Friday, June 30, 2017

Craft Gaming

Like many board game enthusiasts, Agricola was a favorite of mine for a long period of time. But the iOS app version that was released a while back changed all that. Oh, it was an excellent adaptation, doing an expert job of fitting a seemingly impossible amount of information on the screen in a sensible way that resembled (though was not identical to) the board game. The problem was that once I started playing the game a ton, I lost interest. Certain patterns became apparent, chiefly that the random Improvement and Occupation cards dealt at the start of the game seemed to control who would win more than any decisions made during play.

Now another board game is attempting to ride into a similar niche: Brew Crafters. It starts with a theme certainly more "relevant to my interests" than farming; each player is a running a brewery. The game is actually something of a hybrid between Agricola and Viticulture (a game about wine-making).

The action system is mostly Agricola. Players have a limited number of workers (though with the ability to acquire more... that also essentially become "mouths to feed"). Everyone takes turns deploying these workers to a series of spaces that can each accommodate only one worker. Most acquire different ingredients for brewing beers: hops, malt, fruit, coffee. (And when they aren't taken during a round, a space's stockpile of ingredients grows larger.) Meanwhile, you can upgrade and expand your brewery in a way that feels similar to Viticulture. You can add an extra bottling line, a tasting room, and more, each with different benefits to your strategy. You can also hire experts -- cards that let you cheat the rules. (Viticulture has those too, though the system here plays differently.)

In creating this hybrid game, the designers seem to have ditched some of the problems of Agricola. Variance in replays comes from the many different beer recipes the game comes with. You can only make 6 different beer styles in each game, randomly selecting the advanced recipes available each time you play. This makes certain ingredients more or less valuable from one game to the next (along with any experts that might relate to them). This is a common pool of recipes, so you don't have the "opening hand decides your fate" problem of Agricola. Admittedly, it doesn't seem like a radical shift from game to game either, but ought to be enough to nudge you off pursuing a single strategy each time you play.

I haven't been able to play a bunch, so it's hard to say for certain how much staying power the game might have. I feel confident declaring that I don't love it as much as I loved Agricola in the beginning. I feel equally confident declaring that I enjoyed it a great deal more than I do Agricola now. I'd call it about a B+. If you like games and you like beer, what's not to like here?

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A Song in Your Heart

A good friend recently turned me on to a fantastic podcast, Song Exploder. The show is about how music is made. Each episode examines a different piece of music, and it casts a wide net from current releases to recent chart-topping pop music to scores from film, television, and even video games.

Song Exploder is hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway (who is also the co-host of another podcast I'll blog about at some point here), though part of what makes the podcast so compelling is how little he's present in each episode. Instead, he yields the floor entirely to the composer of the music of the week. It's an approach that always gets fantastic results.

In each episode, the featured composer breaks down a song bit by bit. You learn exactly what they were thinking, about everything. What did they have in mind with this melody, this verse structure, this choice of instrumentation? What were the challenges of this particular composition? Where did the original germ of the idea come from? It's all there, with stripped down stems from the full piece to demonstrate exactly what's being talked about.

Also impressive is how much information comes across in a very short span of time. The typical episode of Song Exploder lasts only 10 to 15 minutes, including (at the end of each episode) a full play of the music that was just talked about. It doesn't feel too short, because by the end of each episode, you come away feeling that you understand a particular song on a really deep level. Yet at the same time, it's short enough to fit into an overstuffed diet of podcasts -- this one takes a fraction of the time that most do.

So far, I've only been cherry picking from Song Exploder's more than 100 back episodes. I've stuck with composers and songs that I already know. But that experience has been so rewarding that I can easily see myself moving on to other episodes featuring music I don't know as well.

Any lover of music is sure to love this podcast. Perhaps the appeal will fade just a bit for me when I'm not getting a peek inside the mind of composers whose minds I'd specifically like to peek inside of, but for now the show is a top notch grade A experience.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

String Theory

A while back, I watched the animated movie Kubo and the Two Strings. It's literally been months; it somehow just fell through the cracks to write anything about it. That delay should not be construed as a lack of enthusiasm for the movie itself.

Set in feudal Japan, the film tells the story of young boy on a quest to find his lost samurai father. He is joined an interesting collection of sidekicks: a snow monkey (come to life from a tiny charm), a living origami figure, and large beetle warrior cursed with memory loss.

As you can probably tell from that brief description, the world of this film is quite quirky and flavorful. And it's supported to the fullest by jaw-dropping animation. This is a stop motion film in the mold of Coraline (it's from the same production company, in fact), but there are a lot of images here that boggle the mind. Visual effects are used, but in a truly seamless way. (The film deservedly received an Oscar nomination for them.) Add in wonderful character design, striking color, and pain-stakingly perfect movement, and you might just have the best looking animated film ever made.

The story and the cast, though quite good, can't quite live up to such a high mark. I wouldn't go so far to say that the story is conventional, but it certainly falls short of the innovation shown in building the world. There's also a notable problem of Hollywood white-washing. This isn't just a "social justice warrior" thing here; the film really does suffer for how it's cast.

Background characters from top to bottom are filled with Japanese voices that are all recognizable as such. (Some can be recognized in particular, like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa.) The main characters all have voices clearly not of that culture, including Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Art Parkinson (the young boy who plays Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones), and Ralph Fiennes. No question, each is well cast for their type: Theron is a no-nonsense warrior/protector, McConaughey is free-spirited and a bit crazed, Parkinson is so youthful he makes the adventure seem that much greater, and Fiennes is bringing another villain to life. But they all sound nothing like the world around them, and collectively create moments that cleave the movie's strong sense of style in two.

