Monday, August 31, 2015

The Play's Afoot

Following up on "His Last Bow" (which in fact wasn't the "last bow" of Sherlock Holmes), "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" is the only other Sherlock Holmes adventure written from a third-person perspective. Holmes has been tasked with locating a crown diamond, and has zeroed in on the criminal responsible for stealing it. Unable to deduce exactly where it has been hidden, Holmes invites the culprit himself to Baker Street, for a dangerous meeting in which he intends to coax out the information to complete the case.

There's a lot that's curious about the structure of this story. It's one of only two stories in the canon written in the third person; indeed, Watson (who usually recounts these adventures) has little more than a cameo in the tale. It turns out that the reason for this is that "The Mazarin Stone" was in fact not originally conceived of as a short story. Instead, this is an adaptation of a stage play called "The Crown Diamond."

This origin explains more that's odd about the tale. It takes place entirely in the lodging at Baker Street -- in other words, on a single theatrical set. There's an elaborate ruse involving "off-stage sound effects" and a secret passage. That Holmes would have built such a passage in his house is bizarre to contemplate, but it certainly would have made for a tricky finale to a night at the theater. (The reveal feels almost like a magician performing a trick.) Indeed, much of Holmes' behavior in this tale seems even more dramatic than usual -- though very much in the spirit of a staged melodrama.

It would have been interesting to see the play this story came from, the first time (I suppose) that fans of Sherlock Holmes would have seen the beloved character "brought to life." But even without that luxury, the story does read as something a bit unusual and different for Arthur Conan Doyle -- and I think is enjoyable for it. I give "The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone" a B+.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Celebrating the End by Returning to the Beginning

I recently wrote about Orphan Black by way of its soundtrack album, a way of kinda-sorta acknowledging a show I should have been praising here on the blog from day one. (I have been watching it that long.) I now do the same for another show, Hannibal.

The titular character of the show is Hannibal Lecter; the series is an adaptation/reinterpretation of author Thomas Harris' books Red Dragon and Hannibal, but with a lot of prequel and invented material included. The series' unlikely showrunner and creator is Bryan Fuller, the man behind Pushing Daisies, Wonderfalls, and Dead Like Me. (Well... perhaps he's not that unlikely a choice. He's just removing the light-hearted streak from his clearly macabre sensibilities.)

Hannibal wraps up its third season this weekend. Thanks to ratings so low they can hardly be measured, it's sure to be the show's last season. This is another one of those cases where a brilliant show never got the viewers it deserved (even if it was critically acclaimed along the way). Hannibal brought a heightened style to everything it did. Its visuals, its dialogue, its acting -- everything about it was perched on the razor edge of becoming too pretentious and over-the-top, yet it stayed firmly on the right side of the line. When everyone was going gaga over True Detective in its first season, I was quietly thinking that there was nothing that show was doing that Hannibal wasn't doing far, far better.

Part of the perfectly balanced presentation of Hannibal was its moody score by Brian Reitzell. Part music, part ambient noise, the score slithers around in all the nooks and crannies of your subconscious, a key component to what the show was. Two albums each from the first two seasons of the show have been released, and I've been adding them to my music collection one by one. Each album covers half a season (six or seven episodes), presenting long suites curated from each episode. Most of the tracks run for 10 minutes or more.

Admittedly, it's tough to know the occasion to listen to the album. It hardly ever coalesces into a perceptible time signature. It's the sort of sonic landscape that would make a good background for some common activity... except that the show's imagery is so powerful that even just listening to the music in isolation can sometimes bring clear memories to mind. Still, I enjoy it very much.

Season 1, Volume 1 has so many distinct passages. It opens with the music from the pilot episode, "Apéritif," and a strangely noble drone accented with proud piano chords. The fact that you know the true dark subject it was composed for makes for an effective, unsettling contrast. The album closes with music from the episode "Sorbet," ending on a long bass note that sounds like a warrior's battle horn. In between, there's a full buffet of sounds: stereo panning tricks, echoing to imply a vast space, strange feedback like a rock band gearing up, pounding on water pipes, and so much more.

"Amuse-Bouche" features an odd opening that sounds like "futuristic" music from a 1980s sci-fi movie. It gives way to pulses that sound like an oscilloscope, and a mournfully muted piano. "Potage" is full of strangely sensual music (again, unsettling in the actual context). "Oeuf" features the woodwind section of the orchestra, but often in random-feeling notes that feel like a passing breeze is driving the sound more than a musician. "Coquilles" features skittering insects and a strange motor running as it files down metal. "Entrée" is dominated by wild and scattered drums, and a sound like electricity warming up just after a switch has been thrown. (It also includes one of the most conventionally musical sections on the album, as groaning brass leads up to a vaguely tribal rhythm with wood block accents.)

Along the way, you also get short bursts of classical-style music created for the show's cultured environments -- piano studies, soprano arias, and more. On the other end of the spectrum are sections that sound like pure sound effects; the show's signature for entering and moving through Will Graham's visions, for example, is actually Reitzell's musical score, not the work of a foley artist.

The soundtrack is not for everyone... nor even for me, all the time. But it is beautiful in its own twisted way, just like the show itself. And soon, it will be one of the best ways for me to remember the show after it's gone. I give the Season 1, Volume 1 collection a B+. (Perhaps more reviews of later volumes will come when I'm feeling nostalgic.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Four's Score

Citizenfour was last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature -- and while the Academy never reveals actual vote totals, the feeling from the commentators seemed to be that this must have been a landslide win. But now that I've watched the documentary, I feel that people were voting for the subject matter, not the movie itself.

Citizenfour chronicles the leak of the NSA spy scandal by Edward Snowden. It's distinctive in that director Laura Poitras didn't actually seek out her subject. Having previously made two other documentaries on the abuse of government power, she was actually one of Snowden's first journalist contacts in releasing his information. Thus, Poitras isn't trying to tell the story after the fact -- her film is a documentary in the most literal sense, documenting the actual events as they unfolded.

The resulting film really makes you feel like you're there for actual Important History taking place. Sadly, this story may not be that important in the grand scheme of things, since people seem alarmingly unconcerned at the unlawful invasion of privacy. (And on his HBO show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver memorably demonstrated how few people actually know who Edward Snowden is or what he did.) Still, it feels like someone is showing you previously unknown footage of say, Chuck Yeager in his cockpit as he broke the sound barrier. It's instantly compelling to look behind the scenes like this.

But "right place, right time" seems to be the one big thing the movie has going for it. As an expose of what Edward Snowden leaked, and what the NSA was doing, it feels surprisingly light. Seeing this movie probably wouldn't inflame someone's passions about the issue of privacy; it's for those "already inside the tent." It also feels quite loosely paced. It's like we're watching the unedited video account of what happened, and there are times you really want to fast forward to "the good parts."

