Friday, July 31, 2015

Beer O'Clock in San Antonio

In my rush to get to thrilling tale of vomit, I realize I cut short my (admittedly less thrilling) tales of hunting for craft beer in San Antonio. That stop at BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse that I mentioned? Well, that was actually a late lunch. Evening rolled around too slowly for bed, so we ended up checking out another local spot, Freetail Brewing Company.

Freetail is a lot closer to what Denverites would recognize as a craft brewery. It's in a strip mall, is decorated with lots of corrugated metal, and though it does have food, beer is clearly foremost on their mind. They had 18 different selections on tap during our visit, and we sampled our way through most of them. Being a big fan of IPAs, my boyfriend liked Velocihopter. I was similarly pleased with the Yo Soy Un Berliner. But many things made a fair impression.

In fact, we decided to go back to Freetail a couple days later in the trip, only to find that several beers had rotated (and that the new tally was 20 in all). In came Spirulina Wit (a "weird green beer") and Jamaica Wit (a "weird pink beer), along with the menacing Thanatos.

But I was more impressed by a place we found driving closer to downtown San Antonio. This was a few hours after Six Flags, when I felt like I'd recovered and was apparently willing to push my luck. We went to a place called Blue Star Brewing Company, and if it had been closer to our hotel, we'd have surely been there every remaining night of the trip. Fans of darker beers would likely be disappointed -- there was a Barleywine, and a "Spire Stout" which I sort of liked (meaning any true fans of stouts probably wouldn't have). But for fans of lighter options, there was plenty, from the solid Texican Lager to the fantastic Raspberry Geyser (a sour).

So while there weren't the dozens (hundreds?) of tasty brewery options we enjoy in Denver, San Antonio nevertheless had a decent foundation in the craft beer market.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Flags Day

Our first full day in San Antonio was spent mostly at Six Flags Fiesta Texas. There's a lot to do there, though we kept mainly to roller coasters as we worked our way around the park.

Batman: The Ride. This is the park's newest roller coaster, and the ride we went straight to first in hopes of avoiding a long line. It's billed (in non-clarifying fashion) as a "4D Free Spin" roller coaster. What that means in practice is that as you roll along the track, your seat spins you in forward and backward somersaults. It's a rather short ride, but probably about the right length for this much uncontrolled motion.

Superman: Krypton Coaster. A really fun ride, of the "floorless coaster" variety. This Six Flags is located in a quarry, and this ride in particular is wedged right up against the quarry wall. As you zoom down hills and through loops, the proximity to the wall works to give you a great sense of speed. After riding a few coasters in Orlando with speakers built into the headrests, I could have asked for that on this ride too. Still, my brain helpfully filled in John Williams' Superman march as I cruised along.

Iron Rattler. Best coaster in the park; any coaster fan is sure to love it. It's a new steel track coaster built in part on top of the wooden track of a previously existing ride. The first hill drops over 150 feet at more than an 80 degree angle, which feels intense when riding it and seems questionably safe when watching it from the ground. There's also a corkscrew inversion. But what makes these thrills truly impressive is that the ride still has a definite old-time feel -- lap bar only; no shoulder harness.

Road Runner Express. A family-friendly coaster than feels extra tame for being right next to the Iron Rattler. You can ride it without waiting, so there's that. It's worth noting that just after this ride, we stopped for a junky amusement park lunch. I had a foot-long hot dog. (If you've already figured out that this isn't the only appearance of this hot dog in my story, congratulations.)

The Gully Washer. After the first round of coasters, we changed into swim trunks to hit the three water rides. You ride this one facing in a circle, bobbing along some rapids and definitely getting wet. Not bad, but nothing I haven't seen at several other amusement parks.

Power Surge. Not much to this one. Ride up a hill, splash down on the other side. Good for cooling off quick in blazing hot San Antonio, but not much of a thrill.

Bugs' White Water Rapids. This "log ride" is loosely themed with Bugs Bunny. It's the most coaster-like of the log rides, but the wettest you get is on your feet, when water in the log sloshes back and forth as you go up and down hills.

Goliath. With the water rides done, we changed back out of swim trunks and went back to other rides. This coaster is of the "hang below the track" variety, and feels a lot like the Mind Eraser at Elitch Gardens or Alpengeist at Busch Gardens in Williamsburg. Decent, but you can surely ride one like it closer to your home.

Boomerang: Coast to Coaster. This might be exactly the same as a ride at Elitch Gardens -- a holdover from the days when it too was a Six Flags park. You ride a double-loop forward, and then backward.

Fish! Not a ride, but a bunch of neat looking fish near a bridge. Very big because they're very well fed from the nearby dispenser... which we also gave a quarter to.

Poltergeist. In my opinion, the most intense of this park's coasters -- a relentless knot of turns and twists at what feels like an incredibly high speed. It also has one of my favorite roller coaster gimmicks, the "fast start" (as opposed to an initial uphill slow crank). Ride operators seem to have fun with that gimmick too.

Scooby-Doo Ghostblasters. We took things down a notch with this blacklit carnival style ride. Like the Men in Black ride at Universal Studios, you shoot at targets with a gun and try to beat the scores of all your friends. Oddly, we had to wait longer for this ride than anything else in the park... possibly because said wait was entirely indoors and thus offered a chance to escape the ridiculous San Antonio summer sun.

Frisbee. Here was my big mistake. This is a classic "spinny ride." 40 people are strapped to a wall in a circle. They spin around and around as an arm rocks the whole disc back and forth. This is pure vomit material, and I totally knew that. But my boyfriend convinced me to ride it with him. I made it through with lunch intact, but I was one twist away from disaster.

Pandemonium. Which makes the next ride decision obviously suspect to say the least. Up to four riders in a single car (pairs facing each other) spin around in free circles as they weave and invert along a coaster track. I knew about halfway through this ride that I should have taken a longer break. But as it ended and we were pulling into the loading station, I thought maybe I'd survived with dignity and lunch intact. Then, after a slight pause, I turned my head and gracelessly attempted to puke over the side of the ride. Half in, half out. Bits of hot dog instead landed in the ride, leading them to officially condemn that car from any future riders.

Thus, the amusement park day came to a slightly premature and ignominious end. It's the first time I've ever barfed from an amusement park ride. But at least two lessons were learned: never, ever, ever ride those spinny rides; and (according to my boyfriend) I really ought to chew my food a little more before swallowing. Plus, I did apparently have the maximum amount of fun I could have on this day. (Or maybe "maximum plus a little more.") So... good times, I suppose.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

San Returnio

Hello, readers! I welcome you back to the blog after a few days of radio silence. I was out of town on a short vacation down to San Antonio, Texas. You might regard it as an unlikely destination, but my boyfriend and I were looking for something quick and close, and we were inspired in part by the first trip we took together -- to hit a bunch of theme park rides in Orlando. Looking for near-ish amusement parks with highly rated or talked-about rides that neither of us had been to, we came up with Six Flags Fiesta Texas -- and a handful of other things to do while there.

After arriving in town on our first afternoon, we decided to seek out some of the local beer. Knowing of course that we'd left the craft beer mecca of Denver behind us, we nevertheless found a few places that seemed worth seeking out while we were in San Antonio. That afternoon, it was a brewery-in-restaurant (with sort of a Rock Bottom Brewery vibe) called BJ's Restaurant and Brewhouse. With a solid Blonde and Hefeweisen, and a really good Berry Burst Cider, the place made for a good start to the trip.

It also made for immediate exposure to the "everything's bigger in Texas" attitude. Not only were the "tasters" in the flight 5 ounces rather than the more common 3...

...but the ravioli I ordered for dinner was one big ravioli served in a pan (basically, lasagna with the edges crimped together). It was circular, though, which is more than I can say for the waffle I had for breakfast the next morning.

That waffle? I'd be seeing it again, after a full day at Six Flags Fiesta. But I'll get to that story, and others from San Antonio, in the days ahead.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Heavens, No!

I'd hardly say I'm a "fan" of Christopher Rice. I'd read only two of several novels he'd published (though I apparently only blogged about one). Still, I liked those two well enough to circle back around eventually and try another -- which I recently did when I read The Heavens Rise.

