the making of the score, and the specific recorded takes used on the album. I learned things even though I was already an enthusiastic fan of the music, such as the fact that original Star Trek series composers also contributed, uncredited, to its creation. Alexander Courage, composer of the original series theme, actually composed himself the two brief passages in which the movie score references that theme. And Fred Steiner, whose bombastic music was a signature of so many episodes, came in to help Jerry Goldsmith meet his deadlines by composing a handful of secondary cues based around the themes Goldsmith had already produced.

If you're a fan of orchestral music, or of Star Trek, or of Jerry Goldsmith, this limited edition, 10000-print-run set is an absolute must have. It's a grade-A production of grade-A music.

Monday, July 30, 2012

It's Not About Chicken, But Here's Why Chicken Feels Important

For the past week or two, my Facebook feed has been lit up with people arguing about Chick-fil-A. Things have been escalating as though a chicken Arab Spring hung in the balance. There was COO Dan Cathy's statement that the company is "guilty as charged" in its opposition to same-sex marriage. There were the statements by the mayors of Boston and Chicago, declaring the company is not welcome in their cities. There was the withdraw of cross-promotion by the Muppets. The announcement of "Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day" by Mike Huckabee, endorsed by Rick Santorum.

And many heated words. Many very heated words. I myself have gone into a few friends' feeds and joined debate, posting some comments that, in retrospect, seem irrational and polarizing. So I want to try to approach this with as level a head as I can manage and explain where I'm coming from.

Let me start by saying that I believe people should have the freedom to practice their own religion (or not!) in the privacy of their own homes and churches. I'm an even more staunch supporter of free speech, and I do not believe that a person forfeits their right to free speech just because their speech may be (correctly or incorrectly) construed to represent the organization for which they work.

Bu what's going on here -- from my perspective, and the perspective of many gay, lesbian, and transgender individuals -- isn't about speech or religion. It's about money and civil rights. Dan Cathy puts his money where his mouth is. Chick-fil-A's charitable organization has made donations totaling millions of dollars to anti-gay groups including the Marriage & Family Legacy Fund, the National Christian Foundation, and Focus On The Family. These organizations oppose equal rights for LGBT Americans; they fight not only to block marriage equality, but oppose basic anti-discrimination laws that would protect these people in their jobs, in their health care, in all aspects of their lives. They support "ex-gay therapy," a practice that numerous reputable studies have shown to promote depression and even lead to an increased suicide rate.

These are organizations that have been officially labeled as "hate groups" in numerous quarters -- placed in the same category as such universally derided nutjobs as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Ku Klux Klan. No, they are not out there advocating that LGBT people be lynched, but when you hear about pastors giving impassioned sermons to their congregations suggesting in earnest that I and others like me should be rounded into camps and left to die, you have to question if they would argue in favor of such things if they thought they could get away with it.

But, as my title implied, none of this is really about the chicken. Or even the hate groups. In my mind, here's what it's about.

I am fortunate that all the friends and family in my life have given me complete support since I came out. They have given it explicitly; they also show it in their day-to-day interactions with me by not treating me as any different than anyone else they know. And this is what matters most.

However... I do have friends and family who, despite their professed support, do not have a history of showing that support in the voting booth. They have voted for candidates with outspoken hatred of the LGBT community, and are not likely to support pro-LGBT candidates this coming November. And frankly, this is what matters second most.

So long as politicians like Frank McNulty are sent to office at both the state and national level, I will not be allowed to marry, and will not be granted access to the 1,138 federal rights associated with that status. I will not be free to move to over half the states in the U.S., should I choose to, without risking that I could be fired from any job I find there simply for being openly gay.

It's hard to accept that some of my friends and family choose to prioritize other political considerations over my basic rights, though I try my best to respect that as their right. And so long as these friends and family don't go expressing pride in their decision to vote for people who have opposed and will continue to oppose my civil rights, I can mostly overlook the issue.

But then comes something like Chick-fil-A. They're openly and without apology funneling money to organizations classified as hate groups. And they're doing it under the shameful pretense that degrading my status as a human being is a charitable contribution!

And all you have to do to show me a little bit of support is not buy a chicken sandwich at just one of the numerous national fast food chains you can get a chicken sandwich. Is boycotting Chick-fil-A going to turn the tide of equality in the U.S.? Almost certainly not. But if you can't even make a sacrifice that small, a gesture that slight... if you can't even stop yourself from crowing how you're going to eat even more Chick-fil-A now?

If you can't even do that, then it frankly becomes hard to believe that the warm acceptance I mentioned -- the most important thing -- is genuine.

Now, if you want to show your support in other ways, that's fantastic. I will thank you personally, and apologize profusely for even subtly implying you're the bigot I know you're not. You could make a donation to an organization like the Human Rights Campaign. You could write to your congressional representative and urge them -- regardless of party affiliation -- to support legislation like the Respect for Marriage Act (designed to repeal DOMA), or ENDA (designed to prohibit hiring and employment discrimination against LGBTs).

As I said, it's not really about the chicken. I'll be the first to completely agree that there are plenty of ways to show support far better than boycotting a fast food joint. Speaking for myself, the chicken thing is simply a "last line of defense." If you can do nothing else to show your support for me, will you at least do that? Please?

Believe me, I want to live in a world where a choice of dinner doesn't feel so preposterously political. But sadly, it seems to me that we don't live in that world. Yet.

Please help me change that. And then just maybe someday, after I get back from my honeymoon, I'll take you to lunch at Chick-fil-A.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Crowded Sunday

For the past several weeks, I've been writing about the latest episodes of The Newsroom, and talking about how the show is gradually getting better with each new hour. That held true this week too. And yet, the truth is that The Newsroom isn't the show I look forward to most each Sunday.

That honor would go to Breaking Bad, far and away the best show on television right now. The show has begun its final season in masterful fashion. Last summer, when they aired a fourth season finale, it left me so thoroughly satisfied that I felt like the show could have been finished there. But now, three episodes into the new season, I find myself caught up all over again and eagerly looking forward to seeing the next installment.

The alchemy of creator Vince Gilligan's writing and Bryan Cranston's acting has made Walter White one of the most compelling characters on television. And in this season, it's compelling in a massive accident kind of way -- you cringe to watch, but can't look away. His journey into a dark megalomania is clear, and a truly chilling transformation when you reflect on where he began in season one. If anyone out there has never watched Breaking Bad, do yourself a favor and start catching up by any means you can, as soon as you can.

But why is it, with the relatively few shows that I watch during the summer, that nearly all of them seem to air on Sundays? It's ridiculous. For starters, there's True Blood on before The Newsroom, airing its final season under the direct creative control of Alan Ball. Frankly, judging by the season so far (though not counting this week's episode, which I haven't yet been able to watch), it might be time for him to hand off the reins. In my mind, True Blood has always been enjoyable in the "well, it's summer, so the shows aren't expected to be as good" sort of way. The first season was great fun, but each subsequent season got slightly less so. This year has felt quite muddled indeed. I'm reminded a bit of Dexter, which was completely lackluster last season. But then, Dexter had a great final scene in its season finale that should set up for a big rebound this coming year. Maybe True Blood still has some (heh) bite in it.

Meanwhile, Sunday nights over on USA includes the limited run series Political Animals. I felt compelled to give it a try because of creator Greg Berlanti (who created Brothers & Sisters, as well as Jack and Bobby). And seeing Sigourney Weaver bring her intense acting to the small screen seemed like a potential winner too. I'm probably going to stick through the series just because it's only running six episodes. But I have to say that I'm disappointed so far. There's not enough fiction in the mix to make it entertaining. Weaver plays the ambitious wife of the 41st president (a man who cheated on her while in office) who later ran for president herself, only to lose and become Secretary of State under the primary opponent who defeated her. The only real difference between this character and Hillary Clinton is that the character divorced her husband, and that the couple had two sons rather than one daughter. These changes aren't enough to make me feel any suspense about what's going to happen in an episode of the show... though the acting is good enough across the board to make me want to tune in and hope for the best.

