I Finally Saw Hamilton

On Tuesday of last week, the twenty-eight of August, I got a notification on my phone I had always dreamed of getting but never expected to actually get. I had won the Hamilton lottery and could purchase one or two tickets to see the show in Chicago on the following day. Needless to say, after spending two minutes freaking out, I bought two tickets and then started going down my list of people to invite. Unfortunately, my first pick was busy since it was his first day back at work (as opposed to cleaning up while on the clock) following the flooding and he couldn’t get the day off to drive to Chicago for a matinée showing. Thankfully, one of my roommates was my second choice and he was able to get the day off. So I went. Even with eight hours of driving due to traffic and construction, it was worth it.

Hamilton, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s big-hit musical, was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I cried throughout it, not just at the emotional moments, of which there were many, but whenever the writing, acting, vocal work, staging, and lighting came together to create these wonderful little moments of perfection. As a whole, the musical showcases some of the most clever writing I’ve ever seen and sets aside the tried-and-true method of weaving songs together for one that relies more heavily on certain phrases that are the best foreshadowing I’ve ever witnessed. Between the moments where the songs themselves pull you out of the show, to impart some useful historical information or to help move things along, I was caught up in a world of song and voice. I can’t remember what the people who sat in front of me looked like, despite the fact that I spent three hours staring over their shoulders. I lost sight of everything while the show was in full swing. I was more caught up in this show than in anything else I’ve ever seen, read, or done. The full three hours of the show passed in a blink, interrupted only by an intermission that felt longer than either half of the musical.

While I can’t speak about the show in a general sense, since my only experience with it was the specific show being performed in Chicago, I honestly can’t imagine how it could ever be done poorly. The set was fairly standard, a level stage with an upper deck the actors could reach using a couple of on-stage staircases or some off-stage ones, and mostly functioned as a place for more of the chorus to dance and sing from, though it was used to add emphasis for some characters during important moments. The set was used entirely for staging, for dictating where people moved and how actors showed up on stage. All of the scene-setting, all of the environmental stuff that told you where the bit the actor were currently performing, was done entirely through lighting and the clever use of props. Using stuff like tables, desks, stools, and various similar things, they were able to create everything from a tent in the Revolutionary War to bedrooms or open fields. The best part of the staging was their use of a two-part turntable so one group of actors or props would spin one way and another group would spin the other way. They used this to amazing effect in one of the songs during the second half of the show, “Hurricane.” It blew me away and created the images that have stuck with me the most.

Honestly, the entire show was memorable. Each moment felt perfect, each little bit of acting and each scene being set felt like it was perfectly natural and complete, like it was unfolding on stage the way it certainly must have unfolded in the eighteenth century (with perhaps some liberty taken for language). I’ve been listening to the soundtrack since I got back into my car after the show and I feel like I can sit back, listen to the amazing music, and rewatch the entire show in my head. Each of the actors stood out from the crowd in their own ways and there was no wasted movement as they made their way around the stage. It was super clear they had the practiced precision that comes with repeating something dozens of times, but the emotion and energy they put into the show felt like this was their first night in front of an audience.

I don’t want to go too deeply into the content of the show because I avoided everything from the music to plot summaries for almost three years before I finally got to see Hamilton and I’m so glad I did. The sheer wonder and powerful emotion in some of the songs would have created scenes in my head and I would never have gotten the chance to see the show for the first time without any expectations or preconceptions. It was worth the years of denial for that moment when the lights dimmed and the first actor walked out on stage. I know it’s probably too late to recommend that you do the same thing, but hold on to that abstinence if you’ve managed to stay away so far. The music is magical and there are scripts out there you can read, but the show itself is better by far and worth waiting for.

What I will say is that it’s a relatively modern take on Hamilton, specifically it reflects modern scholarly opinions of Alexander Hamilton and some of the other Founding Fathers. The music is pretty Hip-Hop centric, which is another way it’s modern, but it seems like a pretty accurate portrayal of history, with the only liberties taken being in the way the characters spoke to each other rather than how situations resolved. I did some research to confirm this and it’s as accurate as a couple hours of reading can show. I’m sure a dedicated historian could shed more light on the subject, but I don’t have the time for getting another bachelor’s degree before writing this review.