This novel is perhaps the closest thing to Rice following in the footsteps of his mother (Anne Rice). It's certainly the most "horror" of his books. It centers on a small cluster of friends whose high school past is catching up with them after nearly 10 years. A young, angry man has been in a coma all that time since trying to force himself on a girl he liked (and the revenge-plan-gone-wrong he cooked up afterward). Now he's awakened from the coma, to discover he's developed the power to subvert a person's mind and force them to do what he wants.

The first two-thirds of this book are quite solid, with Rice deftly handling a number of elements. His characters are diverse and interesting. The sense of creeping dread is chilling. The New Orleans setting is conveyed vividly. Time hopping between events in the present and the past is effective in escalating tension and building interest.

But then the book takes the most bizarre turn at the start of the final act. The novel makes a jump from psychological horror to visceral horror, when a completely new dimension to the villain's power is exposed. The new facet is nonsensical, untelegraphed, and unearned. The book then launches into a bizarre "superpowers vs. superpowers" conclusion -- at least hinted at in the novel's buildup, but no less bizarre.

The result is a book that coaxes you in under false pretenses only to jump off the deep end. This isn't a case of a final act twist not delivered well; it's more like someone else took over writing for the original author 60 pages or so from the end.

The Heavens Rise is certainly my least favorite of the Christopher Rice novels I've read. I give it a C+. There's enough great technique early on in the book to save it from a truly scathing grade (and to encourage me to try Christopher Rice again some day). But I feel so pranked by the bizarre ending that I really couldn't recommend it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

TNG Flashback: Frame of Mind

With "Frame of Mind," things behind the scenes at Star Trek: The Next Generation were more under the gun than ever. Nevertheless, the series scored another hit.

Commander Riker is preparing for an undercover mission to an alien planet. He's also playing the lead role in "Frame of Mind," a psychological play set in an insane asylum. Just when the stress is threatening to consume him, he suddenly finds himself in an actual mental hospital. His doctor tells him that his life on the Enterprise has been a delusion he's been struggling to break free of. And as Riker begins to bounce back and forth between realities, he loses his certainty of just what is real.

The 22 episode seasons favored by network television shows can be quite demanding. Star Trek: The Next Generation actually produced even more than that -- 26 episodes a season. As each year was racing to the conclusion, creativity was often taxed to the limit, and the writers would get increasingly desperate for the next idea to put before the cameras.

In season six, with Deep Space Nine now also on the air, the late season crunch was reportedly the worst it ever got. In "The Chase," a year-and-a-half old idea was resurrected for lack of anything else to work from. With "Frame of Mind," episode writer Brannon Braga never even had time to develop his original idea. He had the barest of ideas: "What if Riker woke up in an asylum and was told he was crazy?" From the short memo pitching that idea, the staff developed the outline in three furious days, then Braga proceeded to write the script for production.

It's likely that in this mad rush, nobody realized just how much this episode was a fusion of two others that came before it -- Riker-centric episodes to boot. As in "First Contact," Riker is captured while undercover on an alien planet. And as in "Future Imperfect," he is made to believe in a false reality. Still, the details do count for something, and here they synthesize those repeated plot elements into something pleasingly different.

The psychological angle is a rather extreme departure for the show, considerably darker than most Next Generation episodes. Director James L. Conway, returning to the series for the first time since season one, uses a lot of clever staging and camera work to heighten the tension. The opening scene is a long single take on Riker as he performs the play, dropping us into a strange place and setting up the uncertainty the character himself will experience later in the episode. Quick cuts from one reality to another, the unsettling Greek chorus quality of the "reflection therapy" scene, specifically avoiding physical contact in moments that might confirm what is real... all are effective storytelling choices.

The behind-the-scenes departments really stepped up too, in telling this borderline horror story. The set of the play and the set of the actual alien asylum are created in just the perfect ways to make the former seem false and the latter real. The mirror hanging in the cell reflects an appropriately distorted image. Jay Chattaway's music makes everything seem just a bit "off," with more prominent stings and a melody for the asylum played on a tinny piano. And the "shattering reality" visual effects in the story's climax are an eye-catching image.

Of course, this being weekly television, the script can never truly make us believe that Riker imagined the whole series. Still, it has a lot of playful fun along the way -- the crazy "Starfleet officer" talking to her ship through her spoon, the different versions of Riker's performance in the play, and the ways that characters from one reality cross into the other. It's a solid script, which fellow staffer Naren Shankar praised as the best Brannon Braga wrote for the show. (And writers for other shows seemed to like it too. "Main character wakes up in an asylum" episodes later showed up on a few other series -- including another fan favorite, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.)

Jonathan Frakes was very appreciative of the script, which put him in every scene of the episode after a season that had underutilized him. Generally, he gives a good performance, making Riker's breakdown seem quite real. (Alright, he does perhaps have one or two over-the-top moments, but screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOO!" has become such a cliché that I don't think any actor could possibly sell it anymore.)

Frakes is supported here by several guest stars that might be recognized by Star Trek fans. Susanna Thompson had already appeared as a Romulan on The Next Generation, and would later appear on both Deep Space Nine and Voyager (taking over the role of the Borg Queen in the latter). Actor Andrew Prine would also later appear of Deep Space Nine. And Riker's "doctor" is played by David Selburg, who had appeared as the historian Whalen back in "The Big Goodbye."

Other observations:
  • Data makes a truly bad actor in this episode. Oh, not in his performance as the doctor in "Frame of Mind." (His dispassionate delivery seems more than appropriate, in fact.) No, his crime is when he jumps in during a break in rehearsal to suggests notes to Riker, his fellow actor. Proving to be a skillful director, Dr. Crusher gracefully nips that in the bud and steers her star back on course.
  • Jokes about Picard being a bad or reluctant actor always work. Here is no different, when he worries about having to replace Riker in the play.
  • The Blu-ray edition of this episode includes a commentary rather different than the other Next Generation episodes to receive one. This is by episode director James Conway, and director of photography Jonathan West. You don't get a lot of insight into the creation of this episode's script, but they have a lot to say about the actual process of filming, from preparation to execution to editing -- and including comparisons to other television series. If you're a fan of how movies and television actually get made, you'll likely find it interesting.
Surprisingly good given its turbulent creation, I give "Frame of Mind" an A-. In this case, desperation led to a very solid episode.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Very Much Later Years of Sherlock Holmes

The new film Mr. Holmes presents a very different tale of Sherlock Holmes -- and not only because the story doesn't come from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Based on the book A Slight Trick of the Mind, by Mitch Cullin, it shows Holmes beyond World War II, at the age of 93. He has outlived his few other friends and family, and now lives with a housekeeper and her young boy as he faces his own growing infirmity and senility. He's unable even to remember the details of his crucial last case, though he's certain Watson's published account has dressed up events in his customary fiction. Had the case not ended in failure, why would he have retired at all? But perhaps with the encouragement of Roger, the housekeeper's boy, he can piece together his memories and write a true account before he meets his end.

Mr. Holmes is very much a character piece, and actors' film. So the cast means everything. Ian McKellen portrays Sherlock Holmes, and is the perfect choice. He plays both older and younger than his own age in the film, aging 20 years to play the fading Holmes, and perhaps some 10 years younger in flashbacks of him on his final case. It's a marvelous performance on many levels. McKellen captures the maladies of extreme age in a completely convincing way, and skillfully presents the sleuth still on top of his game in his 60s. He also plays wonderfully off the other two major characters in the story, showing a man yearning for human contact without really giving lie to Holmes' famed eschewing of such attachments.

Holmes' housekeeper, Mrs. Munro, is played by Laura Linney, who arguably has the heaviest lifting to do in the film. She's at her wit's end trying to raise her brilliant young son alone after losing her husband in the war. She has many powerful scenes with both the boy and Holmes, and Linney makes you feel for the character even more deeply than Holmes, the film's ostensible protagonist.

Then there's a new, young child actor named Milo Parker. While this isn't the most demanding of child roles (Roger is, for the most part, bright-eyed and eager), Parker is nevertheless called on in every scene to stand toe-to-toe with either Ian McKellen or Laura Linney. (Or both!) He never misses a beat, and always seems to be feeding an energy into the scene for others to play off of. It's the perfect performance for the movie.