Still, it's surprising to me how few people seem to have seen or heard of Kubo and the Two Strings. For its towering visual achievements alone, it deserves a wider audience. I give it a B+.

Monday, June 26, 2017

"Health Care"

Ordinarily, I try to steer clear of politics here on the blog. But the "Health Care" bill being voted on in the U.S. Senate this week is a travesty. It will cost tens of millions of Americans their access to care, thanks to increased rates and changes allowing insurers to deny (or charge premiums to) people with preexisting conditions.

This really shouldn't be politically controversial. If you're pro-cancer patient death, I don't care if I'm offending you with this post.

For the rest of you, don't take for granted the talk in the news that this bill is "dead on arrival," that enough senators have already pledged to vote against it. With lives literally on the line, it simply shouldn't be left to chance. Especially not if you live in a state like Colorado where it seems possible to pressure a senator into doing the right thing. (It seems for too many that their conscience -- or the empty hole where a conscience should be -- isn't getting the job done.)

Call your senator!

"How do I do that?" you may ask. Here's one guide. There are many others. It only takes a few minutes. For even a slim chance it might make a difference, it's worth that time.

Tomorrow, back to your regularly scheduled pop culture stuff.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Tube Talk

Not long ago, I finished reading a book about TV -- specifically, one with the unwieldy but illuminating title: "TV (The Book): Two Experts Pick the Greatest American Shows of All Time." In their introduction, co-authors Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz observe that while countless film critics have published "Best Movie" books that serve as fuel for debate, there aren't really any comparable books about television. And in a world where TV is widely acknowledged to have caught up with (or even surpassed) films in quality, that seems an unfortunate oversight.

Sepinwall and Seitz qualify their endeavor in a number of ways. They stick to shows produced principally in America (feeling that their knowledge of foreign shows isn't expansive enough to do otherwise). Their official Top 100 list sticks only to shows that have completed their runs (with one notable exception); a special section gets into several dozen currently running shows that could conceivably make the list if their quality holds over time. They also build their list with a formula, applying points to each show in a variety of categories and then ranking them by score, in an effort to apply some semblance of rigor to a subjective task.

Each of their picks is expounded upon in an essay. They write (sometimes at length) about a show's best qualities and its influence on television that followed. This is the most intriguing part about the book, not just because they are engaging writers, but because the order of their picks itself is suspect. They themselves acknowledge this in their introduction, insofar as they write that they hope their list spurs debate and perhaps more books of the same style, with differing opinions.

I won't go into too much detail about their picks; you can read the book yourself for that. But I will say this much: while I think their Top 100 list overall includes almost everything that deserves it, I really take issue with their ordering. They generally give higher marks to a show that "gets there first" over a show that "does it better." For example, they rightly identify The Sopranos as the progenitor of modern television's obsession with anti-heroic main characters, but I think they elevate it too highly for that. (Then again, I've never been much for mobster tales, so take my view with a grain of salt.) They also fall into the typical television critics' trap of deifying The Wire (a good show, to be sure, but I think just as surely overrated).

And this much I will spoil: their number 1 pick is The Simpsons, which just seems to me to be wrong, wrong, wrong. Hell, they spend a significant portion of their essay on The Simpsons apologizing for the poor quality of later episodes and urging you to focus on early episodes, which seems to acknowledge right there that they know their pick is dubious. (Not to mention that "quality over time" is supposed to be one of the criteria factoring into their scoring system.) But hey, healthy debate, right?

Still, the writing is very good, and the overall list is a great representation of what's been great on American television. I'd give TV (The Book) a B+. I'm sure any fan of quality television would enjoy it.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Split Decision

I'd heard a gamut of responses on M. Night Shyamalan's latest movie, Split, ranging from "he's finally back" to "it's better than most of the crap he's done lately anyway" to "it's as bad as anything he's ever made." I was too curious to skip it, not because I wanted to watch the M. Night trainwreck (or root for the M. Night revival), but because I wanted to see the performance of the star, James McAvoy.

McAvoy plays a man inhabited by 23 distinct personalities (we're told; we actually see perhaps a third of those). But this goes far beyond any typical fictional portrayal of multiple personality disorder; this man undergoes physiological changes whenever a new personality takes hold. He's an evolving being, his therapist believes. He's also a psychopath (in part); the movie revolves around one of his personalities abducting three teenage girls and imprisoning them in a mysterious subterranean shelter.

The writing here is middling. The premise is fascinating enough, and the actual plot does manage to touch on most of the moments you'd want to see mined for entertainment. But the script is also unnaturally structured for the sake of surprise. (I'm not talking about a "twist ending" here, but we'll get to that.) Sprinkled throughout the movie are flashbacks to the childhood of young Casey, the central of the three imprisoned victims. Also sprinkled throughout are interactions between the abductor and his therapist. I think making you wait to see these scenes hurts the overall experience.

Once you've seen all of these separated flashbacks and interviews, the behavior of both Casey and her captor do make sense, at least within the film's logic. But until you have that full picture, nothing either of them does seems to track. Casey seems unreasonably docile, while McAvoy's abductor seems to switch personalities for no reason other than plot convenience. Both of these issues have explanations -- a solid one for Casey, an "I guess it'll do" one for the villain. But by the time you understand all that, there's maybe just 15 minutes left in the movie, and you've spent too much of what's come before thinking, "oh, come on."

