★★★★★
Review

Ragtime

Ragtime book cover

Ragtime is my favorite musical. Re-reading the original E.L. Doctorow novel recently, I found it impossible to disentangle it from my feelings about the show.

I first read the novel around the same time as I saw the original production. My grandfather gave it to me and I struggled through it. I found the narrative style jarring and the story disjointed. When I told him this, he laughed and marveled that such a good show could come from such a mess of a book. Apparently he gave me the reading assignment as a form of torture!

Re-reading it now, I love the narrative structure, the simultaneous richness and sparseness of the prose, the seamless blending of real historic figures and imaginary characters. It truly is a rich tapestry of an era. And I still agree with grandpa, it is remarkable that a novel with such construction could be so expertly adapted into a riveting stage musical.

★★☆☆☆
Review

The Clockmaker’s Daughter

I’m not sure the genre of this book, but it is a time-spanning tale centered on a house, a murder, and various people connected by their interest in both. The nexus is a visit to said stately country manor in a summer in the 1860s. A crime takes place, a treasure goes missing. There is a ghost doing some of the narrating; presumably she was involved in said excitement.

There are also various third-person omniscient sections, primarily centered around various occupants of the house over the decades, but not always. I guess the disconnected prose is meant to pull the reader deeper into the mystery that is this Very Interesting House. Unfortunately, the various characters one meets along the way are often mere sketches, or the time spent with them is sufficiently limited that it is not clear a reader should care much about them at all.

As the book drags on, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep the different people straight. The non-linear structure succeeds in adding confusion but not in illuminating any significance new details or perspectives. Some of this is perhaps intentional, giving people slightly odd nicknames or limited backstories so that when their connections to other characters become clear it is an “exciting” surprise.

In the end, the central mysteries, such as they are, are “solved,” to the extent that a relatively banal and heavily foreshadowed conclusion is finally stated plainly to the reader. And then it is over, and the dozen different characters poof into dust with no discernible reason for existing. A disappointing journey that meandered without direction or destination.

★★★☆☆
Review

A Gentleman In Moscow

An aristocrat of Tsarist Russia finds a place for himself within the confines of house arrest under Bolshevik rule as Moscow changes outside his window. This novel is a charming bit of storytelling, a nice palette cleanser after my recent diet of distressing news and heavier fiction. It discusses atrocities and suffering only glancingly. Count Rostoff is preternaturally upbeat, charming, and resourceful. The antics are delightful, the friendships and interactions uplifting. But it is hard to shake the feeling that the American author is appropriating a foreign culture’s pain and suffering for our amusement, and in the end the novel does not sit well with me.

★★★★★
Review

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

I have heard nothing but good things about this movie and couldn’t wait to finally see it. It lived up to all expectations. The animation, the story telling, the humor, the emotions — brilliantly constructed. This is the first superhero movie I’ve seen in ages that felt fresh and new. Even in places where it was formulaic there were new twists and interpretations. As soon as it was over I wanted to go back and see it again.

★★★★★
Review

To the Moon

This review contains spoilers for the first half-hour or so of gameplay but nothing you wouldn’t easily derive from reading the description of the game. It also covers some of the major thematic elements.

What if technology existed that allowed memories to be rewritten? If you could have a “do-over” on your life, would you take it? And if so, how would you change your path? To the Moon begins at a sickbed. Two technicians hook a frail, dying man to a machine that allows them to map and catalog his memories, and then to change them. Before his life ends, the man is given one brief chance to “relive” things as he wanted them to be. In doing so, he must forfeit his old, real memories. But, with only days to live, does it matter? Will the technicians make the right choices, and will the man die content?

His dying wish is to go to the moon. But he can’t articulate why: he doesn’t know! And before the wish can be granted, the man’s memories, a whole lifetime of memories — trivial and deep, happy and sad, readily apparent and deeply hidden — must be mapped, linked, and interpreted. And then changed. Deeply, profoundly changed.

This interactive story takes the form of a pixel art game with written dialog. The old-style gameplay belies the depth of the storytelling. The music is integral and captivating. The plot twists and turns, and then all the pieces lock together to reveal something beautiful and sad. I was guessing to the very end. The game is short enough you can complete it in one long evening. As soon as it ends, it starts over, and I won’t dwell on what that cyclicality means. It is worth playing through a second time to pick up on all the clues and connections. Plus, the little twist after the credits role is delicious.

