Monday, December 31, 2018

Ja'loja

January is right around the corner, and Star Trek is coming back. The official version, Discovery, is still a few weeks off, but the unofficial version returned last night: Seth MacFarlane's "what if The Next Generation was still making new episodes?" take on Star Trek that is The Orville.

Actually, if last night's episode is any indication of the second season to come, they might be turning up the dial on the humor just a touch this season. The main story line revolved around taking Bortus back to his homeworld for an annual ceremony to... uh... "boldly go." Having spent all of season one establishing how clearly he loves Star Trek, Seth MacFarlane is now free to point out how just-this-side-of-silly it can be. Spock has to go back to Vulcan to mate every seven years like an interstellar salmon, and that's widely (and rightly) regarded as one of the best episodes of the series. Turn the dial just one click more, and you've got Bortus on an annual pilgrimage to pee.

And it turned out, this was actually one of The Orville's better episodes so far too. But a truly odd one to lead off a new season with. As telegraphed in the opening scene with Captain Mercer and the Guinan-esque bartender (played by Jason Alexander), this episode wasn't going to feature any galactic crisis or problem to be solved. It was pure character study. And a pretty great one actually, with every character being touched upon.

I haven't always felt invested in the past relationship between Mercer and Grayson, but turning it into a love triangle with Grayson's new boyfriend Cassius was fun. The one way in which The Orville hasn't been pure Next Generation is that its characters aren't highly-evolved, conflict-free paragons, so watching Mercer indulge an immature jealousy made for some good laughs.

Watching Dr. Finn navigate single-parenting was a surprisingly impactful plot thread too. Also interesting were the hints dropped that maybe there's a more long-term story at play here too. The rebellious streak of Finn's son Marcus seemed to have something to do with resentment over how much time she's been hanging around with Isaac. And it also seems like Finn and Isaac might be casually easing into an actual relationship. We'll see if The Orville plans to start mixing in DS9-style plot arcs with their TNG-style "problem of the week" format.

On the lighter side, we had Alara's dating woes, and LaMarr's oddball efforts to help Malloy's "game." Plus, of course, the Bortus plot construct that contained the whole thing. None of these stories offered great depth (though Bortus' ritual was surprisingly earnest, if you could step out of your head long enough to wonder how much they were actually going to show). Still, it was nice to lightly touch on all the characters again like this after several months away.

The sum total was something like a "Data's Day" episode showing a day in the life on the Orville (but without focusing so much on just one character). It was surprisingly satisfying for such low stakes, and definitely good at humanizing the characters more. I give "Ja'loja" a B+.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Passing Grade

At the time I started reading the first book, I didn't know that The Passage, a trilogy of post-apocalyptic novels by Justin Cronin, was about to be turned into a television series. I'd had my eye on the series for some time, and my husband had just listened to the audiobook and gave me the thumbs-up. It was only partway through the first book (also named The Passage) that I heard a series would be starting on FOX in January -- a little extra incentive to finish the book and "stay ahead" of the show.

I need not have worried. The book is epic, just staggeringly long. Book one itself feels like a trilogy, consisting of three sections each with a distinct tone and narrative, and each about as long as most writers' novels. By about 20% in (the end of that "first section"), it was pretty clear that I'd read everything that the first season of the coming series could possibly hope to cover. But I was very much enjoying the book, and kept soldiering on. For weeks. Until I couldn't remember a time before I was reading The Passage.

When finally I did reach the end, my opinion was a bit more mixed, and the length did have a bit to do with it. The novel was engaging overall, with each of its pieces telling an intriguing tale and featuring plenty of interesting characters and moments. But there were moments that the book definitely left me questioning why so much time had been spent on a particular character or plot element that was only going to be abandoned when the story skipped along later to something else.

Cronin's writing style itself was much like the story overall. Much of the time it was sharp, effective, and clever. Occasionally, it was unfocused and meandering. Chapter One, for example, paints a crystal clear and moving portrait of a character, one that immediately made me sit up and take notice and think, "this guy really knows how to develop a character and put you inside their head." But that character never appeared again. And moreover, similar care and craft was absent later on, when "part two" of the novel opened up. At that point, a large group is introduced and is largely ill-defined and interchangeable for several chapters.

This was my journey through The Passage, again and again. I wouldn't say it kept "winning me back," as it never really lost me along the way. But it would definitely catch me feeling it hadn't been truly great for a while.... and then it would drop a really compelling chapter that completely engaged me all over again. The novel always rewarded me for my diligence, but also slowed down enough to feel like "diligence" was what was sometimes demanded.

I finally did make it, and I absolutely want to read the next book. I also don't want to do that for some time; I've spent long enough with Justin Cronin for now. I'd give The Passage a B. It is a good book. I just wish you didn't have to work so hard for it.

Monday, December 17, 2018

I Detect a Board Game

One of the more buzzed-about games at this year's GenCon sold out before I could snag a copy. But a few months later, my group got their hands on one, and have since been playing Detective: A Modern Crime Board Game.

Detective is one of a few new games trying to live at unusual intersection. It's a mystery game, where the players work cooperatively to solve crimes. It's kinda-sorta Legacy, in that it features five distinct cases (connected in a serialized story) that you can play through just once. (But you could reset the box at the end and gift it on to people who didn't play -- or sit on it a few years and play again when you don't remember the details, I suppose.) You connect with a web site while you play and enter crime scene data you collect for "lab testing" and cross-referencing. Some of the details mentioned in the cases are real world tie-ins -- you can actually pull out a smart phone or laptop or whatever and Google for information.

We've now played through the entire five-case story, and I can say that overall I did enjoy it. But I also have a few reservations. For one, it's debatable how "game-like" this experience really is. It's at least as game-like as an escape room (and there are plenty of board game versions of those), which is a decent start. There are also choices to be made, as each case has a fixed amount of time and actions you can take, and thus only so much information you can uncover before the case closes and you must make your final report. That report is scored, as well, which introduces the game-like desire to want to replay and see if you could do better. (Though you can't. You now know the solution.)

It's also like other cooperative board games in that it feels like the game is very much stacked against you. With the limited number of actions your team has, there's absolutely no way to "do it all." So you have to discuss and agree on where to spend your efforts, hoping it will lead to answers. But the story is dense enough, and crafted with enough intrigue, that it can also feel like a mystery novel you only get to read half of before you're forced to guess the ending.

On the clear plus side, each of the five cases feels very different from one another. Some introduce different mechanics (enough to further justify it as a game and not merely an interactive story). And the mysteries generally have enough suspects and interesting twists to feel challenging and fun. On the minus side, the fifth and final case doesn't quite feel fair. Our group knew a big part of "the answer" early on, but could not uncover the rest before time ran out on us. Since we were then done with the game, we went through all the information to see what path could have taken us there... and found out there really wasn't one. (Not as explicitly as in earlier cases, anyway.)

Some aspects of the game are hit or miss. Each player nominally has a character with an ability you can use, but as the game has no individualized turn structure, it just becomes something for the group to deploy together. The "you can actually search for this on Google" has mixed results. In the first case or two, it's a real dud of an element, with web searches really just turning out "I guess that's intriguing" background information you don't really need to solve the cases. Fortunately, later cases worked this feature in brilliantly, making web searches a fun and vital piece of finding your answers.

Overall, I'd rate the experience a B. Decent fun, though admittedly I'm already looking forward to trying Chronicles of Crime, another game playing in a similar space. Still, if Detective sounds interesting to you, you probably won't be disappointed if you pick up a copy.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

There Is No Dana...?

Released in 2017, Azul quickly rocketed up to the upper echelons of board game fandom. It was 2018's Spiel des Jahres award winner. It's the number 1 abstract game on Board Game Geek. I'd been curious to try it out, and recently got that chance.

Nominally, the game is about designing a palace wall in Portugal using decorative tiles. But they don't call it an abstract game for nothing. The veneer of flavor is paper-thin, just enough to make you wonder if this game is a lot like Sagrada. (I don't think so.)

Five colors of tiles, in multiple quantities, are scrambled in a bag. A circle of spaces is created in the center of the table, the number of spaces varying with the number of players. At the start of each round, three tiles are pulled from the bag for each space around the circle. Then a draft begins. Each player picks one of the spaces, takes all tiles of one color from there, then pushes the remaining tiles into the center of the circle. As that pile builds up, it becomes another place you can draft from -- take all the tiles of one color from the center whenever you like (but the first player to do so each round will lose a point).