Different people have different opinions of Edward Snowden. But if you take him at his word (and I for one do), he never wanted this story to be about him. He wanted the focus to be on the NSA's overreach, not the man who exposed it. Unfortunately, the movie feels like it's exactly what he didn't want. Because it's light on the details, and because it's not tightly edited, you inevitably end up thinking about the man and not the story. The film even encourages this, with long and unnecessary scenes of Snowden in his hotel room -- shaving, staring out the window, doing generally nothing. It's silently demanding that the audience contemplate the man behind the news. (I mean, look at the poster!)

In the end, Citizenfour is like many non-documentary films: a compelling story in need of better editing. I can't believe it was truly the most deserving documentary in the Oscar race. "Important" as it may be, I give it a C.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

TNG Flashback: Rightful Heir

As Klingon culture was fleshed out more fully by the writers over the life of Star Trek: The Next Generation, it became a vehicle to examine a topic that Star Trek rarely tackled -- religion. Never did the series examine religion more directly than in "Rightful Heir."

Worf has been in spiritual crisis since the events at the Romulan/Klingon colony, and it has begun to affect his duties on the Enterprise. He takes leave to meditate at the Boreth monastery, a place where the epic Klingon hero Kahless promised one day to return from death. "One day" unexpectedly becomes today, when Kahless appears before a stunned Worf. The return of Kahless may alter the course of all Klingon society, and Chancellor Gowron isn't going to sit idly by for that. Plus, through all the politics and religion, remains the possibility that this Kahless is not what he appears to be.

Outside writer James E. Brooks pitched the staff an idea he jokingly called "Jurassic Worf," a tale of a Klingon religious sect who used cloning to resurrect one of their revered figures. His idea focused heavily on intrigue and brinksmanship among the clerics. Staff writer Ronald D. Moore felt there was more potential in presenting a look at faith and religion in the context of Star Trek. It was a subject the franchise had rarely tackled -- largely due to Gene Roddenberry's secular humanist ideals -- and Worf seemed to be the only main character offering a way into such a story.

Brooks' original pitch also did not include Kahless. Here again, Moore saw a chance to try something unusual -- to take a character from the original series who had been vilified as a murderous baddie (like all Klingons at the time) and give him a more fair portrayal in a time of peace. Moore also incorporated a great deal of Klingon history that had been developed and filmed for "Birthright, Part II," but which had been cut from that episode for time.

Ronald Moore may have had a clear vision for the episode, but executive producer Rick Berman didn't fully support it. He felt that the first draft of the script was far too on the nose in presenting Kahless as the Klingon equivalent of Jesus Christ. Berman demanded rewrites to tone this aspect down, and while the Christ metaphor is still crystal clear in the finished episode, it's possible these tweaks introduced an aspect that may not have been intended: Kahless also comes off like the leader of a cult.

So much of Kahless' dialogue and behavior suggests he's a fraud, a charlatan. In the scene where he fights Worf, he seems to sense that he's losing, and suddenly twists the moment into a big motivational speech. (A trick he tries again later, on Gowron.) He tells implausible stories from Klingon myth that sound no less ridiculous for being told in the first person. He has no good explanation for the reasonable, skeptical questions put to him. Even the casting of actor Kevin Conway seems to suggest a trick being played; Conway gives a fine performance, but is nonetheless quite short in stature, compared to how Klingons have historically been presented. The idea that he could be the greatest Klingon warrior ever seems off somehow.

It's interesting that the character who gives the greatest argument for faith in this episode is Data. Two scenes between him and Worf probe the subject, but faith definitely comes out the loser in the first scene: Data tries to ask rational questions, and Worf tries to avoid them before finally just spouting canned responses. It's in the second scene that Data makes a case for the value of faith: it's for moments where the absence of belief is simply untenable. (In his case, the aspirational choice to believe that he can be more than a simple, emotionless android.)

But while Worf might not be the episode's strongest mouthpiece for faith in this episode, he's nevertheless a strong character in the story. Though it actually almost strains credibility to see the amount of political power that he, an outsider, wields. He forces both the current Klingon leader and the greatest Klingon warrior of all time to capitulate to a deal of his envisioning -- a deal which seemingly involves the creation of a Pope-like office. But this is a necessary and acceptable contrivance to keep one of the series' main characters vitally involved in the plot.

Other observations:
  • Worf is late to work one time and people are sent to barge into his quarters? Seems a bit of an overreaction. Then again, I suppose this is the military.
  • The Klingon who first claims to see a vision of Kahless, Divok, is played by Charles (Chip) Esten, who you might have seen improvising on various incarnations of Whose Line Is It Anyway? I love the reaction he gives here when Kahless really appears, which tells you how completely full of crap Divok was in reporting his earlier vision.
  • If Kahless is a fraud (as is ultimately revealed), how exactly does he know about Worf's childhood vision? (A "mentalist" style lucky guess, I suppose.)
  • The cleric Koroth makes a quite reasonable point about the intersection of science and faith: who is to say that cloning isn't the method through which Kahless was meant to return?
  • The Blu-ray version of this episode includes a number of deleted and extended scenes. Nothing removed feels vital, though the material does include understandable skepticism from the rest of the crew about whether Worf is about to welcome the real Kahless aboard the Enterprise. Another scene explains Alexander's absence in this Klingon-centric episode set aboard this ship.
  • This is Gowron's last appearance on The Next Generation. The character would next show up on Deep Space Nine in the more light-hearted "The House of Quark," and would begin to recur more often once Worf made the move to that series.
Though this episode deserves credit for tackling a different subject for Star Trek, I'm not sure it had much profound to say. At the end of the day, I'd say it's entertaining enough, and call it a B.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Bow Out

Despite what the title suggests, "His Last Bow" is not the final Sherlock Holmes story. But it many ways, the story suggests that Arthur Conan Doyle was once again contemplating whether to stop writing about the character.

With World War I approaching, a German agent is making plans to flee England with intelligence he's been gathering for years. He plans just one more meeting with his longtime informant Altamont. But "Altamont" is soon revealed to be Sherlock Holmes, having emerged from retirement to serve his country one more time.

So much about this story positions it as an epilogue to wrap up the characters of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. It is set decades after the bulk of the Holmes stories, talking about how they've gone on to other lives. It is told not from Watson's point of view, but from a conventional third-person perspective. Indeed, Watson and Holmes don't even appear until the final pages; the bulk of the story follows German spy Von Bork. And even though Doyle wrote one more collection of Holmes stories, this remained the last one in terms of when it was set chronologically.

The choice in setting is not surprising either. "His Last Bow" was published in the midst of World War I, and that surely loomed large in Doyle's mind. He had on one or two other occasions written a Holmes story that came off like a political spy thriller, and the temptation to do so again with the backdrop of that then-unprecedented conflict must have been tremendous.