Skilled though the acting is, though, the story is rather simplistic. It's presented in a challenging way to spice up the proceedings, bouncing around between three different time frames. But one of the time frame takes a long time to reveal its purpose in the narrative, and so the pace does feel a bit slack in places. Still, it does reach a fairly powerful ending that has something meaningful to say about the importance of human interaction.

If you don't mind a quiet, contained film -- and you like Ian McKellen or Laura Linney -- then the film is probably worth your consideration. If you need adventure to boost the contemplation, you're not likely to find any entertainment here. I give Mr. Holmes a B-.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Kurioser and Kurioser

After more than a month here in Denver, Cirque du Soleil's newest touring show is leaving at the end of this week. Kurios: Cabinet of Curiosities is one of the company's best shows in years; if you're able to catch it before it's gone, I highly recommend it. (And if you're near Chicago, start making plans for its next stop in August.)

With around three dozen different shows in its 30 year history, wholly new Cirque productions are quite rare. In this, Kurios is not truly an exception. But in the ways the show manages to present tried and true acts in clever new ways, while blending in a handful of new ideas and a clever setting, Kurios stands out.

Each Cirque show has a loose story and theme used to connect the different acrobatic performances. For Kurios, the protagonist is a mad inventor whose machine bends time and space -- all presented with a lavish steampunk vibe. Costumes, sets, musical style... everything suggests a 19th-century vision of technological future.

Where Kurios really shines is in presenting some of Cirque's most iconic acts with a surprising new twist. Instead of a trapeze performance, there's a Russian cradle duo that comes off more daring and difficult. The excellent juggler is accompanied on stage by a Stomp-like percussion performance, and doesn't miss a beat even when he's hoisted dozens of feet into the air! A balancing act took on seemingly impossible dimensions as a performer teetered on a tower of perpendicular cylinders.

My favorite act was a triumph not only of gymnastics, but of creative presentation. I've seen before a Cirque act in which a man builds a precarious-looking tower of chairs and climbs ever higher to perform feats of balance and strength. This version took place at a dinner party, and halfway through the act another dinner party was revealed in the rafters high above the stage, with a duplicate set of performers staging the same act upside-down to reach the original performers in the middle!

I found the show thrilling even though at least two of the acts were altered (probably due to performer injury or exhaustion). The descriptions of Kurios mention a group of four contortionists (where I saw only three) and a dual aerial straps performance (which was performed solo at my show). An Aerial Bike act also described online (and featured in a lot of the production's advertisements) was omitted entirely. Yet the show didn't feel compromised to me in any way.

Whether you've never seen a Cirque du Soleil performance before, or you've seen as many as I have, I can't recommend Kurios highly enough. It's a grade A night of entertainment. The clock is ticking (except in the world of Kurios' steampunk protagonist), so look for tickets now!

Saturday, July 18, 2015

That's How You Get Ants

Marvel's latest film, Ant-Man, brings the so-called "Phase 2" of the Marvel Cinematic Universe to a close. As one of only two non-sequels in that group of movies, it's naturally drawing a lot of comparisons to the other one, Guardians of the Galaxy. And it seems a particularly fair comparison to me; both are quite entertaining movies, although both are in good measure re-packaged versions of earlier Marvel films.

But let's start with what Ant-Man brings to the table that's new. This is easily the most humorous entry in the canon. It features the most unlikeliest of the "unlikely heroes" yet seen in Marvel, not-entirely-reformed burglar Scott Lang. It also features the franchise's first real mentor/pupil relationship, as shrinking-tech inventor Hank Pym trains Lang to become Ant-Man. Much of the story is cast in the mold of one of my favorite film sub-genres, the "heist" movie. Not only do all of these elements stake out new Marvel territory (or push farther than they have before), they all do so quite successfully.

Another thing this film handles well (which has been hit and miss in past Marvel films) is giving the characters real problems and personality. I personally believe the two Captain America films have been the best of their respective Phases, in large measure because Steve Rogers had believable relationships that meant something to him (Peggy Carter and Bucky Barnes). Here in Ant-Man, Scott Lang is yearning to be part of his daughter's life while trying to negotiate a difficult relationship with his ex-wife and her new boyfriend. At the same time, Hank Pym is mourning the loss of his own wife, and trying to make amends for how that loss destroyed his relationship with his daughter. In short, there are personal stakes underpinning the superheroics that an audience can relate to.

Yet with all of these compelling and original threads in the weave, Marvel can't help but include the familiar. Much as Guardians of the Galaxy was a re-skin of The Avengers, Ant-Man is a re-skin of the original Iron Man. A brilliant inventor has lost control of the company he created, but has retained the secret of a powerful technology. The ambitious new man running the company is crazy for one-dimensional reasons that won't bear scrutiny, and is trying to unlock the secret of the new invention himself for profit and evil. It all builds to the creation of a supervillain just 30 minutes before the movie ends, who has a big fight with the hero.

Yes, I was disappointed in how familiar Ant-Man ended up, after so much potential for difference that it started with. Still, I liked it overall, and that has a lot to do with the cast. Paul Rudd makes a very accessible protagonist that's easy to root for -- a skill he's showcased in many non-superpowered movies before. Michael Douglas is a fun mentor with just the right amount of a mean streak. Evangeline Lilly plays great against both of them, funny and dramatic in turn. Michael Peña nearly steals the show as Scott Lang's hilarious former cellmate. And, not getting too specific, the appearances of other people from the Marvel Universe are quite effective and welcome here (including the obligatory Stan Lee cameo that, for once, I actually quite enjoyed).

In fact, to whatever degree Ant-Man does compare to Iron Man in my mind, Ant-Man comes off better on every level. It's a lot of fun, and I give it a B+.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Music to Evolve By

Earlier this week, I wrote about last year's sci-fi action flick about an evolving superhuman, Lucy. (Not amazing, but more enjoyable than you might expect.) I noted the film's effective score, composed by long-time Luc Besson collaborator Eric Serra. Since watching the movie, I've picked up the soundtrack album, and if anything, I've grown to like the music even more as I've listened to it on its own.

It shouldn't be surprising that the score for this film has a fair amount in common with Luc Besson's other big sci-fi movie, The Fifth Element. It's not that the music for the two films is overtly similar in many ways, but it's related in more of a Netflix recommendation sort of way: "if you like this, you'll probably like that." An interesting quirk of the Lucy album is the way in which the tracks have been broken up. Though the album clocks in just under 50 minutes, it contains 29 tracks; most of these are barely a minute or two long. But the album doesn't consist of 29 truly distinct cues. Instead, some pieces that run 5 minutes or more are broken up across three or more consecutive album tracks, tracks that flow uninterrupted into one another. The result is an album you're encouraged to listen to in its entirety, as opposed to letting fragments of songs bubble up on random shuffle.

The music itself decides on a few particular methods of experimentation, and then mines them deeply through the film. There are a lot of techno stylings: percussion that sounds like bursts of static, riffs built around ostinato melodies, unusual electronically generated instruments. But it's hardly a "techno" score. For one thing, the tempo of much of the music is decidedly slower than dance music -- and sometimes even free times for long sections. For another, the music has its other foot firmly planted in the orchestral world. Several tracks are punctuated with militaristic snare. All registers in the string section are used. In general, just as many sounds seem organic as synthesized.

Of course, I do allow tracks from the album to come up at random, and there are a number of them I've rated highly. "First Cells" opens the album with a very retro sci-fi sound, a vaguely Casio vibe that's what a lot of 80s movies thought the future would sound like. The two tracks presenting parts of "Mr. Wang's Bloody Suite" make marvelous alternating use of dense and sparse orchestration to build a sense of dread. "All We Have Done With It" is an odd but wonderful little jazzy riff on contrapuntal clarinets. "Taipei Airport" is a short but clever piece using electronic noises in an organized and musical manner.

There are tracks with ominous, thrumming bass. There are pensive, emotional melodies on instruments both familiar and unusual. There are tracks that skew more orchestral, and tracks that come across like Trent Reznor riffs (the Nine Inch Nails music, not Reznor's own film composing). There are amorphous soundscapes with insect-like percussion skittering over the top of it. There are tracks of interesting organized chaos. There's even a track with an operatic soloist soaring prominently above it all ("Mind Into Matter").

