Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Grievous Intrigue" (Ep. 2.9)

-- For everything you gain, you lose something else.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

It's always "nice" to see the return of Grievous. No, seriously. He's like so many classic villains who always got away because they always had some great escape plan ready to go when things didn't go their way. I'm thinking specifically of Zoltar of Battle of the Planets.

So, yeah, Grievous is back, and he manages to capture Eeth Koth. As I've said before, it's nice when we get so see more of other Jedi, and this episode also features Adi Gallia. When a Jedi, a Master no less, is captured, what else do you do other than stage a rescue?

The episode illustrates just how valuable the Jedi are. Well, to the Jedi, at any rate, as they send a whole fleet after Koth and lose a ship in the process. Sure, they also wanted to capture (or kill) Grievous, but the mission, with the rescue of Koth, was a success, even with the loss of the ship and all of the men (clones) aboard.

It kind of makes you wonder.

It also makes you wonder what Grievous was doing in this episode. Grievous' MO is not to capture Jedi but to kill them, so why did he take Koth captive? There doesn't appear to ever be a clear answer to that. I mean, according to him, he did it so that the Jedi would come to rescue Koth, but why? That's also not Grievous' style. He attacks by surprise and always when he has a clear advantage; he would not set himself up as the target of a concerted attack.

Really, I think the writers wanted to do another rescue mission and just forgot to give Grievous a clear motivation for his actions or any kind of plan. So, while the action was rather spectacular, the episode left me wondering why.

There was, however, a great scene where Obi-Wan and Grievous go back and forth about how they anticipated each other's moves. It brought to mind the scene in Princess Bride where Vizzini and Westley have to work out which glass has the poison in it. I'm just not sure in this episode of Clone Wars which one Obi-Wan is.

Monday, December 28, 2015

The Fall of the House of Usher (an opera review post)

When you think of operas (assuming you ever think of operas) and you think of all the reasons you don't want to go to an opera (because I know most of you don't want to go to an opera), this is the opera you're thinking of. No, seriously, it is. This opera, both of them, actually, because this was a double bill (two different interpretations of Poe's "The Fall of the House of Usher"), is the very epitome of everything that can be wrong in opera.

The one cool thing, even, turned out to be a bad thing by the end of the show. So... At that San Francisco Opera house, they have these big mobile projection screens that can be on the stage. This allows them to project images which allows for greater scenery options. You want your scene to be on a beach, no problem. In the forest, no problem. Whatever, no problem. Thus far in our opera viewing, the screens have been used very minimally. These performances were set up around using the screens to convey movement. For instance, in the first show, the screens are used to convey movement through the house of Usher.

Right at first, it was way cool. Very neat. But... Well, then the actors just stood in place and did their singing thing. Every once in a while, they would switch places on the stage. The background stuff just became these constantly moving pictures that didn't mean anything. It was inane. What could have been something cool became an excuse for a poor performance. It was like going to a movie that's all special effects with poor acting and no story.

I mentioned that the actors just stood and sang, right? Well, that wasn't the worst of it. It gets worse? Why, yes. Yes, it does. The singing, which was in English for the first one, was just sung dialogue, which is a thing sometimes done in opera but still... Sung dialogue to not very good music. There were no actual "songs." It was monotonous and hard to follow. And the music overpowered the performers throughout both pieces so that you couldn't actually hear them anyway.

To top it all off, I picked this one to go see. I mean, heck! It was Poe! I was all, "How cool is that?!" As it turns out, not very.

You know, I don't want to imply anything (okay, so maybe I do), but Usher House (the name of the first of the two operas) was written by a Gordon Getty, a big donater to the San Francisco Opera. "Big" is probably not the right word there. The dude is beyond loaded and considered one of the richest men in the world. Is it possible that someone in charge actually thought his opera was good? I suppose so. However, I'm going to go with the Occam's razor explanation on this one.

[Edit: Because I was rushed for time when I wrote this, I forgot to mention the vampire theme in the Getty opera. The doctor, who appears for about one sentence in the short story, has a vastly expanded role in his opera. He's a pale thing, and it's implied that he's been alive for hundreds of years. The disease that Usher (and his sister) is suffering from has all the symptoms of someone who is being fed on long term by a vampire as in Stoker's Dracula. It also serves as the basis for Roderick's sister to escape her tomb. Having this incorporated into Usher is just stupid. Utterly.]

Friday, December 25, 2015

"The Fall of the House of Usher" (a book review post)

"The Fall of the House of Usher" is a perfect example of how our modern idea that showing is better than telling is just that: a modern idea. Usher is, basically, a story that is all telling. Which is not to say that you ought to like it just because it's Poe -- in fact, most of you probably wouldn't like it -- but it is to say that this story, despite having virtually no action or dialogue has become one of the most famous of Poe's stories.

Honestly, it's not one of Poe's most compelling stories for me, but that has less to do with the telling aspect of the story than it does with the fact that there is no good reason for the narrator to stay for as long as he does with Roderick Usher other than to satisfy the needs of the plot. Where's the motivation, Poe? Not that Poe doesn't supply one, I just can't really buy into the whole "he was my childhood chum" thing. Maybe it's just me, but, if my best friend from childhood wrote me a letter and begged me to come see him because, well, basically, he was all morose and stuff, I'd have a hard time finding it in me to make that trip after not having seen the person for at least 20 years. And, even if I did decide to go, I wouldn't stay there for months on end listening to my previous buddy being melancholy and going on and on about how horrible everything is.

