Friday, December 31, 2021

Releasing the Pressure in Encanto

So it's been quite a while now since Encanto came out; I've been wanting to talk about it for weeks. While its theme of family fit it well into the November-December holiday season, the themes of identity fit equally well with New Year's. There are two forms of identity in the films, personal identity and community identity, and the way in which the two intersect is the basis for the primary conflict.

Mirabel first comes in introducing us to her family. She seems so proud of them all--but gradually we realize that she is too perfect of a poster child. Beneath Mirabel's proud words is her great pain at not having a magical gift like everyone else in the family. She has this grand idea of her community but not of herself. She think she is the only one who has nothing to offer or who has no acceptance--which is why she tries even harder to be that poster child of all that is wonderful about her family.

But over time, Mirabel realizes that she isn't the only one who has feelings like this. Her sisters Luisa and Isabela are both breaking into the pressure of expectations. They also don't feel loved and accepted for who they are: they feel like their value is in direct response to what they do to serve. Her cousin Dolores lives under the pressure of keeping family secrets, and Dolores's brother Camilo is literally always shifting identities. Only Antonio, as the youngest, seems to still be untouched by the family drama. Note that his gift is to talk to animals--that is, to communicate. Communication is what the family as a whole needs to learn.

Take Pepa. Her emotions affect the weather, so she is always trying to stuff down her feelings. But pretending issues don't exist is never very helpful towards problem solving, is it? Instead, the different memories of the family need to learn to be who they are personally and then within the group. No stuffing issues. 

Mirabel admits her pain. Isabela admits she is living a life she doesn't want--even getting engaged to a person she doesn't want to marry. Luisa admits she can't do it all. And their grandmother admits that she has been controlling the family too much and pushing them to her idea of perfection instead of simply loving the miracle of their survival. Mirabel was "rejected" by the house when she wasn't given a gift--but the first rejection was when they pushed Bruno away because his gift couldn't be controlled in predictable ways. Bruno's reunion into the family shows acceptance of that which is unpredictable and even imperfect. 

So when the house "left out" Mirabel, it forced the family to remember the family members rather than just their gifts. And it forced Mirabel to ask questions and bring to light the individual hurts and start a conversation. Mirabel sees that her identity isn't formed by her lack of a gift anymore than her sisters' identities are based on the gifts that they do have. And so she has a better idea of herself and of herself within her family. Both the individual and community identities experience wholeness and healing. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Illuminated Chihuly

Familiar places are new with light and dark and with sound.

The Desert Botanical Garden is a familiar place to me. 

But this month started their new Chihuly exhibit.

And I had never been during Las Noches de las Luminarias.

There were lighted paths.

And the Chihuly glass sculptures appeared in brilliance in the night beside the luminarias. 

Several spots were home to live music that echoed throughout the garden.

Two weeks ago I walked the familiar paths in new light.

No wonder the Luminarias are a tradition for so many.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

She Is Her Own Fair Lady, Not His

From time to time, you'll hear me mention how I watched Pygmalion back in 2008 and grew positively obsessed with the play and the performance. I suppose I had a bit of a literary crush in Henry Higgins: the actor portraying him gave him that charming, infectious energy that made him more into a lovable madman than a disgruntled and egotistical and rude bachelor-scholar. A lot pends on how his character is played--and on the overall structure of each particular version of the play.

I don't believe I had ever watched the entirety of the musical version, My Fair Lady, until last week when the touring production was at ASU Gammage. I normally see a lot of plays and shows, but not at Gammage. I've only seen on there, and that was several years ago. But my "maybe" to see this one turned into a quick yes because it's a story I have so much history of enjoying.

I had mistakenly believed that the difference between the play and the musical was that Higgins and Eliza do end up together in the musical, even though they don't in the play. I guess I got that impression from the greater emphasis on love story type songs in the soundtrack. So I was a little surprised that that was not the case--and that there was in fact less chemistry between the two characters in this production than in the play I had watched before. In a way, that was a little disappointing given how fun their banter can be. And I prefer Higgins to be a lovable madman than just a grouch. 

But the musical made its own exploration of Eliza herself. The shift was a deeper emphasis on her perspective. She asserts herself as a woman secure in her own identity, despite society's (and individual people's) impressions or ideas of her. She moves between classes, yes, but she is still Eliza. Henry didn't give her that--just as he cannot take it away from her when he continues to disrespect her even after she has done everything she can to please him. Eliza has always been secure in herself. She used to hold her own against her father: she kept money to herself instead of giving it all to him. So Higgins is no different: she gives him what she chooses to give him but she doesn't give him charge over her dignity or identity. 

This is why we have the famous quote: "I sold flowers. I didn't sell myself." Eliza tires of Henry's game of changing class based on speech. She learns to speak well and so can pass as upper class and go places she couldn't have gone before when her words exposed her low social standing. But it all means nothing. She doesn't want to play a farce; she wants to be herself. She doesn't want to be seen as what role she can play; she wants to be seen as herself. So she doesn't want Higgins to see her as his successful language project; she wants him to see her as a person who has worked hard for him. And because he cannot, she leaves. 

Like I said, I did miss the emphasis on playful banter from the play. But the musical gave a great exploration of identity and one person's self-assertion of identity. Given that identity has been a main topic of focus in my life right now, this was a welcome theme to explore. And of course I'll not say no to good singing and wonderful sets. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Christmas Trains

Normally a winter drive by Scottsdale Road and Indian Bend draws your attention to the light-wrapped trees at the McCormick-Stillman Railroad Park. It's the time when a long stop at the intersection is actually welcome because it gives you a chance to turn your head and enjoy the lights.

This year I decided to actually visit the park for their Holiday Lights. I've never even been to the railroad park during the day; it was time to satisfy my curiosity. Tickets are $15 for the lights and $10 on certain weekdays. So it's definitely a lower priced, less hassle option compared with some of the other Christmas events in town. 

