Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Escape from Kadavo" (Ep. 4.13)

-- Great hope can come from small sacrifices.

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

Things didn't end well for the Jedi in the last episode. Anakin has been taken by Queen Miraj to be her personal slave while Obi-Wan and Rex have been sent to the Kadavo slave camps. If it was just Obi-Wan, it wouldn't be a big deal, but the commander of the camps has threatened to kill people of the Togruta anytime Obi-Wan disobeys. He does just that to about half a dozen of them to prove the seriousness of the situation.

Basically, then, the whole episode is a prison break type story but they have to rescue an entire population. With the complication of Dooku trying to have them all killed.

It's a good arc, and this is an exciting and interesting episode to wrap it up.

But I want to focus on what was probably sort of a throwaway line in the show or, at least, not meant to carry the kind of weight I'm going to give it.

One of the Togruta is punished for something innocuous Obi-Wan has done. It was totally arbitrary on the part of the slaver and completely because he wanted to punish Obi-Wan and prove that he had more power. After the incident, the Togruta slave blames Obi-Wan saying, "Keep away from me. Jedi only make things worse." It seems to me this is the Separatist line that people in the galaxy are buying into during the war: Jedi only make things worse.

It reminds me a lot of our current political turmoil. The abusers spin out lies about who is at fault as they continue to heap on the abuse. It's rather like the abusive husband blaming the wife as he abuses the child. Or, you know, blaming the Mexicans for the loss of jobs while you have your own products produced in China.

Monday, November 28, 2016

What's the Point of the Electoral College?

There's been a lot on about the Electoral College, lately. What is it even for, right? I mean, why don't we just elect our President directly? One vote is one vote and all of that. People usually default into thinking that it's about State representation because it uses the same kind of system as the House of Representatives, but that's not it.

The conflict was over whether there should be a popular vote at all. Some wanted the President to be chosen by popular vote of the masses while others wanted the choice for President to be handled by Congress. The obvious issue with the President being chosen by Congress is that it could lead to the President just being a puppet for Congress, negating the whole checks and balances of the Executive branch from the system all together.

So what was the problem with the President being chosen by a general election of the people? Well, the possibility of a Trump being elected was the problem.

Basically, many of the Founding Fathers didn't trust the general population to make the best decisions; after all, the vast majority of them were uneducated to the point of not being able to read and write. They were concerned that the "people" could be taken in by someone with the "talents for low intrigue, and the little arts of popularity," someone who was ultimately unqualified for the job but, for whatever reason, popular with the people. The Electoral College was created as a buffer between the "will of the people" and Congress.

The general election, then, was done to produce a pool of candidates for the Electoral College to look at, and the task of the Electoral College was to independently choose the best person for President from the pool of candidates. Basically. The main thing, though, was that the Electoral College was there to make sure that someone qualified got the job, not just someone who was popular.

To state it plainly:
The purpose of the Electoral College, as the Founding Fathers saw it, was to prevent people like Trump from becoming President. Period.

Of course, then parties developed, which complicated everything, and, because each State was given the power to choose its electors, etc, we have ended up where we are now, a system which undermines the purpose of the Electoral College. A system which, because the electors are no longer allowed to deliberate and choose the candidate they feel best suited for the job, has, ironically, given us the one thing the Electoral College was designed to prevent: a Trump.

So... do I think the Electoral College should "rebel" and not support Trump for President? Well, yes, if we are going to have an Electoral College, I feel that they should do exactly that. They should fulfill their function and act as a buffer between the "will of the people" and the most powerful office in the United States. They should look at the potential candidates (that used to be the top five vote getters; I'm assuming it still is, but that may not be true anymore) and choose the person most qualified to assume the role of President of the United States.

If they are not going to do that, if they are not going to serve the purpose for which they were created, we should abolish the Electoral College, because they have no point and, in this instance, have wrecked the country by both ignoring the will of the people and delivering to us the most unqualified person in history as the President. Yes, I'm saying "in history," and you can take that however you will, but I'll stand by it. You will be hard pressed to find someone more unqualified. My cat is more qualified, and he's a certified asshole.

I'm sure some of you are wondering if I understand the ramifications of what I'm saying here. Yes, I do. Yes, I realize that if the Electoral College was to actually not confirm Trump as President that it could lead to violence. However, I also believe that any violence that would take place because of that will be far less than what results from a Trump presidency.

And, sometimes, you just have to stand up for what's right. Actually, that should be always, but there are moments when it is especially called for, and this is one of them.
(And it shouldn't go to Pence, either, because he's possibly worse than Trump.)