Lovers of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind will be well-served by this lovely, captivating game. And afterwards, you will surely want the soundtrack.

Review

Pirate Cinema

Note: I wrote this entry in late 2012 after finishing the young adult novel Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow, a book that explores, among other things, the consequences of criminal penalties for civil acts like copyright infringement. I was thinking about civil liberties and internet freedoms and what I’ve chosen to do with my life. I wasn’t quite sure what to do with the entry after writing it, so it sat for three years. Re-reading it now, the feelings and conflict I expressed still resonate.


I can get to feeling about Cory Doctorow the same way I often feel about Richard Stallman, the famous advocate for free and open-source computer software. Zealots. Troublemakers. Not everything is about The Man out to squash the little guy. Geez, I’m not evil just because I use Apple products! I respect your opinions on copyright and software, on free expression and privacy — but do you have to be so darn annoying about it?!

I suppose it is the same with anyone with a Cause. It makes the rest of us nervous, because we aren’t True Believers like they are. The long and short of it is that I have gotten older and supposedly wiser, and at some point I decided that the world is really complicated. Seeing lots of shades of gray makes it hard to get worked up about causes, which I suppose is why most people don’t.

I do care about this stuff. I care about it a great deal. I care about internet freedom, about privacy, about civil liberties, about remixing and free expression, about individual rights and blanket licenses, internet radio and everything else. I cared about it all through high school — I even took a summer course at UC Irvine in “Internet Law”, back when the whole field could be surveyed in 5 weeks! I followed mailing lists and message boards about the Napster and Kazaa court fights and the DMCA and the Communications Decency Act legislative battles.

When I had the opportunity in college to get an internship for my legal studies minor, I wrangled a placement at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School, the original epicenter for scholarship in the field of internet law. And when I got my first job out of college, it was at Berkman as well, working alongside some of my heroes.

I thought I would be a public interest lawyer. I thought I would live and breathe this stuff. And I met a lot of very smart people in this field, and I respect them a great deal. But the pace of it didn’t work for me, someone built for high pressure and quick wins. The law is slow and plodding, a years- and decades-long synthesis of law review articles, amicus briefs, books, conferences, and winding cases. It works for many people, and its very good work indeed, but it was not going to work for me.

Now I’m in the fast-paced world of technology, wrapped up in fancy new trends like “DevOps” and “continuous integration” and “infrastructure as code”. There is lots of energy and lots to do. I feel busy and driven, but not the way I felt about internet law. I don’t have the same purpose — I never feel like the work I am doing has the last possibility of fundamentally affecting our culture or reshaping our society. No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server. The stakes just aren’t very high.

No one is going to jail for abusing deployment frameworks, and no one is passing legislation telling me how I can or cannot administer a web server.

cory-doctorow-pirate-cinema-cover

I just finished Cory Doctorow’s latest novel for young adults, Pirate Cinema. The main character is a teenager in a near-future Britain whose (illegal?) video downloading and remixing gets his family “banned” from the internet. This leads to all sorts of serious consequences — his father loses his (online) job, his mother can’t apply (online) for her disability benefits, and his sister fails out of school due to being unable to research and do (online) homework. Embarrassed and ashamed, our young cyber-criminal runs away from home and ends up in London. There he builds a new life after taking up with a loose collection of anarchists, activists, and other down-on-their-luck free-thinkers. Eventually he spearheads a a campaign to overturn the draconian laws that got him in so much trouble in the first place.

It’s all a bit contrived, and some things fall in to place much too easily. Certainly the homeless life is glamorized to a degree I find unsettling. But the fundamental fear expressed in this pointed critique is sound. Yes, Big Content (also known as the entertainment industry) pushes for laws that protect their commercial interests at the expense of our culture. Yes, the penalties for victimless crimes of copyright infringement continue to become more and more harsh. And yes, this leads us down some pretty slippery slopes.

And frankly, it is a whole framework of thought that I have managed to relegate to the dustbin at the back of my brain, a big ball of stuff I believe deeply in but have carelessly shoved aside.

