2018-11-17

Fantastic Beasts 2 Review

Last night Katie and I went to our first movie in the theater since becoming parents - we're so wild! We didn't love the first Fantastic Beasts film so didn't have very expectations for this one - and that's about what we got. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW!



THE GOOD

  • There are some good visuals, which make seeing this in the theater rewarding.
  • There are some cute and funny creature moments.
  • Johnny Depp and Jude Law are fine in their roles as iconic Wizarding World characters. Neither is really exceptional but they don't really have much to work with either.
  • If tweets using #FantasticBeasts can be believed, the movie seems to be resonating with 17-year-old fangirls, so clearly some people are finding it to be a worthy entry in the franchise.
THE BAD
  • The characters are, for that most part, uninteresting. There are so many of them jam packed into the film that few of them get any development at all. 
  • As a substitute for character development there is a lot of bad, expository dialog. Tell don't show!
  • Even with all the beat-you-over-the-head explanatory dialog, the movie is messy, disjointed, and confusing. It feels like it was stitched together haphazardly instead of edited for a coherent narrative.
  • A number of things that happen in the film - from plot points to character motivations - just don't make any sense.
  • This is sometimes due to inconsistency in the "rules" of magic. The Harry Potter stories took great pains to maintain an internally consistent of the Wizarding World. In these new films it feels like magic is either omnipotent or impotent depending on what the plot calls for at the moment - and seldom in between. As a consequence there is no real tension during any of the pivotal scenes.
  • There are blatant conflicts with established Harry Potter canon.
  • As usual with David Yates, the direction is fine but just kind of paint-by-number.
  • For all of this, the film is, I hate to say, boring.

THE UGLY

  • Like The Hobbit, Fantastic Beasts 2 forces in so many unnecessary references to the previous Harry Potter installments as to detract from the film itself. I mean, really? Dumbledore teaches bogarts the exact same way Lupin (who had a different Defense Against the Dark Arts professor) would go on to teach them 70 years later? *Eye roll* These are more than subtle easter eggs; they're overt, cheap fan service.
  • The Fantastic Beasts series is supposed to expand the Wizarding World but every new character seems to be related to characters we already know. Between this and the preponderance of heavy handed references, it serves to shrink the wizarding world instead.
  • The collective effect is turning the Wizarding World into a soap opera. Who did what now? Oh no he di-idn't! So-and-so had a secret baby with whom? Oh my! Every Wizarding World piece Rowling has written since the Harry Potter novels has relied on these sorts of cheap twists - rather than epic fantasy, it's like we're watching the Jerry Springer show.
The Fantastic Beasts films feel like Rowling wanted to explore what the Wizarding World would be like outside of Britain. She did that a little more thoroughly - although not well - in the first Fantastic Beasts, set in New York. This installment is even more superficial; it is set in Paris but there isn't really any reason for it to be there other than some pretty cinematography. We don't really learn anything about the magic community in France nor do we really meet any French characters of consequence.

I would love to blame Yates but the fault here is really Rowling's. JKR has proven herself to be a fantastic author of British boarding school mystery novels disguised as fantasy but a very mediocre author of stage and film scripts of different genres about the Wizarding World outside of Hogwarts. One of Rowling's motivations is noble. I think her very homogeneous Harry Potter novels don't, in hindsight, mesh with her politics and so she is aiming to "set things right" through prequels. That's a very dangerous game, though, and I can't think of many examples besides Tolkien who ever got that right - and it took him decades of careful work to do so.

All that said, I think you have to reserve ultimate judgement on a middle film until its series is complete. Many viewers were not sold on The Empire Strikes Back when it was released and only upon the final resolution of The Return of the Jedi did they see how well Empire set up a tidy conclusion. It is possible that Rowling has a compelling, coherent narrative about Ariana Dumbledore being an Obscurus, Grindelwald taking inspiration from his big fight with the Dumbledores which motivates him to use Credence as a weapon, etc. but it is hard for me to imagine a anything very satisfying at this point - and especially something that doesn't break all the canon from 70 years later. But we shall see!