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How To Watch Opera

So... As you regular readers are well aware, I've been doing opera reviews for a while now. This is not something I'm doing to prove how cultured I am or anything like that. I review a lot of the entertainment I take in: most all movies I see at the theater, books that I read (though I skip some of the short stories), some of the TV shows I watch. Reviewing the operas we go to is a way to both cover something local (which is another thing I do lot of, talk about local events) and to share something that I'm doing. I don't actually look at going to the opera as being something highbrow.

Yes, I'm well aware that "people" tend to view opera as highbrow, but that's not because it is. Opera suffers from the same fate as lobster.
Yeah, I'm not going to explain that right now, but opera, traditionally, was entertainment for the masses not the rich and elite, just like, during his day, Shakespeare was "popular media." My position is that it should, again, be entertainment for the masses.
Yes, I know there are barriers to that, barriers that will probably not be overcome, but that doesn't mean I can't hope and encourage you to check out some opera.

Here's how to go about doing that:

1. Go see Hamilton: An American Musical. Okay, so, sure, that's a bit impractical for most people including myself, even though it is coming to San Francisco. At least for the foreseeable future, it's way out of our price range (more on cost later). However, if you want to get into the technicalities of musical theater, Hamilton is an opera and, if nothing else, you should listen to it. And then again. And probably again. Trust me, we've been on about Hamilton in our house for well over a year (including having had custom Hamilton t-shirts made for 2/3 of our kids for Christmas last year (and I would show you a picture if those weren't in the pictures I lost in the great hard drive crash)).

The point? To show you the potential of opera. The medium itself is not confined to centuries old music and people in fancy clothes.

2. Watch some foreign movies with subtitles. This is the big roadblock for most people, and it's because most people don't read. People who don't read can't keep up with subtitles and also watch the movie. Not that it's not possible to develop the skill of watching something with subtitles without also being a reader, but people who only take in movies and TV are much less likely to move in the direction of shows with subtitles.

So, yeah, most (by far) operas are performed in languages other than English, mostly because they were written in other languages than English. However, some venues offer supertitles [Basically, a subtitle. No, I don't know why they're referred to as supertitles at the opera, but they are.], which I strongly recommend. If not, translations of the songs are available, so it's possible to follow along that way. [SFO always has nights with supertitles for each opera they're doing, and we always go to those shows, even when the opera is being performed in English. (Believe it or not, it helps.)]

3. Pick a genre you like. This is a bit more difficult to do, because it's not like opera contains all of the genres in modern pop culture. Or all of the sub-genres. In one sense, all of opera breaks down into two broad categories: tragedy and comedy, but, then, isn't that true of all fiction? (Or non-fiction, for that matter.) All I'm saying is do your research. Puccini is not like Mozart. Find a story category you tend to like, then...

4. Listen to some music! Don't worry about the words since it's most likely going to be in Italian or French or German, but you want to find music you feel like you can listen to, you know, since you'll have to spend a couple of hours listening to it.

5. Evaluate the cost. This can be a big one. I'm not going to try to tell you that going to the opera is like going to the movies, though movies are expensive enough! However, check out ways to make going cheaper. For instance, many venues offer staggered pricing on the seating, so, if you're like us, you're going to want to choose the cheap seats. Also, the San Francisco Opera offers package deals so, if you buy, say, tickets to three operas at once, you get them for significantly cheaper than if you bought tickets to three individual operas. For us, with what we do, the tickets end up being about $25 each. That's actually a pretty good value.

I'd also suggest getting some on disc to watch, but that's a lot more difficult than you'd think it would be.

Or you can skip all of that and do what I did, which was kind of just to jump in. Okay, so that's not precisely true but, effectively, it's true. When my wife finally agreed to let me take her to the opera (after years of refusing because she thought I wouldn't like it and didn't want to have a bad experience with it (because she loves it)), I let her pick the first operas we saw. That, admittedly, is an easy way of doing it. Basically, you should find something that works for you.

Look, what I'm saying is this:
Give it a try. It's not like you can lose in that scenario. Sure, you might not like opera, but, then, you just might. And, really, I'd say try two or three different ones, because you might not get a good one the first time (like the first opera I saw when I was 20 was horrible, and I let that convince me for a long time that all of opera was bad, but I was a kid; what did I know?). And seriously, go check out Hamilton.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Slaves of the Republic" (Ep. 4.12)

-- Those who enslave others inevitably become slaves themselves.

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

Obi-Wan and Anakin need to track down the Togruta colony that have been taken as slaves by the Zygerrians. They decide to go undercover. There's no way anything can go wrong with this, right? Especially with Ahsoka posing as a slave. (Remember that I said that Ahsoka is Togruta?) Because she just has the perfect temperament for that, right?