As players draft tiles, they stage them on their personal game boards. You have a "row" of one tile, above a row of two, three, four, and five. Each staging row must be filled with a single tile color. Each time you draft tiles, you must add them to one of these rows -- and if you overflow, those extra tiles cost you points. At the end of each round, if a row is full, you empty it an migrate one of those tiles over into a 5 x 5 grid. There, a quilt-like design is in place, with each of the five color types represented once in each row and each column. That's where the positive scoring happens, with points for connecting to previous tiles you've played, and endgame points for finishing rows, columns, or color types.

I feel I may not be doing the best job explaining this highly visual system in words, but it's quite easy to latch onto once you see it. You spend little mental effort understanding the rules, reserving plenty for the massive strategic implications.

It is a great, fun, and quick game. A four-player game took little more than 30 minutes (even with the explanation). Basic decisions seemed easy enough to make: look at your board, figure out what you need, and go find it in the drafting circle somewhere. (It will often be there, or at least something close to it.)

But I'm sure the reason this game has grown so popular is that it doesn't have to be that simple. We were all too new at the game to think much about thwarting our opponents, but the potential for this is absolutely there. What can you draft that helps you "some" while stopping your opponent from really big plays? What do you absolutely have to draft now, and what can you risk waiting on until your next turn? (These layers do feel similar to the decisions Sagrada asks you to make, but the drafting mechanism and "building" rules feel wholly different between the two games.)

If that's still not enough strategy for you, then each player board has a back side where the patterns of your finished walls aren't fixed. You decide for yourself how to array tiles in your 5 x 5 grid (though you can't repeat within a row or column). From my skill level now, I can't imagine ever wanting that, but it's there if we start playing this game a ton.

The tiles are sturdy and fun to handle, and the art design gives it all a nice push. My only minor complaint is that some of the tile "colors" are really patterns. Everyone who sees the game for the first time wonders why two particular colors of tile are "face down," because they're completely blank when the other three types are not. A concession to accurate colors in a real palace in Portugal, I imagine. You learn fast enough, anyway.

I have a small reservation about the scoring. I mentioned that connecting to previously played tiles in your wall is important, and as a result, it feels like a player who begins to do that well might be able to run away with things, giving others little hope of catching up. But I can hardly feel certain that's the case, as little as I've played the game. And it may be that players quickly learn to watch for that sort of thing after only a game or two.

I'd give Azul an A-. It's the first Spiel des Jahres winner in a while that I felt actually delivered on the hype. It's definitely worth picking up a copy.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Nailed File

It's very hard for a new hour-long show to make it into the queue at our house right now. We follow too many of them already to find time for new suggestions, no matter how animated the people making them get. But the same congestion doesn't apply to lightweight, half-hour shows. We like to put one on while eating dinner, or at the end of the night when one more heavy drama might break us.

Into this gap fell Nailed It! It's a dessert baking competition show on Netflix. And while I've never before taken any interest in a cooking show, this one has me hooked. The premise/twist: there are no skilled, professional bakers on the show. Instead, each episode features three home cooks, who "make things that taste good but look awful," "want to improve their skills," or "have families that think their cooking could use work."

These decidedly amateur contestants are then doomed to failure. The two challenges in each episode are ridiculously over the top -- multi-step creations with layers, sculpture, architecture, and adornments. And they're given a crazy-short amount of time to pull it off. Which they never do. They inevitably fall well short of the mark, and hilarity ensues.

Laughing at results is the centerpiece of the show, but amazingly, Nailed It! manages not to be mean-spirited. This is thanks to the two hosts. There's the exhaustingly upbeat Nicole Byer, who crows through every three-ring circus of an episode like she's just had a case of Red Bull. French pastry chef Jacques Torres supplements her enthusiasm with knowledge and kindness. Whenever judging time comes around, the two (and a third guest judge) always have their laughs, but always find genuinely nice and encouraging things to say as well. It really does all feel in good fun.

This show might defy the "grading" system I normally use. I mean, if for some reason I had to give up the show immediately, I could do that, no problem. But at the same time, it's the perfect show to close an evening, while you're finishing off a beer. It has managed to make me laugh harder than many sitcoms. So, I don't know... A for what it is, B+ in a grander scheme of things? It's entertaining, plain and simple.

Monday, December 10, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Blood Oath

After a first season in which Deep Space Nine seized on many opportunities to connect to Star Trek: The Next Generation, the series stepped out more on its own in season two. But late in the season came an episode that again looked back -- this time all the way to the original Star Trek series and three of its classic Klingons.

Three aging Klingons arrive on the station with news that upturns everything for Jadzia Dax. Decades before, as Curzon, Dax swore an oath of vengeance against a dishonorable "Albino" who murdered the sons of each Klingon: Kang, Kor, and Koloth. Each reacts differently to the realization that the current host of the Dax symbiont is not the man who swore that oath, but all agree that Jadzia should be under no obligation to pursue their hated foe. Jadzia, on the other hand, feels otherwise. She's determined to honor the blood oath, even if it means turning her back on Starfleet ideals.

I'm hardly a fan of Klingons, often finding their story lines one note and dull. But this is how you do things right: Klingons, tie-ins to other Star Trek, and using prominent guest stars well (in service of a main character). The episode didn't begin with lofty ambitions, though. Staff writer Peter Allan Fields pitched a Klingon vengeance story he called "The Beast," loosely based on Seven Samurai and its American remake, The Magnificent Seven. It was another staff writer, Robert Hewitt Wolfe, who had the bright idea to bring back popular Klingon villains from the original Star Trek to appear in this story.

Though inspired, the idea wasn't without its stumbling blocks. The producers had to track down the original actors to see if they were still working. One, William Campbell (Koloth), hadn't performed on screen in six years (and was ultimately "located" while appearing at a Star Trek convention!). Another, John Colicos (Kor), was reluctant to play the character when he read a script in which his character was, he felt, a buffoonish departure from the original role. (He was persuaded by a rewrite that made his character a sort of Falstaff who turns heroic, "the Ishmael who lives to tell the story.")

Then came the debate about what the Klingons should look like. The writers toyed with having these three return in their original, human-like "Fu Manchu" guises, but ultimately decided to update their looks. William Campbell thought the grueling makeup might "kill him," while Michael Ansara's (Kang) curiosity about the change was satisfied when he was told that this was a "natural physical metamorphosis" Klingons go through as they age.

As fun as it might be for Trekkers to see three classic characters return, that alone wouldn't make for such a good episode. Instead, it's how they interact with Dax that makes it a winner. It's a great performance from Terry Farrell, as she must approach each of the three Klingons in a different way -- it's a philosophical approach with the immediately accepting Kor, a physical struggle with the obstinate Koloth, and a battle of wills with Kang (who is hiding a secret from the rest).

The episode is all about Dax: how much the blood oath matters to her, and whether she can actually go through with killing in cold blood. There are interesting ramifications with her past hosts. Curzon clearly made the oath not just for politics, given how strongly Jadzia feels about it in the present. Then there's the matter of Joran, the murderous "secret host" the writers would invent next season; it's interesting to watch this episode knowing that killing is not actually foreign to Dax before this moment.

While focusing on Dax, the episode serves up some great moments for other characters too. We see Odo actually use charm, a rare weapon in his arsenal, to lure a drunk Kor out of Quark's holosuite. We also see Odo show rare deference to someone, upon hearing that Kor is actually a "Dahar master." Kira gets an intensely personal scene when Dax asks her what it was like to kill people in the Bajoran resistance, a moment when the Major drops everything on a dime to be a true and thoughtful friend. Sisko gets his moment to be a friend as well, challenging Dax's determination and asking if she can really go through with an oath for vengeance.

And yes, it's great for the guest stars too. It's fun to see three actors who all played campy roles on the original series be more serious here. Kor, once a mustache-twirling villain, becomes a tragic figure masking deep sorrow behind light-heartedness. Koloth, once pure comic relief, becomes a no-nonsense head-cracker. Kang, once comically afflicted with pride, here displays the genuine article. There are so many great moments for all three: Kor's immediate acceptance of Jadzia as an "old friend" and meaningful speech about the horrors of growing old; Koloth refusing to help Kor out of the drunk tank and beating Dax easily in one-on-one combat despite his age; Kang's painful confession of how he actually bargained with his hated enemy just for a slim chance at revenge.