All this, and I haven't even mentioned the second season of Falling Skies. Last summer, this "Jericho with aliens instead of nuclear fallout" was my official "only because it's summer" show, but this year I just haven't been willing to make time for it. I've faithfully had my DVR record and save every episode, but I believe seven have piled up there now, unwatched. Why does that have to be on Sunday too?

Oh, plus the Olympics, for the next couple of weeks anyway. I'm not too much of an Olympic junkie myself, although they are pretty much the only television I ever turn on just to have on, as opposed to DVRing in advance to watch later.

Yes, Sundays are busy for my television.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Shanniversary

This year marks the 35th anniversary of the publication of Terry Brooks' first novel, The Sword of Shannara. Though that book's plot and characters are forged firmly in the mold of The Lord of the Rings, it marked the beginning of a long career. Brooks has long since branched out into interesting original ideas, mixing fantasy with science fiction in compelling ways, embarking on a post-apocalyptic fantasy saga... and publishing every year in the summer like clockwork, unlike some fantasy authors. (cough-Martin-cough)

Terry Brooks has another new novel coming at the end of August, but he's actually marking this anniversary in several special ways. The first is a series of short stories published exclusively in the e-book format, each one focused on one of his popular past characters. It began earlier this month with the release of "Paladins of Shannara: Allanon's Quest."

The Druid Allanon was Brooks' Gandalf-like character from his very first novel, and this new short story is a prequel to the events of that book. It chronicles his efforts to locate a surviving heir to the bloodline of the elven king Jerle Shannara, a person who might be able to wield a weapon against the evil lord threatening the land.

I personally was never the enthusiastic fan of Allanon that many of Terry Brooks' fans seem to be. (I was much more drawn to Garet Jax, the weapon master of The Wishsong of Shannara, who apparently will be the subject of Brooks' second short story later this year.) So I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to read this tale. It also has the prequel problem, in that it leads directly into events of a novel I already know well.

That said, I did find the story entertaining. For one thing, there's just something inherently neat about an established author going back to revisit the beginning of his career. And it's nice that he's doing it now that he's long since found his way out from Tolkien's shadow. Though the plot of this story is very basic (necessitated by the short length), it doesn't feel like a Lord of the Rings clone as did the novel it leads into. The character of Allanon does pop, as does one significant side character introduced for this tale.

The bottom line is: it's hard to go wrong here. The story sells for a mere 99 cents. It's not amazing, but it's certainly more than worth that reasonable price. I grade it a B. It's a nice appetizer to get me ready for what Terry Brooks will be releasing later this year.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Music for a Jolly Good Adventure

I've written on several occasions of my love for the BBC's Sherlock series (most recently to praise its second series finale). I've been so caught up in the clever writing and enthralled by the amazing acting that I don't believe I've given proper mention of another fantastic element of the show: the music.

Sherlock is scored by a composing team, David Arnold and Michael Price. Soundtrack enthusiasts are likely to recognize Arnold's name; his wild and bombastic music has appeared most notably in the Roland Emmerich films Stargate and Independence Day, as well as every James Bond movie since Tomorrow Never Dies. Michael Price is a relative newcomer whose most well-known film is arguably Hot Fuzz (in which he skillfully aped the style of music that, well, folks like David Arnold are known for delivering).

Together, the two of them create a wonderfully exhilarating score for Sherlock. The real triumph of it is how it manages to carve out a space uniquely its own while managing to sound reminiscent of several preexisting concepts one would expect. Fans of older Sherlock Holmes films (we're talking Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett type stuff) might expect something driven by woodwinds and clockwork percussion, like the theme to "Mystery!" Those who saw the newest Hollywood films with Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law might expect the frenetic strings and pulse-pounding tempo of Hans Zimmer's work there. Their score manages to be these things and more, a strange "modern baroque" action movie music.

And make no mistake, it sounds like movie music. Just as the Sherlock series' 90-minute installments come off feeling more like feature films than episodes of a television series, so the music underscoring them packs the punch of a film-sized orchestra. The sound of the Sherlock score is loud and powerful, filling the audio spectrum and the room.

I mention the score now because I've recently picked up two soundtracks that have been released, one for each of the two series of the show to date. My preference is ever so slightly for the first series version, which first set up a lot of the musical ideas of the show in the score for the pilot, "A Study in Pink." But both soundtracks are well worth it for a fan of the show, loaded with exciting music. There are maybe just a small handful of dreary tracks on each release that make me rate the total packages a B+ overall, but they still get my endorsement. You don't need to cherry pick either soundtrack for a suite of fantastic music.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

More Gaming

When a friend of mine showed me his new copy of the board game Glen More, I was excited to learn that a new game had come out in the "Alea medium-box" game series. I had maintained a complete collection of the five games before it, and unless the game was a total dud, I'd be picking up this new one too. (When I went to shop for it online, I learned that I'd been so out of the loop that there were actually two games in the series I didn't have yet. But I'll get to the other one, Artus, in a future post.)

Glen More is a hybrid of game styles, reminiscent of several other individual games, but just different enough to stand apart as something different. Each player builds up his own network of square tiles, placing each new one edge to edge into his existing pattern. Depending on how you place a newly acquired tile (which must be placed adjacent to a worker token on one of your tiles), you get to execute the actions associated with a handful of tiles in your network. Tiles generate and manipulate resources, and you sell those resources off for victory points in a variety of ways. Several of these ways put you in competition with your opponents, as certain ways of scoring depend on the lead you have over all other players in gathering a specific type of resource.

But the most direct method of competition between players comes in how tiles are obtained. Players do not take turns around the table in clockwise order. Instead, an array of just over a dozen tiles is placed in a circular track on a separate board, with player tokens taking empty spaces on that board. The token at the back of the pack is always the next to act. Its owner jumps ahead to the tile he wants to acquire, skipping over as many intervening tiles as he wants. If you jump far enough ahead when your opponents then content themselves to take leftover tiles in the middle, those opponents may each get two or more extra turns before your next opportunity rolls around. So every turn, you must make a decision to go for quantity or quality.

I've played the game a few times now. I've been utterly crushed at it, and have also managed to win it. At both extremes, I found the decisions to be interesting without being overly complicated (because it seems like all the different resources have viable paths to victory). Designer Matthias Cramer has managed to take many familiar elements of other games and mix them together into something that, while not revolutionary, is probably the most solid entry the "medium-box game series" has had since it began (with Louis XIV). It's also more complicated than just about any other game in that series, though, so your mileage may vary.

I hope to play Glen More again in the near future, and look forward to exploring its different strategies. Though I probably need more plays to settle into a solid rating, it's looking like a B+ to me at the moment. And to think, it had slid completely under my radar until my friend sprang it on me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

So Close and Yet So Far

The Academy Awards have spent the last few years tinkering with their formula. The year that The Dark Knight failed to garner a Best Picture nomination spurred an increase from the traditional 5 nominees to 10, the thinking being that an expanded field would increase the chances of more mainstream fare getting into the mix (thereby increasing interest and television broadcast ratings).