With Anakin's baggage from being a slave and the fact that he's the one who is hotheaded and tends toward rushing in without a plan, you'd expect it would be Anakin's doing for things to go south. Right? But not this time. Nope. It's the levelheaded one that gets them into trouble.

There is a nice nod to Return of the Jedi in this episode, and a similar kind of arena scene from Attack of the Clones, but most of the episode is dedicated to things going from bad to worse for the heroes.

One interesting bit: Anakin has a conversation with the Zygerrian queen in which she accuses him of being a slave (no button pushing there!), but she quickly clarifies that to mean that he is a slave to his commitments and to the Jedi Order, a slave to the Republic. Of course, if he wanted to, he could join her and be truly free and rule the galaxy! Okay, she didn't really say that, but, clearly, that's the implication. Also, that freedom is getting to do whatever you want to whomever you want without any regard for anyone other than yourself.

Huh. That sounds kind of familiar.

Monday, November 21, 2016

It's Not That I Don't Understand You

Since the election, there has been a plea from those on the Right for understanding. For people to just listen to their side and understand why they're not racists and misogynists and assholes just because they voted for Trump. Now that Trump has won, we (on the Left) somehow owe them empathy so that we will quit making them feel bad for calling them out for their bad behavior. If only we would try to understand what drove them to it...

If you've been around here for a while, you already know most of this (after all, I did a whole series on racism last year before I knew what kind of issue it was going to be in the Presidential election), but let me just reiterate:

  • I grew up in the South. I grew up amongst "good, hard working folk," almost all of whom voted for Trump.
  • I grew up in the Church. And not one of those liberal Methodist-type churches (they dance!), either. I grew up in a good ole Bible thumpin' evangelical Southern Baptists church. I even spent years working in the Church.
  • I grew up surrounded by and immersed in racism. (I fought against it in my church.)
  • I have been told, "That's just your education talking," which, honestly, as a teenager, I didn't understand. Of course, it was my education talking, at least in that I was getting educated so that I would be... well, educated!
  • I have been told in all sincerity that higher education is a waste of time because you don't need to know anything that's not in the Bible. All you need to do is read the Good Book.
So, see, it's not that I don't understand you; it's that I do understand you, and I understand you all too well.

So you don't like being called a racist despite the fact that when you voted for Trump you were joining Team Racism. Fine...
So you don't like being called sexist despite the fact that when you voted for Trump you cast a vote for misogyny, both personal and institutionalized. Fine...
Let's just settle on "asshole," then. What? You don't like that, either? Let me call your attention back to a book I reviewed last year: Assholes. Specifically, let's look at the definition Aaron James provides us for what an asshole is. At the time I wrote the review, no one protested the provided definition:
  1. The asshole allows himself to enjoy special advantages and does so systematically.
  2. The asshole does this out of an entrenched sense of entitlement.
  3. The asshole is immunized by his sense of entitlement against the complaints of other people.
And I'm going to add a fourth:
  • The asshole complains if anyone tries to take the special advantages away. A frequent refrain is, "That's not fair!" Perhaps, the asshole even tries to forcibly regain the special advantages, not seeing (or caring), because of his entitlement, that those advantages come at the expense of other people. [Most frequently in this country, those advantages come at the expense of women, but we can't get to the point of adequately dealing with rampant sexism because we can't get to it through all of the racism.]
I think these points pretty thoroughly describe Trump voters, virtually all of whom were white and/or male. [Yes, a large percentage of white women voted for Trump because they align with "white" rather than "women." Almost no women of color (any color (other than white)) voted for Trump.]

I'm not going to try to walk you all through it (you know what you did), but I will nutshell it for you:
When you're candidate says, "I will give you these things you want, but I am also going to do bad things to these other people," and you vote for him because you want the things even at the expense of the other people (Mexicans, Muslims, African Americans, women, people of sexual orientation you don't agree with or understand), that puts you right in the ASSHOLE definition (see point 3 (which marches back up to 2 and, then, 1)). And all of that came about because you spent so much time whining about how you were losing your "special place" at the front of the line.

Let me put it another way:
When you believe that you, white person, deserve special treatment at the expense of non-white people and/or non-traditionally white people, it does, indeed, make you racist. It is the definition of racism. And I grew up with you; I know how all of this works; I know the tricks you play on yourself so that you can tell yourself that you're not one of the racist ones and that you are a good person, the primary one being, "I have black friends! I can't be racist!" Racism isn't about how you treat people you know; it's about how you treat people you don't know and how you think about those same people.