Really, for the end result of the story, Usher goes on a bit too long. Poe gives us way more information than we actually need in order to appreciate the horror at the end of the story. We just don't need to know that light hurts Roderick's eyes or that he can only listen to certain kinds of music or any of the other sense-related conditions he has, as none of that actually relates to what's going to happen. It does help to fill the story with a sense of despair but not in a way that makes sense to the story.

It's a story that leaves the reader with a lot of questions. Maybe Poe meant it to be that way, but I don't really think so. I think it was meant to have a horrifying ending and for that to be enough. You'd read it, get scared, and go on and not think about it anymore. Personally, I like answers.

None of which is to say that I disenjoyed the story. I didn't. It's good for what it is. If you like Poe, you should definitely read it. If you haven't read any Poe, you should start somewhere else.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

You Are the Sun... (pictures I like)

...of my heart.
Do you see the heart?

Maybe this will help:
If you can't see it there, I can't help you.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Brain Invaders" (Ep. 2.8)

-- Attachment is not compassion.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

As you can see by the quote from this episode, this is another episode that deals with attachment, but this time it's not Anakin's attachment that we're looking at.

As the show has progressed, various characters have pointed out how like Anakin Ahsoka is becoming. Possibly, the area of attachment is one of those areas. Ahsoka is presented with a choice in "Brain Invaders" which is similar to the choice Anakin faced back in "Cargo of Doom" and, like Anakin, Ahsoka fails to make the "right" choice.

Unlike Anakin, Ahsoka seeks help and advice after the fact about what happened. Of course, she seeks it from Anakin, but Anakin is, perhaps surprisingly, quite mature about it. He tells her that attachments are things that all Jedi struggle with and that's it can be difficult to know what to do. Things worked out in her favor in this particular circumstance, but it's not going to always be that way. Did she make the correct choice? Anakin can't really tell her that. No one can.

Except, maybe, Bariss.

"Brain Invaders" is also a continuation, of a sorts, of the zombie story line, but it's a little more Stargate, actually, than zombie. In that, the story arc for this episode is nothing that hasn't been done before, but it's the crisis that Ahsoka goes through that's the point, anyway. The story is just a way to get her there.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Barber of Seville (an opera review post)

The Barber of Seville is a title you've probably, at least, heard of. It's one of the most famous and popular of all operas, and, after seeing it, I can understand why. If nothing else, you probably recognize this piece of music:

The opera is by Gioachino Rossini, based on a play by Pierre Beaumarchais. You might remember that I mentioned that name back in my post about The Magic Flute. The Barber of Seville is the first play in the trilogy that continues with The Marriage of Figaro, which Mozart composed as an opera 30 years earlier. No, Mozart didn't just decide to start in the middle. In actuality, Barber had several operatic interpretations before Mozart did Marriage, so Rossini wasn't doing something that hadn't already been done. He just did it better than all of the earlier versions, and his opera has become the operatic interpretation of The Barber of Seville just like Mozart's version of The Marriage of Figaro is the version of that play.

All of that to say that the recent production of The Barber of Seville by the San Francisco Opera was amazing. Brilliant, even. Look, let me put it like this: This opera was not sung in English and, yet, I found myself getting so lost in the action and music of the play that I would forget to keep up with the translations. I would have these, "Oh, wait!" moments where I would have to look back to the screen with the English on it. This is what opera was and is meant to be.

All of the performers were extraordinary. There was no just standing around and singing in this one. Lucas Meachem, as Figaro, was commanding. He brought all of the necessary flair to the performance of a character who is larger-than-life. Rene Barbera and Daniela Mack were great as the lovesick couple. Allessandro Corbelli was spectacular as Rosina's father. And Efrain Solis (who played Papageno in The Magic Flute) was amazing in his non-speaking (singing) role.

There was great comedy, great singing, and great acting. It was so good, in fact, that, if it hadn't already been 10:30 pm, I would have walked right back in to see it again. Unfortunately, it was already at the end of its run when we went to see it or I would have tried to go again. Seriously, this was a great performance. If you're going to try out opera, this is the kind of production you want to start with.

This is us just before going to see Barber:

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Good Dinosaur (a movie review post)

Dinosaurs were my first great love, from the moment I saw my very first one sometime around the age of four. Maybe three. I was instantly fascinated with them, and it was my goal for about 10 years to be a paleontologist when I grew up. But that's a story for another time.

Dinosaur movies, though, are not that fascinating. Inevitably, like in The Land Before Time, dinosaur movies deal with the dinosaur apocalypse and one small group trying to get to safety. So it was that The Good Dinosaur promised to be something different. A movie where the dinosaurs don't suffer an apocalypse. A movie where they live. A movie about what might have happened if they had not become extinct.

Unfortunately, that moment from the trailer, that moment when the asteroid misses Earth and the dinosaurs don't die, that moment happens with the opening credits and is over in a few minutes. The movie goes downhill from there. Downhill into being nothing original or new at all. It's just a weird hybrid of Ice Age (deliver the human baby to other humans), The Lion King, and a bunch of other stuff you've already seen.

That said, the animation, the background animation, is amazing. It's so amazing that at times I questioned whether it was CGI or not. The dinosaurs, though, are cartoony, and don't really fit their environment. They stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.