Cory Doctorow’s novel has given me a bit of fire back, and for that I thank him. It also gives me hope. Doctorow postulates a future in which the internet becomes so central to everything we do that the general public has no choice but to stand up and take a stand against the government and corporate control that is clamping down on us from all sides. Doctorow makes a persuasive argument as to why this sort of control is not only wrong, it is destructive to a free society. And he aims to persuade young people who are the most affected by these changes but not always cognizant of them. He is telling them they should care, and I hope his message takes root.

As a young kid I taught myself how to edit videos long before I taught myself how to program. I can only imagine that if I was born ten years later, in the age of high speed internet and much more powerful computers, I would have been a “remixer” myself. Heck, when I was young I saw the world as amazing and wonderful, the future as bright and thrilling and open for the taking. In short, I was just the sort of person liable to get caught in one of these copyright webs and have my life completely ruined.

I can blame my current cynicism on all sorts of things — endless war, recession, the general ennui that comes with growing older. I wish I could recapture some of that excitement, some of that optimism I had as a kid. What gets to me about Pirate Cinema is that by the end I was rooting for our young heroes to succeed, yet all the while convinced that he was writing to us from his eventual jail cell. I’m only slightly ashamed to admit that as I read the final pages tears welled up in my eyes. Not because its the best book or the best story in the world, but because it reminded me about what I care about, and that things are worth fighting for, and that the bad guys don’t always win in the end.

For all that, it is not at all clear that our “hero” lives happily ever after. Doctorow acknowledges that youth can’t last forever, and even the most idealistic of us do have to grow up and face, dare I say it, a more complex, more nuanced world. It is up to each of us, then, to temper our wisdom with a streak of idealism, and to not forget about the causes and morals we hold dear.

★★★★★
Review

Book of Mormon

I’m in San Francisco for a work conference and was able to snag a last-minute ticket to see the touring production of Book of Mormon at the beautiful Orpheum Theatre. I was sandwiched between a group of 47 lovely residents of an Oakland retirement community. The abundant crude humor in the show made this seating arrangement only slightly awkward.

The show was uproariously funny throughout, but was also laced with sad and even tragic stories. South Park veterans Matt Stone and Trey Parker did an amazing job of using humor to present a thorough and multi-layered social commentary. As I watched the show I kept wondering how much of the audience was grasping the deeply cynical and biting undercurrent of this show. I expect that many were not — and perhaps that in itself is just another joke, this time at the audience’s expense.

Early (and ongoing) humor plays off of Mormon beliefs and practices that are surprising or seem silly to non-Mormon audiences. But time and again the humor is predicated on absurd comparisons to more “mainstream” beliefs. For example, one song by a main character proclaims that “I believe that the Lord God created the universe.” The audience remains silent. He continues, “I believe that He sent His only Son to die for my sins.” No reaction. Then, “and I believe that ancient Jews built boats and sailed to America!” Uproarious laughter.

It makes no sense. It’s absurd. Who would believe that? Never stopping to think that the two preceding lines, from a non-Christian, would sound just as absurd. The verse ends with, “a Mormon just believes,” but isn’t that also mocking all others who “just believe” their own deeply held but never critically analyzed religious convictions?

A whole other class of criticism takes the form of upbeat and absurd songs that portray the suffering of the native Ugandans. In chipper tones and catchy music they tell of their children raped by warlords, family members dying of AIDS, and friends felled by preventable diseases like dysentery. The audience laughs along, but at times it becomes sporadic as particular lyrics hit a little close to home.

A memorable song dreams of the magical land of “Salt Lake City” as a place where the “goat meat is plentiful,” the “warlords are friendly,” there is a “Red Cross on every corner,” and “the people are open-minded.” We laugh, then we realize what we are laughing at — the longings of a poor child who can dream of nothing more than a slightly nicer version of the desolate village that is the only life she has ever known.

Interwoven with the stories of the “Africans” are a number of pokes at white Westerners — missionaries and others — who feel entitled to lecture native peoples on how they should be living, push them to change their lives in highly disruptive ways, and then abandon them to deal with the unexpected long-term consequences of the half-baked “improvements” on their own.