The park appeals strongly to the toddler crowd. So admission to the lights includes rides on the train and carousel and pictures with Santa, in addition to the model railroad building. But Christmas is the perfect time to experience fun and play no matter your age (except for the Santa pictures--I didn't go see Santa).

Their train will take you first through those lit trees--but then it goes off to the side where there is a generous collection of Christmas light displays. In fact, it was more than I had expected. There were penguins and leaping reindeer and candy houses and camping bears and holiday saguaros. Along, of course, with the light tunnels you'll tend to see in their promo pictures. 

Though short, the train ride alone was fun, even without children, though of course it'll be an even bigger hit for families. And don't pass up on the carousel; carousels are classic. 

Depending on your interest in trains, the model railroad building could take up a lot of time or none. Either way, it somehow seems more special at night with all the lights glowing outside. There are a few holiday photo ops, too. For the playing. After all, playing is all what a Christmas railroad park should be all about. 

Friday, December 3, 2021

Alter Eco: Hazelnut Butter Bombs

Sometimes we experience disappointments. Such, unfortunately, is one of Alter Eco's newer products, their Hazelnut Butter Bombs. When I first heard of these, I couldn't wait until they showed up in my usual grocery store. I do enjoy hazelnut and chocolate (not Nutella--Nutella is just oil). But now that I have them, well, I could do better without them. Let me elaborate because perhaps you will feel differently.

The bag contains nine individually wrapped chocolates. Below the rainforest greenery is a combination of blue and purple that, when carried onto the wrappers, gives a spacey look. (Or maybe I'm just thinking too much sci-fi these days now that I renewed Netflix so I can watch Stargate.) Really, don't they look like little round globes?

Colors aside, both the wrapper and the shape, though, aren't exactly new. This is the same concept as with Alter Eco's truffles, except that there is hazelnut butter inside. (There is also an Almond Butter version.) Not to many visual surprises with the filling: it's pale tan. There is perhaps a slight hazelnut aroma to it. The surprises come on tasting.

Okay, surprises is probably too strong of a word. The gist of it is that this isn't quite the effect I had anticipated. While normally Alter Eco's truffles have such a winning texture (for grocery store truffles) because of the coconut oil, here it is the texture that is off. Here there is an element (I think in the chocolate) that is too silky and slippery, as well as an overly buttery element in the filling. The filling also tastes too buttery, without having the sweetness of sugar to balance it out. (There is sugar added to the chocolates, but apparently not much.) And then you get a slight bitter twinge from the chocolate that doesn't go along with the butteriness. There is hazelnut flavor but not much; it gets lost.

So the texture is wrong as well as the flavor. I thought I might be exaggerating the slight bitter twinge of the chocolate until I saw the tiny print on the back that says that the shell is 80% dark chocolate. Now, 80% on its own is fine; I often enjoy that percentage more than the more common 70%. I'm just saying that it felt a tad too dark for this context. If the hazelnut filling gave more richness rather than butteriness, maybe darker chocolate would make sense. On the opposite side, if the filling were a tad sweeter and the dark chocolate a tad lighter, then things might feel more cohesive. Whether we're going for rich and dark or for sweet and nostalgic, pick a side.

Besides sugar, other ingredients in here are agave fiber and butterfat, as well as coconut oil of course. No wonder there is so much slippery texture and buttery flavor. If they weren't going to add more sugar (I can't believe I'm asking for more sugar), some salt could have done wonders. Because of Reese's Cups, Americans already have an association between peanut/nut butters and salt. But these are marketed as being Keto--does Keto have anything against salt? I frankly have no idea. 

Back to the chocolate. I know I mentioned it seemed darker than expected. But remember that I also said it felt like it added to the slippery texture element. So my question is, is the chocolate the one with the coconut oil in it? If so, it's smart from a manufacturer's standpoint: you can use less chocolate that way and also portray a silky texture that people less picky than I am might even appreciate. But I feel like I can taste the coconut this time, whereas I usually don't notice it in Alter Eco's truffles. 

So I'm obviously not satisfied. Both the texture and flavor are off for me. However. Let's get back to that Keto thing. I've been seeing a lot of companies making chocolate energy ball type products these days. They'll stuff them with random "healthy" ingredients and market those ingredients or their health benefits. So more than reminding me of truffles or chocolate candies, these butter bombs remind me of such chocolate energy balls. That is, someone might buy them because they need something that will fit into specific dietary desires rather than something that simply tastes great. They taste fine; they're not detestable. I just don't particularly like them and would gladly give away the rest of the bag. So if I really needed a nut butter chocolate and this was somehow the only product that fit within certain restrictions, I'd be okay with them. I'm just not sure what those restrictions are. I would think there are other products on the market already that would fit the same restrictions and yet would be more palate-pleasing. But again, I don't know the details on Keto or plenty of other diets. So if something about the ingredients makes these appealing to you, they're worth a try. Otherwise, I'd recommend passing them up.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

From Thanksgiving to Adoration

Decorating for Christmas is generally a day after Thanksgiving thing for me. But there can be variation in how the week is going. This year, for instance, I did the Christmas switch on Thursday night after the turkeys were all put away (including the cooked one). I took away the metal pumpkin sign on my wreath proclaiming "Give thanks for this day" and replaced it with another sign exclaiming "O come let us adore Him."

I tried to wait until it was late enough that anyone passing by would have already had Thanksgiving dinner. I don't mind lights going up a little early, but I didn't want to take away the Thanksgiving sign too soon. But as I replaced the sign of thanks with the sign of adoring, well, that didn't feel like a quick change between holidays. It felt like one holiday preparing our hearts for the next.

