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.