All of that to say this:
Quit asking us to "understand you." We do understand you. All of us. We know what you voted for and why. Sure, you may not have been voting against those other people, but you were voting for yourselves. And you were voting for yourselves at the expense of others, and you were fully aware of that at the time. That you are willing to sacrifice the very safety of others just so you can feel special again is, actually, racism. You need to come to grips with that and either embrace it or reject it. You can't play both sides.

The problem here is not that we don't understand you. The problem is that you refuse to look at yourselves and understand that your actions don't fit your words. And, sorry (not sorry), actions still do speak louder.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Confusing the Message for the Medium

Back in the 1950s, Ray Bradbury wrote a little short story called "A Sound of Thunder." It's the one about the dudes going back in time to hunt dinosaurs, and you should already know it. If you don't, go read it now before I spoil it. Look, it's a short story, it won't take you that long.

Anyway, the dudes are sent back in time to hunt dinosaurs. There are all of these precautions set up to keep them from disrupting the time line, and they are supposed to follow them explicitly. However, at one point, one of the dudes steps off of the designated path and, when he picks up his foot, finds he has crushed a butterfly. But it's just a butterfly, right? You'd like to think that but, when they return to their own time, they find that everything has changed.

I know! Trippy, right! That's, like, SO deep and meaningful and shit! The dude stepped on a butterfly and changed, like, EVERYTHING! Duuude! And only those dudes knew anything had changed! That's so weird, right! Duuude!

Oh, like, dude! maybe they could go back in time again to before the one dude killed the butterfly and stop him from stepping on the butterfly and fix everything. That's so trippy! Like, duuude!

The problem, though, is that the story is not about the time travel or that everyone in the group who had traveled had kept their original memories intact. That's just the medium to deliver the message, the message that even little things can have huge consequences.

However, this idea has become a staple in science fiction and time travel stories, the idea that the person who travels in time can change the past and yet retain their memories unchanged. It's bullshit, and it wasn't Bradbury's point and, frankly, I'm sick and tired of seeing it done, because it's one of the most ridiculous logical fallacies in science fiction. Probably more than anything else, it is the thing that makes me hate time travel stories, and I can almost say that unilaterally because virtually every time travel story out there uses this idea.

Probably, right about now, I'm stepping on some people's toes, because time travel stories are very popular, and people seem to love this crap.

But here's the other thing I hate about time travel stories and, for this, I'm going to use an example...

Recently, I've been watching The Flash with my daughter. (The boys have no interest in the DC TV shows (and for good reason!).) Because we watch everything after the fact, we're working our way through season two, right now. Now, as a character, I like the Flash -- If I could have a super power, it would be super speed. -- but I haven't much liked this version of the Flash. Sorry, the character in this show is NOT Barry Allen. However, it's been okay enough to watch with my daughter because she does like it. (She prefers Marvel, but she can't watch the Marvel TV shows, yet.)

It has been "okay enough" right up until we got to the episode "Flash Back." They've already done a few time travel episodes, but those were episodes -- see if you can follow this -- where time travel happened but were not about the time travel; "Flash Back" is about the time travel. And it turned a show which was "okay enough" into a show I am currently hating for its blatant and utter stupidity.

So let's break this down:
1. Barry Allen is supposed to be a brilliant scientist. To say that another way, he's incredibly smart.
2. Barry Allen already went back in time to the murder of his mother, and he refrained from saving her, something he desperately wanted to do, because of the danger of changing the past.
3. In "Flash Back," before Barry leaves for the past, they give him that whole speech, "Don't change anything, because you will be the only one who remembers how things are actually supposed to be."

1. Barry is super smart, so he should know better than to tamper with the things that have already happened.
2. If Barry could withstand the temptation to save his mother, he should be able to withstand any other temptations about changing the past.
3. Bullshit!

Of course, Barry can't resist and purposefully affects the past at least three times in the episode, not to mention all of the accidental/unforeseen changes.
Wait a minute...
Knowing the danger of messing with the past, Barry goes ahead and purposefully makes alterations to the timeline for which he cannot know the ramifications.
But the writers expect us to believe that
1. Barry is smart.
2. Barry would succumb to the temptation of fiddling when he didn't save his mother.

This is just... bad writing. Bad writing. Horrible, stupid writing. And it's the kind of thing that makes me hate more than 90% of time travel in popular culture. Not to mention that this particular example of it undermines the entire Flash TV series. We can now no longer trust anything in the show because the writers can just do whatever the fuck they want at any given moment and blame it on Barry having changed things in the past.

And the bigger problem?
Once you've established that your hero can time travel, you can't have him not do it without that being equally as stupid as having the time travel. Either way, the show can't move forward, now, without being dumb.