I suppose I did get what I came to see, though -- a pretty good performance from James McAvoy. It's not at a Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black level of greatness, but there are distinct characters here, and many feel more legit that just affecting a voice as a gag. The movie wouldn't hold together as well without McAvoy.

It's M. Night Shyamalan, so there's a twist ending, right? Well, sort of. Not really, in the way you're probably thinking of it. There is scene at the end, a tag on the film itself, that places the entire story into a different context that you'll either appreciate or roll your eyes at, depending on your take on Shyamalan's earlier work (back when everyone loved him without shame or irony).

I'm not sure this movie is totally worth recommending, though, even for a good performance. I'd call it about a C+. I suppose that puts me in the "better than a lot of Shyamalan, but not great" camp.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

In the General Aria

I mentioned on the blog last week that the end of our New York trip was not quite the end of our traveling. After a week back home in Denver, we were back out to the airport for three days in Las Vegas.

This wasn't a carefully planned vacation so much as a nice opportunity. For my husband, it wasn't even actually a vacation. He was being sent to a conference for work. He already had the hotel room, and flights from Denver to Vegas are quite reasonably priced. So I got a ticket and tagged along. I'd have the days to myself as my husband worked; we'd have time together in the evenings -- though that might not be all that much.

It was a good trip, though it turned out we had even less time together than I think I'd expected. I don't have many stories to share, but maybe enough highlights here for one blog post:
  • We stayed at the Aria, which was far nicer than other hotels I've stayed in on previous Vegas trips. Be warned, though, about using the bedside tablet to set a wake-up call. Said call turned on the lights, opened the window shades, and turned on the TV all at once. We did that on the first night, awoke to what seemed like an air raid, and did not repeat the mistake for the rest of the trip.
  • We went to a couple of local breweries. Since we were staying on the Strip and weren't up for much of a trek (not even downtown), the options were a bit limited. It's not Denver, where you can sometimes find half a dozen breweries in one square mile. We weren't able to hit a friend's recommendation (Banger; that's downtown), but we did make it to two other places. Sin City was decent enough, but only had a very limited selection of regular beers. (They seemed to exist more to sell cheeky merchandise than beer.) Then there was Ellis Island, a casino with an on-site brewery, which was horrible. Every beer was only $2.50, which would seem like a plus, but it felt like that's all they could really get away with charging.
  • I played poker for the trip. Though I won some very nice hands, I lost some big ones too and wound up down for the trip. One of my losses I can blame on luck; an opponent I'd put all-in hit a two-outer on the river to take the hand. That said, my play is a bit rusty these days, so I must chalk up some of my losses to bad play.
  • The final day of my husband's convention ended with a keynote address by a neat guest speaker: Stephen J. Dubner, of Freakonomics fame (book and podcast). Both my husband and his boss recognized the appeal this might have for me, and encouraged me to sneak in to watch. Dubner's 45-minute speech jumped humorously from turkey sex to hospital cleanliness to monkey prostitution, but was overall a talk about a topic that applies just as much to my work as my husband's: what to make of a big pile of data you have on hand. Gathering accurate information on how people behave can be tricky enough, but it can be trickier still to understand why they behave as they do. Much of Dubner's speech talked about one step farther still: the challenges of making people adjust their behavior in the ways you want them to. That comes up in my job, directly or indirectly, basically every day. The talk was a fun end to the trip (and made me realize I should probably be subscribing to the Freakonomics Radio podcast).
There was a time when it seemed like I was visiting Las Vegas every year or two; it was sort of a favorite destination of mine. Times have changed. It had been nearly seven years since my last Vegas trip. I've been lucky enough to go to a variety of great places since then (and luckier still to go to them with the man I love). Vegas just didn't seem as special this time. It was a fun enough diversion for a few days, but won't stick with me for as long as the New York trip.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Elementary, My Dear

Every summer, sprinkled in between the many concerts at Red Rocks Amphitheater, they run a series of movies, projected for a massive crowd on an appropriately massive screen. I'd never been before, mostly waiting for the right film to come along. (The Princess Bride ran once, but the "Quote Along" screening I'd attended not long before at Alamo Drafthouse had scratched that itch.) Last night, the right film came along: The Fifth Element.

I've loved The Fifth Element from the moment I first saw it. Maybe I should say "the moments" I first saw it, because I recall seeing in twice in the same day with different friends back during its original run in 1997. A shared love of the movie was one of the first things my husband and I learned we had in common.

Though it has been many years since I last watched The Fifth Element, I quickly found my love of it hadn't diminished. It had maybe even grown this time around, because even the few flaws I maybe hadn't noticed before just seemed like part of its considerable charms.

I'm not usually one to love a movie for its visuals, but The Fifth Element is something special. It's full of iconic images, memorable characters, and clever designs. In many ways, and much like Star Wars, it's really a fantasy masquerading as science fiction, completely unrestrained by actual laws of nature and marching to its own drum.

It's also filled with wonderful flourishes, some hilarious, some nonsensical, that somehow make the world seem more credible. Why would a mugger break out in a dance? Well, of course he would. Why would anyone make that up? Same goes if you question the name "Iceborg," the purpose of a gun with a self-destruct button, how a radio DJ could be so famous (or how radio could even be a thing) 300 years in the future, and so on. It all just works.