Instead, 10 nominees meant that some fairly objectively unworthy films got in, and there was a clearly divided list of the "real" contenders (that would have gotten in even had the list been limited to 5) and the "also-rans." So last year, the Academy tinkered some more. This time, there would be a variable number of nominees between 5 and 10. A film would have to get a certain percentage of first place votes to be eligible for a nomination; if a film failed to get enough, then any voters who'd backed it would instead have their second choice votes counted.

The result of this system yielded a batch of nominees that included a few nominees that were clearly loved passionately by a very small group of people... and openly despised by others. The poster child of this was Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a film adapted from a novel about a young boy trying to cope with the death of his father in the World Trade Center collapse on September 11, 2001. Enough people thought this was the best movie of 2011 to make it a nominee for Best Picture, yet the overall critical consensus was that it was a saccharine mess. Thinking of the soft spot I have for a few movies like Pay It Forward, I decided to give this film a chance and see where it fell for me.

I must side definitely with the masses on this. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close feels like a movie manufactured by some sort of dramatic Madlib, callously incorporating elements selected to make people cry: September 11th, a child with some non-specified degree of autism, pining for a lost father, an old man who has psychologically lost the ability to speak, an estranged couple, and more. This cynical mix is then arranged in a structure overly reliant on flashbacks, as though someone took a writing course where the teacher said that non-linear narratives are more sophisticated. The result is robotic and transparent.

The cast includes a number of good actors, including Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, John Goodman, Viola Davis, and Max von Sydow. But the star of the show is an unknown child actor named Thomas Horn, who isn't up to carrying the film, and is outclassed by his experienced co-stars. I did perk up momentarily at a couple of solid moments where those veterans power their way around the workmanlike script. There are brief bursts of genuine emotion (Bullock compellingly conveys the lengths a mother will go to in helping her son; von Sydow wordlessly shows a painfully deep anguish), but overall the film comes off as an effort from someone familiar with emotions without truly understanding them.

If you just want to watch a 9/11 film, see the vastly superior United 93 (which has the added bonus of being based on a true story). But by all means, stay away from this. I give it a D.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Not a Good Sign

My freshly begun journey through the complete stories of Sherlock Holmes next brought me to Doyle's second Holmes novel, The Sign of the Four. I found it to be a weaker effort than the initial A Study in Scarlet, with a number of significant problems.

Chiefly among them is an overly convoluted plot. In retrospect, I question less the bizarre technique Doyle used of inserting five unrelated chapters in A Study in Scarlet to explain the motivations of his criminal; the final chapter of The Sign of the Four is by far the longest in the novel, and it entails the villain pouring out every detail of the last decade of his life as explanation for his criminal deeds. A least the weird approach taken in A Study in Scarlet allowed events to be dramatized rather than narrated.

The overly long and twisted back story in The Sign of the Four is only one of three major chapters in the book where the "action" is recounted to us by a secondary character rather than experienced by the characters themselves. Early on, the client appears and spends a chapter relating her dilemma to Holmes and Watson. A few chapters later, the three of them encounter a new character who then spends another entire chapter retelling his back story. Fully one-quarter of the book thus consists of essentially "telling" instead of "showing," a cardinal sin of narrative fiction that renders almost any novel inert.

Doyle does work in the other nine chapters to undo a lot of the damage with a fairly thrilling adventure. There's are nighttime chases across London and back, and a climactic chase down the river Thames in the final act. In the middle is a rather fun adventure with a scent-detecting dog, and a nice fleshing out of the character of Watson as he meets a significant love interest.

But as Watson comes into greater clarity, Holmes gets a bit muddier. His drug habit is introduced in this novel, though the stranger oddity for me comes as a consequence to Doyle turning him into a master of disguise. The case finally comes unraveled when Holmes disguises himself as an old man to do some reconnaissance -- an interesting enough development. But then he returns from his investigations and decides to trick Watson and a Scotland Yard detective with the same disguise, having a go at them for a page or two before revealing his true identity. The two flaws here are, firstly, that it cheapens Watson more than strengthens Holmes; the fact that Watson can't even recognize his own roommate and best friend makes him look more stupid than it makes Holmes look brilliant. Secondly, and the larger issue, is that Holmes doesn't seem to have any credible reason for the charade. The Holmes of my perception (gleaned from sources other than Doyle, admittedly) suffers fools; he is not entertained by them. He would derive no pleasure from trying to fool his friends and acquaintances, he'd only be wasting everyone's time -- his most of all. An inconsistent treatment of the character.

As for the other main thing I took away from The Sign of the Four, I wouldn't call it bad now, but it does give me concern for the future. The plot seemed to be establishing a formula for Holmes' adventures. A Study in Scarlet was a case revolving around Mormonism (or Doyle's perception of it, at any case); apparently the thing to make the mystery sensational and unusual was to take people and elements from outside 19th century London. The same formula applies in The Sign of the Four, with Mormonism being replaced by a dwarf islander, Sikh thugs, and Indian treasure. Thus far, the villains of Holmes stories seem to be to be built upon demonization of foreign cultures. And while that's understandable in the context of the time the stories were written, I feel I may not be entertained in the long run if the stories continue to follow this formula.

I rate The Sign of the Four a C. The Watson elements of the novel are compelling, but the rest is a bit of a jumbled mess.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Going More Boldly Than Ever

Tonight, I went to attend a special screening of two episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation on the big screen of a movie theater. This was a one night only event to sound the release of the newly remastered Season 1 of the series on Blu-ray, hitting stores tomorrow.

This remaster is a truly epic effort on the part of the studio. Star Trek: The Next Generation was shot entirely on 35mm film, including all the model work for visual effects. But because it was the late 80s (and early 90s), and the finished product was destined to air on everybody's 480p standard TVs, all that film was transferred to video tape before editing. Nobody would have been able to see the original quality, so why bother with that effort? And so every episode was already a copy of a copy, a couple generations degraded.

To create a version worthy of Blu-ray, the studio invested the money, resources, and people to go back to the original film canisters -- every single one of which had been preserved in a vault. People went through all the footage, every take, every camera, matching up the material used in the aired episodes with the 35mm original film. Those films were then scanned digitally into modern editing software and reassembled to create new episodes worthy of 1080p.

I worked on the Star Trek Trading Card Game at Decipher for many years. In the course of that work, I watched many episodes of the different Star Trek series virtually frame by frame, looking for the perfect stills to illustrate cards. So I know exactly what these episodes originally looked like. And I can tell you these remasters look better than the show ever has before.

I heard about this special theater screening several weeks back, but had originally not planned to go. I already knew I'd be buying the Blu-ray, and would want to watch the entire season again to enjoy the remastered versions. But then I got to thinking to back in the days when I was attending Star Trek conventions as a fan, during the original airings of some of these Next Generation episodes. One of the highlights of each convention was when they took the newest episode fresh off the satellite feed and broadcast it in the main event room, where a crowd of screaming, adoring Trekkers would watch the new episode together. Thinking that that would be a fun experience to revisit, I decided to go to the screening.

On the up side, I had a lot of fun watching the two episodes they screened tonight. (I'll get to them in a moment.) But on the down side, I didn't really get that fun crowd experience I was looking for. The theater was reasonably full for a Monday night, but the crowd was quite sedate. No cheering, no excitement, very little laughter. (The biggest laugh came from an unintentionally raunchy line Wesley spoke to his mother regarding Data's android power switch: "I heard you know how to turn them on.")

I was confused, but the friend I went with pegged it exactly... it was the after effects of the Aurora theater shooting. He'd been checking movie theater attendance all weekend as part of his job, and was finding quiet audiences all over the Denver area. I imagine going to a theater will be that way for a while.