The overall theme of the Book of Mormon seems to me to be that well-intentioned, dedicated, and focused individuals can make a positive impact on the world around them, but that the strictures of organized religion often serve to get in the way of or actively subvert that impact. In that way I see it as a message of hope — our society’s accelerating move away from organized religious institutions need not imply that we will become less dedicated to improving the lives of our fellow man. Far from it. Without outdated doctrine and absurd rules getting in the way, real and lasting impacts may finally be achievable.

Many will no doubt disagree with this interpretation. People often tell me that my relentless positivity about our ability to make the world a better place is absurd. But I continue to take to heart John Perry Barlow’s words that groundless hope is the only kind worth having.

★★★★★
Review

The Fault In Our Stars

This review does not contain any spoilers.

The Fault In Our Stars Book CoverI found this novel deeply affecting. I hear from time to time, as everyone does, about various loose relations who have cancer, or are in remission, or have succumb to the disease. I see the cancer stories that describe tragic but stalwart children, their caring and committed parents, the charities they found and causes they champion, the valiant way in which they battle with dignity, their indefatigable courage.

And it all feels like bullshit to me. I don’t have the experience or the pain to justify this feeling, but I feel it all the same. Cancer patients and their families and support networks are not magically heroes. Evolution run amok does not make one noble or immune from normal-person feelings.

I hate the language we use to describe illness. I hate how we so often glorify people suffering from cancer while simultaneously pitying them. I don’t know how to interact with or relate to people who are suffering from disease, and I think the structures we as a society have created make that interaction harder than it should be. When we hold people up on a pedestal due to circumstances outside of their control, we don’t allow them to be normal people with normal-people feelings and concerns and fears and needs.

Anyway.

The Fault In Our Stars is a book about kids with cancer, but it is quick to point out that it is not a “cancer book” full of the standard tropes and plot progressions. The narrator is a teenage girl stricken with a form of the disease that affects her lungs, kept in check via experimental medicines and various machines to assist her breathing. Hazel is weak and frail and still alive long beyond her predicted expiration date. Her Sword of Damocles hangs ever-present as Hazel goes about her daily life, which is entirely normal in as much as she watches trashy TV and goes to the mall, and entirely abnormal in that she has nothing to strive for, few friends, little direction and plenty of pain.

Hazel joins a cancer support group suffused with a macabre sense of competition to outlive and outlast. The reader quickly gets the sense that most of her life post-diagnosis has been like this. There she meets a fellow sufferer, a high school boy with a prosthetic leg and a fear of oblivion.

They form a bond, they share Experiences (capital-E) and pain and fear and philosophy and random poetry and video games. They are overly wordy and prone to soliloquy and sort of strange, but in other ways quite real. They have ways of dealing with cancer and life and parents that feel very authentic to me. Things take dark turns, then people get better, then they get worse again. The future is uncertain, except that it is completely certain — dying is the endgame, and sooner rather than later.

How do you live when so much of your waking time is spent worrying about and wondering about and trying to fend off death? It is horrible and tragic but sometimes brilliant and funny and often just numbingly depressing. It is living, it is not living, it is a disease that doesn’t make sense and isn’t supposed to and doesn’t magically make people heroic or different, a disease that doesn’t care in a world that doesn’t care in a universe full of lives and people that may not have any meaning at all.

Oblivion. How do you face it? What choices do you make, when you aren’t given a chance to go out in a blaze of glory or on your own terms, but instead only slowly, by inches, in pain and agony and sadness? What does it all mean? Why should it mean anything? And how do you deal with that, each and every day?

Deep questions. Dark questions. Real questions.

Thank goodness there is a happy ending. Hazel and her friends figure everything out and feel better and know that they have accomplished something real and lasting and memorable.

No, I made that up. Of course it doesn’t end that way. It can’t. It just ends when it ends, as we all do. A surprising ending, but not surprising at all.  Because that’s how endings are.  They come along when you least and most expect them.  Sometimes, right in the middle of a

★★★☆☆
Review

Water for Elephants

This review contains minor thematic spoilers but reveals no major plot details.

 
water-for-elephantsSara Gruen drew me in to her story of Great Depression-era circus life.  Meticulously researched and augmented with real photographs, this historical fiction novel is captivating and engrossing.