It even works that the movie's protagonist and antagonist never meet or even talk to each other. (There's exactly one shot in the film where they're both on screen, and it's a pointed joke that they just miss each other.) Who the hell writes a story that way? And yet it doesn't detract in any way. The conflict is simple to grasp, and the characters don't need each other to be larger than life.

Of course, those characters are a huge draw, thanks to the great cast that plays them. Bruce Willis, Milla Jovovich, Ian Holm, Gary Oldman... each is better than the last. And I knew I was watching this movie with a throng of true fans when, in the opening credits, Chris Tucker got maybe the loudest applause at all. That performance as Ruby Rhod is from outer space, but it's just the right accent, in just the right amount (in my opinion) to cement the movie as one of my favorites ever.

It's not often you can share a favorite movie with 9000 other fans. I don't know that I'd sit through an unknown band and unknown comedian again for just any movie, but I'm super grateful to have done it here. The Fifth Element is an absolute grade A movie for me. Whatever your grade A might be, I hope you have the chance to see it at Red Rocks someday.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Come to Jesus

And there we have it. In just eight short weeks, American Gods has swept onto our screens and scampered off again. (In a way, it's giving us practice for the coming season of Game of Thrones, which will be just 7 episodes instead of the usual 10.) While this season one finale of American Gods did pay off several of ongoing story elements, its large role was to set the scene for the bigger story to come.

For those who hadn't guessed it from his ravens, Mr. Wednesday was revealed this week as Odin, providing context for his warmongering stance toward the new gods. I believe this reveal has come much earlier in the series than it did in the book, which sets up interesting possibilities for future seasons. The television incarnation of American Gods has already worked in a lot of new material, lingering longer on characters and fleshing them out. Neil Gaiman has just released his own tellings of Norse Mythology, and I'd be curious to see if any material from the book might work its way into an episode of the show.

American Gods is fine making plenty of room for just that kind of back story, after all -- as it did this week. Much of the episode was dedicated to Bilquis, and teed her up to be caught in the middle of this war between old gods and new. Unlike Vulcan of a few episodes earlier, Bilquis had fallen so far that she had no choice but to seize the lifeline offered her by the new gods. Side with them or starve out of existence; side with Wednesday or be beheaded. Seems it can be quite rough being a god.

But the big star of the show this week was Easter, as played by Bryan Fuller veteran Kristin Chenoweth. She brought the greatest sense of danger the show has yet depicted, as the climax of the episode had her withdrawing spring itself from the country. But mostly, she brought great humor and lightness to the proceedings, playing well off every character she interacted with -- Wednesday and Shadow, Mad Sweeney and Laura, and Media and Technical Boy. (And once again, Gillian Anderson got to ham it up, this time as an incarnation of Judy Garland.)

There was also wry humor in the gaggle of Jesuses hanging out at Easter's mansion. Lost alum Jeremy Davies was fun as the particular Jesus to get the most screen time, but the idea itself was better still: that there are so many different conceptions of Jesus that dozens or hundreds have manifested according to the "rules" of this universe.

And that's what we'll have to chew on until, presumably, some time next year when American Gods returns for season two. But the show did go out on a great note, with an episode I'd call an A-.

On to the next obsession, for now.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Dear in the Spotlight

On our final evening in New York, we went to see a show that I'd been hearing all kinds of great buzz about: Dear Evan Hansen. That was three weeks ago; in the time since, it has won six Tony Awards, including Best Musical. To that praise, I'll add my own. The hype is true.

Dear Evan Hansen is the story of a socially awkward high school student. When another student at his school commits suicide, a series of misunderstandings leads people to think he was a close friend of Evan's. White lies begin to pile up, first intended to comfort the grieving family of the student, but soon to nurture a viral wave of popularity that has swept up Evan.

This is not the relentlessly heavy night of theater it might sound like from that description. There are many fun and light moments sprinkled throughout the musical. But what makes Dear Evan Hansen so great is that it does engage, in a deep way, with grief, loneliness, divorce, and other serious topics.

The music and lyrics were created by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. The pair recently won an Oscar for their work on La La Land, but this is far and away the superior effort. Every time you think you've heard the best song Dear Evan Hansen has to offer, another brilliant one comes along to make you rethink that. The first act in particular is just one powerful number after another: memorable melodies that instantly set up camp in your brain, paired with thoughtful lyrics that work on your emotions once there.

The cast was uniformly excellent, though I was truly blown away by two performers in particular. (And sure enough, these were the very two who themselves won Tonys this week.) Ben Platt stars as Evan Hansen, giving such a "leave it all on the field" performance that the mind boggles how he can do it eight times a week. We got a sample of his vocal prowess a few nights earlier in the trip, when he was a guest on the Colbert episode we saw taped. Now we got the full context, a performance that fused together hyperactivity, shyness, and profound sadness, and belted it to the back of the house.

Rachel Bay Jones played Evan's mother Heidi, and was every bit as moving. Her character, a struggling single mother, essentially bookends the musical -- the very first song is about her inability to connect with her son, and the last new song is a heartbreaking confession of the feelings she hid from him all his life. Just when you think the show has wrung everything out of you, Rachel Bay Jones comes in to squeeze out more.

No doubt in the wake of its awards, Dear Evan Hansen will become a hard ticket to get. Many of my readers wouldn't have many opportunities to see a show on Broadway in any case. But if you get the chance, I can't recommend this highly enough. It was grade A, the best thing I've seen in multiple trips to New York. (And I've already mentally filed away the possibility of an "encore"; the first national tour has been announced for next year, and it happens to open here in Denver.)