Besides the fact that I simply like turkeys, I also greatly appreciate Thanksgiving as a holiday because it is intended to be about giving thanks. There is such importance in being grateful and expressing our thankfulness for what we have been given--even life itself. And being in that state of thankfulness is the perfect place to begin looking to the birth of Jesus. 

We express our gratitude and we adore our God who came to save. This is why, more and more, Christmas isn't just about one day to me--it's about the holiday season. It's a time for reflection of the past year and the coming year; it's a time to remember blessings and refocus on what is important despite whatever struggles we have had. On this December 1st, I'm celebrating through it all. 

Friday, November 19, 2021

Chocolove: Frosted Gingerbread in Milk Chocolate

Thanksgiving is at last just around the corner, and so we have another Christmasy chocolate offering today. It is the Frosted Gingerbread in Milk Chocolate from Chocolove. The packaging is highly festive with what appears to be a life-sized gingerbread house under a snowy sky. The effect of the bright-lit windows is cheery and inviting. You'll note that the name is frosted gingerbread, not just gingerbread. So we're not thinking just cookies here; the idea is of a gingerbread house covered in snowy frosting like in the picture. 

Chocolove always includes these poems on the inside of their wrappers. I can't say the Christina Rossetti poem here necessarily goes with this theme, but I guess it mentions winter at one point so that's how it got in? We also have the usual gold foil and small hearts in the center of the chocolate squares. Breaking into the rows, you'll find little spots of white within. Not the color I'd expected. I had expected to see brown for  gingerbread, but the white is of course the frosting element. The back of the chocolate shows shallow lumps as you would find in an almond chocolate.

In the past, I've decided not to buy Chocolove's dark chocolate anymore, even if it's an otherwise appealing-sounding seasonal chocolate. Their chocolate isn't the highest quality, and I can't tolerate poor dark chocolate, whereas milk chocolate can be better because it's already a lot of milk and sugar anyway. That being said, this is a sweeter chocolate aroma than what I typically try. So just bear that in mind. If you buy a lot of standard milk chocolate, you probably won't see what the big deal is. But if you're buying more of the artisan chocolates, this one will be on the sweeter and greasier side.

There is perhaps of hint of ginger to the aroma, as well. Ginger was at first the only winter spice flavor that I could really pick out, though when I focus in I can tell that the cinnamon and nutmeg are there, too. The spices remain fairly light throughout. 

Once you start biting in, you'll be able to tell that in addition to the white frosting pieces are also light brown gingerbread bits. Worth noting is that this is gluten free gingerbread. There is a marked difference in the texture of the cookie pieces versus the frosting. The frosting's texture is exactly as you would expect from frosting that has been left out in the air, as on a gingerbread house; the closest comparison I can make would be to malt balls, I guess. 

I'm used to the gingerbread cookies that I make having lot of molasses. But the flavors here are more like the house kits that you buy (which really aren't designed for eating, if we're honest about it). The gingerbread here is made with just brown sugar and no molasses. So the focus becomes more on the light ginger flavor. 

I like winter spices and could do with them being stronger. But the lightness I'm sure is intentional: this approach will probably suit more palates than a strongly spiced chocolate would. Especially given that, once more, these flavors (and packaging) do have appeal for children as well as adults. Initially I had a lukewarm attitude towards this chocolate, but I do find myself enjoying it more as I nibble away. I wouldn't call it the best or most exciting Christmas chocolate I've come across. But it's a pleasant, sweet, wintry chocolate nonetheless. 

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

Stories for Life Day

Happy Life Day everyone.

For those still figuring it out, Life Day is the Christmas-like holiday featured in The Star Wars Holiday Special from 1978. Look it up; it is terrifying. You will hear how terrible it is, but when you watch it you will be terrified that it really is so terrible and really does exist and did get made. Of course, people tend to build up affection for terrible things like this, and with access to the Internet Life Day has been getting some new, well, life. 

This year we have a new addition to the fairy-tale-like stories we have been getting--this time with the Star Wars Life Day Treasury: Holiday Stories from a Galaxy Far, Far Away. While I've found these collections to be intriguing, in the past I've commented on the seeming lack of a clear audience. The publisher is Disney, so as far as bookstores go these are considered children's books. And the writing style is simple enough for young readers (around that 8-12 range). But the content is better appreciated by adults--especially so when it comes to Life Day. This time, though, as far as the book itself, that lack of clarity seems to be gone. 

The writing style is still simple enough for younger readers. But it's also neutral enough to not make adults feel like it wasn't written for them, too. And the content is fantastic. It's like reading a classic collection of Christmas stories. There are eight stories that are meant to correlate to not just Life Day but also other holidays around that time of year in different parts of the Star Wars universe. This of course is meant to reflect the other holidays besides Christmas that people celebrate in winter in our world--but this is the U.S. and most people are familiar with Christmas traditions, and so most of these stories feel like Christmas stories. Unless perhaps it's a case of the reader bringing their own memories to the stories: maybe someone who celebrates Hanukah rather than Christmas would see Hanukah in the stories. 

The stories cover classic holiday themes like family, the differences between rich and poor, hospitality, food, traditional beliefs, myths, ornaments and decorations, and hope in hard times. Each one has a different focus. They're short and to the point and so would make good stories to read with family in the evening. They allow a quick glimpse into the various nooks of the galaxy without needing a lot of exposition. There is a whimsical, Hallmark-like tone at times but it's intentional and held in balance. They're deliberately cheery, heartwarming stories, and that's fun to see in the Star Wars setting. Somehow we have a seed of a good idea in Life Day, and this book waters that seed and ignores the less than impressive aspects of the holiday special. I'm impressed. 

Monday, November 15, 2021

The Reluctant Lewis

Last month, I talked about the stage play C.S. Lewis's The Great Divorce by The Fellowship for Performing Arts. They released their first film this month, C.S. Lewis: The Most Reluctant Convert, and what was originally going to be a one-night-only release continued to get extended as theatres saw the interest C.S. Lewis brings. 