But, on to the episodes themselves. Two were screened, both from the first season: "Where No One Has Gone Before" and "Datalore." Mind you, the show didn't really find its footing or voice in that first season, so these episodes weren't truly great. But they were good choices from that first season. Not coincidentally, I think, they were both directed by Rob Bowman -- a then new director who did some of the series' best episodes before his career expanded. They also were both scored by the TNG composer I love the best, Ron Jones.

"Where No One Has Gone Before" is the episode that introduced The Traveler, a strange alien who takes the Enterprise to the edge of the universe, where the thoughts of the crew members begin to come to life. "Datalore" introduced Data's evil android twin Lore, who tries to destroy the ship by summoning the Crystalline Entity that devoured all life on Data's home planet. Both episodes featured good character moments, and were spectacular showcases for the new remastered visual effects.

This is the first time I've watched any Star Trek episodes -- of any series -- since my days at Decipher. And it had obviously been a good while before that since I'd watched any of the episodes purely for recreation. These two were quite interesting. It made me feel old to realize this, but these first season episodes of The Next Generation are 25 years old -- older today than the original Star Trek series was when TNG was airing brand new for the first time! And they have aged.

In some cases, they've aged gracefully. Most of the core cast give great performances, even though they were still finding their characters this early in the run. Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner are particularly strong in these two episodes, but there are also great moments for Jonathan Frakes, Michael Dorn, and Gates McFadden. The ideas behind these episodes are compelling. "No One" lets the scifi flag fly proudly, positing a place where thought and reality merge. "Datalore" mines the proud TV tradition of the "Evil Twin" in a fun way.

But in ways, the show definitely shows its age. Though the stories are fun, the actual writing is sometimes quite melodramatic. Poor Marina Sirtis is stuck with some truly awful "Troi senses" monologues. Picard pontificates in a way that, while true to his character, can only feel close to realistic in the hands of a master like Patrick Stewart. And for the most part, the guest actors are pretty horrible. "No One" in particular, which features well over a dozen different minor performers each with a few lines, shows how bad the 1980s Hollywood acting pool was.

Still, warts and all, these episodes were just a hell of a lot of fun to watch. It made me really look forward to picking up the Blu-rays and working my way through the entire series, as each season is released. Star Trek, the show that ultimately set me on my career path, is back in a big way.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Amen

Another week of The Newsroom continued the same trend of every week so far, a pickup in the quality of the show. The big evolution in this week's installment was in the way the soapbox speeches receded more into the background, in favor of putting personal stakes of the character's front and center.

All the main plot threads this week involved characters feeling guilt over situations they felt responsible for putting other characters in. The title of the episode referred to the young Egyptian journalist persuaded by the staff (but primarily the finally-not-used-just-for-comedy Neal) to put himself in harm's way during the revolution of early 2011. But Will also felt a personal sting closer to home, when the forces rallying against him tried a new tactic to get to him -- going through Mackenzie.

This episode wound up being my favorite so far because all of those personal stakes for the characters truly felt like the main point of the episode, for the first time. Sure, Aaron Sorkin still woven in political commentary about Governor Walker going after the unions, Glass–Steagall, and more... but for the first time, it didn't feel like the entire hour was crafted foremost to provide the venue in which to air those arguments.

The characters are also feeling ever more like real characters. The telling moment for me tonight was when Will was meeting with the tabloid journalist, about to buy her off, and she said "we're journalists." Instantly, you knew what Will's reaction was going to be. And that's the sure sign of a character in a story coming to life off the page or screen -- when the audience can anticipate how that character will react to a given situation.

Here's hoping The Newsroom continues this great trend.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Joyous Noise

The Colorado Shakespeare Festival in Boulder isn't just for Shakespeare. Every summer, they also produce a couple of other plays (sometimes with a tangential connection to the Bard) in rep. This year, one of those plays is a personal favorite of mine, Noises Off by Michael Frayn.

This is not the first time I've talked about this British farce here on the blog. Four years ago, the Denver Center Theater Company staged a production of it, which I enjoyed immensely. I had just as much fun this time, though in different ways.

Noises Off is about a group of actors putting on a play that's touring around England. Already inept to start with, their production becomes increasingly worse as they continue on their tour. The play shows us their shaky dress rehearsal, then takes us backstage to show a calamitous performance partway through their run, before concluding with the absolute shambles of their production at their final stop. I admit, the fact that I was in the theater for a while myself is what makes me love this play so much. Still, it's loaded with clever slapstick, precision comic timing, and great sight gags that play well to any audience.

It was this physical side of the show that the Colorado Shakespeare Festival nailed particularly well in their production. In Act Two, which shows the silent chaos backstage on a reversed set, their crisp timing drew laughter from the audience so loud that you really couldn't even hear half of the great jokes that came from lines in the "play within a play" lining up with the chaotic action.

Though I wouldn't call any part of the production weak, their first act was... not quite as strong. A lot of track is laid in the opening of this play, setting up relationships, setting up the play within the play, preparing the context for what is to follow. The cast's pace seemed a bit slow here. In a hint of the greatness to come later, the biggest laughs in Act One revolved around a few moments of well executed physical comedy. The many clever lines of dialogue, by contrast, elicited only more sparse and polite chuckles.

Nevertheless, I still had a great time at the production. I've seen enough other fantastic plays over the years that Noises Off may no longer be the most fun I've had at the theater, but it remains the funniest thing I've seen at the theater. This production runs for a few more performances throughout the rest of the month, so if you live anywhere near Boulder, I'd definitely recommend picking up tickets.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Rising to the Occasion

There's really no way for me to write a review of The Dark Knight Rises without first acknowledging the shooting that took place at a midnight screening here in the Denver area. It saddens me that the Denver suburbs have now twice made worldwide news with a horrible mass murder, but for the moment at least, I don't care to say much more than that. Everyone is going to deal with this event in their own way, and feel affected by it to their own degree. Discussing that might be interesting in person, but it's not something I care to go into here on the blog -- not so soon in the aftermath, anyway.

Assuming it's even possible to set that aside, let's do that and be on with business as usual.

I saw The Dark Knight Rises this afternoon, and found my opinion of it changing even on the drive home. I think that reaction had a lot to do with the fact that I rewatched Batman Begins and The Dark Knight at home just within the last week. As a result, my main reaction as I watched the new film was "this isn't as good as the first two." It made me more aware of things that weren't quite right. And mind you, I wouldn't say there's anything wrong with the new movie, but there are several things that aren't quite right.

Where the first two films did a good job placing action scenes into a reasonable, plot-advancing context, this movie sometimes felt like it was just doing things that looked cool. The opening sequence, for example, is a prolonged aerial stunt that (though having minor plot significance) didn't really need to take place mid-flight; they just had the money to do it that way.

The ultimate plan of the villain is a bit suspect. It's a "destroy Gotham" motive that echoes the first film, but for some reason, the plan is not to do it now, but later. The audience is given some nonsensical explanation about how giving people hope for a while will make it worse for them later, but this doesn't play convincingly at all for the city as a whole the way it does for specific characters in the story.

Much has been made in the press of Bane's weird voice, and having watched the movie, I feel it was a bad miscalculation on the part of the actor and filmmaker. It sounds vaguely reminiscent of every actor who ever played Mark Twain, and in two key scenes of the movie, it's actually unintelligible. When Bane grabs a microphone to taunt a stadium full of spectators, I could imagine the crowd murmuring to each other, "what did he say?" And worse, half of Bane's dialogue in his final scenes of the movie can't be understood.