The other good thing is Sam Elliot as Butch, the cowboy T-Rex. The whole thing with the T-Rexes as cowboys and the Raptors as rustlers was fairly amusing, and Elliot is the cowboy. I mean, you can't really get more cowboy than Elliot. It just oozes out of his voice.

But that's about it for the good.

The problem is that Pixar should have just let this movie die. When you have to, essentially, fire the guy who came up with the idea because he can't put the story together, you should start to re-think whether you should be making that movie. When, after doing the voice recording for the entire movie, you decide to re-write the script and re-record everything, you need to be re-thinking whether this is a movie you should be doing. Then, when you decide to dump virtually all of the voice actors and replace them, you really need to be thinking about whether this is a movie you should be doing. The Good Dinosaur was not a movie Pixar should have been doing.

I suppose I'm glad I saw the movie. Well, I am. It is a Pixar movie, and I wouldn't have been able to deal with just not seeing it, but, then, I wish I hadn't seen it. I certainly won't be buying it. It's the first legitimate failure from Pixar. There's no "Pixar" quality to it at all. It's mediocre at best, just as a movie, but, from Pixar, it's a disappointment. Completely.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Fallacies of the Church (interlude)

For those of you who have been following this series and even more so for those of you who have been enjoying this series:
It's not over!

Basically, life has just been too busy for me to be able to put together more of the posts in this series, which take a bit more work than one might think. Hopefully, once we get through the holidays, the series will return in January. There are some big topics coming up, so keep a lookout for the return of Fallacies.

Oh, wait... Fallacies have never left.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Legacy of Terror" (Ep. 2.7)

-- Sometimes, accepting help is harder than offering it.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

I'm not a big fan of zombies, especially more modern zombie stories with all of their supercharged zombies of utter destruction. I just don't find it interesting. That said, this is one of the more freaky and memorable of all of the Clone Wars series. When we got to the episodes with the return to Geonosis, my younger son immediately got excited about getting to this episode (several episodes into the Geonosis story arc); I can't blame him.

The zombies in this story are... well, they're gross and, yes, freaky. And they want to make the Jedi just like them. Now, doesn't that just sound like so much fun?

One of the things I find interesting in this episode is how unstructured the Jedi actually are, despite appearances to the contrary. There is almost no command structure at all. The Masters and Jedi Council are in control but, really, any Jedi may decide to do whatever he or she pleases without regard to what anyone else says. This is why in The Phantom Menace Qui-Gon and, later, Obi-Wan can decide to train Anakin despite the Council's disapproval. Direct orders other than from Knight to Padawan are rare. Each one feels and uses the Force differently, I suppose.

The other thing about this episode is that it might be the clearest picture yet that we've had about the dynamic between Obi-Wan and Anakin. Anakin is always ready to rush in and solve all of the problems with his lightsaber, rarely stopping to think first. Obi-Wan is more cautious. He's the negotiator and wants to see if there's a non-violent answer first. He also likes to have a plan. His role in the relationship is to hold Anakin back, to make him pause and look before leaping. Anakin is always there to jump in when things get hot if circumstances don't go Obi-Wan's way.

"When this doesn't go as planned, which it won't, I'll be ready."

Monday, December 14, 2015

Brooklyn (a movie review post)

I went into Brooklyn with very little idea of what it was about. That's fine, though, because I've been trying more, lately (lately being the last few years), to know less about movies before I go see them (it's a complicated process; don't ask) so I have fewer preconceptions and expectations. Basically, all I knew was that it was about a girl who moved to Brooklyn.

As it turns out, that's really all it's about, a girl who moves to Brooklyn. More specifically, it's about an Irish girl who moves to Brooklyn because she can't find work in her small village in Ireland. It's also a love story. It's the love story of the girl and the Italian boy she falls for, but it's also the love story of the girl and the city she falls in love with.

The movie is good. It's not great, but it's solid, and I enjoyed it. The relationships between the girls at the boarding house where Eilis stays are colorful, to say the least, and the boarding house scenes, mostly around the dinner table, are quite humorous.

The acting, for lack of a better way of saying it, is steady. Saoirse Ronan does a good job of playing someone who is rather lost and confused for much of the movie but, as such, her role is a bit understated. I like Jim Broadbent, but that's mostly just about him. Emory Cohen, as Tony, is probably the most dynamic of the cast. He certainly carries a lot of charisma with him in a bit of a James Franco kind of way. But, really, there's nothing remarkable here. No one to write home to Ireland about.

This next part is a bit spoilery. That's all the warning you'll get.

The biggest issue for me with the story is that Eilis is so passive. She doesn't move to Brooklyn because she wants to; she moves because her sister arranged it because her sister felt she would have better opportunities in the United States. A priest her sister knows arranges for her a place to stay and a job. She falls in love with the boy not because she falls in love with him but because he falls in love with her.

Later, when she has to return to Ireland because of a family death, she almost stays because she just keeps doing the things other people arrange for her: a new job, a new boy, a return to her old, small life. It was distressing to watch her just go along. But only mildly distressing because Eilis seems so unconcerned herself, unconcerned to the point of not even reading the letters she's receiving from her boy in Brooklyn.

The movie just goes on like that until you -- or, at least, I -- wonder what's going on and what's going to happen because, just from a time perspective, the movie must be almost over and there's no real way out for her from what's going on. The way that comes is sudden and contrived and leads to the only active choice that Eilis makes, the choice to return to Brooklyn. And the movie ends. We do get to see her get back, but, really, it's that sudden, and I was left feeling a bit... unsatisfied.