Indeed, I'd say that the Lucy soundtrack is better than the film for which it was created. I'd give it an A-. Though I don't imagine ever watching the film again, the album is going to stay in the rotation for some time to come.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Well-Made Plans

With "The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans," Sir Arthur Conan Doyle may have given birth to the spy thriller genre. It's a Sherlock Holmes story that involves a murder and the theft of blueprints for a submarine. And while it's not the first time Holmes has been called upon to serve his country, it is the most convincingly high the stakes have been in such a tale.

There are a lot of wonderful twists and turns in the mystery. Paraphrasing Holmes himself in the story, each new development serves not to unwind the case, but to further complicate it. Particularly clever is the revelation that the site where the murder victim was discovered was not in fact the site of his murder... and the means of his relocation is one of the more inspired surprises in any of the Holmes tales.

The story is also steeped in a London atmosphere that makes the tale feel like quintessential Holmes. Indeed, one might say it opens literally steeped in London atmosphere, as a dense fog has been overlaying the city for days. But also making this tale feel vital is the inclusion of both Inspector Lestrade and Mycroft Holmes.

But the presence of Sherlock's brother is something of a double-edged sword in the story. As in his prior appearances, Mycroft is portrayed as even more brilliant than Sherlock -- though lazy and slothful. This story strains belief in the latter department. It's revealed that Mycroft's true job is in fact government service, and he himself states that the loss of these submarine plans would be an immeasurable intelligence loss for England. Yet even with these stakes, he simply cannot bring himself to go out and investigate the theft and murder; instead he prevails on Sherlock to do it. That he's unwilling to lift a finger even in this situation makes him seem cartoonish, if not an outright villain.

But I suppose it's a conceit you must allow in order for this to remain an adventure of Sherlock Holmes. And in every other respect, it is indeed one of the best. I give The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans an A-.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Some Splainin' to Do

Though it seemed to have plenty of potential to go bad, I still wanted to see last year's sci-fi(-ish) action movie, Lucy. It's not even a very original idea; like Limitless, this is a story of drug allowing someone to transcend the "only using X percent of your brain" myth.

What drew my interest was the people involved. It was written and directed by Luc Besson, who has a mountain of credits to his name -- the most relevant here being The Fifth Element. That film firmly established that he can make a thoroughly enjoyable science fiction movie starring a butt-kicking female, so I was willing to give him another chance here. And on this occasion, he cast Scarlett Johansson, a skilled actress I expected to be strong in both the drama and action the story seemed to require.

Lucy isn't as good as it should have been. But it's much better than it could have been. At a tight 90 minutes, the movie gets in, does what it aims to do, and wraps up at breakneck speed. It has an entertaining take on the "emergent superhuman" story, one that mostly makes it worth this retelling. The action is generally more clever than simple hand-to-hand combat. And it's all pretty fun.

But because it's so compact, the main character doesn't really get much of an arc. Scarlett Johansson is great as the pre-drug Lucy, a weak and terrified character caught up in something far beyond her. She's also strong as the robotic and efficient post-drug Lucy, on a mission and using her emerging abilities to achieve it. But the movie really isn't interested in showing us any journey between the two. Apparently, the difference between using 15% of your brain and 20% of your brain is all the difference in the world. (Then again, it kind of has to be, given the outlandish place the movie plans to get to in the end.)

If you aren't a fan of Scarlett Johansson, you shouldn't even bother. She's the star of the show. Morgan Freeman plays a supporting character, a scientist Lucy seeks out for his theories on human brain potential. But the movie is really trading on the gravitas Freeman brings to any role he plays; it doesn't actually give him very much to do.

A very welcome element of the movie is the quirky and compelling score by Eric Serra (a longtime collaborator of Luc Besson's). A rather unwelcome element of the movie are the flashes of documentary-style footage spliced into scenes in the first act of the film, a too on-the-nose way of spelling out the obvious subtext of what's unfolding. But the movie has these things that work and things that don't because it's willing to risk being different. And overall, that's a good thing.

I'd rate Lucy a B-. I suspect few of my regular readers would be blown away by it, but most would at least like it.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Gauging the Silo

The first novella of Hugh Howey's Silo series was good enough to pull me into the rest of the series. That turns out to span nine stories in all -- which I assume to be of unequal lengths, as the first five were compiled under the heading "Wool," and published in their own omnibus. But rather than reading it all in one stretch (more than 1000 pages in my Nook reader), I decided to take it one novella at a time, with other reading interspersed between. So first (well, second) up, Proper Gauge.

Set in the immediate aftermath of the first story, Holston, Proper Gauge tracks the mayor of the silo as she ventures down into the lowest levels of the structure to recruit someone for a job. In the process, she learns just how much she doesn't know about the lower levels and its problems, despite being their leader.

Once again, author Hugh Howey has crafted a story where character is key. He has invented a rather detailed world in which his story takes place -- and this novella reveals much more of it than the first -- but it's all quite secondary to the focal character. This is all about Mayor Jahns' thoughts and challenges, her regrets about a past that could have played out differently, and her hopes for the future beyond her own lifetime.

The story moves at a substantially slower pace than the first book. It's almost entirely, literally, a 100-story walk downstairs and then back up. There are stops along the way, scenes set in different parts of the silo, but much of the narrative is simply the mayor's thoughts as she puts one foot in front of the other. It easily could have come off dry, save for two things. First, you can clearly see pieces being placed for the next volumes of the series. Where Holston felt like a wholly self-contained tale, Proper Gauge definitely sets up what's to come next.

Second, Howey is pretty good at inhabiting the mind of his character. Not every flight of fancy in her mind is riveting stuff, but her view of the world is generally an interesting one that keeps you turning the pages. For readers who value plot much more highly than character, it might get too slow in places, but in this case I found myself consistently engaged.

I'd give Proper Gauge a B+. It certainly kept me hooked on the series, possibly even setting its hooks in me a little deeper.

Monday, July 13, 2015

TNG Flashback: The Chase

"The Chase" was an idea so long in the making that episode co-writer Ronald Moore joked that the title referred to the effort just to get it on the air. The result was perhaps the most quintessential hour of "Star Trek" that The Next Generation ever produced.

Captain Picard's old archaeology professor Galen comes aboard, on the cusp of a great discovery and inviting Picard to join him in its pursuit. When Galen is killed in an attack by Yridian information dealers, Picard takes it upon himself to complete his mentor's work. Soon, the Enterprise is on a wild hunt to planets throughout the galaxy, the crew looking to complete an apparent computer program hidden in the very DNA of living organisms. And there are many alien rivals hot on their heels.

This late season six episode of the show was first conceived by staff writer Joe Menosky at a pre-season five writers' retreat. It was loosely inspired by a plot element from Carl Sagan's novel Contact, where hidden information was uncovered in a long calculation of the value of pi. (That element didn't make it into the movie adaptation.) Fellow staff writer Ronald Moore was immediately keen on the idea, and worked with Menosky to produce a script. Their approach was a comedic, madcap chase in the style of "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." Then-showrunner Michael Piller killed it for being "too cartoony."

But more than a year later, the traditional late-season crunch happened. There was a lack of scripts ready for filming, and Menosky and Moore re-pitched the idea with some important changes: a more serious tone, and a more poignant entry into the adventure through the death of Picard's mentor. Now everyone was sold, and the episode went forward. In fact, Piller was suddenly so hot on the story that he suggested to now-showrunner Jeri Taylor that it could be the season finale cliffhanger!

Professor Galen really does add a great deal to the story, despite dying at the end of the first act. Picard's interest in archaeology had been long established on the show, but this was the first time it was portrayed as more than a mere hobby. Galen says Picard could have been the foremost archaeologist of his generation, and Picard explicitly acknowledges that career as a "road not taken." (Though, so soon after "Tapestry," it's fitting that he expresses no doubts about the path he chose.) It's also interesting to see the captain -- normally so in charge -- showing total deference to another person as he does with Galen.