I suggest downloading the Hamilton app so you can participate in the lottery or, if you’ve got a bit more money to spend, buying tickets the normal way. No matter where you see it, no matter who you see it with, it’ll be one of the most memorable days of your life. I suggest you go invest in enriching your soul.

Ready Player One: The Book

After writing the review for last week, I sat down and powered through the rest of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One. I liked it a bit more than the movie in some aspects and a bit less in others. The plots are essentially the same: the game world’s creator passed away and left his vast fortune to whoever completed his puzzle first. There are a series of challenges and puzzles, each set awarding a key and then a gate, at the end of which is the prize: Halliday’s Easter Egg (in this case, an easter egg is something hidden by the developer of a game, usually as a way of leaving their mark on the game they created). The exact challenges are all different, though some are more similar than others, but the basic ideas of the competition are the same.

Overall, I probably liked the movie more, but I think that is a result of the different reference period. In the movie, the cultural references have been expanded to include more modern references in addition to the 80s references. While the movie was super fun to watch because I could look for things I knew, the book felt like it was touting the superiority of 80s culture and implying that there hasn’t really been anything worthwhile since. It wasn’t a huge deal because either I knew enough to understand the references or they were explained well enough by the narrator, but it felt a lot like I was talking to someone who is so convinced that they are correct in their opinions that they refuse to even listen to what you’re saying.

Despite this feeling, I actually liked the characters from the book more. They felt a lot more human and behaved a lot more like every gamer I’ve ever met. They get things wrong, they make mistakes, they’re all hyper-paranoid, success-obsessed dorks who are so focused on their current goal that pretty much everything else fades from view. The protagonist abandons his friend and, to a lesser degree, his quest for the prize, in order to spend time with his romantic interested. As soon as he’s back on the quest, after being rejected by his romantic interest, everything else fades away as he tries to make progress on the next puzzle between him and the next key. At the same time, some of their interactions felt a little off as well.  The eventual relationship between the protagonist and his romantic interest feels even weirder than it did in the movie, when she suddenly just gives the lead to him as soon as they meet. The relationships between the other characters who aren’t potentially romantic partners feels a lot more natural, so the contrast makes the fledgling romance stand out even more. There’s also a deus ex machina moment from Ogden Morrow, where he just shows up and fixes something.

That part was probably the most frustrating part of the novel that they thankfully changed for the movie. The protagonist comes up with this ridiculously complicated plan that relies on getting extremely lucky and not only does everything work out as he hoped it would, it all turns out even better than that. Everything just falls into place for him at the end. As soon as crunch time starts, gone is the fallible human character who made mistakes. He gets replaced by a god who is nervous about whether or not his plan will succeed, but who ultimately manages to pull it all off without any major stumbles, thanks to several other lucky occurrences from the past. There was no tension at the end of the book because it was so obvious he would succeed, and not just because I saw the movie. Plans that shouldn’t have worked, work. No one recognizes him or sees through a rather desperate plan. He manages to just have everything he needs to make it work, because he’s a little magpie who collects shiny things that just so happen to always be exactly what he needed later on.

 

That frustration aside, I think I appreciated the way they overcame the antagonist in the novel a bit more in the movie. It made for a much less tense and showy moment, but I like the critique a little better. The movie says it is easy to hide in a faceless crowd if you are faceless as well, but the book says that relying too much on technology to work for you without having a proper understanding of it allows other people to use it against you.

They also changed some of the points that the game world’s creator makes at the end, but I feel like the movie’s point made a bit better than the books. Even though I enjoyed the book, I felt like it was trying to say a few important things about the world but sort of stopped a few steps short of actually saying them because it just assumes you’ll understand. If you enjoy video games and want a cool book about a virtual reality world that doesn’t wind up asking questions about what is real and does the “real” world matter if we live our lives in the virtual one, you’ll enjoy this book. If you dislike pandering or feeling like someone is saying that nothing cool or worthy was created since the 80s, then you probably won’t like this book.