That brings an end to my stories of New York. But I do have one or two more trip stories to relate. I'll get to that next week...

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Well Met

I've come to the final full day of our New York trip. It was perhaps the fullest of the vacation, even though we had only one destination that day. That's because that one destination was the Met.

Wikipedia will tell you that the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the largest art museum in the U.S., but I think that still fails to convey how big it is. We were there close to six hours, and moving at a fairly swift pace most of the time (especially in the last hour or so). We saw somewhere between a third to a half of the museum. If you really wanted to dive deeply on each section, taking your time on every object, you could easily go back each day for weeks.

Even the sections of the museum themselves are striking, each almost a museum unto itself in layout and presentation. From the ornate, palatial rooms that displayed Renaissance European artifacts... a long plaza displaying great statues... an enormous chamber featuring a massive gate...

...there was something new at every turn. We probably spent the most time in the Greek section (because that's where we started), and the American section (because it was one of the larger sections we visited). But I should not fail to mention the Egyptian wing, the section devoted to arms and armor throughout history (a personal favorite), and an extensive modern art area (with an overall tone different from both MoMA and the Guggenheim)

The highlights were quite varied. Emanuel Leutze's famous painting of "Washington Crossing the Delaware" was a shock -- it's over 21 feet wide and 12 feet tall, taking up an entire wall:

I'm not sure this photo does justice to the profoundly creepy statue "Lilith" by Kiki Smith, hanging upside-down in a stairwell and glaring with haunting eyes:

And we made plenty of irreverent comments that will immediately come back to me whenever I look through our photos. For example, there's the Greek Terminator...

...the human arm rest...

...and the actually not needing comment "Plate With Wife Beating Husband."

With so much left unseen (and the gallery regularly changing what it displays, rotating in items from their vast collection), I can't imagine ever running out of things to see at the Met. If I ever find myself in New York again, a day at the Met would be high on my list. It was a highlight of the trip, and would be followed up with another highlight in our final Broadway show that evening.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

A Dark Sunset

I'm pretty "spoiler" adverse. I don't read them. I try not to give them without warning. If I've decided already that I'm going to go see a movie, I don't even like to watch its trailer. Usually, this policy serves me well. Even when a form of entertainment I'm taking in doesn't hinge on surprise, I feel that going in with less knowledge and fewer expectations often improves my experience. But every once in a while, not knowing what I was really "buying" has steered me very wrong.

So it was when, on our New York vacation, we went to see Sunset Boulevard. Here's all I knew going in: it was an adaptation of the film (which I had seen), this was a limited run revival, and it starred Glenn Close in a role for which she'd previously won a Tony. I thought that was really all I needed to know. The movie seemed like an intriguing target for adaptation, and I'd be happy to see Glenn Close on Broadway -- for the second time, actually. As a teenager, I'd taken a school trip to New York, and seen Glenn Close in the original production of Death and the Maiden. That amazing experience only made me more interested to see this.

Unfortunately, this limited knowledge left out a vitally important detail: this version of Sunset Boulevard is a musical, composed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Had I known that, I never would have gone in for this show. See, on that same high school trip, I also saw Cats (in its original run, albeit several years in). I found Cats to be an overblown, meandering, and cloying work -- one good song ("Memory") surrounded by crap, without even a decent plot to contain it. When I saw The Phantom of the Opera years later on one of its numerous national tours, I felt much the same -- two or three good songs trapped in a web of noisy, repetitive junk.

It should come as no surprise, then, that Sunset Boulevard was the low point of our trip. It slavishly followed the Andrew Lloyd Webber formula -- loads of aimless warbling around the scales, coalescing only once or twice in a decent number. (And in this case, the music sounded a lot like material from The Phantom of the Opera; this was derivative Andrew Lloyd Webber on top of everything else.)

I could tell my husband hated it even more than I did, which just made my mistake of grabbing the tickets even worse. At intermission, our minds boggled to overhear two women near us going on about how amazing they thought it all was. We should have followed the lead of a different couple near us, who vanished entirely at intermission, never returning for the second act. (Or perhaps they just sneaked down into better seats somewhere? It turns out that Broadway theaters can have "nosebleed" sections; we were up in a third story balcony, though I was very grateful not to have spent any more money than we did.)

I suppose you could say Glenn Close was amazing, in that she was the only tolerable thing about a complete waste of an evening at the theater. When Act Two turned more to the young lovers in the story and Close's Norma Desmond went absent, it was unbearable. Those 15 minutes felt like an hour. Still, the thunderous standing ovation she received after her two big solo numbers seemed overzealous.

The show is going to close by the end of the month here, and very few of my blog's readers would have the chance to see a Broadway show between now and then anyway. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to issue a warning: do not go see Sunset Boulevard. I would grade it a D only out of deference to Glenn Close, who spun a trifling amount of gold out of the straw here. But that's simply not reason enough to waste the time or the money.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Greenwich Time

We still had plenty of afternoon left when we finished up at the Guggenheim, so we decided to take the subway to Greenwich Village. We had no particular destination in mind; we just wanted to wander around a bit and see what we could find.

As it happened, the subway stop was right by the Stonewall Inn...

...and the memorial in the adjacent Christopher Park.