Maybe I should go back in time and explain to Bradbury the horror he is going to unleash on the world with his one little short story.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Kidnapped" (Ep. 4.11)

-- Where we are going always reflects where we came from.

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

A theme Star Wars returns to rather more frequently than you'd think -- or, at least, I'd think -- is slavery. Chewbacca was a slave, freed by Han. Anakin was a slave, freed by Qui-Gon. The Hutts run slaves. The Trandoshans trade in slaves. And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Oh, and the Empire, because Chewbacca was a slave owned by the Empire.

"Kidnapped" introduces a new race that specializes in trading in slaves, the Zygerrians. At least, they used to specialize in it before the Jedi shut down their slave trading ways. The problem is that the Zygerrians have been holding a grudge and have joined forces with the Separatists in the hopes that they will be able to re-establish themselves and their slave market. Their opening gambit is to invade the planet Kiros, a colony of the Togruta, a peaceful people who have no weapons.

The wrinkle? Ahsoka is Togruta.

When the Jedi arrive to assist the Togruta population, they don't find them. Any of them. All of which leads to an interesting face off between Obi-Wan and Darts D'Nar, the Zygerrian leader of the Separatist forces.

That's about all I can say without spoilers. It's a good, solid episode, and a good start to this arc.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Dying of Cancer

I've never talked much about my childhood on here, and I don't particularly care to, but there's a thing here that's important to what I'm going to say, so here's your bit of insight into me.
If you read carefully, that is.

Until I was four years old, I lived with my mother and my grandparents but, even after my mother got married, my grandfather was the primary male role model in my life. He was a large man. Quiet. Great "table muscles," as he called them. I never once heard him raise his voice to anyone, much less his hand, and my mother says she can't remember him ever once saying anything bad about anyone (my grandmother, evidently, was another story; she had the temper). He used to read to me. I'd sit in his lap and smell the engine grease on him and in his clothes (he was a mechanic, but there's more to the story than that) -- that smell was just a part of who he was -- and he would read to me, frequently the same book over and over again. Little Black, a Pony and some book about an old, beat up blue truck. See, I still remember them.

When I was 19, he was diagnosed with cancer; I don't remember what kind. It was one of the fast ones, though, but the doctors told us they'd caught it in time and that he would be okay. They continued to tell us that all through the treatment. "Everything's going well." "He's responding well to the treatment." "He should be going home in no time."

The last time I saw him was a Monday night. We'd gone to visit him at the hospital, which was in another city, but he spent most of our time there asleep. He did grip my arm before I left, a grip that was still powerful despite his weakened condition. Even that night, the doctors were telling us that he was doing "very well" and they expected that he would get to go home soon.

When the phone rang Wednesday morning, I knew what the call was. Part of me died that morning, too.

Cancer can be insidious that way. It doesn't ever really go away; it just hides. That's why we say it's in remission rather than cured. Maybe there will be an actual cure someday but, for now, the best we can do is treat it into submission and hope that we outlast it. The problem many people run into is that they treat it as if it's a curable disease so ignore the symptoms of it coming back because they don't want to confront the issue of still being sick.

Racism has a lot in common with cancer. It's not a curable thing, though many of us have wanted to treat it that way, even going so far as to declare on television that racism is a thing of the past. I understand the allure of believing that, but it's that kind of thinking that allows the cancer to spread. It's a thing that needs constant awareness just to keep it in check, and, as a society, we just haven't been doing that. We can see the results of ignoring the symptoms in the recent rampant tumor growth across the US. Well, not just the US, but I don't think other parts of the world ever thought they had "cured" racism.

At any rate, this past election has in many ways reminded me of my grandfather's cancer, not least in that everyone kept saying, "It's going to be okay. Clinton is going to win, and we're going to treat the racism (and sexism) cancer back into remission." But the cancer won; Trump won; and the emotions of that were very similar to that phone call letting us know that my grandfather had succumbed to the cancer and died. I'm not going as far as to say that the US has succumbed to the cancer, but the cancer, right now, is having its day.

This is no longer the kind of racism that only expresses itself through things like implicit bias and in systemic, institutionalized ways. It has become very explicit and in your face because people who have previously felt social pressure to keep their racism internal have suddenly found new freedom to externalize it. We have moved past implicit bias into explicit hatred and hate crimes.

So let me just be clear in case what I'm saying here hasn't been explicit enough:
Racism (and sexism) is a cancer eating this country up. It has been the great, ongoing conflict we have been dealing with since before the US became the US. Racism was one of the great issues that pushed us into a two party system with Alexander Hamilton and his Federalists (the modern Democrats) on the side of racial equality and Thomas Jefferson (the modern Republicans) and his Democratic Republicans on the side of racial discrimination and slavery. [Jefferson may have written "All men are created equal" but he only meant white men when he wrote that. He even kept his own mixed race children as slaves during his lifetime. That's just sick.]