The movie withholds certain information from the audience in unrealistic ways just so it can deliver surprises in the final act. Put simply, you won't believe what some characters go literally months without mentioning. And while the script does stop short of actually lying to the audience, the musical score crosses that line. I wish I could be specific without spoiling a piece of the movie, so I'll have to just say in a roundabout way that Hans Zimmer's theme for Bane deliberately deceives the audience in its portrayal of the character.

But as I said, on the drive home, I continued to think more about the movie, and I considered the good elements of it more. Thematically, the film is quite strong. It continues to explore the nature of good and evil (as the first two films did), and looks more closely than ever at crossing over the blurry line where the two meet. The story does a fine job resonating with themes of the earlier films, pulling everything together as a true trilogy, and then concluding that trilogy in a really compelling way that gives great closure to several characters.

As always, Christopher Nolan has assembled a fantastic cast. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, appearing in the series for the first time, is a particularly strong addition. Anne Hathaway is also quite solid as Selina Kyle, though I found her character hitting several of the same beats as Scarlett Johansson did (more effectively) in The Avengers. Tom Hardy has superb and imposing physicality as Bane, though that odd voice undercuts his efforts. Marion Cotillard also gives a good performance, though I felt as though she was working overtime to lend credibility to a character that didn't make sense on the page.

I think one of the best things about the Nolan Batman films has been the secondary characters, with veteran actors all but stealing the show. I thought it was Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox that was the MVP of movie one, while Gary Oldman's Gordon was the standout performer in movie two. Here, it's Michael Caine as Alfred. He has two incredible scenes in this movie, each of them the most emotionally powerful scenes of the entire trilogy.

And that score -- that same one I criticized for being untruthful. Well, it may be that, but it's also awesome. Loud and primal, full of brass and percussion, Hans Zimmer has written the most aggressive and effective music of the trilogy.

So, while I didn't think it as the end credits were rolling, I came around to the feeling that The Dark Knight Rises was the best of the three big superhero hero movies this summer (just edging out The Avengers and The Amazing Spider-Man). That said, I do still stand by the feeling that this movie is the least of its own trilogy. It's well intentioned and well thought out in the broad strokes, but is just a bit muddy in the execution, and a bit longer than it seems like it really needs to be.

Despite that, I still give it a B, and my overall endorsement.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Top 100 Movies -- 40-36

Thanks to my London vacation and all the amazing stories that came from it (well, I thought they were amazing, anyway), it's been more than a month since I last gave you more of my top 100 movie list. So, picking up where I left off.

40. Lars and the Real Girl. I spoke highly of this movie here on the blog when I first saw it. Ryan Gosling gives a powerhouse performance, projecting so much personality onto an inanimate object that you begin to accept it as a character yourself. Certainly all the humor and heartbreak is just as genuine and effective.

39. For the Bible Tells Me So. I don't know that I've really seen what could fairly be called "a lot" of documentaries, but I've seen enough that I feel this statement should have weight: this documentary is the best I've ever seen. This detailed look, in proper context, at what the Bible says on the subject of homosexuality ought to be required viewing for anyone who uses religion as a shield for bigotry. And it also ought to be required viewing for anybody who would write off those people as a "lost cause"; the film shows that hearts and minds can be changed. I believe it can also be a source of support and inspiration for closeted gays or lesbians struggling to come out. I was in that place myself when I first wrote about the movie. And while there were other, more important factors than a mere movie that led to me opening up a few months later, I certainly found the film to be a sort of warm hug in a cold and lonely place.

38. Doubt. I raved about this movie when I first saw it in theaters. It has sharp writing, insightful and faceted. It has strong characters, and a thought provoking ending. And the cast is simply phenomenal -- Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis are all at the top of their game here. Not an easy watch, but a deeply rewarding one.

37. In the Loop. Here's yet another movie I've praised before on the blog. This British political comedy is sharp, acidic, fast-paced, and above all, riotously funny. The creator of this is the man behind the new HBO series Veep. And while I find that show to also be quite funny (and cast very much in the same mold), this film is simply superb.

36. Gone Baby Gone. At the risk of repeating myself, this is also a movie I've written about before. I'd lamented that Good Will Hunting made me wish Ben Affleck had pursued writing more than acting. This movie makes me glad he's taken up directing instead. It's by far the best of the adaptations I've seen of author Dennis Lehane's novels, a depressing and challenging moral morass that leaves all the characters scarred. That type of movie isn't everyone's cup of tea, I know, but I thought it was brilliant.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Hello, Dahl-y

I've managed to spend more than twice as many days blogging about my London vacation as I did actually taking it. For those of you who are hoping I'll stop showing you "vacation slides" and get back to my regular steady stream of babbling about movies and such, you're in luck -- I've reached the end! Just one more thing to talk about: Matilda the Musical.

For all the amazing things we ended up doing on our vacation, this was actually the initial germ of an idea that started it all. Last year, we'd been to see musician-comedian Tim Minchin perform in Boulder. This guy is extraordinarily talented, devilishly clever, and hilariously funny. I don't think I've ever laughed as much or as hard at a live performance as I did seeing him that night.

So imagine our delight when we later learned that Tim Minchin had just done the music and lyrics for a brand new musical that had opened up in London. Adapted from the Roald Dahl book, Matilda debuted only late last year, and just a few months ago won seven Olivier Awards (the British equivalent of the Tonys) -- setting a record in the process. Knowing there would be dozens of other things we could also do in London, we basically began building the trip around the idea that we could go see this new musical.

We had dinner in the area (at Jamie Oliver's Italian restaurant), and then settled in for a big West End theater production. From the moment we walked in the theater, it seemed sure to live up to the hype.

The entire proscenium was decorated with Scrabble-like letter tiles in a rainbow of colors, spilling out onto the walls and ceiling of the house. Hidden amongst the tiles were all sorts of random words (which, by the time of the intermission, you now realized were particularly important words appearing in the dialogue of the play). When we saw somebody else near us surreptitiously snapping a photo before the start of the second act -- without getting immediately bitch-slapped by an usher -- we snuck a few ourselves:


At the edge of the wings were cartoonishly styled bookshelves that, once the play began, would roll in and out to establish scenes. But that was only the tip of the iceberg. Walls, school desks, and more were revealed to be hiding in the floor, springing from well camouflaged trap doors to establish other scenes. All of it was bright and colorful.

The cast was exceptional. A group of adults playing the "older school children" were actually secondary to a cast of 9 actual children around 10-12 years of age playing the "younger children." It was the most talented group of young performers I could imagine assembling for live theater. The title role of Matilda is handled by four different young actresses that rotate from night to night, though I can't imagine the other three being better than the one we saw.

But the real scene stealing role was that of Miss Trunchbull, the wicked headmistress of young Matilda's school. The role is written to be played by a man, and was performed with relish by award winner Bertie Carvel. I learned after the fact that he had already announced he'd be leaving the role (which he originated) at the start of July, so we were actually among one of the last audiences to see him. Ruthless and hysterical, he made one of the most high-energy performances I've ever seen seem effortless, and thoroughly earned the standing ovation he received at the curtain call.

And then, of course, there was the element that drew our attention to the show in the first place, the music of Tim Minchin. Fantastic. All the witty wordplay of the songs he performs in his solo act is present in the tunes he crafted for this show. Particular highlights include: a "School Song" that intimidates the new school children with tortures they're about face, with lyrics that secretly have all the letters of the alphabet embedded inside without you even realizing it until the second repetition; a raucous samba number entitled "Loud" that delivers on its title both sonically and visually; and a spirited finale in "Revolting Children" that had the whole audience clapping along even before one of the characters prompted it.

But Tim Minchin has also produced a few tender and touching songs over his career (such as "Perfect" and "White Wine in the Sun"), and Matilda was a showcase for those songwriting skills as well. The resolute "Naughty" and second act opener "When I Grow Up" are certainly toe-tappers even while almost being tear-jerkers at the same time.