At the end of the day this is a pretty, messy, boring film that tries to expand the Wizarding World but actually shrinks it. There are some fun moments and it is worth seeing once by any Potterhead but I probably won't see it again.

2018-11-08

Lovett College Turns 50

Our family traveled to Houston for Rice Homecoming last weekend. As always, it was an excellent opportunity to reconnect with our alma mater and see myriad dear friends in a pretty short time. Additionally, any trip to Houston affords us the opportunity to eat our fill of Texas BBQ and Tex Mex! The weather was gorgeous for our 48 hours in town and it was wonderful to return to our old stomping ground.


In addition to attending all the regular Homecoming festivities, this year we also celebrated the 50th anniversary of the founding of Lovett College. This included two days of celebration events - both informal and formal - and even a special wine tasting. As Lovett was our home away from home during our university years, this year's additional time spent there felt like a true homecoming.

We will probably have to wait 10 years for the next such celebration but frankly we wouldn't mind if we did it every year - EOL RRF!


2018-10-29

Enchanted by Ireland 4

After leaving The Burren, we spent the next day at Bunratty Castle. Now this place was very cool - not castle ruins but a fully intact 15th century castle that was restored in the 1950s.

After lunch at next door Durty Nelly (total tourist trap but not bad), we walked around the castle grounds. There they recreated a medieval village so it was fun to drop by the blacksmith, stables, pig pen, etc. There was even a fairy village - so magical!

We then toured the castle itself and that was well worth the price of admission! The [narrow!] spiral staircases in the stone turrets really transported me to a different time and out on the top ramparts I could survey "my" territory for kms around.



We left Bunratty for afternoon tea at the Savoy in Limerick. The walls were lined with bookshelves so it felt very much like tea in an old library - very charming! Of course I had Guinness with my tea because Ireland!

In the evening we returned to Bunratty Castle for a medieval banquet. We were greeted by harpists, madrigal singers, and mead. Then dinner was right up my alley as there were no utensils! We had soup, ribs, and capon while being serenaded by more singers in period costume. It felt straight out of Game of Thrones!

This marked the end of our time in County Clare but what magical time it was - we must definitely return sometime and tarry longer.


2018-10-28

Enchanted by Ireland 3

After our amazing day at the Cliffs of Moher, we took the following day to visit a nearby island, Inis Oírr. In contrast to the previous day's crisp, sunny weather, this day was cold, gray, and drizzly. Visiting a small island in such gray, drizzly weather reminded me of Cairnholm in Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children. This wasn't the first fantastic literary or film reference that Ireland conjured up for me and it wouldn't be the last.

The ferry we took to the island was called - and I'm not making this up - The Happy Hooker. Upon our arrival we stopped at a (the?) pub for a pint and some biscuitcake to ensure that that we were adequately fortified to walk around the [tiny] island.

Toward one end of the island, the landscape was quite barren, full of smooth rocks with crevasses and rivulets carved out by eons of wind and waves. This landscape seemed almost alien. Still, in a few spots, some green managed to take hold because, after all, Inis Oírr is still in Ireland and that means green!

We happened upon a touching memorial for fisherman who had been lost to sea before walking back to the other end of the island where we explored the ruins of O'Brien Castle. These ruins would have been very fitting for a scene from Highlander but, fortunately, we didn't encounter any immortals intent on decapitating us.

The following morning we went for a run up into The Burren. It was supposed to be a long, steady out-and-back run but, due to the extraordinary picturesqueness of the area it turned into an intervals workout because I had to keep stopping to take pictures and then run quickly to catch up with my running partners!


Only five days into our Ireland trip and we were already hopelessly smitten by this beautiful country!

2018-10-27

Enchanted by Ireland 2

A year ago, Katie and I had a magical trip to Ireland. I began blogging about it but never finished. At long last, here is more of the story!

