Wednesday, May 23, 2018

NBC's Timeless

There were quite a few time travel shows that popped up 2-3 years ago. I've written about DC's Legends of Tomorrow on the CW (which has improved greatly since a weak season 1) and Netflix's Travelers. Frequency on the CW was pretty good, but only lasted one season. And on NBC, we have Timeless.

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The world of Timeless: Time travel has been invented with the backing of deep pockets from a shadowy organization called Rittenhouse. They want to use the time ship to entrench their own positions and mold society to their ideals, which needless to say aren't progressive or friendly to anyone outside their group. A small team of uncorrupted government agents and civilians use a prototype time ship to thwart those schemes.

Like most shows based on time travel, you can't think too deeply about the premise of Timeless. The only real restriction is that you can't travel to place where you already exist, and there's ways around that (like recruiting others). The show establishes pretty early that changes made in the past do affect the future, so you have to ignore the fact that it would be incredibly easy to make a mistake that would wipe out your desired result, the development of time travel, or even all life on Earth. So watching Timeless definitely requires you to turn off the bit of your brain that tries to make sense of the whole time travel aspect.

Once you've got that suspension of disbelief going, Timeless is a lot of fun. I like pretty much all the characters, particularly Jiya and Rufus since they're nerds like me. (Younger and smarter and better looking, but then, who on TV isn't?) There's a decent amount of family and interpersonal drama that for the most part doesn't detract from the overall storyline, and in fact usually plays into it. Nice to have writers that make an effort to integrate the emotional drama, not just tossing it in on the side.

But my favorite part of Timeless is the historical characters. Pretty much every week, the crew goes to a different part of history and meets one or more pivotal persons. There's plenty of the usual suspects: the Alamo with Bowie and Crockett, Bonnie and Clyde, the revolutionary war with Benedict Arnold and George Washington, Al Capone and Eliot Ness in Chicago, etc. But some of the best stories are with lesser known characters, like Katherine Johnson at NASA (better known now after Hidden Figures) or blues musician Robert Johnson. Timeless does a fine job of bringing these characters to life, generally with a minimum of deviation from what we know from history. (The Smithsonian does a weekly blog post checking the facts.)

The second season wrapped up recently, with a cliffhanger that shows that the writers are ready to go for season 3. Hopefully NBC lets them keep going, or someone else picks it up.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

In This Moment and Halestorm at the Deltaplex in Grand Rapids

Stitched Up Heart, New Year's Day, In This Moment, and Halestorm...four female-fronted rock/metal bands on the same night at a venue close to home. Not an opportunity I was going to pass up.
The Deltaplex here in the Grand Rapids area is basically a gymnasium with some warehouse-like open space next to it. It generally hosts basketball games for the Grand Rapids Drive and merchandise shows, so it's not exactly built as a concert venue. I was pleasantly surprised that the acoustics weren't terrible, though it still wasn't nearly as good as a place like 20 Monroe Live that's built for concerts.

Probably just as well that they booked the Deltaplex, though, because they had a good-sized crowd. It wasn't completely sold out, but still, it would have been a tight fit in a smaller venue. And there were a lot of women in attendance. Most rock/metal shows are slanted toward men by 2:1 or more, but in this case it was even, or possibly tilted a bit the other way. It was great to see that many women out in support of this all-female-fronted lineup.

I was a little late getting out to the show, plus there was some confusion over the process for getting my ticket redeemed (had to go to the box office since I bought it through Groupon), so I ended up missing all but about half of the last song from Stitched Up Heart. But I heard the complete sets for the other three acts. Logistically, the only real complaint I had was the same I have at almost every show with multiple openers...it takes forever to switch sets. Ended up with more than an hour and a half wait time by the end of the night.

Both New Year's Day and Halestorm were great, though neither are on my usual playlists so I only knew a few songs during their sets. Since New Year's Day was on early, they had a bit less crowd energy to work with, but I thought they did a fine job with stage presence and I enjoyed their set. And Halestorm really knows their way around a stage, which makes sense after 20 years. Particularly the Hale siblings (front-woman Lzzy and drummer Arejay), both of whom took some solo time as well as playing with the band.

For me, though, In This Moment was the highlight of the show. Which was initially because I knew their work best going in, but the stage show certainly cemented that feeling for me. Several big video screens were right behind the band, and lead singer Maria Brink was dancing as much as singing, usually with one or two other dancers alongside (including New Year's Day lead singer Ash Costello on one song). This was a kind of interpretive dance that went along with the music, not the over-sexualized twerking that passes for dancing in much of today's popular music. They didn't stint on props either - several costume changes, some kind of glowing ball thing, a sort of pulpit on one song, and they even launched a bunch of balloons in the audience near the end of the set. Good set list, too - I liked Big Bad Wolf in particular, but they hit most of their most popular songs.

I'd love to see more tours like this one, focused on bands with female members. Judging from the turnout for this one, there's certainly a market for it. Count me in for the next one!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Stories: The Path of Destinies

This game has a great story and I really enjoyed seeing it unfold. Wish I could say the same about the combat gameplay.