Though the film is based largely on Lewis's book Surprised by Joy, they also bring in other of his writings. And they did change the angle or focus slightly. After all, I wouldn't call this one of Lewis's better books--it's not only a fairly dry read, but he spends much of the time talking about the late Edwardian English school system. While that's all good and well to learn about, it's also not necessarily what I was expecting when I went to read the autobiographical book that describes Lewis's conversion from atheist to theist. So if the film focused less on describing the social dynamics of the schools Lewis went to, well, I can understand.

I do think that perhaps this film, which is based on a play, would have worked better as a play. It's narrated by Max McLean, who also wrote the original play; Norman Stone wrote the screenplay and also directs. Norman Stone also directed Shadowlands, which tells the story of C.S. Lewis's relationship with Joy Gresham. That is, he directed the 1986 one, not the 1993 one with Anthony Hopkins (I've watched both and remember that I liked one and not the other, but I'm not sure which was which). But back to this film. 

The format of having one actor narrate makes sense given that this is a non-fiction book describing not just events but also concepts. It isn't Lewis's life story: it's his way of going through certain points in his life to describe his changing perspectives and the various things that influenced his ideas. This monologue-like style would probably have worked well as a live play. In a movie, though, it worked but also sometimes felt like it detracted from the action onscreen. 

For instance, you will see a scene playing out with characters while Lewis is narrating. Instead of observing everything for yourself, you get him telling you what's happening or interrupting what's happening. There's some rich content in his life, so you kind of just want to sit back and watch it all unfold. But instead, you have the narration. This is what grade school teachers would call showing rather than telling. Now, I did say that it works. It just makes this more of a niche film. Films reach a wider audience than plays, so it would have been nice to have a less niche approach so that more people (who are only aware of Narnia) could enjoy learning about C.S. Lewis's story. 

Yet I'm aware that I'm critiquing them making an intellectual film about a very intellectual book. The whole point of Surprised by Joy is that Lewis was engaging in philosophy and intellectualism that he thought did not allow for the existence of God--until he found that intellectual thought in fact cannot deny the existence of God. Even the very existence of intellectual thought proves the existence of God. So perhaps it would have been worse to try and not make a very intellectual, even niche, film out of this story. 

Here's one thing I was a little thrown off by at first. The very title of the original book describes what Lewis refers to as "joy," something that he caught glimpses of at various times in his life through nature or fantasy stories, something that awakened a longing in him, a longing that he only wanted to feel more and more. He came to realize that it was this longing feeling that he wanted, not the things that created it. Nature itself did not satisfy, the more he learned about the literature the less he encountered the feeling, and romantic entanglements were also empty. Essentially he comes to realize that the feeling is a longing for something outside of one's self--what we might call a longing that only God can fill. 

Yet it took a while for the film to introduce this concept and even then it didn't seem so much the focus. The focus is more on a general sense of atheism turned into a slow, reluctant willingness to accept that atheism does not make sense. This might make sense as an artistic choice in order to, well, make the film less niche and give it a broader theme. But the concept of joy is so tied into Lewis's other writings that I regret to see it lose any focus.

Besides his non-fiction, it's all over Narnia, that with which the casual audience-goer is most likely to have familiarity (even if they haven't studied its themes). Lewis writes Narnia as fantasy because to him fantasy awakens that awareness of the spiritual realm and creation and God's presence. So Surprised by Joy touches on very core Lewis concepts, even if I did call it one of his drier works. Granted, though, it's also more difficult to focus on in the film because the book makes mention of many literary works that most people today have not read, if they've even heard of them. They did work in the main points, but I suppose it also makes sense that there was less focus on what young Lewis read.

All of this sounds like I'm grilling the film. I don't mean to: I enjoyed it, and it's definitely one for the Lewis fans. Even though his trademark was to make things simple and understandable, C.S. Lewis dug into deep concepts--and you can see that in this movie. So that's why I'm nitpicking their handling of this or that theme or chewing through their decisions to do this or that: an intellectual film invites intellectual discussion (not that you would call a rambling blog post intellectual discussion--but it's angled in that direction at least). So if you enjoy Lewis and haven't yet seen the film, I'd recommend trying to make it over to the theatre in the next couple days while it's still out. 

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Canal Convergence Lights Up the Night

A couple of years ago, when I thought about Old Town Scottsdale, I thought of the space south of Indian School Road. On the east side of Main Street were more shops and on the west side more galleries. But lately I've been spending more time above Indian School. There you will find more shops and restaurants and more of the coffee shops and dessert shops. There also, instead of the Civic Center Plaza (which is now closed off for its big refurb), you have the canal. 

The canal is a perfect place to go sit or walk for a bit and enjoy the weather. It's a good place to go by yourself when you just feel like going somewhere but nowhere in particular, or a place to meet a friend. And sometimes there are also events going on. The Christmas lights were lovely last year. But I had never been to see Canal Convergence, which you will find running at night through the 14th. 

I admit I wasn't entirely sure what Canal Convergence was. An art installation and lights, something like that--but what exactly? There were a couple of installations nearer to the street on Stetson Drive, but they really didn't catch my interest. Approaching the canal, there was a big screen showing historic pictures of Roosevelt Dam. The dam and the canals are what allow water and therefore life into the Valley, so they're quite a cool thing to learn about and celebrate. 

And then once you get to the water, the fun begins. They had giant, lotus-like flower lights set up in the water. They put into mind the footage I've seen of ____ at Disney World. And with the bright fingernail moon up in the sky, they were quite pretty. 

Off in the distance, you could also see what were like fireworks blossoming again and again in an eternal loop. The effect of these lights was in fact so impressively similar to real fireworks that I wonder if at some point they might come to replace fireworks in nighttime celebrations. 