I think part of why I enjoy this episode so much, despite all the Klingon stuff, is that Dax spends a fair amount of time calling Klingons on their stupid shit. Klingons throw their lives away too easily, she claims, suggesting their motto ought to be that "today is a good day to live." She also seems to ride full tilt for the blood oath, but in the final moment she in fact can't go through with it. (Kang charitably or obliviously sees this as Dax saving the killing blow on the Albino for him.) Dax doesn't just slide right into Klingon culture as easily as, say, Picard does on The Next Generation. And we see even more "counter-culture" Klingon development in the Albino, a cowardly and dishonorable figure for who murders from a distance with an engineered virus. (Admittedly, his "forehead" doesn't exactly confirm he's a Klingon, but it feels like a safe assumption when they don't specify he's something else.)

They spent a lot of money on this episode, filming the attack on the Albino's compound on location, and setting off an impressively large explosion as part of the sequence. Still, the budget of a syndicated 90s television show could only go so far -- the Albino's guards are clearly just humans in fake looking armor. (Though one could argue the guards are deliberately non-Klingon, to explain how three senior citizens and Dax could defeat so many of them in hand-to-hand combat.) Still more money was saved by staging the interior part of the battle on a redress of the set from the "Masks" episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Other observations:
  • There was, in fact, one more significant Klingon villain from the original Star Trek: Kras, from the episode "Friday's Child." I don't know if he was less popular with the fans, unavailable to return, or if the story simply didn't have room for more than three Klingons. Oh well.
  • Different people behind the making of the episode drew different comparisons for the arc of its story. I've already mentioned Shakespeare, Kurosawa, and Melville. Director Winrich Kolbe has also given interviews likening this to Wagnerian opera, Beowulf, and the Three Musketeers. (He saw Kor as Porthos, Koloth as Aramis, and Kang as Athos, with Dax being D'Artagnan, the "fourth" musketeer.)
For making even me love a Klingon episode, I have to give "Blood Oath" high marks. I'd give it an A-. It's a definite stand out of season two.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Bad Is Bad

One of the more buzzed-about board games this year was Villainous, in which up to six players each take on the role of a Disney movie villain and try to spoil the day before any of their competitors. From details I'd heard when it was selling fast at GenCon, it didn't sound like the type of game I'd enjoy much, and I put it out of my mind. But a friend recent picked up a copy and I got a chance to try it out.

Unfortunately, the nice things I can say are pretty much cosmetic. The core idea itself of playing a Disney villain is wonderful. Everyone loves the villains best. A game where Ursula, Jafar, Prince John, Captain Hook, the Queen of Hearts, and Maleficent can all compete? Great idea. The components are pretty good too, with hefty molded plastic pieces to represent the players. And the cards are all illustrated with new paintings of key frames from the six featured movies -- done perhaps to "equalize" the quality between newer and older films? This could have gone wrong easily, but the cards actually look great.

The game is steeped in flavor. Each character has their own goal to pursue, essentially playing out the plot of their movie. Hook has to find and defeat Peter Pan, Prince John has to amass tons of gold, and so on. But this fidelity comes at a high price in terms of ease of play. The six characters' victory conditions are so profoundly asynchronous that you really can't wrap your head around what anyone else is trying to do. Malificent's "curse all four of your locations" is easy enough to remember, but what's this nonsense the Queen of Hearts is doing with her sideways cards? And what are the steps involved in Jafar capturing the lamp and enslaving the Genie?

The result is a massive "take that" game, where everybody tries to stop the leader from winning until enough people are finally in a "close to winning" second place status that one person sneaks through. But as no one can quite understand all the other objectives, you end up doing a lot of asking "What are you trying to do? How close are you? Would you stop you right now if you were me?" You basically have to enlist the other players in the process of you picking on them. It makes it not much more fun for the picker than the pickee.

It's pretty much a disaster as a 6-player game. You have tons of down time between your turns. And while 5- and 6-player add a band-aid of a rule that the same player can't be picked on twice in a row, you still basically have 5 opponents trying to gang up on you with the "take that" mechanics. Lots and lots of bellyaching about who is closer to winning, who deserves a setback, and so on.

Disney villains could have made for a great gateway game into more advanced fare than Monopoly and the like, but the asynchronous victory conditions feel to me like they make the game quite inaccessible for new gamers, no matter how much they like the subject. As for veterans? Well, maybe you're into "take that," but my group isn't much (and maybe me least of all). This game just isn't for me, and I don't ever care to play it again. Under duress, I'd consider maybe a 3-player attempt, but that would be about it.

I'd give Villainous a D. They had a prime target, I think, but completely missed it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

We Finally Got Rain in Seattle

The day before Thanksgiving was the final full day of our trip to Seattle. Planning the trip in the weeks before, we'd come upon a fun possibility for the day: skiing. We'd been considering a drive out to Mount Rainier anyway, then found there's a ski resort there, Crystal Mountain. And as it happened, skiing there was included in the season passes we'd already got for this winter here in Colorado. So, "free" skiing (well, already-paid-for skiing) in a place we wouldn't normally get to go!

But as we checked in regularly throughout November on the snow conditions at Crystal Mountain, it became apparent this plan wasn't going to work out. Opening day at the resort would be the day before Thanksgiving, and they'd had less than 6 inches of actual snow. (All those sunny and clear days in Seattle? I guess it was the same at Mount Rainier.) The novelty of skiing in a different place wasn't going to be worth renting equipment for just the couple trails they'd made barely enough fake snow on to open.

So, plan B: a lazy day to do anything we'd planned on an earlier day, but hadn't had time for. Though it had turned out that we hadn't "fallen behind" much. This was actually the one day of our entire trip where Seattle behaved as touted: it drizzled on and off throughout the morning, from a grey and overcast sky.

First we did one big suggestion we'd been given but skipped over. We headed down to Pioneer Square for breakfast and Bill Speidel's Underground Tour. It's been around for decades: a roughly one-hour guided tour into the basements of modern buildings, looking at the abandoned debris from 19th century Seattle and hearing the stories of the city's development.

This is the sort of thing -- by our tour guide's own admission -- that locals only do when a guest visits from out-of-town and makes them do it. For Denver folk, think (maybe?) a trip to Casa Bonita without kids. But I found it more entertaining than that. (And it brought far less gastrointestinal distress.) Our tour guide had his comedic material and delivery honed to a razor sharp edge, and even though some of the gags were corny, he made me chuckle. With exaggerated gestures and a "wait-for-it" patter, he related the destruction of the "first" Seattle in a fire (thanks to poor construction decisions), the almost-as-silly decisions of the "second" Seattle, and the colorful characters at the center of it all. Seattle locals might never take this tour, but I think they'd be entertained to try it.

After that, we decided to head back to Pike Place Market, our very first stop on this vacation, to see it during the day (and well before closing). We had the time to explore many more twists and turns and realize just how sprawling the place is. We accidentally found the (in)famous Gum Wall (gross), and decided to go back to the best brewery from that first night, Old Stove.

Later, we moved about a mile east, to Capitol Cider, a place with many great cider selections on tap and from bottles. We got to sample a short flight of cider from France, all very tasty and packed with far more flavor than any of the widely distributed American options. We decided for our last dinner to go back to the seafood place we'd enjoyed so much, Duke's.

Traveling home the next day was as easy as we'd hoped. We'd allowed ourselves time to deal with the airport, but it was hardly necessary. Though we did have a full flight, the airport itself just didn't seem that crowded on Thanksgiving Day. We spoiled ourselves by using accumulated air miles to upgrade to first class for the return trip, and by mid-afternoon we were back at home sweet home.

I know we got Seattle under atypical weather conditions, but I'm sure I would have enjoyed it regardless. Perhaps if I'm back that way again, I'll find time to visit with some of the many friends I have who've migrated that way over the years. Your city's quite nice, I think.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Flights and Flights

The Tuesday of our Seattle trip was "get out of the city day." We drove north up to Everett to the Boeing factory (specifically, their Future of Flight Aviation Center & Boeing Tour). This is the location where they assemble several wide-body planes, including the 747, 777, and 787.