My boyfriend declared after the show that Matilda might just have been the best thing he's ever seen at the theater, and I'd be hard-pressed to disagree, even after just having had the amazing experience of seeing Henry V at Shakespeare's Globe. The most telling thing about the evening was that, all day long, we were frankly more exhausted than either of us probably would have cared to admit. We'd enjoyed every minute of our vacation, but had already started talking the night before that we were honestly about ready for it to end. Matilda was not just entertaining, it was rejuvenating. We agreed that after seeing it, we felt a sudden rush of energy, and a feeling that we could now probably stay in London for another few days and be completely ready for more. Alas, that was not to be.

I would absolutely put Matilda on the "Must Do" List for anyone traveling to London. But the good news is that it won't be too much longer before you won't have to go all the way to London to see it. It was just recently confirmed that the production will be duplicated for Broadway in spring of 2013 -- and that the show will be keeping its British setting and content. If you live near New York, mark your calendar.

And that brings my stories of London to an end. As you've probably surmised from the great detail I've gone into recapping it, I thought it was an amazing trip. It was full of memories to last a lifetime.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Call Me Mr. Hyde

Our next stop after the Tate Modern was a place we'd visited previously on the trip -- the Dr. Marten's store that had disappointed us earlier in the week. In the intervening days, I think my boyfriend came to the conclusion that the desire to have a pair of "souvenir London boots" that were literally guaranteed to last a lifetime outweighed the disappointment that the store's selection was less than epic.

He did end up finding a pair he liked (sorry, shoe fans -- I didn't think to snap a picture), and was anxious to start breaking them in. So after a brief stop back at our hotel so he could put them on, we decided to take a stroll through the famous Hyde Park. Though not as large as New York's Central Park, it is a truly beautiful space, home to several memorials and other points of interest. We saw several, though I only learned the names of many of them after the fact. For example, there was the "Weeping Beech" or "Upside-down Tree"...


...which is not only interesting from a distance, but has access for you to walk up under and inside it (which we did).

We snapped several "coffee table book worthy" pictures that are now among the rotating desktop images on my computer:



We continued until we reached the border between Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, then walked past the Albert Memorial on our way back to the hotel:


In all, it was probably more walking than one should do in a brand-new, unbroken-in pair of Doc Martens, but "no pain, no gain" I guess. Easy for me to say, as the pain wasn't mine.

Assuming you're up for a stroll, then London's parks offer plenty of amazing views. We could easily have made more of a planned outing of it and seen other specific things like the statue of Peter Pan or the Wellington Arch, but I think part of the park's appeal was that we weren't on a mission in going there. It was just a nice afternoon stroll through a beautiful park, the sort of thing I know I myself never make time for when I'm at home.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tate Ah Tate

Friday was our last day in London. Between a week of hardcore "relaxation" all over the city and our extra long night and day on Thursday, we were running a bit low on energy, but still determined to make the most of the end of the trip. We started out by going to the Tate Modern, a noted modern art gallery in London.

We didn't expect to spend a lot of time there, I think -- and we did breeze through in just an hour or two. There are certainly some highlights in modern art worth seeing, but I must confess that I sometimes find it to be a bit of a put-on, being at its worst extremes an Emperor's New Cloak sort of situation. We saw examples of both.

There are two paintings by Pablo Picasso at the Tate Modern (here's one)...


...and a very neat painting by a favorite artist of mine, Salvador Dali:


There were also some interesting paintings and sculptures by artists who aren't giant names outside of the art world. One of my personal favorites tapped into a memory of mine from high school:


In my high school, we theater geeks had fairly unrestricted access to our performance auditorium. When a show wasn't actually in production, we'd sometimes go in to play around on the empty stage. We'd pull out scenery and set decorations from old shows, arrange them in weird ways on the stage that usually involved things being upside-down or precariously leaned against other leaning things. We'd light them with whatever bizarre colored lights happened to be leftover from the previous production, pull open the curtain, and present our bizarre creations to one another. They looked a lot like what's going on in this painting. I think we even referred to them as "modern art." Who knows, maybe we could have gotten an art gallery in London to display them?

But not everything at the Tate Modern inspired or dredged up fun memories. Some things were just strange:


I like to call it "You Promised When We Agreed to Let You Have a Sculpture That You Would Be the One to Clean Up After It."

But this was hardly the biggest load of crap in the art gallery. That would be this piece:


No, I'm not in the bathroom in this photo. I'm taking a picture of "Untitled Painting" by a pair of artists (yes, it took two people to come up with this), which the plaque on the wall tried to justify as art with this explanation:

"Since the Renaissance, painting has often been likened to a window on the world with central perspective giving the viewer a sense of surveying what is contained within the picture frame. In a bold gesture, [the artists] turn this century-old convention upside-down by replacing the painting's surface with a mirror. Rather than look at an image of the artist's making, viewers are now confronted by themselves, thereby questioning a long-held notion of painting transcending reality."

Yeah, right. Or somebody punked the art world by hanging a medicine cabinet on the wall of a gallery and calling it art.

Overall, I don't think I'd call the Tate Modern a highlight of our trip, but I would say it was just the right speed for our last day in London... a leisurely couple of hours punctuated with a few interesting and unique things.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

I'll Try to Fix You

Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom continues to get a bit better with each new episode. Tonight's episode was the strongest yet.

The characters are slowly but surely beginning to take on identities of their own, above and beyond being vehicles for Sorkin's dialogue. Perhaps the strongest storyline tonight involved the love triangle of Jim, Maggie, and Don. It was interesting to see how each of them dealt with guilt in this hour. Jim felt so guilty over finally giving another woman a chance that he lied to Maggie. Maggie felt so guilty about flirtations with Jim (that she knew weren't completely above board) that she lashed out at him far beyond what was called for. And Don... well, he may have been the most interesting of all, apparently feeling no guilt whatsoever about being a bit of a jerk to both Jim and Maggie, relinquishing any high ground he may have had in the matter.

Will continued to be the main mouthpiece for Sorkin, though his targets shifted this week to be other "journalists" more than the political figures targeted in earlier episodes. But he had interesting character moments too. Apparently, his commitment to speaking he truth has spilled into every aspect of his life, and made him a real champion of putting his foot in his mouth. Writing Will as anything but an always-perfect paragon helps counterbalance his mighty rants.

But perhaps most interesting of all is the way the story continues to race through time. Two more months of real time passed before tonight's installment. What originally seemed like a series meant to lag a few years behind the present day now appears to be poised to catch up to the present day by the end of the season. Does Sorkin have an agenda there pertaining to current events, or does the story he have planned for the threat from Jane Fonda's executive character simply need that much time to play out?

There was a misfire this week, in the dopey Bigfoot side plot that the character of Neal was saddled with. Where other characters (especially Will) are shown in both noble and foolish moments, Neal seems to play the fool all the time. He was mocked from the beginning as a mere blogger (it's clear what Sorkin thinks of that), and has since bounced from one silly fixation to another. I hope there isn't anything lower than Bigfoot in his future, or the character might never stop being a joke.

But overall, The Newsroom has officially crossed the line now for me, I think, into something I'm going to look forward to each week. Though I do have to wonder why, in this summer period with so few interesting television series running, while the tiny handful that are all seem to run on Sunday?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Elementary

After our trip to Westminster Abbey, a grand and massive space with hundreds of years of authentic history to observe, we sort of went the opposite direction and visited a tiny space with a manufactured past: the Sherlock Holmes Museum. Located at (where else) 221B Baker Street, the museum is a shrine to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective.