The framing of the story through the eyes of a reminiscing geriatric provides lots of opportunities for additional reflection and contemplation on changes in our world, although few are seized. His interactions with other patients and nurses are an interesting addition but offer little payoff.

Early on we meet roustabouts, carnival barkers, sideshow freaks, dwarves, and animals, and we learn about the pace of life on a traveling circus with clear class divides.  The “backstage” reality is gritty and tiring and hard-charging, and fascinating to behold. In the back third the pace of the story greatly accelerates and the romantic angle takes center stage, leading to a too-neat conclusion with little time to reflect on the human cost.

I can forgive the frequent telling-not-showing (with the requisite dumb as a brick narrator needed everything to be explained), I can overlook the romantic obsession, and I can accept the very limited development of secondary characters, but the present-day ride into the sunset ending is too ridiculous to bear.  I choose to believe that the modern-day denouement is just a crazed vision in old Jacob’s head, and somehow that makes this book work better for me.

★★★★★
Review

Magic for Beginners

Screen Shot 2014-07-11 at 9.15.17 AMKelly Link’s Magic for Beginners short story collection is one of the most difficult books I have ever read. I loved every story with one exception, one that I just couldn’t get through because I was so uncomfortable with the cats and witches and death, but every other story was captivating and enthralling. Maybe I’ll go back and try that Catskin story again.

She does funny things with time, this writer. It goes forwards and backwards and sideways and spins around and comes back again. She has a strange way with literary structure — stories loop in on themselves and make my head spin. Each story is a little universe, each one pulls me in, and then ends mysteriously and evaporates into the mist. Each story is a dream, a long dream, a dream that ends when you wake up with the sun beating down and you wonder if you could have just slept a little longer how it might have all worked itself out but you will never know because that is how dreams are.

There is some strange twisted logic in these stories, like they are all in a weird magical alternate universe very close to but yet very different from our own. It is all so very frustrating. But so very worth it.

★★★★☆
Review

The Internet’s Own Boy

Aaron Swartz

I’ve written before (and on several more occasions) about Aaron Swartz, a complicated and amazing person and digital activist who I followed and loosely orbited for many years.  Aaron did incredible work for and on behalf of the Internet as a democratizing medium, and he caused me to frequently question my own life and career choices.  He was targeted by an overreaching federal prosecution due to some of his activism work on the edges of the law, and after two years of pressure and abuse at the hands of the federal government, he tragically took his life in January 2013.

The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz is a documentary film by Brian Knappenberger that traces Aaron’s life, his successes and failures, his political action and digital activism, his run-ins with the law, and his too-soon death.  Along the way several internet luminaries, journalists, activists, congresspeople, and other smart individuals weigh in and provide context.  I knew much of what the film presented but I still found it compelling.  While clearly opinionated, this film does a good job of portraying who Aaron was, what he believed in, and where things went so very wrong.

Many people feel that technology and politics together are too complicated, too confusing, and too inscrutable.  Many in government dismiss technology experts and inventors of things that have fundamentally changed our lives as mere “nerds”.  Aaron lived his whole life thoughtfully and fully, and his story is one that is approachable to anyone, technological or not.  The things he fought for are important, and they are comprehensible, and they should not be dismissed.  He showed how we can use technology and the internet to make this world a better one, and what we should do to stop others from using it to make the world worse.

The movie is imperfect, as was Aaron.  And it does a few funny things with time and ordering that slightly distort some of the major events in Aaron’s saga.  But on the whole it is thoughtful, and it is powerful, and it is worth watching.

You can view The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz in its entirety for free on the Internet Archive.

★★★★★
Review

Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

This movie is absolutely wonderful. A boy and girl who are outsiders and without friends find solace in one another and run away together on an island in New England. All the typical Wes Anderson charm and whimsy is on display, and the plot takes an unexpected turn half-way through. Excellent performances by all involved, and some amazing faux-1960s kitsch.

Some people love Wes Anderson, some hate him, for me it really varies by movie — I couldn’t stand Royal Tenenbaums, but I couldn’t get enough of this. Just perfect.

★★☆☆☆
Review

The Hunger Games Trilogy

This review contains general background details and one important but non-specific plot point for the books Catching Fire and Mockingjay, but no direct spoilers.