You get to see a lot of the process on the roughly 90-minute tour. What you don't get to do is take a lot of pictures, as they make you leave behind cellphones (and bags, and anything else that could drop several stories off a balcony and onto the factory floor). There are YouTube videos you can watch, time-lapse looks at the construction of each plane type, but it scarcely does the place justice.

The building is immense, and when you ride the freight elevator up to observation and look out, there's something almost fake about it. It's partly like the way being inside a Borg cube is depicted on Star Trek, in that you can just see endlessly through row after row of ordered scaffolding and machinery. It's partly like looking at a bad matte painting in an older movie, because you can see so far in one direction that it actually begins to look like a painting to your wonderstruck eye. (I've only had that experience one other time, looking across the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.) It's really something you've got to see for yourself, and if you ever have the chance, I definitely recommend that you do.

I do have one great photo, though, that I happened to catch as we were driving away. Our tour guide had explained that parts of the company's newest plane, the 787, are actually made at another site. ("Baked," in a sense -- they're made of carbon fiber.) They're then flown to the Everett location in one of four dedicated cargo planes, for final assembly there. The timing just happened to be that one of those planes was crossing the highway to land, right in front of us, as we were leaving the place. Neat.

From there, we drove about halfway back to our hotel, to Woodinville, to the state's concentration of wineries. The grapes in Washington are all grown east of the mountains, but for some reason (to get close to day trippers from Seattle, I'd imagine), they're brought west to Woodinville for blending and fermentation. So we hit up a couple of wineries -- actually right across the street from one another -- Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia. We did take a short tour at Chateau Ste. Michelle, but it was a bit underwhelming -- both in comparison to a tour we'd taken years before in Napa Valley, and for the fact that they weren't actively making or bottling anything at the moment. (It wasn't the right time in the season.) Still, both locations were lovely, the wine flights were great, and we picked up a couple of "souvenir" bottles to later remind us of the visit.

We might have had it in our heads to hit a few more wineries (there are dozens in the area), but it gets to your head fast, even at sea level. So our last stop in Woodinville was a craft brewery instead. Dirty Bucket may not be the most appealing name, but the beer was solid across the board. And the people were quite outgoing. That would be the bartender, and one of the locals who drank from his "mug club" mug. The latter immediately read the relationship between me and my husband and proceeded to explain the extreme left politics of King County, recommend places we might visit, and finally announce it was time to get "home to the wife."

It was seafood again for dinner, though that night we went to The Crab Pot. They just bring you a bucket of stuff, a mallet and a tool for cracking crab legs, and let you go to work. (Or "make" you go to work depending on your perspective. They didn't even do preparation on the shrimp.)

Tired and full, we settled down for the evening with one more full day to go.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Noodling (and Needling) Around Seattle

Returning to our Seattle vacation, Monday was our most conventionally "tourist" day of the trip.

We began the morning with a trip to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery, a special (huge) location of the ubiquitous coffee shop chain that offered uncommon blends and a view of coffee beans being roasted and scooped away in a machine for packaging. It's still Starbucks, so to my taste buds it still seemed burnt, but it was a fun spectacle nevertheless.

From there, we moved on to the Museum of Pop Culture (or MoPOP), a three-story collection of items from movies, television, and music. We spent hours looking at costumes and props from Star Trek, Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, the Marvel movies, the Alien franchise, The Princess Bride, The Lord of the Rings, Halloween, Back to the Future... the list goes on and on. We toured a room stuffed with Nirvana memorabilia, guided by a woman who knows more about Nirvana than I do about all rock bands. The museum was a fun mix of things that impressed in person and things surprisingly less stunning than the efforts of cos-players.

MoPOP stands right in the shadow of the Space Needle, and that's where we headed next. It was another uncharacteristically clear day in Seattle, so the view was lovely -- from Puget Sound to Mount Rainier to the downtown skyline. We walked over the newly-installed transparent floor of the slowly revolving platform at the top, and experienced the vertigo of looking 600 feet straight down.

Also in the shadow of the Space Needle is the Chihuly Garden and Glass, a sort of mini-art museum for famed glass maker Dale Chihuly. If you've ever looked up at the ceiling in the lobby at Bellagio in Las Vegas, you've seen his work. Another massive tower of his rises through the center of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis. But this Seattle studio is a large exhibit of his colorful, eye-catching work. Snaking both indoors and out, you get to take in a variety of his unusual work.

All this took us well into the afternoon, and by then we were ready for a drink. We hit Number 6 Cider first, and then Schilling Cider over in the Fremont area. Schilling in particular was a fun stop, as they had 32 taps of cider, both theirs and other makers'. No, we didn't sample everything, of course. But we found plenty to like. (Schilling was also near a curious sculpture underneath a freeway bridge, the hulking Fremont Troll.)

For dinner, we once again sought out seafood, hitting Duke's Seafood and Chowder. The chowder was great, and the crab and cheese stuffed prawns I had even better.

It was the most packed day of the trip, and tons of fun.

Thursday, November 29, 2018

Away Off

I'm pausing in the Seattle trip stories for a day to write about something we did after we'd returned. The touring production of the Broadway musical Come From Away was in Denver, and we headed down to the Buell Theater on the day after Thanksgiving to catch it.

While Dear Evan Hansen got all the love from the Tonys last year (and deservedly so), it was Come From Away that won the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Musical (along with prizes from many other critics groups). It's the story of Gander, Newfoundland and Labrador, a small town whose location near the easternmost edge of Canada made it an epicenter of activity in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attacks. Flights inbound from Europe were diverted to Gander, almost doubling its effective population in a day and testing the locals in endless ways as they bent over backwards to roll out the welcome mat to a bunch of "come from aways" suddenly stranded with little or nothing.

It's great material for drama. The musical employs a cast of 12 to portray many dozens of characters, locals and travelers, depicting the days before air travel in the U.S. was restored. It's a heartwarming story of unsung heroes and humanity. (The ironies of calling them "unsung" when their story has become a hit musical are not lost on me.) You might expect a heavy, depressing night at the theater, but there's actually a lot of humor in Come From Away (perhaps even too much?), and though the show plays without intermission, it moves along at a brisk pace.

But there's a lot about the musical that left me uncertain at best, if not disappointed. Foremost, the story isn't actually "dramatized" particularly well. The script was purportedly written after its creators, Irene Sankoff and David Hein, heard of the story and traveled to Gander themselves for the 10th anniversary of September 11th, 2001. They interviewed many locals, and many travelers who returned for a reunion, piecing their stories together.

If this sounds like the way you'd make a documentary, then you won't be surprised at the results. I would estimate that more of the lines in Come From Away are delivered in asides ("interviews") directly to the audience than in dialogue with other characters. Characters frequently just come out and tell us how they're feeling instead of showing it through actions. The patter is rapid fire, with narrating characters weaving in and out of one another, exactly the way an editor would mix interview footage in a documentary film. On a screen, this method works -- partly for lack of alternatives when you have no footage of actual events, partly because you can get right up close and personal with the people telling their stories. On stage, the artifice of all this looms large.

The music of Come From Away was another sticking point for me. It's a cliche to walk out of a musical humming one of its songs, but it's true that when you can't do that, the musical is dangerously forgettable. That's the case here. Also, it's old-fashioned music in a few ways. The five-piece band is a traditional Irish folk ensemble, so all the music feels old-timey and strangely out-of-place. (Is Newfoundland populated mostly with Irish immigrants? Not that I knew, and not that I easily found online.) There are also very few solos in the show. Nearly all the numbers are elaborate chorus productions with loads of characters, somewhat impersonal and very much of the style I associate with Broadway shows from decades past.

There are a few moments of drama and emotion that do land well, and they're the moments where the show truly does get personal with just one or two characters. A subplot tracking the relationship between a gay couple has a meaningful resolution. The closest thing to a "show-stopping number" is the one true uninterrupted solo that comes near the end, when an airline pilot character sings her personal journey: what flying means to her, and how this experience has changed her. It's a truly powerful moment in the show, packing quite an emotional punch.