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Stories: The Path of Destinies takes place in a world populated by animals, in Aesop's Fables style. You play as Reynardo the fox, fighting against an evil Emperor (who is a toad) on the side of rebels against his army of ravens. It's a swashbuckling setting where Reynardo fights with magic swords in settings ranging from forests to mountains to leaping across the decks of battling airships.

It doesn't take long to get through the story...once. Reynardo has many choices to make as he heads towards a confrontation with the Emperor. Inevitably, the fox falls in the final confrontation. At which point he wakes up, back at the beginning, but with the knowledge he gained in his earlier failure. Each failure teaches our hero one of four truths, and once he knows them all, he can navigate towards a successful ending.

The story is told largely through a narrator, who not only tells you what's happening along the way, but also comments on how you go about your business. It reminds me a lot of Bastion. For example, if you're destroying barrels and crates, expect some snarky remarks about how destructive you are. And of course he has something to say when you die.

Which happens a lot, at least if you're as bad at these kind of games as I am. The combat expects you to fight a bunch of enemies at once, reacting quickly to impending attacks with blocking and using special moves against specific enemies. My twitch-reaction is awful, and it doesn't help that attacking with Reynardo's sword locks you into an animation, so you can't move until it's done. Also, you can't do the special moves at all times...I'd hit the dash button to get away from an explosion, for instance, and Reynardo would just stand there and die even if I had the stamina necessary for the skill. I did OK through the early game, but around the time I found the second truth, battles became a real pain.

It doesn't help that it's very difficult to heal Reynardo. There's a health-stealing sword, but you can't use it much before running out of energy. Occasionally you can find health in the environment, but you have to waste time breaking crates and such. That takes forever due to the aforementioned attack animation lock...move to a crate, break it, wait for Reynardo to finish his follow-through, pick up loot, repeat. It's tedious enough that I gave up after the first couple of levels and just waded into battle without full health. Which means that I died even more, of course. Fortunately you revive at the start of the battle and can retry it as many times as needed, but each time you start at half health, not full. During the entire second half of the game, I don't think I ever had more than half health.

The game is also very slow to start up. I've got plenty of computing power that runs most games easily, but this one took several minutes to load and switch between areas. I assume that's a result of the cross-platform nature of the programming, since the game was released for both Windows and PS4. It's a minor thing, but annoying. Add to that the fact that there's no way to skip the narration at the start of each area, even if you've heard it several times before, and the wait time before actually playing gets pretty tedious.

I really liked the concept behind Stories: The Path of Destinies, with the different ways that Reynardo's story could unfold. If it wasn't such a pain to actually play the game, I'd probably have seen more of those different stories. As it is, one time through was enough.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Princess Principal

Cold War-style spy adventures set in a steampunk world is a fine background, if not one that you'd expect from the title of Princess Principal.

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The princess in the title is one of a group of five teenage girls who act as spies in London, which is a divided city much like real-world Cold War-era Berlin. She's fourth in line to the throne of one side, the Kingdom of Albion, but acting in cooperation with intelligence operatives of the other side, the Commonwealth of Albion.

The steampunk part of the setting comes from a substance called Cavorite, used to construct airships and generally used in miraculous machines. Including one that allows one of the girls to fly and do various other amazing feats. The world at large is at early 20th century levels of technology and culture, but those Cavorite-based machines are highly advanced. All of it is beautifully drawn - the artwork is top-notch, whether drawing steampunk tech or the rest of the world.

Once you get past the usual suspension-of-disbelief about very young characters doing all these crazy things (which is necessary to almost all anime series and almost second nature for me by now), the overall story and individual episode plots in Princess Principal hang together pretty well. I like the world design, and I found the world-building history aspects interesting. Each episode generally follows a single spy mission, always going wrong in some way, as one would expect from this type of premise.

Chronology in the series is a bit odd, with the timeline jumping around with each episode. First you see a mission with all five girls, then we jump back and see how four of them first met, then a few more missions, before finally meeting the fifth member. And so on, until the last few episodes finally wrap things up in order.

For such a short series (twelve episodes), the character design is very good. Each of the five girls has some time devoted to their individual stories. Character growth is a bit odd because of the jumps back and forth in time across the episodes, but you can definitely see changes as time progresses. And of course the story of the princess and her closest friends is a big part of the overall storyline.

I greatly enjoyed Princess Principal and wish it had been longer. I see they're planning a film series next year, which I'll definitely be looking for.

Monday, April 30, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War (spoilers)

Been keeping up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)? Hope so, since pretty much all of it shows up in Avengers: Infinity War.

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Whatever themes in the MCU movies you may have liked, you'll probably find bits of it in Infinity War. Star-hopping shenanigans from Guardians of the Galaxy and Thor, time bending from Doctor Strange, alien invasions from the earlier Avengers films, Wakandan technology and home turf defense from Black Panther, and so on. If it feels like a bunch of different pieces stitched together, that's because it basically is.