Once the titular chase begins, the story takes on an impressive scope. The Enterprise probably travels to more planets in this episode than in any other. They encounter Yridians (just introduced in "Birthright"), Cardassians, Klingons, and Romulans. There's a mystery in play complex enough that both Crusher and LaForge (with their quite different skill sets) play a key role in solving it. And it all culminates in the very Star Trek, very Roddenberry-esque revelation that the people of different races really are the same at the most basic level. It's a clever choice to have the Romulans, of all enemy races, be most receptive to this message; that makes sense, sharing their own past with the Vulcans as they do.

The alien hologram delivering this message is played by Salome Jens, the actress who would go on to regularly play a similar looking character -- the female leader of the Founders -- on Deep Space Nine. It's a speech that not only delivers a moral, but provides a clever in-universe explanation for why all aliens on Star Trek look fundamentally human. Director Jonathan Frakes was particularly proud of the content of the speech, and said in a later interview that he thought it would have made Gene Roddenberry proud.

Producer Rick Berman (so often the wet blanket) was less thrilled with the finished episode. To him, the concept was "not Roddenberry-esque, it's very sixties Roddenberry-esque." And while I'd personally dispute that there was even a difference, he's not off-base noting that this episode felt like classic Star Trek. Ronald Moore was specifically thinking of an original series episode when working on this one: "The Paradise Syndrome." In that episode, an unseen race called the "Preservers" had relocated life from Earth to another planet. Moore had considered identifying the ancient humanoids in this episode as those Preservers, but ultimately opted not to specify, and just leave that connection "internally consistent." In any case, these aliens are certainly an interesting idea -- truly alone in the universe (at their time), as some people imagine humans might be in our real universe. (Call me skeptical of that.)

But in getting to its Trek-perfect ending, the episode does do a few bewildering things along the way. There's never an explanation for why the Yridian ship is destroyed in one hit (only Worf's assurance that it wasn't his fault). It's completely unclear how the Cardassians and Klingons found out about Galen's research when he was taking such care being secretive about it. (He refused to even explain it to his would-be partner, Picard.) And it's quite implausible that the ancient aliens, wanting their message to be discovered, would leave each piece of the puzzle in only one place -- risking destruction over billions of years (as almost happened accidentally at the final planet, or intentionally at the one the Klingons wiped out). I suppose the episode was too tightly-packed for explanations of these probably-unimportant details.

Other observations:
  • Perhaps harkening to the episode's originally intended comedic tone, the scene where Nu'Daq tries to bribe Data is full of well-executed humor. Another bit of humor was cut from the episode for time -- a deleted scene (available on the Blu-ray) in which Dr. Crusher gets a DNA sample from the self-important Mot the Barber.
  • Although Deep Space Nine would bring us seven more years' worth of Cardassians, this episode's Ocett is the only female Gul ever seen on Star Trek.
  • While the episode turned out well, Jonathan Frakes was disappointed that the scenes on the final planet were filmed on a set rather than outside. He groused a bit that "the money was being spent across the street" (on Deep Space Nine), though set designer Richard James observed that the script called for a salt flat devoid of vegetation, which couldn't be found within a reasonable distance of the studio.
This episode is a surprisingly effective blend of adventure, comedy, and highbrow Star Trek morality. I give it a B+.

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Lodging Minor Complaints

In "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge," Sherlock Holmes aids a proper English gentleman who has found himself at the center of a "grotesque" affair. A new acquaintance invited him to the countryside for an overnight stay, only to disappear with his entire household staff during the night. Worse, the host himself turns up dead a few hours later!

This two chapter story has a most unique feature in the chronicles of Sherlock Holmes -- a competent police detective. Inspector Baynes is investigating the case in the countryside, and Holmes has nothing but praise for the man. Even after a midpoint twist in which it seems Baynes has gone barking up the wrong tree, it turns out that he too has solved the case through methods of his own. Perhaps someone prevailed on Arthur Conan Doyle to stop making clowns of Scotland Yard in his stories? Perhaps he was contemplating a spin-off character? Who knows? But it does make for a refreshing variation in the formula.

There's something in the story that feels vaguely prescient. It involves a rather elaborate plot to assassinate the toppled dictator of a foreign country, living secretly in the UK. It's something of a Nazi criminal story, reversing the two sides of the ocean, written half a century before World War II. Regretably, a native of this backwards, fictitious country is presented with a series of offensive and racist stereotypes, but I suppose Doyle wasn't that far ahead of his time.

Another unwelcome element is the conclusion of the mystery. Holmes solves the case, but doesn't "get his man." In a rather awkwardly tacked-on ending, Watson recounts how we all of course know that this escaped dictator wasn't caught at this time. Holmes hangs a bell on the odd writing choice, noting that this adventure won't wrap up neatly like most of the stories Watson likes to recount. Still, it feels as though perhaps a full-length novel might have been in the making here, one Doyle simply wasn't interested in writing.

Nevertheless, the strangeness of this story's set-up is quite clever and engaging. Generally speaking, I found a fair amount here to like. I give "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge" a B-.

Friday, July 10, 2015

A Bit Wide of the X

I hadn't heard good things about the first stand-alone Wolverine movie, X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Still, Hugh Jackman is certainly one of the better things going in the X-Men franchise, and the recent talk of Deadpool and his upcoming movie had me interested in seeing what that was all about. I decided to give the movie a chance.

Certainly, as I was watching it, I knew it wasn't "good." But I honestly didn't think it was all that "bad" either... until I went to drop it into my Flickchart, where it landed so low it surprised even me. Pondering how that happened, I concluded that the movie has plenty of good parts in it. But it's stuffed with too many of them, giving nothing the time or space it would need to command a truly good experience.

Take, for instance, the fact that Logan and his half-brother have lived for around 150 years. They've seen times and technology change. People they've known have come and gone from their lives, their only constant being each other. They've fought in multiple wars, each for a different cause, and have been changed by those experiences. All of this feels like the basis of an intriguing and introspective story -- one that would still have plenty of the action a superhero movie needs. Instead, this movie doesn't even scratch the surface on that, compressing it all into the opening credits sequence.

The next 10 to 15 of the movie follows the brothers as they join a covert military operation, a sort of "A-Team" of mutants. Here's where Deadpool shows up, along with several other rather interesting characters. There easily could have been a whole movie of this. (Indeed, it makes me very much look forward to the Deadpool movie.) But the film isn't interested in hanging with this thread either, moving on before it really digs into anything that might satisfy the audience beyond visceral thrills.
I'll spare you a blow by blow of the rest of the movie (particularly since many of you have already seen it). It suffices to say that the story bulldozers on like this, introducing tantalizing premises that probably sustained multiple issues of Wolverine's comic book series, only to dump them before truly exploring any of them. The movie is like a child at Christmas, tossing aside one exciting new toy to open the next one.

Because the focus is so high on churning through plot points, character motivations suffer.  Put simply, almost nothing anyone does in this movie makes any sense. Logan wants revenge; that part, at least, is crystal clear. But it's quite murky how his brother Victor (who shared every one of his life experiences) has wound up so different from him (read: evil), why he hates Logan so much, and certainly why he throws away that hatred in the final act to team up. And Victor is only the most conspicuous example of about five characters in the movie that behave solely to facilitate plot twists. Nearly every character with more than five minutes of screen time behaves one way, then does an about face, only to turn again once or twice more before the finale.

It's a shame that cast has been given such an impossible script, because it's really a good cast. Though Logan was a supporting character before this movie, Hugh Jackman is great at taking him center stage. Liev Schreiber serves up a good, animal performance as Victor Creed. Danny Huston is fun twirling his metaphorical mustache as the villain Stryker. Dominic Monaghan and Ryan Reynolds are both tons of fun in their woefully brief screen time, as are and Kevin Durand. Lynn Collins is an intriguing love interest (denied the material to be more than that). I'd say the only weak spot is Taylor Kitsch as Gambit; though even then, I'd blame the script and not the actor. (I was Googling "Gambit" during the movie, because it was not remotely clear to me from what I was seeing just who he was supposed to be or what exactly his powers were.)