I gather all this works better for some than others. There are plenty of positive reviews of the show. While I myself wasn't really loving it, the performance we attended received a rapturous standing ovation at the end. (Though that happens all the time at Buell, so maybe isn't very telling.)

The show has moved on now from Denver, but might be coming to your city in the months ahead. I'd advise caution, though. I'm not sure how you'd tell whether you're in the group this works for or the group it doesn't, but I'd call it a B- overall.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Island Day

The Sunday before Thanksgiving was our first full day in Seattle. We used it to visit Vashon Island, in Puget Sound. Part of the visit was about the novelty of getting there. No bridges connect to Vashon, so you have to take a ferry. Driving a car onto a ferry and having it carry you to an island feels Bucket Listy, and we decided to cross it off.

Our plan was to visit a couple of cider markers on the island, but we'd arrived before their noon opening times. So our first stop was the Vashon Island Coffee Roasterie. It's a converted 100-year-old building that houses the original location of what eventually became Seattle's Best Coffee.

The old building wasn't the only atmosphere; we got a strong sense of the island on the drive there. I lost count of the number of rainbow flags I saw in a drive of just a few miles. The locals were clearly a progressive, inclusive bunch of people. Of course, we'd see over the next few days that this described Seattle in general. Yet it felt like as Boulder is to Denver, so Vashon Island is to Seattle -- probably the hippiest, most welcoming, most laid back place in the state.

I'd heard a lot about Point Robinson Lighthouse, on the far tip of the island. As nothing was really that "far" on the island, we drove out to see for ourselves. The lighthouse itself was surprisingly small, not really the sort of thing I'd think of as a tourist draw, but the view (on another uncharacteristically bright and clear day) was impressive.

From there, we hit two cider makers on Vashon, Nashi Orchards and Dragon's Head Cider. Both had beautiful surroundings and tasty drinks. Both impressed us with their Perry ciders even more than the ones made from apples. But Nashi Orchards would get the gold medal. Though they had fewer varieties to sample, each and every one of them was stellar.

In between the two cider makers, we had lunch at a restaurant called The Hardware Store. Like the Coffee Roasterie, this was another conversion of an older building. (Can you guess what the place used to be?) This was one of a few places suggested to us by a local at Nashi Orchards, and you have to go with the recommendation of a local, right? (Though, as he pointed out, having been there "only" 15 years, the True Locals didn't consider him a local.)

We came back across the ferry in the mid-afternoon. Well... late afternoon. We never really did get used to that sunset just after 4:00 pm. But we did regroup and rest at our hotel a bit before heading back out for a low key evening. We switched from cider to beer and tried Black Raven Brewing Company over in Redmond. Like many Denver microbreweries, it was located in an office/warehouse sort of complex. But inside, the place had a fun pub atmosphere with a bit of a twisted and segmented layout. (And it had a decent Coconut Porter too.)

We wrapped up with our one non-seafood dinner of the trip, stopping at a ramen bar and enjoying a change of pace. Between the early sunset, the time zone shift, and all the hopping around, that was all the activity we needed before calling it a fun and complete day.

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

From the Sea and From the Tap

After settling in at our hotel, we still had the evening to work with. We headed over to Pike Place Market to see the much-talked-about area. Later on in the trip, we'd have a bit of spare time (more on that in a future post), and wound up returning to the market in the day. This first time around, we really just scratched the surface. We got a taste of the hustle and bustle, and the overwhelming scent of fish, but didn't really have a full sense of how far the market actually spread. But by the time we'd found a place for dinner and were walking back through, things had already closed down -- surprisingly early for a Saturday night, we thought.

That dinner was at the nearby Cutters Crabhouse, at a table overlooking the Sound and ferris wheel. The former was shrouded in darkness, the sun having set around 4:30, but the latter was lit up brightly. We hadn't really talked about this before traveling, but now that we were there, we resolved to seek out seafood for most of our meals in Seattle. (Denver not being known for its fresh catches, obviously.) Cutters scratched our itch quite nicely.

After that, we bounced around to a few breweries that were in walking distance. Cloudburst had popped up as "one of the best" in some searching I'd done beforehand, and it had the vibe of some of the hole-in-the-wall places that excel in Denver. It was built in a noisy converted garage that you could easily walk right past without a sign on the sidewalk to guide you. They had a couple of good things worth trying, but both -- while decent -- seemed like imitations of great things we could get back home. (Craft beer in Denver will spoil you.)

We moved on to Old Stove, our best brewery find of the night both in atmosphere and selection. The place was a giant shrine to the University of Michigan, which was just a strange and fun thing to find in Seattle. A flight of their beers let us sample a number of good options, including their Saison du Snozberry, Blackberry Sour, and Downtown Freddie's Brown (a surprise, as I don't normally go for browns).

We then hopped to Pike Brewing, which I believe is the oldest craft brewer in the city (having been around over 25 years). The kitsch in the place was dialed up to the max, with every inch of every wall covered with photos and factoids about craft beer. The beer was robustly average. We tried things that were perfectly accurate (and perfectly forgettable) versions of core beer styles, no frills.

That was enough to satisfy us for our first night in town. After that, it was back to hotel to rest up for our first full day of activities.

Monday, November 26, 2018

(Puget) Sound Off

Thanksgiving week is a notoriously crowded week to fly in America. Hordes of people are headed every which way, and you'd be well-advised to avoid the airports if at all possible.

Unless... maybe... not?

My husband and I decided to use Thanksgiving week to take a vacation, with (we think) a clever work-around in mind. Most people are traveling to be at their destinations by Thanksgiving itself. We were going to fly out the Saturday before, enjoy a few days at our destination, and then fly back home on Thanksgiving when most everybody else was already where they were trying to go. (We were backed up on this theory when we went to book tickets. There was much wider availability, and at a notably lower price, if you returned on Thanksgiving Day.)

All that was left was to pick the destination. We wanted something fairly close and easy, a place with a decent list of things we could do, where neither of us had been before. We decided on Seattle. Yes, in November, which I hear is their rainiest (and dreariest?) month.

Unless... maybe... it isn't?

In our four and a half days of being there, it was sunny and clear almost the entire time. We'd heard it was a rare and special thing to be able to see Mount Rainier, sticking up proudly and in solitude on the horizon; we were able to see it every day until we were nearly done with the trip. It sprinkled half-heartedly only on our last full day there, and then rained again with a touch more gusto on the morning of the sixth day, when we were leaving. (Even then, things cleared up nicely before our actual takeoff.) Things were cold, to be sure -- the humidity in the air makes a clear November day in Seattle a very different thing from a clear November day in Denver. Still, when it came to the weather at least, Seattle wasn't much like it had been advertised.

It was a very friendly place, which we got a taste of at the airport while waiting at the baggage claim. A little girl, about three years old, came running up behind me, screaming "Daddy!" loud enough for everyone to hear. I turned around just in time to stop her about a foot from throwing her arms around my legs, when she realized to much confusion and embarrassment that I was not, in fact, her Daddy. But hey, cute kid.

In the days ahead, I'll regale those who care with tales of our trip (peppering in other blog entries for those who don't). We did quite a lot with our time, so there's plenty to cover.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Dis-Grindled

Fantastic Beats and Where to Find Them was, by the high standards set by the preceding Harry Potter films and books, a disappointment. But it was essentially the first entry in J.K. Rowling's universe to be anything less than "quite good," and thus easy to explain away as an aberration, a bump in the road, growing pains in setting up a new second chapter of Harry Potter. But now we have the sequel film, The Crimes of Grindelwald, and that explanation no longer holds. We appear to have a "new normal" for the franchise.

I could, in fact, largely copy-paste my thoughts on the first Fantastic Beasts film in reviewing the second. As with the first film, there's no shortage here of intriguing and fun ideas. J.K. Rowling is nowhere near done expanding the universe she's created, and does not appear to be losing any enthusiasm or skill for building it out. But also as with the first film, she demonstrates that she is not a screen writer. She really seems to need the sprawl of a novel in which to lay down her stories, and then someone else to come along to edit, curate, and repackage them in a way that works in the medium of movies.