Those of you who voted for Trump, whether you are feel as if you are racist or not, voted for the cancer. You voted for the cancer to have its day, or its four years as the case may be, and, in that, you are showing that you believe that you are more important than what Trump represents and that, my "friend" is racism. You are saying that you, you white person, deserve better treatment than the people that Trump has stated he intends to persecute, whether they be Muslim, Mexican, or female. You have said, "I know Trump is horrible and intends to do bad things to certain groups of people, but I am more important than those groups of people and I deserve my day at their expense." And, well, that, also, is just sick.

And the best part is...? Trump isn't going to give you your day, either, because you're not rich, and his policies are going to be just as disastrous for you as they will be for everyone else. So, yeah, good job.

Friday, November 11, 2016

The Makropulos Case (an opera review post)

Way back in 2012 (wow! It's really been a while), I did a post about the introduction of robots (and androids) into fiction. The term "robot" was introduced by Karel Capek in his play R. U. R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. The term actually means "drudgery," which is the kind of works that robots were invented for. Capek is most remembered for his science fiction and was even nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature SEVEN times, though he never won.

He also wrote a play called The Makropulos Affair (or Case or Secret or Thing, depending upon the translation) about an "immortal" woman. The play was seen by Leos Janacek who decided he wanted to write an opera based on it. When he approached Capek with the idea, Capek told him he was crazy and that it would never work. After some amount of correspondence, Capek relented and allowed Janacek to produce the opera.

I think there is probably actually too much I could say about this opera that sets it apart from your "normal" opera. For one thing, Janacek wrote the score and the libretto (the words), something not generally done by the composer. It is also done entirely recitative, which basically means sung dialogue; there are no arias. Recitative is not unusual in and of itself because it is somewhat required to tell a story, but that there are no arias is unusual. Even the horrible Usher House that I reviewed last year and was done (almost) entirely recitative had an aria. Just one, but it had one.

Having said all of that, Makropulos was fascinating, and I hate even bringing up Usher House, because there is no comparison between the two; there is only stark contrast. For one thing, the music in Usher was flat and droning, which created a rather monotone hum that was most appropriate for putting people to sleep. The music in Makropulos was driving and energetic and really carried the libretto, keeping it from becoming boring. Then there was the set design...

Well, forget Usher House; the sets for Makropulos were amazing. Huge. The set for act 1 was a library with something like a 20 foot tall ladder against the bookshelves which one of the performers climbed during the performance. [Interesting and morbid side note: During the first performance of Makropulos at the Met (back in 1996), just after delivering the line, "Too bad you can only live so long," the actor fell from the ladder and died later that evening.] During the open curtain intermission, you're allowed to take pictures, so I have this example of the scale of the set:
This is also one of those kinds of pieces where the lead really has to carry the production. There are plenty of other performers, but none of them are any more important than the next, so, if the lead is not dynamic, the whole production will fall apart. Nadja Michael played the role of Emilia Marty (or Elina Makropulos) like a cat trapped indoors. She draped herself across the furniture in odd ways and walked or crouched on it rather than the floor. She was quite excellent. All the performers pulled their weight.

I really enjoyed The Makropulos Case, and I would definitely see it again. It actually made me want to read the source material, which I would do if it wasn't a play. I just don't feel into reading plays at the moment. I may, however, pick up one of Capek's novels. That's a mark of a good production, I think.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Carnage of Krell" (Ep. 4.10)

-- Our actions define our legacy.

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

We've come to the end of the Krell arc but not the end of the story as it pertains to Krell...

And I don't really know what to say about it that won't give all of this one away.
Fives continues to be one of my favorite clones.
I also like Rex a lot.
Krell is still an asshole...?

Wait, wait, I've got it!
(Yes, Krell is still an asshole.)

How many clones does it take to get to the center of a Jedi? A one, a two, a...
Oh, no, wait, that doesn't really work, does it? Tootsie pops don't generally fight back. Or wield double-bladed lightsabers.

Did I give too much away? I hope not.
This is a really solid story arc that highlights some of the differences in the individual clones. The plight of Dogma, one of the recurring clones in the series (his name should tell you everything you need to know about him), is both sad and hopeful. And a metaphor. A metaphor which is politically appropriate if you painted Krell a slight orange color and put a wispy wig on his head. Dogma's world is destroyed when his eyes are opened and he sees the truth.

I might, now, be giving too much away.