Yet it really isn't the best "spy thriller," because the espionage makes no sense. After feeding this German agent false information for years, Sherlock Holmes doesn't allow him to escape with it to his home country; instead, he reveals himself and all his deceptions. And he doesn't even capture the agent. In this, again the thought that this might have been the last Holmes adventure looms large -- the agenda here isn't to tell a credible spy tale, it's to have Holmes show off one last time just how clever he is.

But unfortunately, it's not a very great note to end on. The lack of logic and the relative absence of Holmes in the story makes it one of Arthur Conan Doyle's weaker entries. I give it a D+.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Mandatory Concert

Though I've been a fan of "Weird Al" Yankovic for as long as I can remember (which is no exaggeration; his music career has lasted 35 years), I'd never gone to see him in concert until last night. He came to Denver on his lengthy Mandatory Fun tour, and played two back-to-back shows with just a 90 minute break between and no opening act.

You'd never know that from the seemingly endless energy he displayed throughout the performance. Bounding and flopping around, he changed costumes more than Madonna, for almost every song. (And, as hilarious clips of his countless TV appearances filled in, his band changed right along with him.)

The concert opened with a fun live adaptation of his one-take music video for "Tacky" (the parody of the ubiquitous Pharrell Williams song "Happy"). As the band took the stage, the screen behind them revealed Weird Al in a nearby Denver restaurant, from which he worked his way out the back door, through an alley, into the theater, and finally through the audience and on to the stage -- accosting diners, police officers, and others along the way. The crowd when completely nuts when he burst through the rear theater doors.

He played every parody and several originals from his newest album. (I'm clearly not alone in loving "Word Crimes.") The polka medley was accompanied on the screen behind by the original videos of all the songs -- everyone from Miley Cyrus to One Direction to Daft Punk, perfectly synced up with the live band. He played all the biggest parodies from albums past, with costumes for each -- "Perform This Way" in an outrageous Lady Gaga-style squid outfit, "Fat" in the famous fat suit, "Smells Like Nirvana" in Kurt Cobain regalia, "White & Nerdy" while riding a segway, and "Amish Paradise" in the titular attire.

To try to satisfy every possible "I wish he'd played this song," he powered through a 10-song medley that served up a verse or two from hits throughout his career, reaching all the way back to his very first album. Another later medley was presented in "unplugged" fashion, with hilarious takes on "Eat It," "Like a Surgeon," and others.

It all wrapped up with a fantastic Star Wars themed encore (after a James Brown-style protest about how there couldn't be an encore) -- "The Saga Begins" and "Yoda," complete with a Darth Vader and squad of dancing stormtroopers on stage. (And I wonder if the various dancing abilities of the stormtroopers was deliberate nod to Katy Perry's famous "left shark.")

In all, it was two fun-filled hours that delivered everything I'd hoped for -- a great concert and comedy show all rolled into one. "Weird Al" still hasn't nailed down what he's doing next; his record contract is up and he's talked about self-publishing more topical singles and abandoning the album format. But I can say for sure that if going on tour is still part of his formula, I would absolutely go see him again.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Music for the Clone Club

Over the past few months, I've found a handful of interesting new soundtrack albums for TV series I've been enjoying -- shows I probably should have written about here on the blog at some point. Now, talking about the albums will give me an excuse to bring them up.

First up is Orphan Black. This Canadian show, airing on BBC America, recently wrapped up its third season. It follows a group of women who've discovered they're all clones. Each deals with the issues in their separate lives as they work together to pierce the conspiracy behind their own creation. If you've never seen the show, you've really been missing out. The writing can be a bit hit and miss (seasons 1 and 3 being the former; season 2 the latter), but one thing that's always a hit is series star Tatiana Maslany. She plays the clones to perfection, imbuing each with a personality so distinct you can catch yourself forgetting it's all the same actress.

But while I could praise the show at length, for now I'll stick with the newly released album of Orphan Black's score. The music is composed by Trevor Yuile, and is shrewdly matched to the show's subject matter. Yuile's music is created on synthesizer, but in very much the right way if you're going to eschew a live orchestra. Conventional instruments take a secondary roll; a string section usually grounds the music in reality (occasionally helped by a short burst of brass), but most of what you hear is supposed to sound electronic.

The choice of "instrument" is often key in telling the story. The theme for the most dangerous clone, Helena, is accented with a processed two-tone noise that sounds vaguely like a screeching tire. Suburban mom Alison gets a theme on light and airy chimes; it always seems to be forcing itself into some other musical flow, in the same way Alison's personality always comes on strong.

Instrument choice is also key to the general atmosphere of the soundtrack. Synth bass is often used as percussion, in a rat-a-tat manner that ratchets up the tension. Oscillating drones sometimes imply sirens (and danger). When events are spinning out of control, the sounds themselves often sound like they're fraying during sustained notes. The pops and hiss of old vinyl records play over the music for more nostalgic moments. And at other, specific times, you might imagine you're hearing an out-of-tune music box, banging inside a rusting pipe, the squeaks of unoiled hinges, slurping through a straw, or the buzzing of a gnat. These sounds are always far more musical than literal, but they strike you as just familiar enough on some subconscious level to help in stirring an emotional response.

Some of my favorite tracks on the album include the propulsive recap music for "Previously On," the discordant and angry "We Meet Helena," the staccato strangeness of "They're Killing Us," and the light/sinister sandwich of "Alison Kills." Plus, of course, there's the theme itself -- though that song is composed by electronic artist Two Fingers. It's incredibly short, in the way of modern TV show themes, but it packs a lot of oozing attitude in 30 seconds. And its use of an all-female chorus "ooh"ing in tight, airy harmony seems perfect for a show about clones.

Not all of the music works well when stripped from the show's visuals. Some cues are so sparse, they seem almost like a piano lesson. One or two feel too similar to other tracks on the album. But overall, the Orphan Black soundtrack is a good collection of music for a great show. I give it a B. And I'll be using it to fill in the wait until season 4.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The "Death" of Sherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes was featured in over 50 short stories and four novels, but it's only in "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" that he becomes a title character.

Set during the period where Watson lived with his wife, he is summoned to Baker Street to discover the great detective dying of an obscure Asian disease. Holmes resists any efforts by the doctor to cure him, claiming the malady will be far beyond his abilities. He instead dispatches Watson to bring one Culverton Smith to the flat, an expert in the disease. Soon it's revealed that the "dying detective" has Smith in his sights as part of an investigation.

Of course, given the way the adventures of Sherlock Holmes are plucked from different moments in time, readers know that he is not destined to die from a disease in this tale. Indeed, nearly all readers must suspect the truth, that the disease is part of a ruse designed to ensnare Culverton Smith. Holmes pays Watson a compliment-wrapped-in-an-insult at the end of this story, explaining why he refused to allow Watson to examine him and render medical care: Watson was obviously too good a doctor to fall for the ruse... but too bad a liar to bait Smith unless he truly believed Holmes was at death's door.