There isn't a plot to The Crimes of Grindelwald so much as there's a ledger. Lots of things happen, to be sure, but there doesn't really seem to be a natural sequence to events. Very little can be said to happen because something happened before it. This isn't storytelling worthy of one of the bestselling authors of all time, a clockwork construction where the dominoes fall inevitably in a satisfying way. This is a rambling toddler telling you "this happened, and then this happened," with little rhyme or reason to connect things.

The film revolves around Grindelwald's attempts to find young Credence and seduce him into becoming an ally. It's immediately non-sensical in at least two major ways. First (by my memory, at least), Credence was neutralized as a threat at the end of the previous film, with no indication of anything unresolved there. Second, nothing actually stands in the way of Grindelwald achieving his goal. I mean that quite literally; after a five-minute opening sequence (a dizzying display of CG that's impossible to sort out in your head), there's no articulated obstacle to Grindelwald proceeding straight to his end goal. He simply... doesn't, until the final act.

I knock the CG in the opening scene, but that's not to say CG is an evil throughout the film. One of the true delights of this new movie is a large creature with incongruously cat-like behavior. Sight gags at the margins of the frame are often the work of visual effects too, and really make the world feel fun.

There are some character moments that work too -- basically, most everything involving Dumbledore. Jude Law gives a great performance that feels in continuity with the actors who've played the character before, but with touches all his own. Scenes set at Hogwarts are fun, and Dumbledore's interactions with students (both past and present) are highlights of the film. His relationship with Grindelwald, on the other hand, is portrayed in a predictably shallow and cowardly way. J.K. Rowling famously created waves by declaring (with little evidence in her writing) that Dumbledore is gay. The subtext remains stalwartly "sub" in this movie. There's essentially a single line of dialogue and a single glance that speak to the truth; the former moment has reportedly actually played for laughs with some preview audiences (and seemed hella cheesy to me), while the latter takes place in a context that works only for serious Potter fans.

There are a few somewhat intriguing new characters in this film, including Leta Lestrange and Theseus Scamander... but time developing them is clearly coming at the expense of the established characters from the first film. Newt remains impenetrably one-dimensional, Jacob and Tina are entirely marginalized with no meaningful role in the plot whatsoever, and Queenie's behavior throughout is unjustified (and, I dare say, unjustifiable). Grindlewald himself isn't even developed particularly well as a villain. It feels like the most diabolical "crimes" of the film are carried out by others in his name, and efforts near the end to "give the villain a point of view" are frankly too effective. (If I'm correctly picking up what he/Rowling are putting down here, his "ends" are 100% noble; only his "means" are questionable. Which sounds like what you'd want in a good villain, but still doesn't come off very compelling here.)

Overall, the sprinkles of good feel fewer and farther between than in the first Fantastic Beasts, while the muddy lack of clarity feels greater. I give The Crimes of Grindlewald a C-. I believe I'm done following this franchise in movie theaters. I suspect it's all home rentals for me from here on.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Notes on a Vandal

Last month, Netflix announced that it had cancelled its once buzzed-about show American Vandal after two seasons. I'd just begun to watch it, making me officially late to the party. But Netflix is a massive bulldozer pushing dirt into a hole you're trying to climb out of, so the cancellation was also a bit of a relief: I could enjoy the 16 episodes of the show, and then move on.

American Vandal is in many ways a satire of Netflix itself, specifically one of its other buzzed-about shows, the documentary Making a Murderer. (Yes, I'm working through season 2 of that right now.) It's a parody of true crime documentaries, following two teenagers as they try to unravel implausibly dense conspiracies surrounding relatively low-stakes crimes in their high school. Season 1's case revolves around a student accused of vandalizing 27 faculty members' cars by spray-painting dicks on them. ("Who did the dicks?") Season 2 is about a series of traumatizing pranks all involving poop. ("Who is the Turd Burglar?")

You could almost watch American Vandal and not realize it's supposed to be funny. It slavishly adheres to the tropes of these deep-dive documentaries, things like Making a Murderer, the Paradise Lost trilogy, and (with the re-enactment footage added in season 2) Unsolved Mysteries and The Thin Blue Line. It's completely faithful in tone and structure, with only the subject matter betraying the true intent here (and the occasional hilarious bit of dialogue delivered with an utter lack of self-awareness).

American Vandal also wears a disguise in that it's actually a fairly legit teen drama, albeit in unconventional form for that genre. A lot of it revolves around the social pressures of adolescence, and the characters really are sympathetic even though they're often larger-than-life. The meta-commentary aspect of the story, more than the parody, is what seemed to earned the critics' praise of the show.

Those same critics mostly seem to say that season 1 was the surprise-out-of-nowhere gem, while season 2 was a surprisingly-good-but-not-as-great follow up. I personally would disagree. I suppose it depends on what draws you in, but I found season 2 to be the far more overtly funny of the two, and thus the one I preferred.

One thing I think is certain, though. If you've ever watched a true crime documentary, especially one made to try to exonerate the innocent, the parody of American Vandal will almost certainly appeal to you. I'd give Season 1 a B- and Season 2 a B+, averaging the whole thing out to a B. It's a low commitment by Netflix standards -- 8 episodes in each season, each one just half an hour, and now concluded. It's perhaps not the "can't praise it enough" jewel that is Santa Clarita Diet, but I think some of my readers will enjoy it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Death and Comedy

Though it didn't get a wide release in theaters earlier this year, I was eager to see The Death of Stalin. The release was so "narrow," however, that it don't believe it ever actually played anywhere near me. (And chances are you haven't even heard of it.) It's now come to the various video formats, though, and I was able to catch up.

The Death of Stalin is a satire from writer-director Armando Iannucci, the creator of HBO's Veep. Set in 1953 Soviet Russia, the film tells you what it is right in the title. In the aftermath of Joseph Stalin's death, we watch his immediate underlings vie (clumsily) for power, struggling (humorously) against each other to seize the reins.

Veep isn't "lightning in a bottle." In fact, I became aware of Iannucci first through his film In the Loop. (This itself was a movie conclusion/continuation of his TV series The Thick of It -- essentially the British precursor to Veep. That's still a show I want to make time for.) If anything, I was hoping here for the high hilarity of In the Loop in a Russian setting. My expectations were set far too high.

There are a few moments of cringe-worthy humor in The Death of Stalin -- some good old-fashioned physical comedy with the dictator's dead body, some ridiculous jockeying for literal position over who will stand where at his funeral. But mostly, The Death of Stalin felt like an exceedingly dry movie. Much of the comedy is dark, dark, dark -- people fretting over whether or not they'll be rounded up and/or shot. (And many of them often see their fears come true.) It's not generally laugh-out-loud fare. "You may think things today are bad, but they're not THIS bad" isn't really the brand of entertainment I was signing up for.

This film comes out bleak despite the presence and efforts of many funny people trying to lighten the proceedings. The cast includes Steve Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambor, and Jason Isaacs. It also includes many people you'd know best (if you know them at all) from quite serious roles, people like Simon Russell Beale (Penny Dreadful) and Rupert Friend (Homeland). They play broad, but the script doesn't generate enough belly laughs to bubble up through a relentlessly dark landscape.

In the end, I simply didn't like this film. It had a few moments, to be sure -- but I thought my sense of humor accommodated dark, and this film was too dark for me. If you like your comedy dry and black as night, you might just love this movie. I found it a D+ at best. The Death of Stalin is only for a very select few.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Walking the Path

On occasion, I've written about escape rooms I've done with my friends around Denver (and one "not around Denver"). This weekend, we tried out a place that was new to us: Denver Escape Room in Northglenn. Like EscapeWorks Denver downtown, I'd give it a high recommendation.

There were 10 of us on this excursion, and we broke into two groups to try Grim Stacks (themed like a Harry Potter-esque book shop) and The Path (a Chinese themed room). I was in the latter group.

The Path was similar to the Taphophobiaroom at Crooked Key in Steamboat Springs -- it was a cleverly designed experience that avoided using any traditional locks. Working through the room was all about solving riddles and logic puzzles, recognizing patterns and making use of reference information scattered around the environment. No padlocks, no combination locks. Instead, doors and drawers were held shut by electromagnetism, and you had to solve puzzles to release the seal.