Okay, look, I'm going to quit talking about the episode. You should just go watch the arc, mostly so that you can see this episode. There will be repercussions (I just can't remember when those happen or what they are (which is good! because I'm looking forward to it, now)).
So, now, instead of listening to me, watch this, then go watch the Krell arc.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Doctor Strange (a movie review post)

Doctor Strange has always been one of those characters who has worked better in concept than in execution. I mean, he's a sorcerer, but he's also a super hero. No, no, he's a super hero who has magic as his super power. In the comics, his powers are actually very limited. He has just these few things that he does and a few tools that he uses, and they are always the same. Very clearly defined, like Captain America and his shield. It's more about using those things in clever ways than it is about actually using magic to cast spells to accomplish different goals.

But, then, Marvel is a universe where magic is really science, everything having to do with multiple dimensions and other planes of existence. And, really, I'm fine with that even if, with the comic, I always wanted Dr. Strange to be more... I don't know... complex. To actually be more mystical for one who is called Master of the Mystic Arts.

All of that to say that I was hoping for a little more magic in the movie, especially with the whole thing in the trailer about how the Avengers protect from physical threats while the sorcerers protect the world from mystical threats. And I suppose that's true, though it's all in where you draw the lines in the definitions, and the "mystical" threats were not all that far removed from what we've seen in Thor and the Avengers.

But I can't complain, because, really, it was an excellent adaptation of the comic, capturing all of the essential elements. Capturing them and blending them seamlessly with what Marvel has already set in motion leading towards the next two Avengers films. It only left out things that didn't ever exist within the comic to begin with, and I can't fault it for that because, then, it would have been a bad adaptation, not something that Marvel is known for up to this point (unlike some other comic book company).

I'm going to get all spoilery now, so, if you haven't seen it but plan to, you should just know that I really liked it and quit reading right now.

Things I loved about the movie:

Benedict Cumberbatch: As Marvel has done so well, the casting here was perfect. There's not anyone else who can play an arrogant genius bastard quite like Cumberbatch. It was such a good job that well before the car crash my son was squirming in his seat and muttering about what a jerk Strange was. It was rather like, "This is the guy who's the hero?" And, well, yes, that was the point in the comic, too, and they did a great job of breaking the character down and rebuilding him as someone better and not so self-obsessed.

Tilda Swinton: Despite her controversial casting in the role of the Ancient One, I thought she was great. In fact, I think she rose above the role they wrote for her, the role they wrote for her being that of a woman. She chose to bring an androgynous quality to the part that fit it well. The way she played it, she was rather like a prototype human, sexless and ageless. I think the film would have been even stronger if they had severed the ties to the idea that she was a woman and left the character more... ambiguous. Either way, she was great in the role.

the Eye of Agamotto: Yes, I think it's great that the Eye has been included in the movie, but there was kind of no doubt that it would be considering it has been a part of the Strange mythos since Strange's first appearance. What I love about it is that they have made it one of the infinity stones.

the Cloak of Levitation: 'Nuff said.

Chiwetel Ejiofor: Okay, this is more about the character than the actor, although I think Ejiofor is quite good. However, what I enjoyed was what they have done with the character. While not being quite true to the origins of the character in the comics, I like that they have begun the journey of Mordo as a brother-in-arms to Strange. It should make what comes later more interesting.

Benedict Wong: Benedict Wong is great, and I love that they have fleshed out what was basically a stereotype Asian servant from the comic. And maybe they've fleshed out the character in the comic at this point, too, but, back in when I was still reading comics, Wong was your basic manservant to Strange, so I like that they have made the character something more than that, and Benedict is very good in the role.

Things I didn't love in the movie:

The sling rings: I'm not crazy about the idea of needing the rings to open portals. Maybe if they had stated they were a good tool to speed up the process or to help students learn to open the portals or something like that, but, making them a required tool, raises too many questions and turns them into nothing more than a plot device by the writers to trap people at will by having them lose their rings.

The eye makeup of the zealots: Sure, from a distance, the eyes of the zealots looked cool and like their faces were cracking apart. However, when they did closeups, the green and the purple was shiny or glittery, which made them look more like rock 'n' roll musicians from the late 70s. It took all the menace away.