In crafting this story, Arthur Conan Doyle shook up the formula by essentially depicting no investigation. Holmes never leaves Baker Street, and Watson only travels to fetch Smith into the trap. But though this seems clever and different on paper, in practice it deflates the narrative considerably. It wouldn't necessarily matter that the reader knows Holmes is faking his illness and running a sting, if the journey to the conclusion were more interesting. Instead, things feel long in reaching the inevitable conclusion, despite the shortness of the story.

I'd say "The Adventure of the Dying Detective" merits a C+.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Gone Rogue

A few years ago, I found the fourth installment of the Mission: Impossible film series (Ghost Protocol) to be a welcome redirection of a franchise I'd given up on. Now I've checked out the newest movie, Rogue Nation. I'm pleased to say that it continues the momentum.

One of the things Rogue Nation really has going for it is its plot. This story is considerably more focused and coherent than most of the past Impossible movies have been. It's almost James Bond-y, really, hinting at why the studio rushed up the release date to get ahead of the probably-similarly-plotted Spectre. An evil, shadowy organization is responsible for chaos all over the world. Ethan Hunt and his team, without the support of the American government, must prove the existence of this "Rogue Nation" and bring it down.

Many familiar faces return from past films of the franchise. It's a particularly good movie for Simon Pegg, whose returning character Benji Dunn not only serves as comic relief, but gets to participate in multiple field ops and figure dramatically in the movie's climax. And as always, there's plenty of crazy action featuring Tom Cruise. The "hanging off an airplane" gag has gotten a lot of attention in the press, but an underwater sequence in the middle of the film is even more tense.

The new additions to the franchise serve the film well. Rebecca Ferguson is a wonderful action heroine who also convincingly carries most of the movie's drama (though it's a shame she's the only significant woman in the movie; Rogue Nation is no threat to pass the Bechdel test). Alec Baldwin is given a rather one-note role as a bureaucratic obstacle, but he still has fun with it, channeling a sort of serious version of his 30 Rock character Jack Donaghy.

The action falls perhaps a bit short overall of the high thrills of Ghost Protocol. Nevertheless, a backstage-at-the-opera fistfight does entertain, the aforementioned Tom Cruise set pieces definitely work, and a motorcycle chase in the middle of the film is quite exhilarating. Things sometimes do slow down a bit too much between the action pieces, but it's a price I for one am willing to pay for the sake of having a reasonable story.

The movie's main weak spot is in the size of its cast. There aren't exactly a ton of people here (certainly not more than the average superhero tent pole film these days), but it does seem to be more than the movie can handle. The motivations of the main villain are never explored. Ving Rhames feels like he's in a glorified cameo. And Jeremy Renner is wasted for most of the movie behind a desk at HQ.

Nevertheless, the whole comes together pretty well. In fact, I'd say this movie is actually the strongest of the Mission Impossible series by just the smallest of margins. That's more than can be said for just about any franchise on its fifth film, particularly one that's changed writers and directors with every installment. It might have taken them a while to work the kinks out here, but they have something pretty good going now. I rate Rogue Nation a solid B.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Waiting for the Big Opening

Remember the movie Stand By Me? "Want to see a dead body?" Well, yesterday's call to action was slightly different: "Want to smell a dead body?"

Right now, the Denver Botanic Gardens is the talk of the local news (and botany fans all over) for the "corpse flower" in its Orangery. This strange plant from Sumatra is classified as "vulnerable" on the endangered species list, and its infrequent growth cycle isn't helping that. When first planted, the flower takes on average 7 to 10 years to first bloom. After being open just 24 to 48 hours, it promptly wilts, and then doesn't bloom again for several more years. The one here in Denver is an especially late bloomer -- it's 15 years old and blooming only for the first time.

It's that month leading up to the bloom -- and the bloom itself -- that's especially strange. The flower grows several feet in just a few weeks. (This one has had days where it grew five inches in a single 24 hour period.) After around a month, and somewhere around the five and a half feet mark on average, the blooms peel open. It then emits the smell from which it gets its nickname -- a strong odor of rotting meat, apparently designed to draw in the carrion insects that pollinate it.

The corpse flower has been in local news over the last month during its rapid growth. One of the local news stations has even set up a camera where you can watch it live on YouTube. But near the end of last week, the talk intensified. The cultivators were fairly confident the flower would bloom on Sunday... maybe Monday. So my boyfriend and I (along with a friend) decided to get tickets for Monday night to see what the big stink was about.

Perhaps it's no surprise that a 15-year old flower that should have first grown around 5 years ago is late now that it's actually about to bloom. No bloom by the time of our visit. A crazy looking thing to see, to be sure, but no crazy smell.

Fortunately, there were other beautiful things to see around the slice of the Gardens. I now have enough desktop backgrounds to last a year. My one complaint would be that most of the flowers were unlabeled, so you didn't really know what they were.

For now, I guess I'll keep checking that webcam. We'll see when the corpse flower finally does decide to open up. Maybe there will be another opening -- in our schedule -- in the 24 hours after it does.

Monday, August 17, 2015

Get the Carfax

"The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" may be a Sherlock Holmes adventure, but it's one in which Watson takes an uncharacteristically large role in the plot. When Holmes takes up the titular case, he decides he's unable to travel outside of London as the investigation requires, and dispatches Watson to get things rolling.

Watson's efforts in mainland Europe seem to be going swimmingly. He's endeavoring to be as thorough as Holmes himself would be, and seems to be following a trail of credible clues. But he's rather unceremoniously shot down when Holmes finally does join him, only to criticize Watson's efforts as stumbling in every way one could conceive. Holmes is correct, of course, if unduly harsh. But Holmes has a bit of a comeuppance in store that makes this a quite memorable story in Doyle's collection.

In the second act of the story, Holmes himself bungles the investigation. He's not wholly off-base with his conclusions, but he does act impulsively and is outmaneuvered by his better-prepared target. He has missed something, and has to regroup and go back over all the evidence to discover what that something is.

The climax of the story involves a race to prevent a murder, and a clever means of disposing of the body (which I've seen a few times in stories written since, though I'd wager was appearing for one of the first times here). In all, it's a rather full meal for a short story, with multiple reversals, travels spanning several countries, and clever villains. (Indeed, I might even say the villains here are more clever than the famed Moriarty, considering that the professor's evil deeds aren't really portrayed for the reader in any Holmes tale, but only testified to by Holmes.)