The production values inside the room were excellent. I've been to a couple of other escape rooms around town now, and this isn't always the case. I've seen as low as "weekend garage sale raid" to as middling as "high school theater" to as sky high as "this must have taken weeks." Denver Escape Room is more in that last category. The Path presented a neat environment full of things to see and do; everyone who did Grim Stacks gushed similarly (as much as they could without spoiling the room's secrets).

The doling out of hints by the room's overseers was also handled well. I've done rooms where the operator too frequently nudges you along, as if they're being paid by the success. Then there are the rooms where you have to ask for help -- which can leave a group too stubborn to admit when they need it. We did get stuck on The Path a couple of times (once over the dumbest thing; it's embarrassing), and the hints arrived with perfect timing. We were allowed to struggle as a group for several minutes, going back over every part of the room and talking through our roadblock together. We had the chance to solve things on our own before getting the push.

Both groups escaped, each with around 15 minutes left in our hour. (The Stacks group was about two or three minutes faster, so they can gloat about that if they want.) But success or fail, I knew after a few minutes that I'd be wanting to go back to try the place again. Perhaps the same large group can get together to swap rooms. Or try this place's unusual head-to-head experience, which allows two teams to actually compete against each other in the same room.

Northglenn isn't my end of town, but this is worth driving there for. If you like escape rooms, check out Denver Escape Room.

Monday, November 05, 2018

Eight Is Enough

I missed Ocean's 8 when it ran in movie theaters earlier this year. Despite my love of heist movies, I really wasn't hearing anybody saying good things about it... or much of anything about it. It slid down to "I'll catch it at home in a few months" status.

Ocean's 8 is the reboot/sequel to the Ocean's Eleven trilogy. This time, an all-female team led by Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett are planning a jewel heist during the prestigious Met Gala. All the trappings you'd expect from heist movies (and from the Ocean's series in particular) are there, from recruiting the team, to planning the caper, to dealing with complications, to the secret twist in the plan the audience doesn't get to see until the end.

Indeed, the movie follows the Ocean's formula a bit too slavishly. The film starts with Bullock's Debbie Ocean at a parole hearing that sees her released from prison, exactly as the original film starts with George Clooney. The banter between Bullock and Blanchett is styled just like that between Clooney and Brad Pitt (and Blanchett's role in the heist is even possibly a nod to Pitt's decision to eat in every scene of the original film). There's a revenge angle to the caper, just as in the original. It's not all one-for-one, but it is too close for comfort.

The cast is doing their level best. Bullock and Blanchett are great top-liners, exuding cool and collected "smartest person in the room" vibes from beginning to end. The team they recruit is full of talented actresses definitely having fun with their roles -- though they're often having to do heavy lifting for characters that aren't especially well drawn. The two standouts are Anne Hathaway and Sarah Paulson. Hathaway broadly plays an egomaniacal movie star and is given scenery-chewing moments to match. Paulson is fun as a suburban mom whose booming business as a fence provides fun comedy moments.

On the other end of the scale, Helena Bonham Carter feels wasted as a washed-up fashion designer; Carter's career is marked with countless bold characters, yet this movie feels like it never gives her the chance to spread her wings. Meanwhile, Mindy Kaling, Awkwafina, and Rihanna all feel like they fade into the middle somewhere. They get a few moments, but these feel sure to be forgotten in a few weeks' time as the movie evaporates from memory.

Ocean's 8 is actually not a "bad" movie at all. It's fun enough to watch, even if it slows down in parts. But you also get occasional glimpses of how great a movie might have been with this assembled talent. I'd call Ocean's 8 maybe a B-, but that could be generous thanks to my soft spot for the caper genre.

Thursday, November 01, 2018

Family Drama

I'd heard good things about the thriller Hereditary, released earlier this year. I got around to seeing it for myself at an appropriate time for a scary movie -- the night before Halloween.

Hereditary is a tough film to explain, as much of its charm comes in not knowing what could happen next. Most would call it a horror movie, though it isn't a slasher. The chills are mostly psychological and creepy (but, admittedly, with a few choreographed jumps). It focuses on a family of four: a husband and wife, their high-school-aged son, and their 13-year-old daughter. The film focuses on Annie, the mother, who has just lost her own mother to dementia. Their relationship was a rocky one even before the disease, so Annie's feelings are complicated. Complicating things more are increasing hints that "dear departed grandma" has left behind a legacy that could unravel the entire family.

This is the first feature film from writer-director Ari Aster, but it doesn't feel like a first effort at all. The storytelling and technique are confident throughout. The camera work is far from simple, with several challenging long takes, clever cutting that often focuses on reactions more than dialogue, and subtle visual effects you can sometimes almost overlook. A recurring visual motif is built upon Annie's job as a miniatures artist. Many scenes inside the family's house are filmed from super-wide angles to present the impression that the audience itself is looking inside a dollhouse.

The chills build slowly. Despite having heard little about the film beyond its quality, I had certain expectations about the type of thing I was going to see. Half an hour in, it had become clear this movie wasn't going to be that. Half an hour more, and it suddenly seemed it was going to be that after all! Near the end, it took a wild turn yet again. (More on that in a moment.) As the movie transitions beyond setup and character building and begins trying to scare in earnest, it does a good job in scene after scene of setting you up to expect the thrill in one way but delivering it in another. It's a well-crafted ride.

The performances are fantastic throughout. Toni Collette plays Annie. Many critics hailed this as the best performance of her career, and they might not be wrong. It's intense and hypnotic and powerfully real, particularly in moments where she delivers long monologues on grief. Gabriel Byrne plays husband Steve, who has perhaps the most secretly challenging role in the movie, bottling up his own feelings for the sake of his wife, then letting them leak through in believable ways. Alex Wolff plays the son Peter, who emerges after many twists and turns as the most sympathetic figure in the movie. The script asks for an incredible range from him, and he always delivers. Then there's young newcomer Milly Shapiro as daughter Charlie. She gives one of the great "creepy kid of horror" performances. (And gets a big assist from the production in emphasizing her unusually adult appearance. My husband commented on her unsettling look that she looked like a face swap.)

I have just two reservations. One has to do with the music and sound design. It's mostly very effective, but occasionally it's more distracting. There's an extreme amount of dissonance in the music, and a lot of bass rumbling in the sound design that's meant to be subliminal but often isn't. The saturation of these elements sometimes makes the film feel like it isn't coming by all its scares "honestly."

Then there's the ending. It's wholly earned, at least, by the way the story has built to it. Yet there's also a bit of a "what just happened?" quality to the final minutes as well. It reminded me some of The Witch, from a few years back, though this movie succeeded in the things that movie failed at from beginning to end.

My reservations don't really bring down my enthusiasm for the whole. I'd give Hereditary an A-. If you're into thrillers, this one really feels like a can't-miss movie to me. It's tense and suspenseful, with moments both powerfully dramatic and powerfully creepy. Great fun to watch curled up under a blanket on the couch.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

I Spy

Party games tend to go over well in my circle of friends, because even though we catch games here and there throughout the month, the last Saturday of each month is marked for everyone to gather. Sometimes the group will divide into separate games on those occasions, but often we'll go with old standbys we know can accommodate that many people. Or, in the case of Spyfall, a new party game discovery.

Spyfall has actually been around a while, being popular enough to spawn some expansions and spin-offs. It was still new to our group. The game is played with stacks of cards illustrating various locations (and full of minor details): the beach, a circus, a costume party...dozens of locations in all. To play a round, each player receives an identical illustration card, except for one player who is instead randomly dealt a card marking them as a spy. They don't get to see the picture everyone else does.

A timer is started, and questions begin to ping-pong around the table. Players are trying to ascertain who the spy is; the spy is trying to bluff their way through their lack of information and figure out where they are before time expires. The first player picks somebody and directs a question to them. ("It's kind of noisy here, don't you think?") That player must respond somehow... ("Maybe, but it's all part of the fun!") and then direct a new question to someone else ("Why are you dressed so odd?"). So on and so on, until either time expires, or one player proposes to the group the identity of the spy and gets a majority of the players to agree. OR until the spy, who can see in the center of the table an array of the possible locations, can deduce where they are and announce it to the group.