After leaving Galway, we based the next segment of our trip in County Clare, renting a little cottage in Fanore. The cottage was really charming (using peat instead of logs for the fireplace!) and was situated just at the edge of The Burren, which featured very striking landscapes!

We had dinner the first night at a nearby pub, O'Donohue's, where we had more fish n' chips, more beef 'n Guinness stew, and more . . . Guinness! A lovely twilight stroll back to the cottage took us past many pastures full of cattle who were surprisingly scared of us.

The next day was certainly a highlight of the trip. We spent the first half of the day hiking 18.5 km along the Cliffs of Moher. The grass at the tops of the cliffs was so vibrantly green, it was easy to see why Ireland is called "the Emerald Isle." By contrast, the sides of the cliffs that fell so sharply down to the sea were stark gray rock but just as striking to see.

Some of the trails we hiked were quite precarious - very near the edge with a dropoff of hundreds of meters and/or requiring that we leap over open gaps in the path. This was made all the more difficult by very blustery winds that threatened to blow us off the trail. Still, the weather was generally pretty good and the entire hike was so beautiful that we found ourselves stopping every few steps to take pictures.



A neat feature of the Cliffs of Moher is the visitors center, which is essentially an eco-friendly hobbit hole built into the ground! It is accessible by car so, even if you aren't as into hiking as we are, it is well worth a visit.

That afternoon we took a boat along Ireland's west coast to see . . . the Cliffs of Moher! It was really cool to see from below what we had spent the day seeing from above. From this vantage it was easy to recognize them as the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride. The boat also brought us close to the Branaunmore sea stack that features prominently in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince.

That night we dined at Monk's in nearby Ballyvaughan (Excellent seafood!) and slept very, very soundly.

2018-10-22

Eurotrip with the Bambino

Last week we returned from a week-long trip to Switzerland and Italy - with baby in tow - and it was quite an adventure!

We began our trip with two days in Lausanne. My IMD MBA Class of 2008 was celebrating our 10-year reunion, which means I've now been blogging for more than 10 years too! The reunion was fantastic with well organized activities - social, professional, and educational - and the weather was idyllic for enjoying the beautiful locale outside of the scheduled events.



~40% of our class (plus families) showed up and it was wonderful to see so many dear friends at the site of the "crucible" where our strong bonds were forged. For the first time, though, the joy of our reunion was tempered by those who could not be there. Our class suffered its first loss this year as a classmate died suddenly and several classmates could not attend the reunion due to treatments for cancer or other afflictions. They were dearly missed and it was a reminder to us all of the fragility of life and the need to prioritize the things that really matter.

The reunion continued for four days but we departed after two in order to visit relatives in Italy. We flew to Napoli, rented a car, and drove to Lucera, the small Pugliese town where my relatives live. When we stopped along the highway to pick up a couple of bottles of water for the road, we were pleased to discover that the gas station was offering extremely fresh mozzarella and locals were coming from kilometers around to purchase some. The father-son team who ran the station prepared a couple of sandwiches for us with that fresh mozzarella, prosciutto, and freshly baked bread - not bad for gas station food and definitely #onlyinitalia!

Our three days in Lucera were joyful. We hadn't seen these relatives since our wedding seven years ago so this reunion was long overdue. Additionally, it was a particular joy to introduce them to the next generation of our family since it had been nearly half a century since the arrival of the most recent addition on their side. Our Italian relatives have always been incredibly welcoming of us but, with a bambino now upping the ante, they went into full-on doting mode! Our kiddo was a little off of his usual schedule but there was no shortage of family members lining up for a turn to hold him and settle him down.

We spent some time touring around Lucera - walking around the castle, visiting local churches, and taking pictures at the house where my father was born - but, frankly, most of our time in Lucera was spent eating. I, of course, wouldn't have it any other way! It was a short trip but certainly enough to keep the relationship going between our side of the family and theirs.