Ready Player One: The Movie

I have a lot of mixed feelings about this movie. I enjoyed watching it, for sure, but I feel like I’ve got a few too many problems with it to really come up with a positive review as I look back on it. The effects were great, the movie did a great job of pulling me in, and the characters were a lot of fun to watch. At the same time, the plot felt very rushed and kind of oddly-paced, the main character basically Mary Sue’d his way through everything, and all the other characters pretty much just fell by the wayside in order to let the main character stand out when he really shouldn’t have.

To be clear, I had only read half the book before seeing this movie so I’m going to completely discard my feelings about the movie as they relate to the book. I’m going to focus on the movie as a movie and then, once I’ve finished the book, review the book in a separate post.

I really enjoyed the visuals of the movie. It looks like mostly CGI, which made a lot of sense given that most of the movie happens in a virtual environment. The effects team did a great job of mixing wondrous and mundane so that everything felt familiar and understandable while still feeling different and interesting. Subtle shifts in the environment, the variety of the characters depicted who WEREN’T just copy and pasted from some game, the movements and body language of the characters was superb, and the few mixed live-action/CGI shots were sewn together wonderfully. There were almost no awkward angles, the battles flowed like a mighty river, and the few scenes we got off the character’s while they were logged into the virtual world were hilarious depictions of the sort of odd way the virtual world translated to the real one. all together, it did an excellent job of keeping me invested in the movie aside from a few points when the plot or writing threw me off.

Despite those moments, I have to give the writers credit for taking a story that is difficult to tell without the slower pacing of a novel and turning it into something a coherent movie plot. The world takes a whole lot of introduction to make sense in the book and the movie manages to not only skip most of that, but make the world feel more real in one fell narratorial swoop. That being said, it feels like an incredible stretch that no one figured out the secret of the first challenge until our main character just got lucky and stumbled onto the answer. Because that’s what he did. He got stupidly lucky and just stumbled his way into the correct solution. He didn’t have a flash of insight, he got spoon-fed the answer by a robot. Being an avid gamer myself and knowing people who take gaming to the point of an unhealthy obsession, I can say that someone would have figured out the secret of the race in the first month.

In a similar vein, it was incredibly frustrating to watch a bunch of uber-gamers work together without so much as an argument or attempt to get one over each other. I can’t even get that level of cooperation out of my friends when I play Overwatch and that is a game literally designed to promote teamwork. Most of us gamers have a massive competitive streak and I have a hard time believing that not a single one of these top five gamers thought about going for the prize themselves. They eagerly stand aside for the main character and one of them, the main character’s romantic interest and the player who seemed to be his main competition, literally declares that the main character has to be the one to take their one shot at the prize. That’s seriously a (paraphrased) line from the movie. Its even repeated a few times and absolutely no one says anything against it. Every other player competing for the prize is some amazingly skilled and wealthy character who has spent a huge amount of time accruing items, weapons, armor, and skill, but they all stand aside for the leather-clad, pistol-toting main character who was so broke at the start of the movie that he had to slow down during races to collect the coins from dead characters in order to get enough fuel for his car to finish the race. Seriously. One of the characters turns out to be the leader of some kind of rebellion and they immediately stand aside to let the main character take the lead as soon as he shows up (which only happened because they rescued him). It was so grating to see a powerful, strong character immediately defer to this wimpy, useless main character.

Seriously, aside from knowledge of the subject matter relevant to their search, the main character had nothing going for him. He should have been outclassed at all turns and only isn’t because everyone around him does everything for him or he just gets lucky. He shouldn’t have won. Anyone who was obsessed with this competition as the movie said all the other characters were, should have been able to figure out what the main character did. That’s the trouble of solving intellectual puzzles in a movie: there’s no way to show the character straining or working hard without showing them fail and failures are trimmed down in most movies so that the director can save a few minutes for more action sequences or proselytizing from the movie’s moral authority.

Thankfully, all of the “good” characters shared that job.  No one person acted as the moral figure and the constant interaction between the characters kept things interesting when they were all around. Their banter was fun to listen to and they all did an excellent job of keeping the story moving along despite the awkward plot choices. The biggest problem I had, was that there was almost no awkwardness when the characters meet for the first time. Only two of them have been friends on the internet for very long, but they all seem to fall in together like they’ve been the best of friends for years. As someone who has had several of those “meet someone in the real world for the first time after really getting to know them in the electronic world” moments, I can say that they’re almost always awkward to some degree or another. It expedited the plot, but it pulled me out of the movie a bit.