I'd give "The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax" a B+. I think it's one of the more stand-out tales from the "His Last Bow" collection.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Call 'Em Like Museum

Night at the Museum 3 turned out to be one of Robin Williams' final films, which I must admit increased my interest in seeing it. But first, not actually having seen any of the Night at the Museum films, I needed to start at the beginning. Since pretty much everyone else has seen it but me, I probably don't need to tell you that Night at the Museum is a fun little family-friendly adventure in a museum where the exhibits come to life at night. The fun lies partly in a series of gimmicks about different historical periods and people, and mostly in the talents of a rather wide-ranging cast of comedians.

I tend to prefer "wacky, outlandish Ben Stiller" to "straight man Ben Stiller" (that is, I enjoyed Zoolander or Tropic Thunder far more than Meet the Parents), but he's well cast here. The minimal plot of the movie asks the audience to identify with him as a shiftless father trying to clean up his act for his son, and Stiller manages to hit those notes fairly well. And he's great in the movie's more slapstick moments (even if almost anybody could be funny fighting with a monkey).

A trio of older actors -- Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, and Bill Cobbs -- are rather entertaining as well, largely because they're cast against type for a fun plot twist. Steve Coogan and Owen Wilson (the latter of whom is, for some reason, uncredited) get a surprising number of laughs out of one-note characters. And Carla Gugino, Ricky Gervais, and a blink-and-you'll-miss-him Paul Rudd are all perfectly fine.

But the real all-star of the movie, to no surprise, is Robin Williams. Playing Teddy Roosevelt, he gets to have a lot of fun as the wise mentor of the story. But he gets one unexpectedly emotional speech in the third act of the film, in which Roosevelt acknowledges his own false nature. The speech comes right in the middle of an action sequence, and could easily have brought the film to a screeching halt. Instead, it actually tugs at the heartstrings more than any other moment in the movie. (And not, I think, just because of the melancholy inherent in his untimely passing.) This is the one moment of gravitas in a two-hour confection of fun and silliness. And it totally works.

Night at the Museum may not quite be amazing, but it's better than a lot of family films. I enjoyed it enough to give it a B. Maybe even a B+ if I'm being generous.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Casting an Enchanting Spell

Casting Off, the third story in Hugh Howey's Silo series, marked the moment when the story really started to take off for me. The first two installments, Holston and Proper Gauge, were both compelling character studies set in an intriguing science fiction world, but the third was where the plot manifested in a clear way.

The Silo's newest sheriff is finding that politics play a bigger role in her job than she ever anticipated. That fact makes the recent deaths of potential allies look incredibly suspicious, and she begins to investigate. She quickly exposes hints of a deep conspiracy. But its perpetrators just as quickly turn their attention to her unwelcome meddling.

With this third volume of Silo, the narrative point-of-view transfers to a third character. New sheriff Juliette is the most compelling protagonist yet -- smart, skilled, and shrewd. Getting inside her head doesn't necessarily lead to any new revelations since her introduction in the previous short story, but it does make the reader cheer her on even more strongly. You hope that she'll be the one to begin righting the injustices depicted in the previous volumes.

Casting Off really defines the stakes that the series as a whole is playing for, and also hints at which characters will be involved in it going forward. The short stories had been serialized to this point, but this is where the story really makes the turn from serial to novel. And it manages to do all this despite the fact that the reader is already aware of a key secret that the protagonist is trying to uncover. This sort of insider information should serve to deflate a lot of the tension from the tale, but that tension is replaced (and then some) with the suspense of whether Juliette can outrace the conspiracy she's poking into.

At this point, Silo would have to do a colossal belly flop to make me turn back. This story was my favorite yet. I give it an A-.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Wolverine Travels the Globe

A while back, I wrote about X-Mens Origins: Wolverine, and how I was generally disenchanted with the number of elements it tried to stuff into one movie. The follow-up film, The Wolverine, only marginally dis-disenchanted me.

The film sees Logan guilt-ridden in the aftermath of the third X-Men film (having killed Jean Grey). He's persuaded to travel to Japan at the request of a dying old man whose life he saved in World War II. There he's drawn into a power struggle, as Yakuza try to assassinate the old man's daughter and heir before she can take control of the massive company he's leaving behind. But Logan doesn't have the healing abilities he's always been able to rely on; somehow they've been stripped from him, leaving him vulnerable and mortal.

This movie starts off in a much better place than its predecessor. It has a meaningful throughline driven by emotion and character in the form of Jean Grey, who appears throughout the movie in Logan's dreams. The death means something to Logan, and informs all the choices he makes in this story.

And while I could see that some people feel a Wolverine movie in which he has no superpowers isn't really a Wolverine movie, I myself appreciated that angle. By this point, there had already been four movies of Wolverine, and a change to the formula was much needed. It didn't necessarily have to be this, but that totally works to refresh the storytelling -- as does setting everything in Japan.

But after a very encouraging first act that maintains focus on this simple and compelling plot, things begin to branch out in too many directions. It's hard to pinpoint just where the "one thing too many" happens -- is it the horde of Yakuza assassins, the poisonous mutant Viper, the half-hearted attempt to imply a love triangle between Logan and the characters of Yukio and Mariko? I'm not sure, but by the time the climax of the film arrives and we're in a giant silo somewhere fighting an enormous adamantium robot because wouldn't that be cool, this sequel has squarely stepped in exactly the problem of the first film: there's too much going on, and how it's all connected doesn't entirely make sense.

For certain, even the patchwork story remains fun most of the time, thanks to another great performance by Hugh Jackman. Wolverine has always come across in the X-Men movies as something of an anti-hero, and saddled here as he is with boundless guilt, it could have gone all broody like, say, Batman. (Or worse, mopey, like the ill-conceived Venom subplot of Spider-man 3.) But Jackman makes sure that a remorseful, conflicted Logan is still a character worth watching and rooting for, and keeps everything generally light and fun. And doing it as he is among a cast likely unknown to an American audience (save for Famke Janssen as "dream Jean") makes it an all the more impressive accomplishment.

Still, this movie was really only slightly better to me than the first Wolverine film. And accordingly, I give it only a slightly better mark: a C-. To me, the standout of the X-Men franchise remains Days of Future Past.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Seeing Red

By the time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote "The Adventure of the Red Circle," I believe he was growing well and truly sick of Sherlock Holmes. Not because it's a "bad" story as such (it isn't), nor because it was one of the last stories (there were still a handful more to come). Rather, Doyle ditches many of the conventions established in his earlier writing.

Up until this point, every Sherlock Holmes short story begins with Watson languidly setting the scene over several paragraphs. He praises his brilliant friend, ruminates on a particularly interesting case from the past, and then slowly warms up to his tale. "Red Circle" does none of this, and instead starts with the client already speaking to Holmes. For several paragraphs, it's not even clear Watson is present. For several more after that, it's not even clear this story is being written by Watson in the first person. So it seems Doyle is no longer interested in the same old trappings of a Holmes story; he just wants to get to the idea.