I don't know if our son will identify with the Italian side of his family as I have or if he will ever learn Italian; that will be his choice. I am pleased, though, that he spent some days feeling the Italian love and being surrounded by the beautiful, undulating language - not to mention the amazing food - such that the culture will always be at least a small part of him.

We had two full days of travel to return to the States - one day back to Geneva and then the next day back to NC. I'm really, really glad we did this trip, though. It is easy to be intimidated by the prospect of international travel with a little one but we have many friends who, to borrow a popular tag line, just do it. We have been inspired by them (And certainly we have been beneficiaries of their advice!) and now we are pleased to have moved down the experience curve ourselves a bit, hopefully laying the foundations for more adventures in the future! Bon voyage and buon viaggio!!!

2018-09-19

My Entrepreneurship Principles: Culture

While I was hunkered down surviving Hurricane Florence, I had further opportunity to reflect on my principles as an entrepreneur. In the first part of this brief series on Mindful Entrepreneurship, I laid out my keys to the entrepreneurial process. In this second part, I will focus on culture.



Culture
  • Culture matters a lot. In my experience, ventures don't succeed or fail because of business models or technologies but rather because of people. Creating a culture of exploration and freedom to experiment is key to any learning organization, but especially to a startup.
  • A startup's culture must free its employees to take big swings and to risk failure. A startup can't "play scared" but rather must be open to failure. The key is to fail quickly, fail cheaply, and - most importantly - fail mindfully, learning and adapting through the process.
  • A startup is a learning organization and learning is its primary function. It is essentially a neural network programming itself and reprogramming itself through interactions with the  market. Learning isn't a black magic buzz word, though; it is a process that can be measured. I find one of the best ways to tune a culture's learning orientation is to use performance metrics to track the rate - hypotheses tested per unit time and cycle time per hypothesis test - and efficacy - hypotheses validated over time - of its learning processes. Fancy people call this "innovation accounting." To me it's just measuring the processes that are vital to the success of the venture.
  • An absolutely crucial cultural element of any learning organization is psychological safety. In a psychologically safe environment, team members regardless of level feel free to challenge assumptions, to critique initiatives, and to risk failure. Psychological safety can be measured and I am a proponent of assessing it frequently. 
  • Learning organizations need a healthy dose of skepticism, without which it is easy to get caught up in zeitgeist or invest in scaling unvalidated business models. A simple tool I use to foster a culture of skepticism is frequently asking, "Why?" This challenges team members to focus on their evidence - not their conclusions - and demonstrates that it is OK to ask to see that evidence and debate whether it really does lead to that conclusion. Especially with new team members, I will often ask, "Why," about my own ideas to accelerate their onboarding into a skeptical culture. 
  • Skepticism goes a long way toward combating groupthink but I also believe in the value of diverse teams. Research shows time and again that diverse teams make better decisions than homogeneous teams and, more importantly for a startup, diversity brings inherent differences in perspective that are crucial for a startup searching for a path through the infinite, unknowable future.
  • Contrary to much of the current startup mythos, I believe in a startup culture of work-life harmony rather than hyperwork. Balanced, well rested team members work more productively, stick around longer, and generate better insights than those who are overstretched. I try to foster intentional breaks during the work day, have walking meetings when possible, and adopt very open policies regarding hours, leave, etc. (I've always been inspired by the Netflix culture policy.)
  • Finally, I think it's important to have fun in a startup. This can mean different things to different people but the point is that fundamentally working on an exciting venture should be a joy. I try to bring my own fun to the office (high tea in the afternoons if I'm dragging, Formal Friday so our normally casual interns get to dress up occasionally, ad hoc games of Calvinball throughout the office space) but, moreover, I encourage others to bring their own fun, which is often contagious.
Culture doesn't create itself, though, so my next post will be on the leadership necessary to instill such a culture and execute the entrepreneurial process.