My wife liked it more than me.

But let me go back and say again: It's a good movie, and I did enjoy it. It's just not great. The rising action is too slow and doesn't rise high enough for the conflict, when it happens, to provide much of a climax, then the movie is just over. But, maybe, that's the way of life, which is really what this movie is: life. I wouldn't say it's a must see, but it's worth watching.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Leaf Dance (a sonnet for my wife)

The Leaf Dance

The brown leaves rustle in the wind,
slowly crawling along the trail,
beckoning us to follow them.
“Fall is in the air.” Chimneys send
off'rings of scents into the pale
Autumn sky as the light grows dim.
Your shins flash in the dusk as you
expose your calves, lifting your skirt
and dancing through the crunching leaves.
I take your hand and pull you to
me, stealing a kiss as you flirt
away into the falling eve.
I chase after, pulled in no small part
by the cords that bind our hearts.

copyright 2015
** ** **

I'm not going to offer much in the way of explanation for this. I will say only two things:
1. Fall is my wife's favorite season.
2. She loves, with a child's delight, to step on crispy, fallen leaves.

So this is for my wife.
Because I love her.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Weapons Factory" (Ep. 2.6)

-- No gift is more precious than trust.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Most of what The Clone Wars has dealt with up to this point in regards to the relationship between Anakin and Ahsoka has focused on how Anakin allows his relationship to get in the way of doing his job. Much of the relationship is there to demonstrate how Anakin's attachment issues affect his ability to live up to the Jedi code and show his slow slide to the Dark Side (rather than the sudden shift as it appears in Revenge of the Sith).

However, this episode uses Anakin's issues with attachment to show where the Jedi code is itself weak and how other Jedi could perhaps do well to be more like Anakin.

"Weapons Factory" features Luminara Unduli and her apprentice, Bariss Offee. Bariss and Ahsoka get sent on a mission together. Anakin... well, Anakin frets and doesn't want Ahsoka to go. Anakin and Ahsoka are having issues, just in general, over whether Anakin trusts Ahsoka or not. However, when the apprentices get into trouble, it's Anakin who has faith in his apprentice while Luminara, basically, writes her apprentice off with "if it's her time..."

What we see in the episode is one Jedi, one who strictly follows the code and has no sense of attachment to her apprentice other than her duty to train her, who feels no compulsion to try and save her apprentice and, thus, would have left Bariss and Ahsoka to die if it had been up to her, and one Jedi who has difficulty (unknowingly) with some aspects of the code, specifically in his tendency to form attachments, who is unwilling to give up on his apprentice until he has proof that she's dead. It this attachment that Anakin has with Ahsoka that leads Anakin and Luminara to rescue the two apprentices.

It's also a demonstration of Anakin's trust in Ahsoka's abilities. He believes that she is still alive because he believes in her capacity. Luminara immediately decides that Bariss has failed.

The episode provides an interesting contrast between the two styles and shows, at least from the standpoint of our own sensibilities, that the Jedi have a thing or two they can learn from Anakin and how to invest in those around them.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Spectre (a movie review post)

I would be happier if the producers of the James Bond movies could make up their minds about whether they're doing continuing story lines or not, but I suppose that's not something that has specifically to do with this movie. But even without that, I find Spectre to be much more difficult to make a decision about as to whether I liked it or not. But, see, that's not exactly true, either, because I quite enjoyed watching the movie. Most of the movie.

Okay, I can't do this without spoilers, so be warned.

In a general sense, having Spectre be a direct sequel to Skyfall worked really well. In the specific sense of the antagonist being Bond's "brother," it was kind of a disaster. Seriously, we're supposed to believe that this kid who didn't like the fact that his father took in young Bond after the death of James' parents killed his father and grew up to become the leader of a massive, secret terrorist organization all to more effectively torture James. And kill all of Bond's girlfriends. Yeah, that just doesn't fly. It more like hobbles around on the ground and you just want Christoph Waltz to die.

Speaking of Waltz, I'm a bit tired of him. He might be fine in this movie if I hadn't seen him play the same character in about half a dozen movies at this point, but I have seen him continuously play the same character -- the sort of crazy, kooky, villain -- in film after film, and it's grown tiresome. Maybe some other actor could have gotten me to buy into the villain being Bond's long-thought-dead foster brother, but not Waltz.

Still, it is a Craig Bond movie, and it's highly enjoyable. The action is great, and Daniel Craig still puts on a very believable James Bond. I'm still very much liking Ralph Fiennes as M, and Ben Whishaw is great as Q. Andrew Scott even puts in an admirable performance as C, though it was difficult not to expect him to be a bad guy after his go as Moriarty in Sherlock. He just has that feel. Also, I do really like Naomie Harris as Moneypenny. Lea Seydoux is fine as Swann, which I only say because it doesn't seem that she did anything with the role that a dozen (or more) other actresses couldn't have done.

So... the bottom line:
Spectre is quite worth seeing in the theater, especially if you're a Bond fan. It's also essential viewing for the Bond fan, since this one continues to delve into Bond's backstory. Aside from Waltz and the whole "brother" thing, it's a really good movie. Great action, good acting, stunning visuals. Despite Waltz, I'm sure I'll be buying it on disc as soon as it's released. If you're not a Bond fan or if you're not familiar with the Bond movies, this is not the movie for you. It's certainly not a good place to start if you haven't seen any other Bond films. I do hope, though, that they move away from exploring Bond's childhood soon. I mean, why is it, after all, that we have to make orphans of all of our heroes?