There were multimedia sculptures along the path of various animals. The scorpion was cute with an Arizona flag on its head, and the fish I liked because it was a brilliant green. The fish, of course, represents the fish in the canal that help to keep it clean. 

There were also these cool ice cube, marshmallow pieces that faded in and out of various colors. Further, each one had a scannable barcode so that you can control it using your phone. It's a fun, optional digital element that is more directly interactive than some. 

Is there a lot to look at? Not really. But what was there was nice, and walking by the canal in Old Town is already pleasant, so adding in any sort of art or lights is a great excuse to make it a point to get out of the house and see what's up in town. If it's a simple walk to see some fun lights, I'd say that's quite a welcome way to spend an evening. 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Immersive Van Gogh

On Saturday I escaped out of my skin. Well, you see, here is how it happened. First I burned the skin of my fingers on a pan (just lightly). Then a cutting board jumped out of the cabinet to slam into the bridge of my nose (my nose didn't break and I didn't get a black eye, so I'm happy, bruise or no). And I was still a little let's jut say loopy after my first acupuncture treatment earlier in the week (I didn't know acupuncture can cause emotional release). The order of these things is all mixed up, but in between the burning of the fingers and the bruising of the nose I went to see the Immersive Van Gogh Exhibit in Old Town Scottsdale.

The exhibit is designed by Massimiliano Siccardi with music by Luca Longobardi. Even though Van Gogh is a familiar artist, the exhibit is an entirely new way of viewing his work. I can't say that I have a lot of experience with digital art exhibits, but it's certainly something that will continue to grow more common. To say that the exhibit involves digital projections of Van Gogh's paintings onto the walls of a room doesn't quite convey what viewing it in person is like. While projections have come a long way in quality in the past couple decades, projections alone aren't enough to provide either freshness or amazement. 

Yet as I sat in this exhibit, I found myself mesmerized. 

I don't know if the setup was slightly different here than it was in Paris or Toronto or if it will be in other locations. Here, you walked through a little corridor and entered a square-ish room where you could stay and watch, or you could continue walking into a rectangular room. Both had the same projections but were fairly different in experience. We were in the square room and only spent a brief time in the rectangular room on the way out just to get a sense of how it was different. The glossy floor of the square room not only picked up the projections better but also had more of them, and the smaller space meant that it was easier to feel like you were literally immersed in the paintings. I think also the room was darker, which also made the colors more crisp.

There is a video loop to the projections. So you might walk in towards the beginning or end or anywhere in between. You can stay for one run through or keep watching. Instead of just seeing the paintings projected onto the walls, you see the paintings made alive. They're not quite animated; that isn't the right way to describe it. If there is movement within the paintings, it is the windmill arms that will turn or the candle flames that will flicker--the people do not move. That is, the paintings of the people might. Faces might drop slowly into the "screen" or fade into view. Colors might change--from dark dawn to rosy morning hues. 

Or one of the most intriguing things that is also so specifically great for Van Gogh is that the very brush strokes might move. Van Gogh uses those fat brush strokes that are each an individual element. So you might literally see the swirly brush strokes of Starry Night swirling about before your eyes. In this way, you find yourself reawakened to color, shape, and light. You begin to see anew the artistry in everything your eye beholds. 

And this is how I found myself mesmerized and removed from my own skin. I was released from the cares of my head with my eyes opened to the beauty of life around me. This is even stranger still given that, while I can appreciate his work, I wouldn't name Van Gogh as a favorite painter. So the work that went into this exhibit--the selection of which elements to "animate" and how to make the paintings move about and how to play with their color and lighting and the way in which the music helped to set up the emotional tone--was carefully executed, artistic in its own right. 

So while this is one of the more expensive art experience, if you have any interest in art it is worth seeing while it's still in town. Originally it was leaving this month; now it's extended until February. 

Saturday, November 6, 2021

Theo: Milk & Cookies Milk Chocolate

Theo has been leading the way in easily accessible, quality holiday chocolate products in the last few years. We have many of the familiar ones back this year, but of course I'm here to cover what's new. It's just one new addition this time, but that's okay: the same things can keep coming back year after year if they're good. The newbie this year is the Milk & Cookies Milk Chocolate bar. 

Given how satisfying Theo's milk chocolate is, the exciting part here was the fact that this is a milk chocolate bar. The milk and cookies thing I would wait to try out. But the milk chocolate was a good sign. Packaging presents that generic winter holiday look with greenery and presents and cookies and a mittened hand. It reminds me of politically correct "holiday" cards, even though the concept of milk and cookies around the holidays is a clear association with Christmas and the tradition of leaving milk and cookies for Santa. Though the mittened hand isn't a Santa hand, so even the mittened hand is like a little assurance that this is not a Christmas-specific product. But if we have so many fall foods nowadays that aren't associated with an individual holiday (so that they can be enjoyed for a longer amount of time), why not do the same with winter foods? (Well, not that it's winter yet, but the fall "season" ends with October even if autumn doesn't technically end until December.)

The chocolate bar is in Theo's usual eight square mold. On the back, the look is similar to a crisped rice chocolate, except that the lumps are little circles that are closer to the size of chocolate chips than to crisped rice. There is a rich chocolate aroma because, as I alluded, this is Theo's lovely 45% milk chocolate, which is not like an average milk chocolate. 

Instantly, there is vanilla taste on the tongue. The second thing I noticed that the cookie pieces aren't very crunchy. That is, they're fairly soft for being crunchy cookies and add a fairly light addition to the overall texture. I imagine part of the reason for this is that these are relatively fresh cookie pieces made with decent ingredients--as compared to the "cookies" that you will find in other chocolate products. Given that Theo's milk chocolate already comes with a strong vanilla richness, the added element of vanilla cookies means that the vanilla soars to new heights on the wings of the sweetened cocoa. The milk element of the "milk and cookies" seems to just be in the creaminess of the milk chocolate. After all, this definitely wouldn't have the right effect in dark chocolate.