Along the same lines, the story here doesn't seem nearly as thought out as the gimmick upon which it turns. The conclusion recounts the elaborate flight of a couple from Italy to New York to London, all hotly pursued by an Italian mob. It feels so densely packed, or perhaps so shallowly sketched out, that it feels almost tacked on as an afterthought. The meat of the story is the odd means the wife is using to hide herself.

And admittedly, Doyle has a rather clever and certainly interesting idea there. The mystery turns on a switch that has been made, such that the woman lodging this Italian refugee isn't even aware of who it is she's hiding (much less what she's done). The trick here feels frankly magical -- not in the fantastical sense, but in the way a magician gets the audience to look in the wrong place for the wrong thing. If the story truly is going to hang on just one element, it's a strong element to hang it on.

I give "The Adventure of the Red Circle" a B. Doyle may have been running out of interest by this point, but it doesn't feel like he was running out of ideas.

Monday, August 10, 2015

TNG Flashback: Suspicions

In re-watching episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation (some for the first time since they first aired), I've found that a few which I remembered as bad were actually somewhat better than I first thought. But "Suspicions," an episode I recalled as decent, was a surprising disappointment.

Beverly Crusher's career may be at an end, and she recounts to Guinan the decisions that led her there. Hoping to boost credibility for the work of a Ferengi scientist named Reyga, Crusher invited leading figures in the field aboard the Enterprise to test Reyga's "metaphasic shield," a device he claims can protect a ship even inside a star. When a test of the shield results in the death of one of the scientists, Reyga is crushed and soon dies of an apparent suicide. But Crusher suspects murder, and risks her career to prove it.

As with "The Chase," this story was first pitched and shelved during season five, only to be revived as the press for scripts intensified near the end of season six. But unlike "The Chase," this episode went through significantly more rewrites.

Writer Joe Menosky's original idea revolved around Worf, and was pitched in the film noir style. The writers even persuaded producer Rick Berman to allow (for one time only!) the episode to be shot in black-and-white, and to feature heavy narration. But when the script didn't come together and the idea was scrapped, so was that vision for a stylistic departure.

The newest staff writer, Naren Shankar, took up the writing duties when the idea was revived in season six. He liked a late revelation in the original story, and wanted to focus on that -- an environmentalist metaphor in which it was discovered that warp speed travel was causing damage to the fabric of space. Ironically, when troubles perfecting the script returned once more, the other writers prevailed on him to ditch that element that had most appealed to him. (Even more ironically, it would become the entire basis of a later season seven episode.)

But the tinkering continued. It was felt that Worf had had enough scripts in season six, so writer Ronald Moore suggested maybe it could work as a Beverly story. ("Beverly as Quincy," the staff called it, which appealed to supervisor Jeri Taylor, who had actually worked on that classic TV series.) But the mystery still felt dull to Michael Piller, who insisted on more rewrites. As in the case of another mystery episode, "Aquiel," this led to a rather wild scheme for the identity of the murderer -- there, the dog; here, the victim himself, revealed not to be dead!

Still more rewrites were forced when the production learned that this episode would be filming in the one slot Whoopi Goldberg had free in her schedule. This would in fact turn out to be Guinan's last appearance on the series, and feels every bit as shoehorned in as it was. Beverly is probably the character with the least prior connection to Guinan, and the bartender's concern here doesn't play quite right -- in part because Guinan actually behaves so much against her nature, pretending not to listen.

Ronald Moore summed up the winding path of this script quite well: "It was just a never-ending, never-waking nightmare. Keep the murder mystery, lose the warp thing, move Worf out, keep the flashbacks, lose the filmnoir, insert Beverly -- it was just arrgh!" And yet the script still didn't really "get there." There's surprisingly little tension to the mystery, in part because the flashback structure reinforces for us that Beverly's own life isn't at risk. Her extensive voice-overs (a holdover from the original noir concept) drop off entirely when the story reaches the present, which makes the last third of the episode feel full of awkward silences.

And then there are the parts of the story itself that kind of don't make sense. Why does the metaphasic shield test need an impartial shuttle pilot? Either the shield works and the pilot lives, or it doesn't and the pilot dies; where's the room for subjective interpretation in that? What's with this supposed "Ferengi death ritual" that contradicts what Deep Space Nine had already established by this point -- that Ferengi parcel their remains out to be sold on an open market? When Crusher vaporizes Jo'Bril at the end of the episode, doesn't she eliminate the way to corroborate her story? And corroboration or no, how does being right get her off the hook with Reyga's family, whose objection was that an autopsy was performed without their permission?

There are a few nice character moments in the episode. Nurse Ogawa's stalwart support of Crusher is nice to see. So is Picard's reaction when Crusher confesses to disobeying his orders; he first asks what she found before chastising her, and even when he gets to that, he doesn't really raise his voice. But offsetting these good moments for other characters are the ways in which Dr. Crusher is made to look truly foolish in this episode: she can't tell whether Jo'Bril is alive or dead, and can't even tell that Guinan is faking her "tennis elbow."

Other observations:
  • The Klingon Kurak is played by Tricia O'Neil, who memorably played the captain of the Enterprise-C in "Yesterday's Enterprise."
  • More than the usual number of scenes in this episode are shot with a handheld camera, a technique often used in film noir movies.
  • The doors have a keen sense of drama in this episode. In two scenes, they fail to open even with Beverly standing right next to them, apparently aware that the scene isn't over yet.
  • The shuttlecraft Justman is not only identified on its hull, but in dialogue. It's named for Robert Justman, producer of the original Star Trek (and season one of The Next Generation).
  • The climactic fight with Jo'Bril uses the "hole through the body" effect presented memorably one year earlier in the film Death Becomes Her. (Though it is a good nod to the alien's resilient physiology.)
  • Perhaps a reason I remember this episode being better is how prominently it figured in the early days of the Star Trek: Customizable Card Game. Three of the most commonly played characters from the game's first set came from this episode: Jo'Bril, Reyga, and (if you played Klingons) Kurak.
The episode is far from a disaster, but it's simultaneously overcooked and not cooked enough. I give it a C+.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Rave[nous] Review

Once again, I recently found myself streaming a movie from Netflix that went in the queue so long ago, I couldn't remember where I'd heard of it. Based on the odd mash-up of its content, it could have been anywhere.

Ravenous is part horror, part Predator homage (briefly), and part comedy. (How much it intentionally sought to be that last thing is debatable, but I'll get into that.) Set in the 1840s, it follows Boyd, a veteran of the Mexican-American war whose courage failed him at a crucial moment... but in a coincidental way that led to a major victory. As both reward and punishment, he is transferred to a remote fort in the Sierra Nevadas. His bravery is soon tested again when a stranger named Colqhoun arrives with his own harrowing tale of survival -- he was part of a wagon train that became trapped by snow and resorted to cannibalism. Colqhoun urges the men of the fort to go after the mastermind of the atrocities, who is still holed up in the mountains. But local natives warn of the demonic powers granted to cannibals, and Boyd will soon learn the truth of this firsthand.