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Magic Flute (an opera review post)

Our second opera (you can read about the first one here) was The Magic Flute by Mozart. Yes, that Mozart. What? You didn't know he wrote operas too? He composed the operatic version of The Marriage of Figaro (based on the play by Pierre Beaumarchais), still one of the top 10 most performed operas worldwide.

But The Magic Flute is not The Marriage of Figaro and not as widely performed. I'm assuming that's because it's not as good, though it was very enjoyable. [I'll have more to say about Figaro in the next opera post.] Actually, there are parts of it that are downright hilarious, although it does have issues with the ending.

Basically, The Magic Flute is an allegory about the Freemasons (of which Mozart was one) and the Catholic church, represented in the opera as The Queen of the Night (now, if that doesn't tell you anything about how Mozart feels about the Catholic church, I don't know what will). The protagonist, Tamino, is initially aligned with The Queen of the Night but quickly switches sides once he discovers the reason and logic of Sarastro and the brotherhood he belongs to.

On the surface, it's a very cliche love story: young prince sees a picture of a beautiful princess, falls in love, and goes off to rescue her. The princess hears that a prince is coming to rescue her and immediately falls in love with the prince, sight unseen. There are places where it seems that Mozart recognizes the ludicrousness of the plot, but he uses the familiar trope to tell his allegory.

And that's all I'm going to tell you about the story. It's all online; you can look it up. I will say, though, that the ending -- which is one of those "everything inexplicably turns out okay in the end" kinds -- is what I would say is the weakness of the story. I'm sure it could be debated how it relates to the allegory of the opera, but I'm not going to have that debate in relation to the story itself, which I think suffers.

As I mentioned in my last opera post, one of the things opera can suffer from is performers who just stand and sing, and this performance had issues with that as well, though not as bad as in Lucia di Lammermoor. Sarastro tends in this direction though, with him, it could be on purpose as he's supposed to be a very serious and solemn character. That said, the lead Paul Appleby, as Tamino, also tended to just stand and sing. I have to say that he was quiet boring as the male lead.

However, in the performance we saw, the female lead was played by Nadine Sierra (you might remember from the first opera post that she was fabulous as Lucia in that opera), and she was, again, brilliant. She's definitely someone I'm going to be keeping my eye on.

The true gem of this show, though, was Efrain Solis as Papageno, the Queen's bird catcher. No, I don't know why he's a bird catcher.
That's Papageno on the left and NOT Nadine Sierra as Pamina.
What I do know is that he was hilarious. Completely. Papageno is the comic character of the piece as The Magic Flute is a comedy, and Solis pulled it off perfectly. He is not a stand-and-sing kind of guy. I would go back to see this again just for his performance.

One other thing: this was actually performed in English, which my wife and I didn't know going in, so that was a pleasant surprise. Of course, we went to a performance that had translations happening (basically subtitles), so they actually became distracting since we didn't need them.

I liked this one better than Lucia, and I liked Lucia, so that's saying something. Next up:
The Barber of Seville

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Landing at Point Rain" (Ep. 2.5)

-- Believe in yourself or no one else will.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

This episode is pretty much just a straight up battle episode. You need those big, epic battles every so often in Star Wars. It's part of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. As such, the battle is pretty epic. It's a ground assault against the Geonosians and, actually, pretty violent, which I guess is okay because the Geonosians are bugs. The Jedi cut them apart as often as they do droids, but you don't get that kind of treatment when the Jedi are fighting humans or human-like aliens.

To make it even more exciting, you get to watch Palpatine, using reverse psychology, set the Jedi up for a trap. It also leaves him in the clear because, of course, he counselled against their plan of attack.

Fun things in this episode:

"This is another fine mess you've gotten us into." I'm not sure if that's the exact quote, but it's pretty funny to hear Ahsoka giving Anakin the Laurel and Hardy line. R2 and 3PO are absent from the episode, so Ahsoka and Anakin fill in nicely.

Ahsoka and Anakin keep a running count of enemies they've killed and try to outdo each other. I feel quite certain this was modeled on Gimli and Legolas from The Lord of the Rings.

Ki Adi Mundi, while injured, beats both Ahsoka and Anakin.

The only downside to this episode is that they bring Mundi but don't give him much screen time. While he does get more kills than Anakin, you don't see him doing any of it.

If you like a good battle sequence, though, this is a good episode to watch.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Spotlight (a movie review post)

It might be early, especially since I haven't finished seeing all the potential best picture nominees, but I'm going to go on record with Spotlight being my pick for best picture this year. Looking at lists of other potential nominees, I'm just not seeing any that I believe will have what it takes to be a better movie. That's not to say that some other movie might not win, because, hey, Eddie Redmayne got best actor last year for sitting in a chair and drooling. (Yes, I'm still upset about that.)

So, just to be clear, Spotlight is not about what it's about. I think the perception or, at least, the easy way of saying it is to say that Spotlight is about the scandal in Boston over the abuse of mostly young boys by priests in the Catholic church. That is the easy way to say it, but the movie isn't really about that. It's the story of the reporters who broke the story about the abuse going on within the Catholic church.