I feel like any given 15 minutes of the movie, taken as the basis for a whole movie, could have led to far better results. And because any 15 minutes of the movie were pretty good, I didn't feel like I was hating it while I was watching it. But the whole was far less than the sum of its too many parts. What I expected to call a C or maybe C- instead landed squarely in D+ territory when I went to Flickchart after the movie was done. But in any case, X-Men Origins: Wolverine was a clear disappointment.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

A Cardboard Story

"The Adventure of the Cardboard Box" appears at different points in the complete Sherlock Holmes, depending on which version you're reading. For some reason, American editions remove it from its original inclusion in the second collection of short stories, and instead use it to open the collection published after The Valley of Fear.

It's one of the Holmes tales that hasn't aged particularly well. It involves a woman who has inexplicably been sent a box containing two severed human ears -- a tantalizing premise that's surprisingly gory compared to most of what Arthur Conan Doyle wrote. But (at the risk of spoiling the ending a bit; but it's been well over a century, people) the big clue in the case turns on a detail that seems like a stretch today. The fact that the ears are both pierced, despite one being male, leads Holmes to conclude he must have been a sailor -- and from there the whole puzzle quickly snaps into place.

While the case itself ultimately disappoints, there's an oddly fun little vignette that opens the story. As Watson sits reading the paper, his thoughts meandering, Holmes jumps in and essentially reads his mind. The detective launches into a virtuoso chain of observation from which he has inferred every turn in Watson's winding train of thought. It strains credulity a bit, but it's awfully fun, and it hints at what a career as a con artist Holmes might have had.

Overall, however, I'd say the Adventure of the Cardboard Box doesn't stand out much in canon of Sherlock Holmes. I'd rate it a middle of the road C.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Childish Thoughts

Every year, like clockwork, fantasy author Terry Brooks releases a new novel. This year finds him in the middle of a loose "trilogy" of stand-alone stories that involve the same core group of characters. Following up on last year's The High Druid's Blade, this year brings us The Darkling Child.

Thwarted in his previous machinations against the Druids, the dark sorcerer Arcannen has been forced into hiding. Now his anger at the Druids is eclipsed by a new target -- an amoral Federation commander who wipes out the village that was secretly harboring him. In pursuit of vengeance, Arcannen has found a young teenager named Reyn Frosch. If the boy can be manipulated by Arcannen, his powerful magic can be used against the Federation. But the Druid Council, and their protector Paxon Leah, are hot on the trail now that Arcannen has reemerged.

When I reviewed The High Druid's Blade, I noted that the novel started off weak, only to improve in the back half as it ventured into darker territory. The Darkling Child, unfortunately, takes the opposite journey. The opening 100 pages set up a number of interesting situations and characters that are among the most nuanced Terry Brooks has created in several books. The villain of the piece, Arcannen, has a legitimate grievance against the Federation, putting him in a moral grey area. The new character of Reyn is believably conflicted over his magical abilities. And another new character, Lariana, is introduced in an intriguing manner that makes you question her loyalties and motivations.

But as the novel continues, we see the price of Brooks' reliable release schedule: there's a formula to his writing. And no matter how tantalizing and different the set-up might be in this case, the conclusion races right back toward the familiar, beaten path. Arcannen loses the moral high ground in his own cartoonish villainy. Lariana's self-serving personality is almost immediately subsumed by an unbelievable romance. And Reyn bobs around with no agency in the story whatsoever.

Still, the novel might work better if it actually had room to unfold naturally. It's an unusually short-for-a-fantasy-novel 300 total pages, and telling the story in such a short space requires every character to make a hairpin turn to facilitate the plot. Characters fall into love, disillusionment, and fury faster than can be believed. And it all leads to a conclusion that's not nearly as self-contained as the first book of this not-so-loose-after-all trilogy.

Ultimately, I was disappointed after a very promising start. Or perhaps I'm just disappointed that the fantasy genre is leaving behind Terry Brooks, one of the writers most directly responsible for bringing it to prominence. In the halo of enjoyment I had reading some of Brooks' prior books, I can see my way to rating this one a B-. But it's hard to recommend it to anyone. It's not clever enough to recommend to someone who has never read Terry Brooks before, and it's too familiar to recommend to anyone who has.

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

Bites Sized Review

Given the sheer number of people I like who were involved in the 1994 film Reality Bites, it's kind of a wonder I'd never seen it until recently. And it's probably a shame I didn't see it years ago, as it feels like a film very much of that time.

Reality Bites is a loosely plotted movie exploring one general theme: the uncertainty that young people have as they enter "the real world" for the first time. That's a fairly universal theme -- yet the way each generation feels about it definitely changes. And I must confess, so does the ability of an aging adult (sniff, me) to directly relate. I'd like to think that even 20 years ago, I would have found the characters of this movie off-putting and obnoxious... but it's possible that I've taken too many steps toward shaking my fist from my front porch rocking chair. For whatever reason, I found the movie only intermittently funny.

But it does boast an impressive cast. The core is Winona Ryder, Ethan Hawke, Janeane Garofalo, and Steve Zahn -- all of whom I've liked in other movies, and all of whom find good moments here. There are also fun turns from Ben Stiller, Swoozie Kurtz, and John Mahoney. (Plus, blink and you'll miss it: a before-she-was-famous Renne Zellweger breezing by.) I'm not sure I believe the romantic relationships between some of the characters, but I attribute that more to the script embracing the very slacker virtues it's preaching. When it comes to the friendships and confrontations in the film, things pop much more strongly, and the actors all do good work.

Before watching the movie, I wasn't aware that it was actually the first feature film directed by Ben Stiller. That may seem a bit odd, given the goofier films he followed with over the next two decades. But then, the moments that land best here are the broadly funny ones, and the clever turns of phrase. Then, as now, Stiller understands the timing of a joke.

Overall, though, I wish Reality Bites had been a little more... something. More profound, or more emotional. Or just plain funnier. Like its characters, it too often seemed content to just sort of sit there and waste its potential. I give it a C-.

Monday, July 06, 2015

TNG Flashback: Lessons

"Lessons" was the second Star Trek: The Next Generation episode in a row to focus on Jean-Luc Picard. But where "Starship Mine" had been an action-oriented affair, this was a quiet romance.

Captain Picard meets Nella Daren, the new head of the ship's Stellar Cartography department. She's brilliant, assertive, an accomplished pianist and lover of music... and she knows how to coax the reserved captain out of his social shell. A romantic relationship develops between the two, and they carefully negotiate the awkwardness of an "office romance" between a superior and a subordinate. But their "office" often journeys into dangerous situations. And when the Picard orders a rescue of people from a deadly planetary firestorm, putting Daren into harm's way is a greater strain on the relationship than either could have anticipated.

Taken as a piece of episodic television, "Lessons" isn't all that extraordinary. One of the series regulars falls in love, only to play out an entire relationship and then break up before the end credits (all to keep the character available for future episodes). But then, "Lessons" isn't quite a piece of episodic television. It draws heavily on the series' best episode, "The Inner Light," and from it is strengthened tremendously.

The episode was pitched by an outside writing team, Ronald Wilkerson and Jean Louise Matthias. They'd previously sold the ideas for "Imaginary Friend" and "Schisms," but here were actually given the opportunity to write their own script rather than see their premise handed to a member of the writing staff. (Though there was still a minor final draft polish by Rene Echevarria. Brannon Braga was originally to have drawn the assignment, but a switch was made in light of his poor showing in the series' last romantic episode, "Aquiel.")

Nella Daren is really well written as the perfect love interest for Picard. She doesn't back down easily when confronted, but is also able to charm without seeming insincere. Yet the big key to the episode is the way the two characters bond over a love of music.

For a show generally loathe to do sequels, it's a brave thing to so completely embrace the history of "The Inner Light." Picard summarizes the plot of that episode in its entirety (and fittingly, is circumspect about it before finally opening up). And when the actual Ressikan flute melody is reprised, it's hard not to tear up at the connection. Yet this episode is doing more than merely trading on the goodwill of that past one; it's actually raising the stakes on this relationship, knowing how much Picard's last one meant to him.

Actress Wendy Hughes has a fine line to walk here as Nella Daren, but she's equal to the challenge. She's not just likeable, she's likeable even in the face of scenes where Doctor Crusher (who we also like) is essentially positioned against her. (Jean-Luc doesn't want to tell Beverly where he got his new tea blend from, nor does Beverly want to let on to Nella how she and the captain really know each other).