There’s a lot to be said about all the references I saw and all of the ones I didn’t see, but I’m going to skip over that because finding the references for yourself is a significant chunk of the fun of the movie. I wouldn’t want to take that away from you. Which means I think you should see it. Probably not at full ticket price, but it is definitely worth the $5 for a Tuesday showing at a Marcus theater or however much a ticket costs at your local cheap theater whenever it hits the cheap scene. Or rent it when it comes out on DVD/Blu-Ray. Whatever you prefer since this really isn’t a movie you need to see on a big screen.

Saturday Morning Musing

I have a tendency to get distracted while I’m doing things and then see something move out of the corner of my eye. This happens to a lot of people, usually as the result of some small shift in something our brain chooses to ignore, like a hair that’s out-of-place or a shadow in the background somewhere. It’s super creepy. Countless horror stories have been written about creatures that lurk just outside the scope of our vision; something that can only be glimpsed out of the corner of our eye when we aren’t looking for it. I  know of only a few examples of positive things with similar abilities and most of these are more purposely ridiculous than positive.

After I graduated college, while I was still working the area, I stopped having this rather common occurrence and started seeing something in front of my eyes as well as off to the sides. I spent a lot of time talking it over with my friends, both skeptics and believers, and even started called it “The Apparition” because it was consistently the same thing. The more I talked about it, the more detail I was able to notice about it, and and the longer it would stick around. I was under a lot of stress at the time and my imagination was at its most active, so I’m not sure if I even really believe what I think I saw. Despite being so positive this was happening four years ago, looking back on it now makes me doubt it ever really happened.

I don’t really have any proof that ghosts are real, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they are. Science can only be used to explain what we can perceive and make educated guesses about what we can’t, so it is entirely possible ghosts are real and we just don’t have the means of detecting them yet. It’s also possible that what we call “ghosts” are just the result of some easily explained phenomenon that escapes us simply because we haven’t figured out how to perceive things correctly. There’s a lot of support for them in the general population, in part as a vague interest and sometimes as a serious belief, which includes a number of people you wouldn’t expect. One of my mother’s church friends claimed to be able to see or feel spirits and also firmly believed that a number of my anxiety, OCD, and depression problems were actually qualities of this spirit that had attached itself to me. According to her, it was likely my great-grandfather. Which is super creepy to think about. Who tells a twelve-year-old that they’ve got a ghost attached to them?

There are, of course, the countless rumors of buildings or places being haunted. After seeing some of the stuff I did in the theater I worked in most days, along with the stuff I felt, I find it hard to believe that there wasn’t something there. Maybe it was a figment of my imagination, maybe it wasn’t. The further I get in life, the harder it is to maintain anything more than a perfunctory skepticism about a lot of things. Maybe I am haunted by the ghost of a deceased relative. Maybe I’ve got some kind of otherworldly being who hung out around me for a while. Maybe they’re the same thing and my spirit’s brief appearance in my vision was a mark of my transition to full adulthood. Maybe they’re not real at all and I’ve got an imagination that just wants to tell stories, even if only to itself.

Who knows? I don’t think it really matters, either way. Sure, it could change some of the way I live my life, but only the micro details. Nothing major. All I know is that thinking about something like this is like lighting a fire in my mind. Open-ended questions that require me to build stories just to think about them are a lot of fun. As a result of these mental exercises, I think I can see where stories for things like Cthulhu or Mind Flayers came from. Additionally, seeing unknown things out of the corner of your eye has given me an idea for a story I would like to write. It would be different from any of the variants I’ve encountered and the prologue I’ve written so far, to solidify the idea, makes use of a few characters who had been homeless for a long while now.

Now, hopefully I haven’t creeped myself out too much to be able to go into my basement to do some laundry. All those memories and thoughts of the stuff I encountered at the theater have given me the heebie-jeebies. I’m going to go spend some time in a well-lit room with many light sources so as to minimize the amount of darkness and shadows near me.