In part, it's about how hard it is to sit on information while you dig for even more information. It's about what it's like to think you have one story, the story of one man abusing his power, to find out that what you have is a much larger story, the story of a whole institution supporting that abuse by that man and many others just to avoid embarrassment. What do you do when you fins out what is already a horrific story goes so far beyond that?

One of the telling things for me is that the actual reporters involved in breaking the story are saying that this movie really nails what happened. They're saying that this movie, more than any other, really gets at the heart of what it's like to be a reporter and to investigate a story.

The acting is amazing. I'd like to say that Mark Ruffalo, as Mike Rezendes, stole the show, but he really doesn't. Which is not to say that Ruffalo puts in a performance that is less than to be expected, because he doesn't. Ruffalo is superb. It's just that all of the actors are performing at that same level. So, in the scene were Rezendes loses it at Robby, Michael Keaton shines just as brightly as Ruffalo.

Stanley Tucci, an actor who never seems to get as much credit as he deserves (I mean, compare this role to his role as Caesar Flickerman), is perfect: understated and intense. Liev Schrieber is commanding. John Slattery is conflicted; you never know which way he's going to go as things unfold, and that's a huge credit to the actor, as he did all of that non-verbally. You can see, almost feel, his conflict as the depth of the scandal unfolds. And Rachel McAdams, an actress I've never really had a care for one way or the other, has demanded respect from me.

All things Marvel aside, if you can only see one movie this year, this is the one it should be. As an overall film, nothing has had better performances from an entire cast, and no other movie has dealt with a topic like this. And the movie does that well. It could have been just about hammering the Catholic church; it could have stayed at that level and focused on how horrible the church is for allowing that kind of abuse to go on for, at least, decades, but, by showing us the story through the eyes of the reporters, it rises above that. It becomes something human and personal. We don't have to see the horror to know the horror (unlike, say, 12 Years a Slave, which felt the need to show us all the brutality in explicit detail). As such, Spotlight is more subtle and, by way of that, more powerful.

Friday, November 27, 2015

The Fatal Tree (a book review post)

As I think I've mentioned before, Stephen Lawhead is one of my favorite (living) authors. He's one of the few authors whose books I will just pick up automatically when they're released. The problem with Lawhead, though, is that he frequesntly has a problem with endings, especially endings of series. The Fatal Tree proves to be one of those ending failures, and it's unfortunate that such a strong story had to end with a face plant.

The first problem with the book is, as it turns out, the conflict is "cosmic" in nature. As revealed at the end of the previous book, The Shadow Lamp, the end of the universe is coming. As I mentioned in my review of The Shadow Lamp, this is an issue because it changes the focus of the series. We believe during the first three books and most of the way through the fourth that conflict is with Burleigh, but, suddenly, no, although Burleigh is a bad guy, he is not the bad guy. He is not the antagonist.

In fact, there is no real antagonist, not at that point, just an event that previously happened that, now, needs to be prevented. Remember the part in one of my previous reviews where I said this isn't a time travel story? Well, it's still not, but they still have to figure out a way to prevent something from happening that already happened. Except they don't really know that.

Actually, the major issue with this book is that the catastrophic event that was only discovered as a possibility at the end of book four is just suddenly happening. It's like if you were making tea: You put your water in your tea kettle, you turn on the burner on the stove, you set the kettle on the burner... You expect to need to have to wait for the water to heat up before you can make your tea, right? But not in this book. Instead, as soon as you set the kettle down, not only does the water start to boil, it explodes into steam. The sudden shift from trying to find the skin map to the universe could be in danger to THE UNIVERSE IS IMPLODING RIGHT NOW! was unenjoyable to say the least.

And, then, what do you do about the universe imploding? Absolutely nothing, that's what. It's kind of like standing in front of a tsunami and trying to stop it by holding up your hands. But Kit and his gang (because Kit has somehow become the leader) decide they're going to stop it. So they spend a lot of time talking about it and doing not much and never figure anything out.

The other issue, from a plot stand point, is the tree. The fatal tree. The fatal tree that, really, has nothing to do with anything. It's just there. There's a whole book, basically, devoted to this tree, and it doesn't really mean anything or have to do with anything. That was annoying.

Then there's Burleigh...

So, look, Lawhead writes Christian-themed books. I get that. As a Christian, I appreciate his general subtle application of Christianity into his stories. But not this time. Because Burleigh, as it turns out, isn't really our bad guy, he needs to have a conversion experience, which would be fine, except... Except that Lawhead spends chapters and chapters dealing with Burleigh and his descent into self-loathing so that he can finally come to understand that he's powerless on his own and does, yes, need God. This is all handled more like someone with an addiction needing to hit bottom to know that he needs help rather than someone coming to understand that it's grace that is needed. Also, it goes on way too long. In detail. It's tiring.

Basically, I was very dissatisfied with the book and how it ended the series. Too many things happen for no real reason other than that the author needed them to happen so he made them happen. There's no explanation or rational or anything. I'm sorry, but you don't write a whole book about a tree that just happened to be there and has no other purpose than that it happened to be there. Also, you don't have the "heroes" essentially save the universe on accident, even if that's what they wanted to do. I can't say the series, overall, was a waste of time (because books two, three and four were really very good), but I might have been more satisfied if I had never read this one and just wondered what happened.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Senate Spy" (Ep. 2.4)

-- A true heart should never be doubted.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

This is an episode with, kind of, a deliberately misleading title. I'm not going to explain that more than to say it; if you want to know what I mean, you should watch the episode. It's a stand alone, so you can get away with that even if you haven't been watching the series.