Production problems reportedly plagued this movie, with one director fired early in production and a replacement quickly brought on. It's possible this played a role in the bizarre tonal shift that comes over this movie at the end of the first act. It starts out quite tense and serious, and indeed could have gone on to be an effective suspense film. There are some potentially silly elements in the premise, but the actors play it straight with full commitment.

But then the movie jumps off a cliff (right around the moment the protagonist literally does). The story gets broad, silly, even stupid. The actors start to give deliberately campy performances. There's clearly potential here for a black comedy... though the movie unfortunately didn't start out as one.

You can't blame the cast. There are a lot of great people here -- some you'd know by name (Guy Pearce, Robert Carlyle), and others you might only recognize from other places (Jeremy Davies, Neal McDonough, John Spencer). Perhaps the comedic aspirations of the film should have been more obvious to me from the presence of Jeffrey Jones and David Arquette, but there was something so very earnest about the set-up of the story that simply didn't match the madcap vibe of the last hour. In any case, this company of actors is giving it their all.

One element I can blame is the musical score, which is simply dreadful throughout. The movie never even has a fighting chance under the jarring instrument choices (banjos and hammered dulcimer mixed with synthesizers?), dopey hillbilly cliches (worthy only of a Deliverance parody), ludicrous chanting, and deliberately off key phrases. It's as though the composers were trying to draw attention to themselves more than they were trying to support the movie.

Maybe I would have felt differently if I'd expected something goofy from the outset. So I'll give you that tip if you ever decide to watch it. But I'll also give you the tip: don't watch it. I rate Ravenous a D+.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

The Devil, You Say

In "The Adventure of the Devil's Foot," Sherlock Holmes is on holiday with Dr. Watson, only to be roped into an investigation when a woman is, by outward appearances, frightened to death by something so horrible that it left two more people in the same room insane.

I find it a tricky story to consider in its historical context. This was the fastest I've ever "solved" a Holmes case; I was expecting a certain clue to be dropped from the moment Holmes enters the crime scene, and I mentally cried "aha!" at the sentence that indeed alluded to it. That's because (spoilers here) we live in a day and age where people are well aware of the risks of a natural gas leak in the home, of running a car engine in a closed garage, and so forth. At the time the story was published, did the average reader know anything about invisible, airborne poisons?

In any case, knowing the "how" in this case does not necessarily spoil enjoyment of the story. For one thing, the "who" isn't as obvious, nor are his motives. There's also a twist in which the killer himself is killed, leading to a conclusion in which Holmes decides to allow a criminal to get away with his crime. It's not the first time Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote such an ending -- not even the first time he chose to let a murderer get away with it. But it's a device used sparingly enough to be of surprise and interest here.

What's also surprising -- but in a "hard to believe it" sort of way -- is the manner in which Holmes decides to test his theory of the poison's origin. He subjects himself and Watson to its toxic effects! The lack of precautions here, given the already proven danger, seems inexcusable for both characters: Holmes having reached a conclusion that the chemical has already caused a death, and Watson being a doctor who should appreciate the possible risk. It's a strange scene apparently meant to inject danger into the story, but does so in a rather preposterous way.

Still, the story is fairly entertaining overall. I give it a B-.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015


The fourth and final day of our San Antonio vacation was spent at the Schlitterbahn water park in New Braunfels. Boasting an "award-winning" water slide (from whoever gives out such awards) and numerous other attractions across several acres and two separate park areas, it seemed like a fun place to beat the Texas heat.

Of course, Denver has the acclaimed (and immortalized in an episode of South Park) Water World, which did make for some comparisons. But while my boyfriend has been there within the past couple of years (for a summer day out with the nieces), I hadn't been in ages -- making this something a bit more out of the ordinary.

Since we had to leave our phones and cameras safely dry in a locker, I don't have any pictures. But I'll quickly bounce through the day. The "award-winning" slide actually wasn't really a highlight. We went over to the park that had those biggest slides to cross them off the list first: the Master Blaster and the Wolfpack. They each required long (long) waits in line, which took a fair amount of the fun out of eventually getting to ride them. They just weren't worth that long a wait.

The Black Knight -- a ride through a satisfyingly long, black tunnel lit only by sunlight sneaking in at the seams -- was better. Surprisingly, so were their two versions of a "Lazy River." (Their web site indignantly claims that they don't have a Lazy River, which I suppose is true in as much as each had a couple of very minor "rapids" areas. But we all know what we're talking about here.) One of the rivers took you on a trip up a conveyer belt as it circled one of the two park areas; the other took you all the way down the length of the other park in a not-always-just-floating trip of 15-20 minutes.

We spent whole day slowly walking back from the end of the park and trying everything we came to. There were tons of tube chutes (many lasting over 5 minutes), a cheesy-but-fair Congo themed ride that evokes a Disney's Jungle Cruise vibe, and several body slides. The best rides were the Hillside Tube Chute (a very long tube ride that even wove inside another building as it twisted around the park) and the Double Loop Body Slides (where we finally called it a day).

We weren't quite diligent enough with reapplying sunblock to avoid a mild sunburn, but we did alright. We then capped the night with a nice dinner at a local seafood restaurant, and in the morning returned to our Denver routines. (Well, for a few days, anyway. That Rugged Maniac race was definitely not routine.)

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Minions Are Stupid; Their Movie Is Worse

My account of vacation day three takes the form of a movie review. We decided to have a more laid back day, starting off with some shopping and later on taking in a movie. We decided to head to the local Alamo Drafthouse to see how it compared to the Denver franchise.

Generally? Not well. Where the Denver Alamo Drafthouse was built new from the ground up, the one we went to (Stone Oaks) seemed like it might have been a converted existing theater. Concrete floors, leading to bouncy sound in the auditoriums. No rear-theater access for the servers, who had to come in the same way as all the customers. No tables between the seats; instead, a long, skinny bar (and high, too -- almost distractingly in the sight lines) ran the length of each row. But I will say this: the service seemed worlds better than it is now in Denver. The local Drafthouse, after opening strong and leaving quite an impression on me, has slid far downhill in service quality over the past year. (You'd better order what you want 45-60 minutes before you want it.)

But whatever flaws this Alamo Drafthouse may have had were nothing compared to the simply dreadful movie we saw. Torn between Amy Schumer's new Trainwreck and Minions, we went with the movie starting earlier: Minions. Terrible mistake. Lacking all of the heart and charm of the Despicable Me movies it spun off from, Minions is a tedious and boring 90 minutes we'll never get back.