It's a neat concept, but I felt the game didn't live up to it in execution. There are simply a lot of rough patches and vague fuzziness in the construction, requiring the players to smooth things over for themselves. Just how much is everyone supposed to look at the common array of locations? Isn't it obvious you're the spy when you look at them? Are you suppose to make copies for each player to keep with them? What kinds of questions are we supposed to ask? What if someone doesn't quite get that there's a role-playing aspect to this and asks "what item do you see in the top left corner of your card?"

We played several rounds of Spyfall on that night it was introduced to us, but it never quite felt like it "worked." Unlike say, Resistance, the parameters of the bluffing seemed too ill-defined. "Are you a good guy or a bad guy?" is an easy matter to explain quickly to new players and have them understand. You just get to enjoy the game. There's no awkward period of "are we doing this right?" -- a period that even after several rounds, we never really pulled out of.

Despite good illustrations and production values, Spyfall felt to me like a game that's passed around like an oral tradition. "Oh, someone showed me how to play Spyfall one time. Here, let's all try!" And then they don't quite explain it right, or remember it right. Or in explaining it differently, they introduce a weird corruption in the game that then gets passed around to the next group.

I could believe there's some fun in Spyfall somewhere. It certainly seems popular enough over on BoardGameGeek. But it left me (and I think most of my group) feeling that there are other bluffing party games we prefer a great deal more. I give Spyfall a C.

Monday, October 29, 2018

A Book of Momentous Import

When reading books, I like to change things up. Recently, I swung over into non-fiction to check out a biography by author Jonathan Alter, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope. It's there in the subtitle -- it's an account of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's presidency, centered on his famous "first 100 days."

In actuality, the chronicle of the first 100 days makes up the last third-to-half of the book. The lead-up to that is a background on both Roosevelt himself and on the state of the country at the time of his election. On virtually every page, images are conjured that make for sobering comparisons to today -- sometimes over how far things have come, but just as often how cyclical the wheel of history really is.

Most of the differences surround FDR's polio, which left him confined to a wheelchair and able to "walk" only as a carefully choreographed bit of assisted theatricality. Alter's book explains that contrary to what most people today think, FDR's condition was widely known when he was elected. But he worked hard to project strength in a way that made the people see past it. The press actually assisted in covering for him, collectively agreeing not to photograph him in moments that compromised the illusion and highlighted the truth. It's both an impossible-to-conceive contrast to today (where you know any moment of perceived weakness by a president would be trumpeted far and wide) and somehow familiar (in that the current president broadcasts his own mental and moral deficiencies far and wide every day, and it never undermines him with his supporters).

Alter does an excellent job on conveying the scope of the Great Depression, making the reader understand just how massive it was in a way I at least hadn't fully appreciated. Fully one-quarter of the U.S. population was unemployed, with some cities spiking near twice that rate. Many who were counted as technically employed were in part-time positions that could not pay the bills, or were working unproductive farms in danger of repossession by banks. Failing banks. Banks were going under at such a rate (and wiping out people's life savings as they fell) that 3/4 of the states had closed all banks entirely by the time Roosevelt took his oath of office. This book was a sobering illustration that for all the horrors of our time, there are other kinds of hardships that we today have never known.

In focusing on the initiatives of Roosevelt's first 100 days in office, you might expect the book to be a lionizing love fest for the 32nd president of the United States. On the contrary, Alter makes clear what a callous and political operator he could be. The book spends time on the period between FDR's election and inauguration (which at the time took place in March, not January, leaving a three-month gap after the election). The book explains how President Herbert Hoover tried many times to reach out to FDR for his support in enacting relief for the Depression, and being rebuffed. Hoover didn't want to be seen acting unilaterally in his "lame duck" period, and FDR didn't want to do anything that might actually work and be forced to share credit with Hoover. You could draw parallels to modern politics in several ways -- the pre-election posturing surrounding the 2008 financial crisis, the current president's propensity for self-aggrandizement, take your pick.

But even though Alter takes a "warts and all" approach to FDR, he still manages to deliver what feels like an incomplete book. That's the price of focusing on just the famous First 100 Days. It may be one of the most interesting periods of Roosevelt's presidency, but it amounts to less than 3% of his record time in office. The book's epilogue spends a little time on Social Security, a few paragraphs mention monumental pieces of history like the rise of Hitler and the attempt to pack the Supreme Court. World War II is barely mentioned. And even though the scope of this book means these are deliberate omissions (presumably to distinguish it from the many other biographies of Roosevelt), they feel wrong.

The Defining Moment is a good and informative read, but it comes off like a beautiful table with one of the legs removed. This book covers what may be the defining period of FDR's presidency, but it doesn't feel like the defining biography of the man. I give it a B-.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

DS9 Flashback: Profit and Loss

Of all the characters on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, you might not expect Quark to have a lot of love interests. But his second of season two came in "Profit and Loss."

Natima Lang, a Cardassian professor of political ethics, comes aboard Deep Space Nine. She's attempting to lead two of her students, prominent dissidents, to safety. But the Central Command is hot on their heels, sending a Gul to bring them in and even enlisting the exiled Garak. The dissidents' only hope is Quark. Natima hopes he'll help because of the romantic relationship they had long ago; he hopes to rekindle that relationship.

This episode is among the less successful of season two, and the creative team acknowledged it. Show runner Michael Piller called it a "disappointment." Ira Steven Behr went into more detail, in part blaming last-minute rewrites. Apparently, the original conception of the story hewed so close to the movie Casablanca (even being titled "Here's Lookin' at You...") that there was real concern about legal action being taken. Behr thought the rewrites, even if necessary, gutted the most worthwhile parts of the episode. He also felt that Quark was made to be too heroic, "another tough, sexy, swashbuckling character on the show" when he ought to have been "Beauty and the Beast, or Woody Allen and every woman he's ever been with in the films."

I certainly don't find Quark to be as heroic here as Behr thinks. Though Quark is more genuinely in love here than he was earlier in the season (in "Rules of Acquisition"), it's a creepy, stalkery kind of love. He strong-arms Natima into staying, ransoming the freedom of her students against her "love," all the while remaining mystified why Natima is less than enthusiastic about rekindling their romance.

At least Natima is a strong character who stands up to Quark for most of the episode. (Her one weak moment comes when she shoots him, then immediately crumbles. I say she doesn't really seem in the wrong for doing it.) Actress Mary Crosby does a lot to emote through the heavy makeup and make the character more charismatic than I think she was on the page.

I think Natima would be a better character still if we had a better sense of what she was fighting for -- specifically, if the two students she was fighting to protect, Hogue and Rekelen, were as compelling as she is. We get a vague idea of the Cardassian political landscape, but we're only told about the potential power of these young students. It seems like we're supposed to regard them like Cardassian versions of people like David Hogg and Emma González, but we see no evidence of it. Hogue and Rekelen remain rather free of any personality at all.

The episode isn't without its moments, though -- mostly because Garak is in it. From his opening scene (verbally sparring with Bashir over Cardassian literary style) to his closing scene (doing the "right thing" maybe for love of country, but probably for hatred of having been double-crossed), we get a parade of great Garak moments. We also get new uses for the character, pairing him with people other than Bashir. He has a great joust with Quark in which "radical fashion" becomes code for radical politics, and another great scene with Sisko in which Garak must threaten by insinuation. If Andrew Robinson hadn't already cemented Garak as a necessary presence on the show, this episode certainly does it.

There are also some fun scenes involving Odo. Though he starts off in a utilitarian role (giving us early exposition about a cloaking device that will be important later), he later actually listens to Quark's honest and emotional plea for help. And he ends up breaking the law to save the dissidents because he feels the law is unjust in this case. Odo is even a fun "presence" in a scene he isn't actually in, when Quark goes banging around in case the shapeshifter might be eavesdropping.

Other observations:
  • We see in this episode that Cardassian neck ridges are apparently as erogenous as Ferengi ears.
  • A fairly significant earthquake hit southern California on an early morning during the production of this episode. Actors in half-finished alien makeup were said to have rushed away from the studio to check on loved ones. The shoot was closed down for two days as all the sets were inspected for damage, and aftershocks continued to affect filming even once it resumed. Perhaps some of the episode's shortcomings can be chalked up to these disruptions?
The considerable charms of Garak (and Andrew Robinson) do a lot to redeem an otherwise lackluster episode. Still, the sum total is rather forgettable. I give "Profit and Loss" a B-.