However, it isn't the story that interests me about this episode, though the story is fine. Good even. No, what interests me is the continued exploration of Anakin and his attachment issues.

I suppose it might not be entirely clear why the Jedi are not allowed to have attachments, at least from the prospective of the movies. I mean, it's never stated why Jedi are not supposed to own things or form romantic entanglements or, well, have children. Because it seems like having Jedi have children would be the thing to do if you wanted more Jedi children, right? So the underlying reason for the "no attachments" rule is never given. Anywhere. But The Clone Wars gives us plenty of examples, through Anakin, of the issues that arise from having attachments, everything from disobeying orders to retrieve some personal object, to making some one person a priority over completing a mission, to, well, jealousy.

And that's the real issue: Attachments open the Jedi to the negative emotions that lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And that's what's explored in this episode: Anakin's jealousy over a previous lover of Padme's.

So, yeah, the story of the "Senate Spy" is fine. It's good. But it's Anakin's jealousy and his anger and attempt to control Padme's actions because of those things that make the story of real interest.

And, actually, importance.

It's these episodes where we can see Anakin's slide to the Dark Side and that it wasn't some sudden change during Revenge of the Sith.

Also, we get to see, again, a glimmer of Obi-Wan's suspicions about Anakin and Padme, which is good. I mean, it's good that we get to see that he had suspicions, because it's a bit much to believe that Obi-Wan, of all people, had no idea what was going on.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Children of the Force" (Ep. 2.3)

-- The first step to correcting a mistake is patience.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

We all know that Palpatine used Order 66 to wipe out the Jedi, but that doesn't answer the question of how Force users became, basically, extinct (as far as we know) across the galaxy within a generation. Sure, you could say that without the Jedi and the Temple that Force-sensitive children simply grew up without ever harnessing their abilities, and, to some extent, I'm sure that's true. However, in this episode we see that Darth Sidious' plan is much more insidious.

Part of the plan is to wipe out those children before they ever have a chance to grow up and potentially become a threat. Palpatine doesn't, after all, mess around.

However, the true horror is not that he wants to wipe out the young Force-sensitives, it's that he wants to bend all of them to the Dark Side and use them as a network of spies and assassins.

This whole plot provides background for the long time fan favorite Expanded Universe character Mara Jade.
As far as a I know, Jade is not currently a canon character (you can see my discussion of Star Wars canon here), but there has been talk that she is going to be included somewhere in the new canon and, possibly, the new movies. At any rate, she was a Force-sensitive child who was molded by the Emperor to be his prime assassin, such that she was called the Emperor's Hand,

So there you go. A bit of Expanded Universe history to tie into The Clone Wars.

"What could possibly have happened since I last spoke with you?"

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Went to the Opera! (a local color post)

This is a view from the very top of the balcony down to the stage during the intermission and set change. Yes, it is a long way down.
(Sorry, this is the only picture that came out well enough to post it. There just wasn't enough light to get good shots.)

We went to the opera, my wife and I. Twice, actually (and have a third trip coming up next week). When I say we went to the opera, I don't mean that we went to just some opera performance, I mean that we went to the San Francisco Opera. It's the second largest opera company in the States, so it's not some two-bit production. As we learned last time, the full stage area (including backstage) is more than 10 times the size of our house!

Yeah, that's not small. Our house is, but that stage is still pretty ginormous.

There's a lot I could say about the two trips, too much, now, for one post. For instance, we had car picnics on the way down both times so that we could make it on time. Finger foods, good finger foods, like bits of cheese and apple and olives and tri-tip. My wife fed me (and herself), and I drove, and we talked and had a lot of fun. The second trip, we were also invited to a wine and cheese tasting before the performance with a talk from the chorus master. That's the guy who teaches the chorus their parts. He's been there at the San Francisco Opera for quite a long time.

I could also tell you about the completely rude guy with OWDS who interrupted the presenter during the pre-show presentation about the opera. It was actually the dude (and, yes, he was an old, rich, white dude) and two women, and all three of them had flaming cases of OWDS, though the dude had it the worst. I suppose, though, the San Francisco Opera is a common meeting ground of people with OWDS. That guy really deserves his own post, although I probably won't actually get around to doing that.

There's a short review of the first opera we saw below. I'll do a different post for the other show.

Before I get to that, though, I want to make one specific general opera comment:
The problem with opera is that it is often just people standing and singing. As my wife says, it's difficult to do a lot of movement when you're trying to sing, especially the kind of singing that opera singers do. And, yet, this is not a problem for all opera performers. And, I think, it probably didn't used to be a thing at all. Opera, once upon a time, was performance for the common man. It was the equivalent of going to the movies. I'm pretty sure that opera used to be much more lively and performative, but gentrification has made it much more accepted to just stand and sing.

Lucia di Lammermoor
Gaetano Donizetti

This opera suffered much from the stand-and-sing issue, especially among the male performers. Mostly, they didn't even bother to summon up any facial expressions. Nicolas Teste as Raimondo was the worst. He was about as flat as a piece of paper. He's one of the main characters and, yet, he often felt like he belonged in the chorus, because he had about as much animation as them. He could certainly sing, but there was no emotion in it, and he rarely moved at all. Nadine Sierra, the female lead, however, was the exact opposite. She was expressive and animated. A performer in all senses of the word. She made the show worth watching, especially how creepy she was in the post-murder scene where she goes off the deep end. Sierra is what more opera performers should aspire to. Opera is not just singing; it's also acting.