Any hesitancy about this relationship is dispelled in the scene where Daren first encourages Picard to play the flute for her; her advice to "just enjoy it" is as infectious on the audience as it is on the character. I mean, just look at the child-like, enthusiastic grin on Picard's face as he takes her compliment.

I find it interesting how the episode manages to present a convincing relationship despite operating within Gene Roddenberry's restriction of "no conflict between 24th-century humans." Picard and Daren talk through several relationship pitfalls, including the instinct to hide it from the crew, the commitment not to let work intrude, and the question of whether "the captain's woman" is expecting any favors from other superior officers. True, there's little friction in any of this, but that fortunately doesn't mean it's uninteresting.

Actually, if there's any awkwardness in the story, it comes from compressing the relationship into the span of a single hour. It's just the nature of the television beast. You have to accept that the very first time Picard sends Daren on an Away Team mission, her life is put in danger. Then you have to accept that after just this one incident gone bad, the two decide to end their relationship. But at least the break-up makes for a touching scene. When Picard confesses his momentary fear that his music would never again bring him joy if he'd lost her, it feels like a profound loss indeed.

Other observations:
  • This is the first appearance of Stellar Cartography on the show, and it's a modest one. The movie Star Trek: Generations would present a much more grandiose vision of this part of a starship, as would Star Trek: Voyager.
  • There are some great little moments involving Counselor Troi. My favorite is a subtle look Marina Sirtis gives in the background as Picard listens to Nella Daren play at the concert. Troi is picking up on the positive emotions Picard is feeling.
  • Looking at Daren's keyboard, I'm not sure it has enough texture on its surface to be played by touch.
  • In the pivotal scene set in the "acoustically perfect" Jefferies Tube, director Robert Weimer staged a super long, super slow pullback that went to the very edge of the dolly track (and the set). Unfortunately, it had to be trimmed for time.
  • It's interesting that after Jay Chattaway scored three straight episodes of The Next Generation, he didn't get this one. He was the one who composed the Ressikan flute melody from "The Inner Light" that figures so prominently here. Still, Dennis McCarthy does a good job of fleshing out his colleague's beautiful tune with piano accompaniment.
Admittedly, this episode wouldn't be as good without the background of "The Inner Light." But "Lessons" has that background, and the result is a solid B+.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

Flying Off the Rails

It might just be that there are more Euro games about trains than any other subject -- and several good ones at that. So I wasn't exactly in the market for another train game. But my good friend, an even bigger board game enthusiast than I am, sold me on checking out German Railways. And he did it by describing the intriguingly different mechanic at the heart of the game.

Like most train games, German Railways features several companies working to connect different cities. Like some train games, companies are not directly controlled by a single player; instead, shares in each company are sold, and then players jockey to try to make the companies they've invested in do well. So far, there's nothing at work here you can't get from, say, Union Pacific. But there are two twists.

First, there's the way in which each rail company must be infused with money. When a player buys a share, that money goes into the company's coffers. And only that money can be spent (by any shareholder) to build track. When the company runs out of money, someone has to buy a new share (using the dividends they've received from ownership of other stocks) to infuse the company anew. It's a fairly clever game system that captures an economy more elaborately than most games attempt to do. And it's surprising how well it works in practice.

The second mechanic is a highly unusual way of determining player turn order each round. There are as many actions up for grabs as there are players in the game. Whichever players is "winning" (measured by having the highest potential dividend payouts among his railway shares) gets one token in a cloth bag. Second place gets two, third place three, and so on. Then tokens are drawn out at random. It's a theoretical catch-up mechanic, where the leader has very little chance of even getting a turn in a round, while other players might even get to act multiple times. In theory, it's a rather clever gimmick.

In practice, random chance is angry and fickle. I played in a four-player game, and I'm sorry to report that it's unlikely any of us will ever play the game again. In the first two rounds of the game, the same player didn't get a single turn. (He was nominally in first, but hardly by any amount that mattered, given that the game had just started.) Then, in four of the last five rounds of the game (all but the final round), I myself didn't get a single turn either. (This despite being in first only one of those missed rounds, and in third for two of them.)

Thus the flaw in leaving up to chance such a vital mechanic as getting to actually play the game. My friend sat there doing nothing for the first 10 minutes of play, all of us learning the ropes as he sat out. Then I did nothing for almost 30 minutes at the end of the game, knowing any chance of pulling out a win was slipping away from me and being powerless to do a thing about it. It's the sort of frustrating randomness I associate (unfavorably) with a game like Fluxx -- but at least with Fluxx, you know from the start that you're signing up for chaos, more activity than game. German Railways felt like it snuck up under false pretenses and punched me in the face.

So, with apologies to the friend who recommended it, I have a copy of German Railways for sale. Not that I'd actually encourage any of my readers to buy it. I imagine that the experience could be better when the odds don't defy you. But I had an absolute grade F experience. And the fact that the game has no rules to limit that sort of thing makes it hard for me to grade it any better than that.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

Dull Steel

When people know that you read fantasy books, you get a lot of recommendations. Fantasy books often come in long series, demanding a lot of time from the reader, so fellow fans are usually eager to swap favorites. This was how I heard about a trilogy by Richard K. Morgan, beginning with a book titled The Steel Remains.

Independently of this, I'd been continuing with that intermittent search I mentioned a while back, the search for an interesting book with a gay protagonist. In that, I'd also came across mention of The Steel Remains. Among the three characters who share focus in the book, one is a gay man and another a lesbian. Feeling that two roads had precipitously intersected, I decided to give the book a shot.

I never finished it. This isn't unheard of for me, though it is rather rare. I tend to give books all the chances I can once I've begun. I'm not the fastest reader around, but I am generally fast enough that I'd just as soon give a bad book the opportunity to improve rather than bail on it. But I simply couldn't pull myself through The Steel Remains.

Richard Morgan did have some interesting character ideas. And he certainly used his unconventional protagonists in unconventional ways. But whatever he might have planned, his execution was quite simply terrible. His book is the work of an author trying way too hard to write with style.

Morgan takes a handful of writing techniques and works them to death. Sentence fragments are strewn everywhere. His metaphors and similes seem deliberately crafted to be awkward and pull the reader out of the flow. And virtually every chapter begins with the same device of concealing character perspective. It often takes a page or more for Morgan to concretely identify which of the main characters he's following, leaving the reader frequently confused and disoriented. Any one of these devices could have been used sparingly to good effect, but repeated ad nauseum, they quickly become off-putting.

Then there's more bad writing specific to the fantasy genre. The narrative is often paused for lengthy passages of world building that aren't remotely integrated with the story. Several names of families and cities are unpronounceable jumbles of letters, made even stranger with a smattering of hyphens and apostrophes. And the whole thing seemed too desperate to ride George R.R. Martin's coattails in its more explicit descriptions of sex and violence.

I made it fully two-thirds of the way through the book, occasionally pulled in when a character began to develop in an interesting way. But eventually, I got tired of the bad writing kicking me out of the flow. Realizing there were two more books in the series even if I could make it to the end of this one, I chose to cut my losses.

I suppose the fair grade to give the book would be "incomplete." I suppose it would also be fair to note that the person who pointed me to it specifically said it had a page-turner of a plot, and specifically hedged about how much he liked the book. But it's my blog, and I'll decide what's fair. I couldn't finish The Steel Remains, and I don't think anyone else should start. I give it an F.

Friday, July 03, 2015

He's Bahck

Last night, I went to see the new movie Terminator Genisys. Part sequel, part reboot, the movie plays fast and loose with time as it revisits and then expands the established Terminator mythos. Terminator 3 and Terminator Salvation being so forgettable, I'm not sure I can confidently declare whether this new film is the worst of the franchise. But it's certainly in that company. And in any case, there's very little this film does that one of the preceding four didn't do better.

One thing for certain this movie doesn't do well is tell a story that makes much sense. One of the most subtly appealing aspects of the Terminator movies (particularly the first two) is how much they mined from something so simple. The heroes are trying to stop a killer robot that wants to kill them. Sure, the time travel aspect makes for a bit of a wrinkle, but that's it in a nutshell. By contrast, Terminator Genisys is sort of trying to tell the stories of all four previous movies, and mixing in its own new plot threads too.