It's a modest gift shop adjoining a multi-level flat dressed to match the space described in the original stories, from ever-present items that defined the characters...


to more specific curiosities mentioned in certain episodes.


It's all crammed into a narrow space meant to authentically reproduce the layout of the flat that only ever existed in the real world in its being given an actual, plausible address. Upper levels of the space are devoted to a small wax museum that recreate a few moments from the novels and stories:


As you may have seen me post on the blog, I've only recently begun to read the original Holmes stories in earnest. I've read more so far than I've found time to write about here on the blog -- I've been writing about the trip instead -- but I'm still not all that far into Holmes adventures. As such, many of the particulars inside the museum admittedly held no specific resonance for me. But the overall space was an intriguing look at the pages of a book come to life.

Stories are often realized on television or film, but it's rather rare for a book to be translated into a real world space that you can actually stand in and interact with. Going to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando was a similar experience, albeit vastly more commercialized than this more modest effort. (No roller coasters here.) I can't pretend the the Holmes museum swept me away into another world, but there was a more simultaneous sense of reality and fiction co-mingling in the short time we wandered the space.

The Sherlock Holmes Museum certainly wouldn't be a stop that any visitor to London should make time for. But if you've ever been entertained by one of the many incarnations of the character over the years, you might find it a fun hour's diversion.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Church of England: The Sequel

After arriving back in London from our sunrise Stonehenge experience (and a very short nap to partially recover from a lost night's sleep), my boyfriend and I headed back out into the city. It was about the right time in the day for afternoon tea, so this was the one day we decided to carve out an hour and stop for tea, scones, the entire ritual. (Side note: "clotted cream" sounds positively disgusting if you ask me, but oh my how crazy-delicious it actually is!)

Tradition observed, we then set out for Westminster Abbey.


Like St. Paul's Cathedral, this was another location that didn't allow photography inside. And speaking of St. Paul's Cathedral, I admit that part of me might have been reluctant to go tour another church.

I'm pleased to say that it was totally worth going to both locations. The two, both beautiful, are actually not very similar. St. Paul's is impressive in its clean architecture and construction, and is most striking artistically in its paintings. Westminster Abbey is much more about the interesting jagged points of Gothic design and some amazing sculpture.

Another key difference is that it was in Westminster Abbey that we found crypts with more of the atmosphere we were hoping to see in the level below St. Paul's Cathedral. There are many famous figures interred within the Abbey, many in large stone caskets decorated with death shroud statues and spooky gargoyles or frescoes. Both Queen Elizabeth I and her rival Mary are there, along with a host of other British kings and queens.

More interesting still are the large number of figures buried or memorialized in Westminster Abbey that were not part of the church. Military figures, starting with Oliver Cromwell, can be found at the Abbey. Geoffrey Chaucer's connections with the Abbey saw him buried there, and that began an area now known as Poet's Corner, where all manner of famous British writers are honored.

Most striking of all to an American tourist is the fact that both Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin are buried at Westminster Abbey. Newton in particular has an elaborate stone statue marking his crypt. Given the oil-and-water state of science and religion in the U.S., it's impossible to imagine any church here being the final resting place of men like these. I think I prefer the British way myself.

An added bonus of visiting Westminster Abbey: Jeremy Irons narrates the guided tour you can listen to while walking through the building.

For astounding architectural grandeur, it's hard to top Westminster Abbey. I'd definitely recommend at least a brief visit, should you ever have the chance.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stepping Up to the Mike

I'm taking a day off from trip stories to share something I did more recently. Last weekend, I went to see Magic Mike, the "male stripper movie" directed by Steven Soderbergh. The movie apparently came about on the set of Haywire, when actor Channing Tatum was regaling folks between takes with tales of his before-he-was-a-star days as a stripper. Soderbergh (who has been claiming he's retiring for more than a year now, yet can't seem to stop making films) felt that it sounded like there was a movie in there somewhere, and in fact made it his next movie.

There was a fair-sized audience in the auditorium for a later screening past the opening weekend of the movie. Yes, mostly women. And they weren't shy about sharing their opinions as we all funneled out of the theater after the movie. Several were declaring "I thought there'd be more [dancing/stripping/nudity]." Now on the one hand, I think if you really wanted that, you'd have better options than a mainstream Hollywood movie. Go rent an actual adult movie. I think under these circumstances, you ought to be expecting an actual plot and not just a two-hour montage of flesh.

On the other hand... they kind of have a point. Knowing that they were making "the male stripper movie," a movie probably no straight man anywhere would see voluntarily (until someone tells him he can see a topless Olivia Munn just three minutes in, anyway), I would expect the filmmakers to put in a reasonable amount of the content their audience was expecting to see.

There are one or two very brief group numbers, each with roughly the complexity of a group number on Glee -- and frankly, not all that much less appropriate for prime time television. It all comes off like the secondary cast of the film couldn't actually dance, and the edit was trying to hide the fact. There are a couple of solo numbers featuring Channing Tatum, in which it's abundantly clear that he worked hard in his former career; most actors would need a stunt double for this kind of stuff.

But mostly, there's just a lot of talking. Tatum is Mike, a would-be furniture business owner trying to get out of the stripper life in the long term, even as he's trying to pull "new guy" Adam (Alex Pettyfer) into it. Safely. He's promised Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn) that he'll keep the young man from going over the edge. And from there, we watch the steady and certain downward spiral, in a storyline vaguely reminiscent of (though far more entertaining, at least, than) Scarface.

There's actually quite a lot of humor peppered throughout the film in fun one-liners and playful interactions between pairs of characters. These moments definitely work, but in part just for being a respite from the rather dreary and too-conventional plot. The one actor who seems to be having maximum fun all the time is thus, unsurprisingly, the best thing about the film -- Matthew McConaughey knocks it out of the park as the always-amped, sleazy and supportive all at once club owner Dallas. He gets laughs treading close to his Dazed and Confused character in one scene. He gets laughs evoking his somewhat-well-known real-life naked bongo session. He gets laughs, period. It's the sort of performance that would never in a million years be considered for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, but probably objectively should.

But unfortunately, the rest of the movie isn't nearly so fun. I'd call it a middle of the road C. At best, it's one to rent later. Though if you consider it, I think you should ask yourself what you're really hoping to see, and ask yourself if renting some other movie might not better fill the need. Ahem.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Henge Benefits

Thursday morning marked sunrise on the summer solstice, and a truly unique experience on our London trip.

When planning our trip and the things we'd like to do in and around London, the question of Stonehenge came up fairly early on. Part of me really wanted to see it, but another part of me was listening to the almost universal review I'd heard from people I know who had been: Stonehenge was all closed off now, you can't actually get near it, and it's frankly kind of lame looking at it all tiny from hundreds of feet away.

But purely by coincidence, we'd already booked our plane tickets for a week in June that would have us in England during the summer solstice. And my boyfriend discovered that for one night only at the solstice, from a few hours before sunset to a few hours after sunrise, English Heritage actually allows full access to the stones themselves. You can walk among them, touch them, and observe all the close details that visitors don't get to see anymore.

That changed everything.

We located a charter tour bus that was shuttling people to and from Stonehenge, and booked a ride that would have us there for 90 minutes on either side of sunrise. Unfortunately, this did mean being awake to catch a bus at 1:15 in the morning, sacrificing our too-recently conquered jet lag on an ancient stone altar.

First, the bad news. This turned out to be the first day of our trip with prolonged bad weather. Torrential rain poured across the plains outside London all night long, and while it had tapered off to a merciful and intermittent drizzle by the time we reached our destination, a low and heavy cloud cover was determined not to go anywhere.