I don't know that this chocolate bar reminds me so much of the milk and cookies concept. It's more like a mild inspiration. But vanilla is definitely nostalgic, which is the idea of referencing either leaving milk and cookies out for Santa or simply enjoying wintertime baking. Cinnamon is what, to me, tips references to baking into the Christmas/winter scene. But Theo has used cinnamon for the holidays before--and with this one it seems they were going for something simpler. I might add, too, that the simple flavor profile also means that this chocolate is also a safe choice for giving to children. I'm just enjoying mine myself, but it would make a good stocking stuffer, too, if you're looking for fair trade chocolate options that your children will enjoy. 

So even if the flavor isn't as winter-specific as some, this new milk chocolate is satisfying and would be welcome if it returned again year after year. 

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Copper Queen

Even more so than usual, this is not a review. It also contains spoilers.

Normally I try not to be too negative on here. That is, if I mainly have negative things to say about something rather than positive, I'll just not talk about it at all here. For the most part, I want to share the things I'm excited about or interested in, not those I dislike. But occasionally I'll let the negative comments in because I think that they're topics worth discussing. Today's subject is Arizona Opera's latest production, The Copper Queen.

Because of the closures in the past year, they decided last year to produce The Copper Queen as a film instead of a live show. But that all still takes time, so it only just came out this past weekend (which is a little ironic to me given that live shows are now back, so I'm not sure whether it was necessary to make this one into a film at all, but what do I know about productions?). You can still see it in select Harkins through Thursday; after that it will be available to stream online. 

It was definitely a different experience to watch an opera movie versus a live opera. The sound quality of the recording was great, so you still got that immersive quality that you wouldn't necessarily get from watching video of a live show at home. And because it was filmed as a movie (versus filming a show on a stage), the cinematography was completely different, too. I'm not used to seeing the performers' faces close up. While this allows for more acting, it also gave me as the viewer less to look at. This is especially given that it all takes place in one room.

But let's get to my main point of conversation. Initially, I was excited when I heard this title. The Copper Queen takes place in Bisbee, so I was excited to get more of that Southwest focus that we started getting with Riders of the Purple Sage (which is the only opera I've had a chance to see twice). But as it came closer to the film's release and I started paying more attention to the synopsis, my interest began going down. It's about the ghost of a prostitute? Ghosts and prostitutes--two subjects in which I have no interest. These are exactly the types of Southwestern stories I try to avoid. It's as if they sat down in a room and said, how can we continue bringing in a wider and younger audience to the opera--I know, let's bring in ghosts and sex, those topics sell. 

I was also concerned by the time the trailer came out and they were including a warning that the film contains scenes some viewers "might find disturbing" and the "mature audiences" only. I understand that many of the operas we now watch were considered quite scandalous in their day (and often still are today actually). But does this mean that the film went further than they would have gone if they'd just done a live show? 

The answer: probably a bit. The nature of a film (with close ups you don't have live) is that any physical action is more detailed and less pantomime than it is live in a big symphony hall. So if you're seeing someone being strangled to death, it's more graphic. And if you're seeing Julia at work, it's more graphic. But it's still meant to be somewhat classy opera, so they're still clothed. Rating-wise, this film probably could have even managed a PG-13 with some tweaking (if not for the language peppered in the dialogue, of course). 

Now, the reason I was willing to go see a film that might be more risqué than I wanted was because I wanted to see the story they made with it. I figured if the synopsis was of a modern day woman going to stay at Julia's room in a hotel to see her ghost, then the story would probably be about telling Julia's untold story and her perspective and how she found herself in this unfortunate position. Initially, it seemed like that's what we were getting. We meet Julia's, um, work persona. So that's the impression that tourists would have of her, Julia the prostitute. Then we begin to see that, of course, she does not like what she does. And then we see that she's at the mercy of her father, who is the one running the hotel and prostituting her out and also abusing her. So I can go along with that so far. I can go along with telling the untold story of this woman. 

My issue, though, is with the way in which they "redeem" her. She begins to fall for one of the men who comes to see her--and the feeling is mutual. He is considering leaving his wife to be with her, and his resolve is stronger when he finds the abuse marks on her back. But later on he returns to tell her that he can't because his wife is pregnant. She's devastated, but ultimately decides to leave on her own--until her father comes back and their confrontation ends with him murdering her. We find that the woman who came to see Julia's ghost is the granddaughter of the man's daughter. She tells Julia's ghost that after his wife died in childbirth, he never remarried and eventually told his daughter of his love for Julia. 

How disgusting. We're meant to sigh and say how sweet over the forever love of this man for Julia? Even though she had a terrible life, this man's love for her makes it all better? Yuck. Thematically, to have their love be the "redeeming" element is unstable and falls apart in light of the entire story. It is because men like him cheat on their wives and go pay for prostitutes that Julia's father is able to keep her in this compromising position. He is enabling her abuse by going to pay for her services. And yet because he was considering escaping with her, we can just sidestep the fact that that he is being cruel and disrespectful to his wife and also disrespectful to a woman he has never met (Julia the first time he goes to see her) by paying for her body? Oh, because he paid her a little extra, that makes it okay, right? Like I said, disgusting. 

I realize it's a story about a prostitute and not everything is going to be all pearly. But that's why my issue is with the ultimate theme of the story. We don't even have any remorse from him for taking part in the system. There was some potential with the granddaughter coming in, declaring that she and Julia are the same. She is also someone who has felt unseen and in constant service to others (by being the caretaker for her grandmother). But that part of the story isn't developed enough. 