Actually, there are many more things I loved in the movie that I didn't mention, things like the death scene of the Ancient One and the astral fight that Strange had while he was being operated on, but I could go on for a while if I tried to list all of the things. Needless to say, I think Doctor Strange is a great addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I am very much looking forward to the character appearing in the next Thor movie and the Avengers movies as well as the next Strange movie. And Wong, too.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Don Pasquale (an opera review post)

Don Pasquale marks the second opera by Donizetti that I've seen, the first being Lucia di Lammermoor, which was actually the first opera I saw. [Okay, not the first opera I've ever seen, but the first one since my wife and I started going to the opera.] So, if you look back at my review of Lammermoor (click the link), you will see that I was not blown away by it; however, Lammermoor is generally considered Donizetti's best opera, or, at least, it is his most performed. This is just going to highlight the difference the production can make, because Don Pasquale was incredible. Of course, Pasquale is a comedy, and I think I'm probably partial to them. So far, I have not seen one that I didn't like.

So, yes, I laughed a lot. So did my wife. I have to say, even with subtitles, it speaks a lot to the quality of the presentation that I can spend so much time laughing at something being performed in Italian. But, then, the story is just funny, about an elderly man who decides to take a very young bride in order to teach his nephew a lesson. And I'm going to mostly leave it at that other than to say that there is a reversal of the plot as there is an endeavor to teach Don Pasquale, the elderly man, a lesson in return.

As with most of the productions at SFO (San Francisco Opera), the set was amazing. They made it part of the representation of the story, a metaphor, if you will, of a portion of what was happening, and it was pretty brilliant. Mostly, it was brilliant because it allowed for a lot of physical comedy, which brings us to the actors.

Ernesto, the layabout nephew, was played by Lawrence Brownlee, who made his SFO debut in Don Pasquale. Not only was he a fantastic singer, but he provided some great physical comedy as well, everything from trying to carry too many suitcases when his uncle kicked him out of the house to trying to get through an upside down doorway (no, I'm not explaining that). He wore his expressiveness in his whole body, not just his face, and he was rarely still when he was on stage, meaning he did none of that standing and singing that can really drag an opera down.

Lucas Meachem, who played Figaro in the presentation of The Barber of Seville we saw last year, returned to SFO as Dr. Malatesta. He was just as good in this one as he was in Barber. I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and say that I would happily see anything that Meachem is in. Wait, does this mean I'm developing favorite opera performers, kind of like saying "I'll watch anything with Harrison Ford in it." I think that's what it means!

Wow... That's kind of weird.

Not to be left out, the other two primary performers, Maurizio Muraro as Pasquale and Heidi Stober as Norina, were also really great. Stober had just the right amount and kind of attitude to pull off her role realistically, and it was difficult not to watch Muraro throughout the entire performance, because he was always doing something, even when he wasn't the one singing. If you weren't watching him, you were missing something funny going on.

My first thought about Pasquale when it was over was to think that my younger son (the one who recently finished high school at 15) would have really loved it. He's never seen an opera, but I think he would have appreciated the humor of the story, and he's a facile enough reader that I don't think the subtitles would have hindered him. I tell you that because I would like to be able to recommend a DVD performance for anyone who is interested but, alas, upon a bit of research, unless you want to buy it, it doesn't seem as if there are any you can rent or stream. At least not from the normal places. Oh, well. I can only speak for the SFO presentation, anyway, and that one isn't available unless you came to see it. Which you certainly should have!

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Clone Wars -- "Plan of Dissent" (Ep. 4.9)

-- The wise man leads; the strong man follows.

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

Can the clones continue to unquestioningly follow orders from General Krell? Okay, well, it was never unquestioningly, but can they continue to follow orders when they know those orders will almost certainly lead to their deaths. Lead to their deaths without accomplishing anything. As of this episode, the answer appears to be "no," at least for some of them.

The conflict around General Krell and whether to obey his orders immediately and without thought or not continues to drive a wedge into Anakin's regiment. Which may not matter considering Krell seems to be doing his best to maker sure that Anakin has no regiment to return to.

There are the soldiers like Dogma (great symbolic name) who just want to do as they're told no matter what the consequences. Don't question, just obey.

There are soldiers like Fives who want to know the reasons and want to believe they can trust their commanders to do what's right by them. Fives, where Krell is concerned, is on the side of disobedience.

Which leaves the ones stuck in the middle. Those like Hardcase (and maybe only Hardcase) who don't believe in Krell but also don't mind following his orders if it means more fighting.
And those like Rex...

Rex believes in his mind that Fives is correct and that Krell is throwing them away carelessly, but he, in his heart, believes in the system and can't bring himself to go against it. He has decided that if Krell is doing what he's doing then there must be a reason, some reason ha can't understand, so he will follow the orders even if it's the death of him.

This is a great arc so far. Lots of great philosophical issues evenly meshed with a lot of great action. It's even an arc you can watch without needing a lot of backstory, so it's a good place to step into the series.

"Hardcase! What are you doing?"
"If I knew, I wouldn't be doing it."