Time goes in the blender with this movie. An entire alternate timeline is spawned (and it's never explained how, if it could have gone this way, it didn't go this way the first time around). There are scenes set in five different years and two different timelines. There are multiple time machines, multiple time travelers (some arriving from points never identified), and multiple strategically dubious uses of time jumping. (If you have a time machine and you're trying to stop an apocalypse, is showing up less than 48 hours before said apocalypse really your best bet?) Look to Arnold Schwarzenegger as a metaphor for the movie itself: both use lots of words like "quantum" and "theoretically," and clearly have no idea what they're talking about.

The... I guess I'll call it up side... is that it's all so knotted up and inscrutable that you give up trying to make sense of it pretty early on. That makes it possible to at least partially enjoy the handful of charms the movie has on its side. Emilia Clarke makes a pretty good Sarah Connor. While she doesn't seem nearly as confident handling weapons as Linda Hamilton did in the second film, she gives a solid performance with both strong and vulnerable moments. Jai Courtney is also decent as Kyle Reese, good with the action and the everyman humor. Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons (as you should be legally required to call him now) is frankly a bit wasted in a goofy comic relief role, but he squeezes every last drop of juice out of his precious minutes on screen.

And stuff blows up real good. There's an over-reliance on CG, and consequently some set pieces don't work as well as others. For example, there's a helicopter chase that's kind of crazy-awesome in scope, and yet it doesn't thrill as much as the much simpler helicopter work in Terminator 2, because it doesn't look real. On the other hand, there's some very well-done city destruction in the opening minutes. And the much talked about "old Arnold fights young Arnold" scene was quite a bit more convincing than I expected it to be. There are also plenty of good morphing gags involving liquid Terminators and new nanite-ish Terminators (which are somehow supposed to be better than liquid Terminators, but I'm not convinced).

The truth is, you're much better off just staying home and watching the first two (excellent) Terminator films. But if you do decide to go... well, it's not great, but it's not a total loss. I give Terminator Genisys a C-. (But an F on spelling "genesis.")

Thursday, July 02, 2015

A Masterpiece for a Masterpiece

It's a bit strange that a film score aficionado like myself didn't have the music from Psycho in his collection. It's an omission I recently decided I had to rectify.

On the other hand, perhaps it was not that strange an omission, as I'm also a purist for original recordings. (This was a lesson learned back before complete albums for the Star Wars trilogy were finally released. Some of the unofficial albums that offered a track you couldn't get anywhere else unfortunately also featured re-recordings that sounded nothing like the versions in the movies themselves.) The problem is, the original tracks for Psycho simply don't exist. My options were re-record or nothing. "Nothing" finally reached the point where it seemed the worse of two evils. I figured at least that being one of the most revered film scores of all time, any re-recording of the music would be carried out faithfully.

Bernard Herrmann composed for many Alfred Hitchcock films, but his Psycho score is legendary. With the film on a tight budget (being financed by Hitchcock himself), Herrmann didn't have as much money for his orchestra as he was used to. His response was to ditch most of the orchestra and compose only for the string section -- violin, viola, cello, and bass. One great triumph of the score is how much Herrmann squeezes out of this limited ensemble, how many different ways he uses the versatile instruments. Melody isn't just reserved for the violin section; viola and cello get to carry it at times as well. Players use broad, slow strokes and swift, sharp ones. Strings are plucked with the fingers and all but stabbed with the bow. Much of the music is played with mutes on the instruments, swallowing up any reverberation in the sound; this in turn makes the few unmuted moments leap from the speakers.

Psycho is such a celebrated score, with so much scholarly commentary written about it, that there's likely nothing I can say here that hasn't been said somewhere before. But I can at least point to what about it stands out for me.

The first half of the score establishes three different tones, with three different themes. First, there's a manic melody used for "Flight," "Patrol Car, and "The Rainstorm." With swirling violins over dark bass notes, this music represents fear in the film -- sheer, animal panic to run like hell. It's thus quite appropriate that this is the music that plays with the opening credits, in "Prelude," winding up the audience right out of the gate.

The second motif is a sultry, seductive one. It represents the character of Marion Crane in the few moments she feels fully in control.

The third motive is a blend of the two, keeping the slow pace of the Marion music, but introducing some of the movement from the "Flight" music. The strings aren't taking off at a run, but neither are they fully settled. There's a deliberate slowness to it that ratchets up the tension, and it's used to great effect as the plot unfolds, in tracks like "Temptation" and "Hotel Room."

As Norman Bates finally enters the story, a fourth sound begins to emerge. At first, it's a small variation on the seductive Marion music, though underpinned by darker, fuller bass notes. But through tracks like "The Peephole," the theme continues to develop.

Then comes probably the most famous piece of music in the history of film, "The Murder." Often referenced, memorable even out of context, what makes it work so great in context is how different it is from everything that has come before. Just as audiences of the time were completely unprepared for the death of the film's apparent heroine, nothing in the score foreshadows this sudden screeching of strings like attacking birds. Famously, Hitchcock had not planned to have music in the scene at all, but he changed his mind in the editing room after hearing Herrmann's composition.

Cleverly, it's after the murder that the score begins to use tremolo strings for the first time. After a scene like that, anything could happen, and so even the notes themselves are less certain now. In the immediate aftermath of the murder, the bass and cello parts begin to move around as the violin and viola parts did when representing Marion earlier. It seems the walls are closing in on him as they once did on her.

But then things slow down instead. A lot. Some of the material in the back half of the movie, Herrmann is said to have cribbed from one of his earlier scores for a non-Hitchcock film. In any case, it's the most controlled, deliberate music of the entire film, running quite counter to the threat that events at the Bates Motel might be brought to light. I think this unexpected stability suggests in a subtle way that someone might actually get away with murder, which helps pull the audience in two directions at once.

I haven't found many older films I'm fond of, but Psycho is definitely one of them. And the score is one of the best things about it. It has held up more than 50 years, even to countless people playfully screaming "reee! reee! reee! reee!" as they stab the air with imaginary knives. It's an absolute grade A example of film composing, and I'm glad to finally have it in my collection.

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

View From the Inside (Out)

For a few years now, the movies coming out of Pixar have slipped a bit in quality -- coinciding with a creative surge from parent animation studio Disney. (I mean, compare Cars 2, Brave, and Monsters University to Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6.) But Pixar has definitively pulled out of the funk with its latest effort, Inside Out -- a triumph on every level.

Inside Out looks inside the brain of a little girl named Riley, personifying the emotions that drive her. As the girl goes through the traumatic experience of a cross-country move, her emotions have an unprecedented adventure of their own across the fantastic landscape of Riley's mind.

The script is a perfect blend of comedy and drama, and filled throughout with loads of inspired creativity. The ideas behind how things work in the mind of a child are endlessly clever, and the visuals used to present them elevate those ideas even farther. The world in Riley's head is a feast for the eyes -- massive in scope, varied in style, and vividly colorful. In short, the scenic design of a Pixar film has never been better.

The story is powerful in how easy it is to relate to. So many people have memories of childhood moves and the uncertainty they brought. And even those who grew up living in the same house will recognize how a big life change can throw your entire personality out of whack for a while. This movie makes a fun adventure out of why that happens, and along the way stirs in the audience nearly every emotion it depicts on the screen.

The characterization is outstanding, and the casting superb. Amy Poehler is wonderful as the unflappable and upbeat protagonist Joy. Richard Kind epitomizes "will make you laugh and cry" as Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong. Bill Hader and Mindy Kaling are great fun as Fear and Disgust. And in the "real world," Diane Lane and Kyle McLachlan are exceptional as Riley's mom and dad. But to me, the real rock stars of the film are Lewis Black and Phyllis Smith. Black is an inspired choice to embody Anger, not only injecting plenty of humor but driving a major twist in the plot. And Phyllis Smith is the perfect Sadness; she's wonderful comic relief for the bulk of the movie, and then the powerful heart of its climax.

In my opinion, Inside Out is so far the film to beat for 2015. And it has set the bar for doing so very high indeed. I give it an A.