The singing was good and I like the Arizona setting. Vanessa Becerra as Julia portrayed both the seeming confident woman and the woman literally falling apart emotionally in panic over her situation. She gave a wonderfully emotive performance. I suppose, then, this film was worth seeing. I was curious. Ultimately, though, its treatment of theme left me disappointed. 

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Eldora Chocolate: Cameroon Bangassina Centre 70%

We have come now to the end of the selection from Eldora Chocolate. The third single origin chocolate bar we'll be taking a look at is the Cameroon Bangassina Centre 70%. Talking about trying to choose less common origins, I believe this might be my first chocolate sourced in Cameroon. At least for sure I haven't looked at any since I started putting my reviews on this blog, and that's been eight or nine years now. Granted, also, not every chocolate bar even states from where its cocoa is sourced. But Cameroon isn't one of the most common names I hear in reference to cocoa.

The chocolate has a semisweet aroma with pronounced marshmallow notes. That reminds me much of a bar I found at Trader Joe's years back. Flavor-wise, it starts off rich and dark with the marshmallow notes carrying into the flavor. After about the halfway point, things get warmer so that there is more of a flourless chocolate cake feel. Then the marshmallow notes make their way back in. In the final stages, the flavor heightens in warmth and comes to a gentle finish. 

Initially, I found that the texture felt slightly dustier and less smooth than that of the other two bars. While I still say there is some difference, it isn't enough that I would necessarily have noticed if I had only had this one. On its own, I don't think I would have called it dusty at all. 

As far as the development of flavor, this chocolate is on par with the other two. It still has flavor to dig into and a delightful chocolate embrace. I would say that it's the less nuanced or intriguingly unique of the three that I happened to choose. But it's still a solid bar of quality, small batch chocolate. It holds its own.

My only regret is that Eldora is so close yet so far away. New Mexico is just one state over, but that's just far enough away that I'm not there more than once a year and not always that often. Now I know, though, that a stop in or drive through Albuquerque necessitates some chocolate refueling. 

Friday, October 29, 2021

Eldora Chocolate: Belize Maya Mountain 70%

Coming to the second of the three single origin chocolate bars from Eldora Chocolate, we have the Belize Maya Mountain 70%. I mentioned that I was trying to get less common origins. While Belize I would consider less common, I did review the Belize bar from Zak's Chocolate last year (click here for that post) and named it one of my favorites from them. As I glance back at my comments there, I do see some similar descriptions to what I came up with for this one. 

We have the same simple packaging as before. The handwritten batch number and best by date add to the handmade, small batch appeal. This is the way chocolate is meant to be made: in a personal way. The chocolate's aroma this time around was deeper and more like cocoa nibs. In fact, it was a deeper and stronger scent than I would have expected from the somewhat lower cocoa content of 70%, as compared to say an 85%. 

Yet the flavor begins with what I called a blue sweetness. There was almost perhaps a hint of floral notes within the foggy deepness. After the halfway point, I found the slightest hint of smokiness. Then the chocolate mellowed out while still staying on the dark side. That is, it's dark and edgy but still safe--that is, it doesn't come out with surprising flavors bursting forth. It finishes with a warm last kiss of chocolate.

This chocolate is different but in a subtle way. On one hand, it feels like straightforward chocolate flavor, which is a gentle tone. Yet on the other, it has that edgy depth. And that combination of those two traits is what makes it unique. Again, this is similar to my comments about the Zak's Belize bar, except that I was focusing on metaphors there whereas here I did manage to guess at some flavor notes. I wonder what a side by side of the two would be like. I more commonly have the chance to compare different cocoa origins from the same company than I do the same cocoa origin from different companies. 

This particular bar I chose not just because I haven't had a lot of Belize chocolate but also because I saw that it had won bronze at the International Chocolate Awards. Having now tried the chocolate, I can see why. Once more, Eldora has shown that they can bring about the right texture in a chocolate and also know how to present a full flavor profile to showcase the individuality of each cocoa origin. This particular bar will satisfy if you're looking for a unique expression of flavor notes. 

Thursday, October 28, 2021

Eldora Chocolate: Mexico Chiapas 70%

So far, we've taken a look at Eldora Chocolate's storefront, their Goat Milk Dark Chocolate, and their body care products. Now it's time for the three single origin chocolate 70% bars I also picked up. While there were quite a few to choose from, I tried to get the less common origins or even ones I had never had before. The first would be the Mexico Chiapas 2018. I could be wrong, but I don't believe I've ever had cocoa sourced from Mexico before. 

In the store, they bundled up the three bars I chose and tied them off with a black cord. The look of the packaging is simple and handmade. Clear sleeves are sealed with a large white sticker label. Each chocolate bar is a fairly small square at only one ounce, which means that the $4 price tag is average value for the amount but also easier on the eye than paying $8 or $10 for a larger bar. That makes it easier to try more varieties, or to simply spend less. And I'm always all for making high quality chocolate in smaller amounts rather than more chocolate in lower quality.

Because the chocolate is a smaller square, the Eldora logo covers one side of the bar. It takes on the look of a trading stamp this way, adding to both the vintage and handmade vibes. There are a couple of small air bubbles in the design, but just in a way to show that it's small batch. A simple semisweet aroma accompanies a good snap. 

The chocolate begins with a begins with a mellow, blue flavor like a sweeter, softer version of nibs. As the chocolate melts, the flavor warms and deepens. There is a hint of tanginess after the halfway point, and then it mellows into a rich yet still mild chocolatiness. The finish is perhaps dried fruit, and the aftertaste of brownies. Texture-wise, everything is smooth and solid with neither dustiness nor a plastic feel.