 

Hungry_Hungry_Games6z0Detail
Hungry Hungry Katniss

You know the story, right? Post-some-undefined-apocalypse, the survivors formed a new society, and they called it Panem. Rule is from a capitol, called the Capitol, and the work happens in twelve districts, called the Districts. The Capitol has it easy, the Districts are subjugated by Peacekeepers and forced to work in such occupations as subsistence coal mining. Following me so far? Because this is sort of how the exposition goes in this trilogy. Telling, not showing.

Welcome to My First Sci-Fi Novel, with Extra Girl Appeal.

Continue reading “The Hunger Games Trilogy”

★★★★☆
Review

Allen + Roth Closet Kit

During recent remodeling I came upon the idea of having the contractor fit a relatively small walk-in closet into an existing space. With most of the construction finished, I painted the walls and went out to find a closet system to install. I expected to end up with one of the utilitarian wire assemblies offered by Rubbermaid, Closetmaid, and others. I was pleasantly surprised instead to find the new Allen + Roth offering at Lowes, which offers good-looking hardwood closet systems for the do-it-yourselfer at reasonable prices.

The woods and finishes are higher quality than is typical at this price point

There are two options, a “solid” kit package that offers a center unit, drawers, hanging rods, and shelves, or a “ventilated” (i.e. slatted) center unit without all the accessories. From there, various additional items — principally drawers and shelves — can be added to complete the project. Liking the ventilated look, and not wanting a few of the items included in the kit, I assembled my own collection of items and ended up saving slightly in price.

Continue reading “Allen + Roth Closet Kit”
★☆☆☆☆
Review

Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

This post contains spoilers for the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 campaign.

Modern Warfare 2My gaming has mostly been limited to Starcraft and Halo, and wishing to expand my horizons a bit, I embarked upon the single player campaign for Modern Warfare 2, a game recommended by friends and critics alike. My thoughts on it are decidedly mixed, with a general feeling of ambivalence and discomfort towards the game as a whole.

First off, I found the game’s setup confusing: the player starts out as one character, then after that character dies jumps to another character, then a third, then back to the second, etc. In different “missions,” characters that you were previously playing as show up as your non-controllable companions, with dialogue and everything. It took me a while to understand this and get used to it, it feels very strange, but apparently it is common to the previous Call of Duty games.

Continue reading “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2”

★★☆☆☆
Review

Twilight

I was lacking for reading materials in Italy, and Shaina was kind enough to lend me Twilight, the first book in a young adult fantasy series about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. The series is very popular right now in the US, especially among teenaged girls, and I read the book on a long train ride from Cinque Terre to Lake Como.

I disliked Twilight for a variety of reasons, including bad plot, bad dialogue, bad pacing, and bad character development. I was additionally concerned about what I felt was a borderline abusive relationship between the female protagonist and her vampire boyfriend. According to a post on Yahoo! Answers (contains spoilers), the theme of emotional abuse only intensifies in the later books.

As if I needed another reason to avoid reading them.

★★★★☆
Review

Coraline

I don’t feel the need to write much, as I find myself agreeing completely with David Edelstein’s review for Fresh Air. Coraline is a brilliant piece of animation, beautifully presented, but I wish it could have maintained more aspects of the original story and had fewer additions. Some of them work quite well, especially the stunning new garden and theater visuals and the musical interlude, but others are unnecessary and distracting. My companions to the film, who have not read the book, found the convoluted search for ghost eyes distracting and formulaic, and I agree. These and other additions that detract from the story are regrettable, but the film is still both a visual treat and a great bit of storytelling.

Coraline is one of a rash of films that are beginning to come out in the modern “Real-D” digital circular-polarized 3D format, which is much more advanced than earlier techniques. The 3D here was subtle and well executed, but still bothered me. If 3D doesn’t give you headaches, see the film that way for an extra layer of fun. But if you think it’s going to lessen your enjoyment, best to just skip it.

★★★★☆
Review

Spring Awakening

I went in purposely knowing nothing about this show, but it helps a lot to have a little bit of context. A retelling of a play written and set in 1890s Germany, Spring Awakening recounts the experiences of a group of young teenagers coming to grips with their sexuality in a highly repressive society. They swoon, they dream, they giggle, they lust, and they explore their own physicality, all with minimal understanding of the meanings and potential consequences of their actions.