There's absolutely no character growth in Minions. There's barely character in Minions, with everyone a one-dimensional caricature after just one thing (and the interchangeable minions themselves the worst of all). This might be alright in an average kids' movie, if the comic relief that were taking center stage was actually funny. Instead, you get repeated material from the Despicable Me movies, interspersed with increasingly boring gags mostly about the minions' gibberish language.

The script indulges in one cliche after another -- often more than once. I lost count of how many "montages set to a famous 60s rock song" there are in the middle of the film, but it's at least three (and maybe four), in what feels like a 15 minute span. But perhaps this is the inevitable result of stretching a few minutes of material into a 90-minute movie.

It's hard to imagine what potential any actor in the cast saw here, and the performances seem to reflect this lack of spark. Sandra Bullock is flat as main villain Scarlet Overkill, leaving the animators to work overtime in pushing her character over the top. Jon Hamm, not-so-secretly hilarious if you've seen him in anything other than Mad Men, is cloyingly "wacky" -- though he is playing the only thing the script gives him to work with. Michael Keaton, Allison Janney, and Steve Coogan all get too little screen time to be of interest. And Geoffrey Rush seems as bored to be there in his narration as the audience itself soon will be.

If we'd been back home, we undoubtedly would have walked out on this movie. But with no other particular plan that evening but bed, we both just sort of suffered through it. My hope is it's not too late to spare you. Minions is the worst movie either of us has seen this year, a deplorable F. Don't even let your kids see it; you should be cultivating better taste in them.

Monday, August 03, 2015


I'm going to defer the continuing adventures of San Antonio for a day to cover something far more adventurous I was involved in right here in Denver, just yesterday.

I don't remember exactly how old I was -- 13? (give or take a year?) -- the only time I ever participated in a 5K race. In a random prize drawing based on race bib numbers, I won a gym bag that I used for overnights years and years afterward, until it fell apart too much to be useful. And since throwing that bag out, I haven't given that race any thought. I certainly had never given any thought to doing another one.

Enter a couple of my friends, who caught us back in March with word of the Rugged Maniac obstacle race -- a 5K event involving two dozen obstacles and a lot of mud. They'd decided to do it, and sent a big e-mail blast out to a bunch of people in our group, inviting us to join. It probably wasn't expected that anyone would do it; shockingly, a great many of us did -- 8 in all.

So yesterday morning, this gang (who, by virtue of our complete lack of training beforehand, definitely put the "maniac" in Rugged Maniac) lined up at the start line for the departure of the 10:15 wave:

It wasn't exactly a "race" for us. We walked the entire three-plus miles, and we certainly weren't threatening any records. But that was hardly the point. We all stuck together and helped each other through steep hills, heat exhaustion, mud crawls under barbed wire and through pipes, balance beams and boards, a gauntlet...

...jumping over both pits and fire...

...and plenty of climbs over cargo nets and walls of various heights. All along the way, we were boosting each others' spirits with jokes about the things we'll do differently when we don't do this again next year. But in all, though it was exhausting, it was surprisingly fun. And all eight of us made it to the finish line.

I'm off to nurse a few small scrapes and bruises.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

A Stroll Along the River

After a day spent at the Natural Bridge Caverns, we threw the switch firmly in the "man-made" direction for our evening, by heading downtown to visit the San Antonio River Walk.

The River Walk is an intriguing blend of elements -- part shopping mall, part park, part tourist attraction. You head down a flight of stairs below car street level and reach miles of pedestrian paths that follow the San Antonio River. Hundreds of restaurants and shops (surely paying a fortune in leases) line both banks of the river, as tourist boats take sightseers up the river itself.

It being a jam-packed Saturday night, we had to wait an hour for a table at the steak restaurant we decided on for dinner, but that was time we filled walking along the river bank and taking in the sights. It was a neat atmosphere that it seems like other cities could embrace. (Some point to the Cherry Creek Greenway as Denver's version of it, but it seems like the Platte River could be set up to be even more so.)

At the same time, the River Walk was definitely a moment to appreciate how good we have it in Denver. The water itself was murky and unappealing, and the stale smell coming off it permeated the air. After the crisp cleanness of the Rocky Mountains and its rivers, we had to wonder if this is what most of the country mistakenly assumes rivers are supposed to smell like. (Then again, maybe when you get that far from the source, it is.)

The famous Alamo was somewhere nearby, but we didn't bother to check it out. Every friend we heard from before the trip who had seen the Alamo had said it wasn't worth it, and warned us that the site in general is in shockingly poor maintenance for a place many Texans won't stop going on about.

But we did get a fun little bonus after dinner, as we were walking back to our car. Our path just happened to take us by the Cathedral of San Fernando. It's apparently one of the oldest cathedrals in the United States -- interesting enough for some tourists. On this particular night, some kind of film/light show was being projected on the facade of the church, watched by a crowd of hundreds in the adjacent park.

We watched a snippet of a choreographed song or two before wrapping up our evening.

Saturday, August 01, 2015

Spelunking... in San Antonio?

On the second full day of our San Antonio getaway, our destination was Natural Bridge Caverns. Getting there took us in a different direction along San Antonio's loop road, by what we dubbed a "sci-fi city" along the highway.

As bizarre a sight as that might seem, our destination would strike many people as even more so -- the sort of place I'd have never imagined you could find in Texas. For decades, farm owners outside San Antonio had long known about the sinkhole on their land, marked by a "natural bridge" of remaining land.

In 1960, a group of students approached them to explore inside, and they discovered a series of limestone caverns curling around for more than a mile, to nearly 200 feet below ground. In a few years, the land owners had left farming behind to develop the caverns as a tourist attraction -- not unlike the Hana Lava Tube on Maui, but on a much larger (and admittedly, more commercialized) scale.

There's all sorts of features in the caverns, from columns and stalagmites to stalactites and soda straws to ribbons and curtains. There are huge, echoing chambers, and short, narrow tunnels. And the principle "Discovery Tour" is a go-at-your-own-pace trip, so you have plenty of time to take it all in.

We also took a second tour through the newer "Hidden Passages" section, which feels rather more "untamed." Instead of well-textured ramps, these passages were marked by hundreds of steep steps. The cave was even working slowly against intrusion, with a new calcite feature forming around a handrail at one point. This tour also included a few minutes in complete darkness deep inside the cave -- not much of a heart-fluttery moment with dozens of smartphone flashlights a pocket away, but nevertheless a chance to be impressed by the people who first explored these caverns with headlamps revealing only a few feet in front of them.

(In fact, for adventurous people looking for that kind of experience, Natural Bridge Caverns has you covered too. Each morning, they offer an "Adventure Tour" where you can actually be lowered into a cavern through its discovery well shaft, and then proceed to crawl through undeveloped passages. Too much for my claustrophobia to take, thank you very much, but it's there.)

Though unexpected, the Natural Bridge Caverns were an enjoyable stop on the trip. Who knows what may find you near San Antonio, but they're worth checking out.