See, the "main attraction" of Stonehenge at solstice is the way that a particular solitary stone about 200 feet outside the circle proper -- called the Heel Stone -- perfectly aligns with the spot on the horizon where the rising sun appears on the solstice. We never saw the sun, only a gradually lightening sky punctuated by a cheering crowd at the seemingly arbitrary moment of 4:51 am.

But that said, I felt like the experience we had was still a once-in-a-lifetime bit of amazing. We were standing right within the inner circle at the moment of sunrise.


In our more than two hours on the site, we got to explore Stonehenge in every detail, from the trilithons...


...to the outer ring (and a face you can see in the rock?)...


...to the chiseled graffiti you can see on the stones from times thousands of years apart...


...to the Heel Stone that would have been even more important had the morning been clear:


We got to see the Ancestor, a huge statue temporary erected near Stonehenge in honor of the solstice:


We were amused by the crowd, a mix of tourists like us, truly committed druidic worshipers who were playing instruments and embracing the stones of Stonehenge in hardy bear hugs, and all-night party-goers both drunk and (heh-heh) stoned.

And yes, we got to touch the stones of Stonehenge:



Stonehenge was a truly unique experience that will always be with me, one I was lucky to have, luckier to share, and luckier still in who I got to share it with.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A Total Embarrassment

We returned to the hotel after our Windsor excursion in the late afternoon, and found ourselves with some time to kill. We had a trip to Stonehenge leaving in the dark of night (for reasons I'll get to in my next trip-related post), so we spent some of the time until then in the hotel room with the TV on. At first, it was British game shows loaded with questions about cricket, the House of Lords, and other things quite outside our field of knowledge.

Then came an unsettling show entitled "Embarassing Bodies." It was basically an hour-long procession of people with uncomfortable medical problems. And though this may well have been on some sort of restricted, HBO-esque kind of channel, I think there was also a cultural difference between England and the U.S. This program had absolutely no reservations in talking about some things that "Embarassing" doesn't quite seem to cover. And showing them too.

There was the woman whose ruptured (and subsequently removed) breast implants from the 1970s had left her with two sunken recesses on her chest. We got to see the results of several new restorative surgeries as she first had scar lines reduced, then had new breasts put in, and finally had nipples reconstructed on her new breasts.

"Why exactly are we watching this?" I think I asked, looking up from my round of phone Sudoku long enough to catch a man with hives on his genitals that he seemed far more reticent to talk about than to show us.

And then came the reason why I bother recounting this story. After all, watching TV in a hotel room wouldn't ordinarily make the highlight reel of a trip that included even half the things we did. But what came next is burned in my mind so forcefully that I'll remember it for the rest of my life just as surely as seeing Shakespeare performed in a replica of the Globe Theater.

It involved a woman who, after the birth of her child, was now experiencing some loss of control over her bladder. She would involuntarily urinate at awkward times, and was consulting a doctor about a surgery to repair the damage her body had sustained.

If you don't know me that well, you may not know that I'm unreasonably squeamish when it comes to medical matters. You can throw gallons of fake gore on a movie screen without fazing me, but I have actually gotten a touch queasy after having my blood pressure taken. If a doctor is actually drawing my blood, I have to lay down and stare intensely at the ceiling. I most certainly don't want to watch a major surgery on television.

I buried my attention even more intensely in my phone Sudoku, letting my boyfriend continue to watch this horror show he could not seem to look away from. A minute or two later, he lets out a startled groan. Reflexively, I glance up at the television for a fraction of a second...

You know at the end of Predator, when the creature takes off its hunting mask and roars, its strange mouth mandibles splayed in multiple directions? Yeah, that's what was going on with this woman's business and a half dozen sets of forceps.

You know those guys who say that being gay is a conscious choice that people decide to make? I wish I could show each and every one of those idiots a freeze frame of this picture, because if anything in the world could consciously make a man stop being attracted to women, this visual would be it.

If it were entirely up to me, good readers, I think I'd have kept this story to myself. But my boyfriend visits the blog too, and I think he'd say that my account of our London trip would be missing a vital episode if I'd omitted the night we watched "Embarrassing Bodies." Whatever your take on this chapter, he gets the credit or the blame.

Yikes.

Monday, July 09, 2012

Magic Bus

Once we returned to London from Windsor, our pace was a bit relaxed. We had a late lunch, shopped for tea, and then decided to ride on the top deck of a double decker bus. Mind you, we had no particular place to get to; just as we'd decided to ride a cable car in San Francisco purely for the experience, so we decided to ride a double decker bus in London.

It's a good thing we didn't have anywhere particular to get to, because it was coming up on rush hour, and the bus we boarded wasn't going to go anywhere fast. Forced on many levels to just sit back and enjoy the slowly passing sights, we got to see some interesting things.

We got a vivid illustration of the "circus" in Oxford Circus:



We also rode through Trafalgar Square, getting a glimpse of the countdown clock marking the days remaining to the start of the 2012 Olympics:


Ultimately, we got off our bus in Westminster, and took a short walk along the wall of the Houses of Parliament before catching the Underground back to our hotel.


Trivia time! That picture above that we took is not of Big Ben. (Well, nor is it technically from this particular day of our trip, but that's not the trivia.) Big Ben is the name of the largest of the bells inside the clock; the tower itself is called the Elizabeth Tower.

Anyway, that's the story of how we crossed "ride a double decker bus" off the list.

Sunday, July 08, 2012

The 112th Congress

Tonight's new episode of The Newsroom was the first one where Aaron Sorkin shared writing credit with another writer. And while the episode still sang from top to bottom with his signature dialogue style, I think the imprint of that second voice must have been there somehow, because this hour seemed to move the series a large step in a better direction.

Although Will's on-air tirades against the Tea Party still seemed to be the strong mouthpiece of Sorkin, other characters started to find voices of their own. For example, while Sorkin has had lovelorn characters on his series before, Jim's situation (in regards to Maggie) began to carve out a space of its own. Sam Waterson's Charlie began to find his own voice as he was forced to defend himself in the meeting that framed the episode's ongoing action.

It's interesting that the show decided to push the fast forward button tonight. Though the series initially lagged a bit more than two years behind real time, tonight's episode compressed six months into a single hour, as it chronicled the midterm elections of 2010. On the political front, this allowed for the aforementioned evisceration of the Tea Party. On the character front, it allowed for a number of things.

First, it allowed the work environment to settle in as "normal." The question of whether Will would actually fire Mackenzie was swept completely off the table. (Instead of threatening her job, he opted to torment her emotionally with a procession of girlfriends until she herself moved on.) We skipped over the breaking in period of Olivia Munn's new character Sloan. A long "on again, off again" relationship between Maggie and Don was condensed into a synopsis. The series is now fundamentally different, because while we the audience are still learning about the characters, they are no longer really learning about each other.

Second, it put a new threat on the table in the form of Jane Fonda's new executive character. I noted of the series pilot that The Newsroom was going to be Sorkin's wish fulfillment of what intelligent journalism should be like. But it appears he's not going to dismiss entirely the fact that such a thing would be a fantasy in the real world. He's adding a dose of reality (polished to a shine with his typical style of dialogue, but his version of reality all the same), of the news media's enslavement to ratings, corporations, and financial gain.

This narrative growth in the series comes at a particularly good time. Earlier last week, HBO announced that it had renewed the series for a second season. This first season is already in the can, so the knowledge of a renewal won't affect what we're about to see. But I think we the audience can now relax and watch the show go somewhere, knowing that it does indeed have somewhere to go.