Eldora doesn't provide flavor notes on this one--they just mention that chocolate from this region is some of the most distinctive in the world. I will agree with that. This chocolate is great. There is a classic chocolate feel to its taste and yet the flavors are also nuanced. That pairing means that it will please a range of palates. This chocolate bar shows me that Eldora knows how to handle cocoa and how to coax out a complete flavor profile. As someone who has had plenty of gourmet chocolate over the years, I'm impressed. 

Tuesday, October 26, 2021

Eldora Chocolate: Chocolate Body Care

During my visit to Eldora Chocolate in Albuquerque this summer, I was enticed by all of the chocolate body care products in the shop. While such products aren't unheard of, it is certainly less common to find chocolate body care products that are also organic and free of artificial colors and scents. Artificial chocolate is a horrendous aroma/flavor. So I took advantage of the situation and got two soaps, a lip balm, and a small body butter. Maybe I should instead have chosen more chocolate bars, but this was the choice I made and I'm not unhappy about it.

The body care products are a local collaboration with Tayori. (Side note while talking about artificial colors: while browsing their website, I see some colorful soaps that say they contain "skin safe colorants," so I'm not sure what that means--but either way, the chocolate products don't have those bright colors.) We'll start with the soaps. The first is the plainer one, a simple rectangle marked Organic Lavender Lemon Chocolate Soap. The two bases are olive oil and coconut oil, which is a major plus if like me you try and avoid palm oil (which most people use as a soap base). Lavender and lemon essential oils give aroma, though the scent isn't strong. And yes, in addition to the Eldora cocoa, there is Lavender Lemon Chocolate from Eldora in the soap itself. The perhaps greatest part is that while the soap looks like it contains pieces of lavender, that's an illusion. Rather, there are specks of different-colored soap that give the look of lavender without leaving a floral mess in your sink or shower. It's a good soap.

I'm not sure that photos can adequately portray how beautiful the second soap looked with its buddies in the store. They gleamed like jewels, and my feminine heart had to have one. The Chocolate Salt Heart Soap is brown with golden paint and a sort of flower on top. It's beautiful to display. In use, though, I do have some criticism. The "paint" on the surface of the heart does wash off with a good amount of color. So the first time you use the soap, there will be brown. (There was to a minor degree with the first soap throughout, too.) Not a big deal, but a bit strange. 

And then there is the texture. I didn't pay much attention to the fact that this is a "salt" heart. But yes, there are chucks of Himalayan salt in the soap. That's great if you want to scrub your feet and it's okay if you use it to wash your hands and are gentle in the handing. But if you want to use this as a body soap, you'll probably need to rub the soap bar onto a washcloth and then use that. Otherwise the salt chunks will scratch against your skin. Himalayan salt is great for your skin, so I don't mind it being in here. But it does make the soap a little more difficult to use. It also means that the beautiful heart looks like a chunk of heart-shaped cement after you've started using it. So it won't look as pretty in a bathroom soap dish while in use as it did when it was just decorative.

Next we have the Organic Unscented Chocolate Lip Balm. Notice this again. These products aren't about fake chocolate scents. We're not ten years old shopping at Bath & Body Works for lip gloss. There is no chocolate scent/flavor, but there is chocolate. Once again, it's dark chocolate as well as cocoa butter, since cocoa butter in itself isn't at all unusual for a natural or organic lip balm. Also in here are shea butter, beeswax, coconut oil, and hemp oil. Pretty standard ingredients. 

The lip balm does have a light to medium brown color. But it isn't tinted. So I'm not positive on whether or not it's going to be completely clear and colorless for everyone. I'm light but not very fair; my eyes are dark enough brown as to be almost black. So while I can say that this lip balm doesn't add any brown color on my skin, I can't say whether or not that would be the case for someone who is very fair. When I test it out on the inside of my wrist or on my palm, I don't see any color. So I'm going to go with that as most likely, but you be the judge.

Because of the most likely lack of color, this can be a unisex lip balm, which is nice. While it isn't chocolate-scented, it does of course have a light aroma from all of the rich ingredients. And because of them, it's also very moisturizing. I in fact find that I prefer this lip balm to a similars sort of balm that I regularly use. 

Last we have an item that intrigued me when I was browsing Eldora's website before even going into the store. This is the Organic Chocolate Lavender Body Butter, which I got in the small size just to try it out. It's like a mini jelly jar with the same plain labeling we've been seeing throughout. Ingredients include shea butter, beeswax, coconut oil, olive oil, MCT oil (which I had to look up and is apparently obtained either from coconut or palm kernel oil), castor oil, and of course both cocoa butter and dark chocolate. 

The butter is pale, pale brown like liquid foundation. It smells lovely like lavender--much more so than the soap did. While I don't see this confirmed, given that Eldora uses Los Poblanos lavender in their chocolate, I would expect for the same in these products. I also expect it to be the case given what I've said about the fresh, strong quality of Los Poblanos lavender; I get that same sense from this body butter. Rub a little on your skin and it's like taking a breath of clear air. It you want something calming and clarifying, good lavender will do it. 

Texture-wise, this is a soft and smooth butter. I normally use raw shea butter as lotion/moisturizer/etc., and this is a much softer version of that given the additional oils and the beeswax. So it has that rich, luxury feel in texture that you don't always get from a single ingredient product like solo shea butter. Other than the pale brown color, I don't get any sense of chocolate from it. But that's okay: just knowing there's chocolate in here is fun, and cocoa butter is good for your skin. Aroma-wise, it's the lavender that rules the day for this one. How you use a product like this will vary for you: you can use it as body lotion, you can use it as hand cream, you can use it as a facial moisturizer. Like with the lip balm, there is no color in it once you put it on your skin. 

Overall, I'm pleased with these products. I appreciate the natural ingredients paired with the fun element of chocolate. The quality is high, as are the aesthetics. All of them would make great gifts, especially the body butter. I like that one so much that I'm rationing it and probably need to force myself to just use it up.