The issue with this particular production of this opera was the director. His interpretation of it was to "modernize" it, which would be fine... if he had actually done that. What he actually did, though, was to produce the same period piece that it's supposed to be (with the women wearing big period dresses and all of that and the whole thing in a castle-ish setting) except that the men get to wear suits and some of them wave guns around. It creates a horrible muddle. It did not give the "near future" vibe it was supposed to give at all. Not even close.

Still, it was an enjoyable experience. overall. The singing was, as to be expected, amazing, and, actually, Nadine Sierra was good enough on her own to make the show worth watching even with the other issues of this production.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Steve Jobs (a movie review post)

There's nothing about this movie that made me want to go see it. Steve Jobs was an asshole and, despite what may have been brilliance, I have no respect for the man. It doesn't take much, really, to just not be an asshole. And, despite thinking that Fassbender has been a fine Magneto, I have not thought much of him as an actor. If you need someone who can brood, Fassbender is a good go-to guy. No, the only reason I went to see this movie is because it has delusions of Oscar-hood.

That said, I came away pleasantly surprised. Not that it changes my opinion on Jobs, which is what it felt to me like what the movie was trying to do. It's very much a "See, he was just misunderstood" kind of movie. It's hard to misunderstand when someone is, rather purposefully, being an asshole.

But the movie was pretty good!

That the movie is good is completely based on the strength of the acting. Fassbender surprised me. As I said, I've never been overly impressed (or even slightly impressed) with him, so it was good to find out that he can do more than just brood and be angry. He had a strong performance in this. Then, Kate Winslet was even better.

Now, I like Kate Winslet. A lot. She's undervalued. I didn't even recognize her at first in her role as Joanna Hoffman. So, as good as Fassbender was, Winslet was better. Fassbender had to carry the movie, but I'm not sure he could have done it without someone good in the role of Hoffman. Winslet certainly made Fassbender's job much easier.

And without a doubt, there was no better person than Seth Rogen for the role of Wozniak. There's not really anything more to be said about that.

The movie is set around three major product launches in Jobs' career. I found that particular structure for the movie to be interesting while watching it. However, upon reflection, I've decided that it actually hampers the movie. The reason that it hampers the movie is that it is, in fact, a movie. The structure is such that everything that happens is through dialogue. We don't actually see any of the action of the story other than Jobs walking around and talking to people. As soon it was over, I felt like I'd been to a play -- and plays are fine; I like plays -- but, when I go to a movie, I want to see a movie, not a play.

So I'm glad I went to see it, because the acting was excellent but, if I had it to choose over, I wouldn't go see this in the theater. There's no compelling reason to do so.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Clone Wars -- "Cargo of Doom" (Ep. 2.2)

-- Overconfidence is the most dangerous form of carelessness.

[Remember, you can sign up to join the Clone Wars Project at any time by clicking this link.]

Anakin and Ahsoka are hot on the heels of Cad Bane after his theft of a holocron from the Jedi Temple. Not hot enough, though, to keep him from capturing a Jedi with a special memory crystal and, then, torture him to death trying to get him to open the stolen holocron. This, of course, does not make the Jedi happy. And Bane still needs a Jedi to open the holocron.

This episode, again, highlights Bane's ability to use others to further his own ends, this time an entire Trade Federation fleet. It also shows us just how important it is to the Jedi to get the holocron back, as they send their own fleet to take Bane out. Basically, they've sent out a fleet to recover a book.

We get to see both Anakin and Bane displaying innovative ideas to solve problems, like Anakin deciding to use tanks (ground tanks) as ship-to-ship assault vehicles because his fleet was prepared for a ground assault. And Bane... well, that would be telling.

It's Anakin's issues with attachment that are most noteworthy, though, as he not only allows Bane to escape with the holocron but opens it for him as well. Possibly, a Jedi with a clearer mind and one more committed to the Jedi way would not have succumbed to Bane's demands. That's actually an interesting question, though: What is the worth of one life in comparison to the potential harm of many? Do you save the one or stop what is only a possibility of death for many?

"If by success you mean I won, then yes."

Monday, November 9, 2015

We Went Away

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned the espresso machine I got my wife for her birthday; well, that's not all of what we did for her birthday. I also took her away for a night.

No! Now wait a minute. This is a more significant event than you're crediting it for. Let me explain something:

My wife and I got married about 17 years ago. After we got married, we went on a honeymoon. Well, we went to a music festival, which she calls our honeymoon, though it's never felt like what I think of when I think about what a honeymoon should be like. However, it was just the two of us. That was the last time the two of us went away together, just the two of us. This overnight away from the kids for her birthday was a pretty big deal.

And, hey, the kids survived. Basically, we filled their bowls up with food and made sure they had fresh litter and left them alone... oh, wait, that was the cat. Look, our oldest is 19 so, even if he's not quite self-sustaining yet, the three of them survived one night at home alone.

And, hey, my wife said the night away was "magical," and, well, if we'd gotten back and the cat hadn't made it... Well, it would have been worth it to hear her say that.

Yes, I have some pictures. No explanations will be provided, so make of them what you will.