And also, they pull out microphones from their 19th century costumes and burst into rock ballads whenever they have cause to tell the audience what they’re feeling.

The goal, apparently, was to retell an old story as it might be told today, and, perhaps, to be the next Rent. They did win the Best Musical Tony, which isn’t nothing…

There is a lot I could say about the show. I could go into great depth about the ups and downs of the book, the changes made compared to the original (which was banned in Germany). I could comment on the energy and spark and talent of many of the actors involved. I could mention the cool set and inspired lighting choices. I could wonder at the point of the gimmicky audience seating on the stage, and of the chorus members who sat with them but never did more than provide background vocals. I could talk about how the rock songs are catchy but jarring, and how easy it is to get through one and realize you have no idea what was said and, frankly, can’t tell if it was really useful in moving the plot forward.

But what it comes down to is the story. Highly controversial and incredibly socially relevant in 1891, Spring Awakening has little resonance today. And where one might have expected some sort of attempt to connect the struggle of the teens in the show to our modern times, not a shred of social commentary is forthcoming. This is a musical that was revised and rewritten and extensively workshopped for seven years, and yet what appeared on the Broadway stage is a show where nearly half the songs seem superfluous (and sometimes, downright irrelevant), the story is utterly predictable, most of the characters are two-dimensional, and, in the end, the themes are simple and banal. Sure, it sucked back then, for a variety of reasons, and adults often treated children very badly, and lives were ruined due to, oh, the lack of widely available and effective birth control. So? The year is 2008, the place is New York, and the audience is us — what are you trying to teach us? What are you trying to say?

Nothing, it seems. A powerful and moving story with nothing to say. And that is a darn shame.

Update: See also this review from KCRW’s Theater Talk, which offers similar sentiments. As well as a (spoiler-filled!) NY Times review which is more charitable.

★★★★★
Review

Dr. Horrible

Back in March on the heels of the Hollywood writer’s strike, I suggested that the time was ripe for a major player like Joss Whedon to make a push into the realm of internet-distributed television. Whedon would be a good experiment because he already understands the idea of cult appeal, and because he knows how to be massively creative on a budget. Well, last week while I was off traveling, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was released, a Whedon production starring Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion, and Felicia Day.

Verdict? Perfect. The series was made on the cheap, but with high production values. The story was meaningful and poignant. The songs were awesome. And the show, which was available for free for a week on Hulu before switching to iTunes, is tearing up the online charts. Now there are plans for a DVD, a comic book, maybe a soundtrack, and bigger players have started calling to talk about other projects and adaptations.

Long by internet standards (at 12-15 minutes an episode), the three episodes received a combined 2.2 million views during the time they were available for free. The story is of the intrepid Dr. Horrible (Harris), who is attempting to join the “Evil League of Evil” by proving his super-villain mettle. His arch-nemesis, Captain Hammer (Fillion) manages to both hinder Horrible’s progress and steal his girl, do-gooder Penny (Day). All of the characters frequently break into song (and occasional dance) along the way.

In 2003 I wrote a paper looking at how digital production and international cost-sharing were contributing to the creation of truly multi-national programming with fewer home-country content constraints (i.e. being forced to “dumb down” programs to fit an audience). My paper was focused on Farscape, and the idea that cost-sharing arrangements and wider audience reach would allow smaller production houses more opportunities to reach new markets. Since that time, rather than seeing many international shows, we’ve seen instead shows in one country being re-imagined and re-created in another. The independents never got a foot hold.

Yet, at the same time, online distribution has become more feasible, and YouTube and myriad video blogs have shows that good programming without major studio backing can succeed. The question is, can these things become more than cheap labors of love? Can professional actors, writers, producers, directors, and crew make a living doing an online-only show? If anyone could embark on that sort of grand experiment, it would be Joss Whedon. And he did, and every indication is that he will make back his “low six-figures” investment and be able to pay his cast and crew. And that is a very, very good sign for the future.

You can watch the trailer and purchase Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog on iTunes for the low price of $3.99.