For something so simple, I found it quite moving. It's kind of perfect that these statues are just two couples showing the most casual intimacy, out in broad daylight. It's so simple, and yet still quietly defiant -- because while it's really inspiring to think about how far we've come since June 28, 1969 (and it fills me with gratitude to think about how much I've personally benefited from it all), visiting the site of Stonewall also illustrated how much farther we still have to go.

At least, it did at the specific moment I was there, because standing just outside the gate of this tiny park was a man screaming to every passing person an aimless tirade about damnation and salvation. I was sad to have to hear it... but then also a bit amused at an exchange we overheard:

Obnoxious Idiot: "God sees everything you do!"
Passing Pedestrian: "Really? God is everywhere?"
Obnoxious Idiot: "Yes, God is everywhere!"
Passing Pedestrian: "Then he's up your ass!"

Maybe not the most clever take down imaginable, but it put a smile on my face in the moment. And it was fitting, as Stonewall stands above all for not taking any more shit you shouldn't have to.

We only explored a bit more of Greenwich Village, but I was still glad we went.

Monday, June 12, 2017

A Prayer for Mad Sweeney

This week's American Gods, like the Shadow/Laura history episode of a few weeks ago, pushed pause on the ongoing story line to try something different. Mostly.

We did get one major revelation in the continuing narrative, that Mad Sweeney was responsible for the crash that originally killed Laura, acting under orders to take her out. We also saw he has decidedly mixed feelings about it, given that in Laura's second major driving accident, Sweeney could have made off with his coin and been done with her; instead, he restored her to life. Why he did that is open to a bit of interpretation. Was he acting out of guilt? Out of some long-running sense of obligation to her family line (connecting to this week's "Coming to America" tale)?

That "Coming to America" tale made up the bulk of this episode. It was by far the longest, most-involved of these self-contained stories we've had. It featured both Emily Browning (taking on a role other than Laura) and Pablo Schreiber (playing a younger and softer version of Mad Sweeney, though only the title of the episode truly says that). Was Browning's double casting meant to hint at a meaningful connection to present-day events? Or was it simply a matter of practicality, using a main cast membe rather than having a guest star be the focus of an entire episode? Don't look to the book for clues; again, this was a newly invented part of the story for the television screen.

Because so much time was devoted to this back story, it's safe to assume it's a rather important piece of the larger American Gods tapestry. I suspect just what that is will be open to some debate among fans. I'll offer up this possible interpretation: this week seemed to be saying "gods are people too." Or, at least, leprechauns are. Mad Sweeney too was "transported" to America against his will. There's more emotion churning within him than greed and belligerence -- he can be forgiving, kind, and remorseful.

And while this little stand-alone tale may indeed have this larger meaning (and was well told), it was a little odd that this was how the series chose to spend the hour when only one more episode remains in the season. I felt like the timing made it more challenging to just settle in and enjoy it for what it was.

I'd grade the episode a B+. Still quite good, but an example of how great this series has been that it actually seemed like one of the weaker hours.

Friday, June 09, 2017


Our final few days of the trip were fell into a bit of a pattern -- museums in the morning and theater in the evening. Wednesday started off at the Guggenheim. It was a very interesting place, and not just for its famous architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright. (Though that is quite dramatic, and just as impressive inside as out.)


Perhaps because the Guggenheim started off as a means of displaying and sharing a private collection, the works you can see there are a bit different from the norm. Like the Museum of Modern Art, the focus is on art from the the 20th century on. But I felt like the Guggenheim had a lot of work from famous artists done before they were famous. Or rather, work from before they solidified the style for which they became famous.

There was a Picasso from before he fully developed his Cubist approach...

...a trio of Seurat paintings from before he'd narrowed his pointillist focus (and enlarged his canvas) to the degree he'd be known for...

...and other historic pieces, not "historic" themselves in the conventional sense, but in showing the history behind the history we know.

That said, the Guggenheim also displayed work from artists in their prime, including a whole area devoted to Kandinsky:

It also had a lot of very current art, which I generally found more intriguing that the contemporary stuff we'd seen at MoMA. There was a massive diorama that looked like a circuit board from afar, but was actually revealed to be an enormous ant farm up close.

Then there was the cheekiest piece in the museum, with an even cheekier name: "America." It was, quite literally, a gold-plated toilet:

Installed in a unisex bathroom of the fifth floor of the museum, this was a functioning toilet that you were allowed to use (or just go in and gawk at, if you were feeling pee-shy).

Despite having spent several hours at MoMA, I was happy to have gone to the Guggenheim too. Both were subtly different and interesting experiences.

Thursday, June 08, 2017

Hogging the Spotlight

One of the best vacations my husband and I have taken together was a few years back when we went to London. While we saw and did plenty of amazing things on the trip, the real kernel around which we decided to go in the first place was the musical Matilda. The genius behind that show's music and lyrics, Tim Minchin, is now back with a new effort, Groundhog Day.

Built upon the 1993 movie starring Bill Murray, the Groundhog Day musical adapts the story of smug TV weatherman Phil Connors, forced to relive the same day over and over again until he reforms his selfish ways.

The stage version hews fairly close to the movie's key moments. I actually found this to be more a feature than a bug, as a lot of tremendously entertaining stagecraft went into figuring out how to even present certain things on a theater stage. To show the attempt to get out of town before the blizzard, a foot-high van miniature rolled across the stage only to get a shovel full of "snow" dumped on it by an actor dressed in a giant groundhog costume. More car miniatures (wielded by black-clad puppeteers) were used in a major act one sequence to actually show an entire police chase in a "top down," Pac-Man style.