The general arc of the plot is pretty easy to follow for the theoretical viewer who hadn't seen any other MCU films, as best I can tell. Big bad guy is gathering nasty weapons and killing people, try to stop him. But there's a lot of detail that would be missing. Most of that is in terms of character development - there's very little because all the time is being spent on jumping back and forth between all the different groups of heroes doing their separate things. In that way, Infinity War is more like a television series season finale than it is a stand-alone movie.

And like many good season finales, Infinity War ends on a cliff hanger. The heroes don't win, lots of people die, the bad guy is happily retired. Which is very different from the vast majority of MCU films, at least if you think of Infinity War as a stand-alone movie. But it's really part one, with a second part scheduled to come along in 2019. That will be the first episode of the next season, to continue the television series analogy, resolving that cliffhanger and setting things up for the next big storyline.

Like almost all big-budget films that I've seen in the last decade or so, I thought Infinity War was about 30-40 minutes too long. Plenty of character bits that were clearly there just to call back to the earlier movies could have been skipped. Stuff like Drax's "invisible" scene, or some of the Tony-Peter banter...not enough there to define the character relationships, just reminders of what we already know. And of course just about all the fight scenes are extended to show off more explosions and special effects. A bunch of that stuff could have been cut from the theatrical release and put into a director's cut, in my opinion. And was it really necessary to put the post-credits teaser scene (which sets up the Captain Marvel movie) at the very end of the credits?

Despite those annoyances, Infinity War is a fun ride, particularly if you've kept up with all the other MCU films over the last decade or so. It certainly did the job of setting up for the next Avengers film.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Nightwish Decades Tour at the Kalamazoo State Theatre

Two years ago, I had to travel a couple of hours east to Royal Oak to see Nightwish in concert. This year they made a stop in Kalamazoo, just about an hour south.
The Kalamazoo State Theatre is an interesting venue, but I wasn't terribly impressed with it as a concert hall. It has an old-time theatre feel inside, and it appeared that all the seats have a good view. There's a small open area in front of the stage, but most of the place is filled with standard seating. I was up in the second level, where I could see the stage just fine, but felt very cramped. The acoustics weren't great at all, in my opinion, particularly on the first couple of songs. Perhaps I got used to it as the concert went on, or maybe they made some adjustments, since things sounded much better later on. I think I'd enjoy seeing plays at this theatre, but it's definitely not my top choice for concerts.

Fortunately, the band is great and overcame the drawbacks of the venue. Nightwish has great stage presence and got the crowd into the show quickly, which is especially impressive when there's no opening act to warm things up. The stage backdrop was a screen playing various song-specific images, which I thought really added to the experience. They played for almost exactly two hours and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The set list was pulled from all across the Nightwish catalog, all 20+ years of it (thus the "Decades" tour name). I recognized all but one song pretty much right away, but then I've been listening to the band for more than 10 years myself. (That one was Slaying the Dreamer...looked it up later and found it was on Century Child, the one album I haven't listened to very often.) I particularly enjoyed the tracks from Once, including Ghost Love Score and Wish I Had An Angel.

Everyone who attended got a Decades CD to take home, which feels a bit 1990s. Probably that was the point. I may never open mine, since I do all my listening to music digitally these days. Nice to have a souvenir, though.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Irish Jig 5k 2018

It's time to end the Michigan winter hibernation, and get back to running.
OK, so I haven't exactly been hibernating. Even did a run up at Perrin Brewing back in January. But the Irish Jig 5k around St. Patrick's Day always feels like the turning point from winter to spring. This year the calendar cooperated so that the race fell squarely on the holiday.

Parking is a bit of a challenge any time there's a race in East Grand Rapids. I got there about an hour before race time, and got just about the very last spot in the parking structure that's right across the street from the race start. Any later and I'd have had to roam the side streets looking for a spot. Next year I might just go straight to the side streets, since it seems there's more and more people every year.

Good turnout again this year for the race - just under 4000 participants, according to the results page. It was pretty cold, down around freezing at race time, but that's far from the worst we've seen in West Michigan around this time of year. I remember running through a fairly heavy snowfall one year, and nearly slipping on ice another time. No snow, only minor wind, no icy spots...pretty good for mid-March in these parts.

The course around East Grand Rapids has a lot of up and down, but no really big hills. Still, for someone who has been running almost entirely on a treadmill for the last 4-5 months, it's a bit of a challenge. I purposely lined up quite a ways back from the front, as I figured I might be a little slower than normal, and ended up being near the front of the second wave of runners. That worked out nicely since it meant that I didn't have a whole lot of traffic for most of the way, though I did catch up to the tail end of the first wave on the second half of the course. I was pretty happy with my just-under-26-minute time, right about top third for my age group.

So that's the first race of the Triple Crown series done. Looking forward to the Diemer and Reeds Lake runs later on this year.