An early number in Act Two was built around Phil's repeated suicides, and used magicians' techniques of misdirection and body doubles to repeatedly, instantly have Phil waking up in bed an instant after offing himself. The audience knew the gist of how they were being tricked each time, but still gave the cast a round of thunderous applause every time they pulled off another increasingly clever switch.

Starring as Phil Connors, actor Andy Karl pulled off the impossible -- he kept you from ever thinking of Bill Murray's performance from the movie. Karl presented an equally credible but distinctly different version of the character, more insufferable without being irredeemable, less sarcastic without being unfunny, more energetic without compromising the darkness in the story.

The musical made an effort to open up the narrative a bit by giving more back story to characters in the town of Punxsutawney. A handful were given their own solos to better define the problem that Phil would ultimately have to "solve" for them before he'd be released from his repeating day. These numbers generally paused the comedy of the story to make room for a darker, more dramatic moment. It would be going too far to say that these elements were improving on the story of a such a great movie, but it did at least carve out a bit of space for the musical to be its own different thing.

As for the work of Tim Minchin, the reason we wanted to see this in the first place? Well, Matilda was so special (and I've listened to its soundtrack so many times) that my bar was no doubt set unreasonably high. I will be picking up the Groundhog Day soundtrack too, and I hope to unearth gems in it as I listen and relisten. I would generally say that this score is not as strong... though it's also different in some interesting ways.

My general impression is that Matilda is (by far) more clever in its lyrics, full of brilliant turns of phrase, smart rhymes, and playfulness. Groundhog Day has struck me as being the more musically sophisticated of the two. It manipulates motifs in ways that achieve "repetition" without always literally repeating things. It plays with stranger melodies, time signatures, and chord progressions. In these ways, it's quite suited to the story, and probably has many tricks lurking beneath the surface, far more than I could pick up on just watching the show performed once. I suspect this is a score I will grow to appreciate more over time.

I think I probably walked out of theater thinking the production was a B+. In the couple of weeks since, reconsidering what were frankly unreasonable expectations, I've come around to thinking of it more as an A-. And yet Groundhog Day still wasn't the best show we saw in New York. That story still to come in a future post...

Wednesday, June 07, 2017

Park Place

Tuesday marked the halfway point of our New York trip, and was also a nice, sunny break from the rain of the day before. So we went with an outdoor plan for the day -- we rented bikes and rode around Central Park.

On the one hand, when you come from a place like Colorado, with all manner of natural wonders practically outside your front door, one park isn't all that impressive. On the other hand, the odd juxtaposition of a park in the midst of the New York sprawl really is neat for being so jarring. And Central Park really is huge when you think about how much space on the not-so-big Manhattan Island is devoted to it.

We actually made two complete laps around the Park. The first was rather quick, as we stopped only when we saw something of interest close to the road. But many of the more interesting things in Central Park are hidden back up along walking paths, and we made an effort to seek some of those out in our second circuit. Among the more picturesque spots were the Bethesda Fountain...

...and the Mall (which has appeared in a few thousand movies and TV shows).

We happened upon a Navy band that was performing for a small audience.

And I can also report (disingenuously) that on our New York trip, we saw Hamilton!

We biked for a few hours, then left Central Park and headed downtown for lunch at Fraunces Tavern. (There was another poster beer to be had there.) From there, we took a quick there-and-back trip on the Staten Island Ferry to take in the view:

By then, we were getting late into the afternoon, and it was time to head over to Broadway for an evening show.

Monday, June 05, 2017

A Murder of Gods

I'm taking a break from the New York trip stories to talk about the latest episode of American Gods. It was a big one in terms of building an identity for the TV series separate from the book; not one thing we saw this week came from Neil Gaiman's novel. That's not to say I disapprove (and I doubt very much Gaiman himself would either). The episode was very much in keeping with the tone of the book, and the show thus far.

The episode really opened up the story by giving us a full-fledged subplot to Laura and Mad Sweeney -- and roping in Salim too. They're an interesting trio, each on a desperate hunt to recover something lost. Each is after something different, but at the primal core of what motivates them, they're all somewhat alike. I have no idea what's in store for the future of their road trip, but I'm interested to see more of the world of American Gods that's not in the immediate vicinity of Shadow Moon. (It's not that I don't like him; it just seems like such a rich world to get only one perspective on.)

But far more important and interesting (to me, at least) were the ways in which the episode thumbed its nose at what America "worships." That was always a key piece of Neil Gaiman's agenda with this story, revealed clearly when he chose to make gods of the internet and television. I feel like the show upped the ante on that premise with this episode.

First, there was the prologue in which Jesus himself came to aid a group of Mexicans sneaking across the border. And what did the Americans do when they found Jesus? Mowed him down in a hail of gunfire, along with all his "followers." Not a subtle metaphor, that. (But one both sad and twistedly funny.)

Then there was the encounter with Vulcan, the historic god of the forge now remade as a god of firearms. No subtlety here either, as Vulcan specifically spoke of the strength he drew from human sacrifice -- from mass shootings, from love of guns as a substitute for faith. It was another stinging indictment of American values, a portrayal of violence as religion.

I'll be interested to see if there's any sort of backlash to this episode. Will there be fans out there who were all on board when the show was a fantasy gently mocking the deification of entertainment, but suddenly go "hey there" when the target of playful derision changes? I for one was thoroughly entertained, and can't wait to see where else the ride goes now that they've gotten us all on board. I give this episode an A-.

Friday, June 02, 2017

Late, in the Afternoon

After our morning at MoMA, our next stop in New York was an afternoon show. Specifically...

...the taping of the Monday, May 22nd episode of the Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

If you've never been to the taping of a late night show like this, I'm not quite sure whether to tell you it's totally worth it, or totally not. Both are true, depending on your point of view. You can't beat the price, anyway -- tickets are free.

Despite us thinking that we didn't necessarily want to stand in line for a long time for this, we basically did anyway. We'd finished up early enough at the museum to head over to the Ed Sullivan theater about 20 minutes ahead of the "earliest check-in time." And it's maybe good we did, as it's a "first come, first served" situation, and they were already checking people in. (Also, it was raining, and we managed to be standing under the marquis the whole time.)

It is a lot of waiting. We waited for close to an hour outside. Then they let us all into the theater lobby and we waited there for close to another hour. There was a TV screen on the wall playing "best of" Colbert clips to help pass the time, but as you could hear the band warming up behind the closed theater doors, you couldn't help but be keenly aware that you're really just standing around doing nothing. Even once they finally started letting everyone into the theater, that process took around 15 minutes, followed by another 15 minutes or so before anything happened.

That said, if you're willing to blow that first couple of hours, the experience from there gets pretty fun. I guess think of it like a popular amusement park ride (or something). A warm-up comedian came out to juice up the tired crowd, with plenty of fun one-on-ones with different people. (It's all fun when it's not you, anyway.) Both the comedian and the show's producer implored us again and again to be a vocal, loud audience.

Out came the show's house band, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, to perform a raucous, energetic opening number. Stephen Colbert himself then emerged to finish the warm-up, taking audience questions and cracking improvised jokes. When the cameras still weren't quite ready to roll, a fun audience question ("What's your go-to karaoke number?") led to Colbert performing half the opening number of Jesus Christ Superstar for the cheering crowd. (This was by far the best of two Andrew Lloyd Webber experiences on this trip; I'll get to the other in a future post.)

The actual show kicked off, and was generally fun. The opening monologue had lots of great jokes (this falling early in Trump's recent Middle East trip), though with a wide angle camera just three or four feet away from Colbert, you really had to watch that part of the show on the screens overhead (which kind of made it a bit like watching from home anyway).

There was no extra "comedy bit" for our episode; we went straight to guests. Rachel Maddow had two segments to talk about the latest news, and Ben Platt -- star of the Broadway show Dear Evan Hansen -- was there both for an interview and performance from the musical. (This was a preview for us; we already had our tickets for that lined up on the last night of our trip.)

We even made it on TV for perhaps two or three seconds. In between the two interviews, Jon Batiste came out into the aisle to play the melodica; we were in the audience just a bit camera right of him, and could be seen briefly smiling and clapping along.

Should you go to a TV show taping? Well, it's fun, but only after you wait two to three hours. It's free, but much of your view will be obstructed by studio cameras at times. I think it comes down to how much you like the show in question. I watch Colbert anyway and enjoyed being there in the studio to see how it's all put together and what it all really looked like. (Yes, it's like they say -- all much smaller in person.) I wouldn't recommend going to a taping for just anything. Don't plan a vacation around it, but if you can snap up tickets once your plan is locked in (as we were able to do), it's a fun activity for an afternoon.

Thursday, June 01, 2017

MoMA to Cherish

The Monday of our New York trip was rainy, but we didn't have outdoor plans that day. Our destination that morning was the Museum of Modern Art (or MoMA, as it's popularly called).

We had a few other museums on our agenda for the trip, each with a different flavor. MoMA was one to go to because it had many artists -- and even specific paintings -- you'd recognize instantly, including Van Gogh's Starry Night...

Andy Warhol's Campbell's Soup Cans...

...and more. We started by heading to the top floor, the sixth, and working our way down. This turned out to be a great approach, as the museum was arranged from oldest to newest work, with the newest at the top. That top floor felt like one giant joke to me.

On the one hand, the MoMA gift shop sold merchandise with the perfect rejoinder to my reaction: "Modern Art = I Could Do That + Yeah, But You Didn't." Okay, fair enough. But on the other hand, in my job, I work with amazing artists whose worst two-minute rough I'd put in a gallery before this stuff. There were church pew-like benches, which had to be monitored by a museum worker so that people wouldn't sit on the "art." There was a huge bin of bubbling mud, an urban Yellowstone thermal feature? There were the scribblings that, if done by my nephew, wouldn't make it to my sister's refrigerator.

There were odd sculptures that reminded me of high school. Back then, the theater geeks and I had access to the school's auditorium, and we'd slip in there occasionally to rearrange leftover props and scenery on stage as "modern art." We should have saved that stuff, or at least photographed it, because we managed better than this...

On the other hand -- and I guess this gets into the subjectivity of art -- there were a lot of works (basically on every other floor) that to me showed a lot more thought or effort (or both), and that caught much more of my attention. That included a giant inflatable rendering of a rotary fan, a series of headache inducing experiments with tight geometric patterns, a giant wall of pitch black carved wooden panels, and whatever this strangely compelling thing is...

Add to that the chance to see some works by Picasso (including sculptures, which I hadn't even known he did), Gauguin, and more. All told, the Museum of Modern Art was a wonderfully entertaining afternoon, even if that top floor hadn't seemed like a great start.