2018-04-16

Austin BBQ Tour

Katie had a conference in Austin and I had customers, vendors, and investors to visit there so we coordinated our trip together. Of course I also took the opportunity to indulge in a little Texas BBQ while I was in town.

North Carolina has excellent BBQ but it is pretty limited to whole hog pulled pork - and the ribs are pretty good too. However, when you see brisket on an NC BBQ menu, run the other way. It is often grayish and tough like pot roast and invariably lacks the spicy bark, smoke ring, and fall-apart-on-your-fork/melt-in-your-mouth-ness that I associate with the best beef BBQ in TX.

Texas BBQ itself is experiencing something of a renaissance. 10 years ago, if you wanted the best of the best, you had to make a pilgrimage out to small country towns. Then Franklin BBQ set up shop in Austin and the bar for craft BBQ inside the city limits of major metro areas was forever raised. Many others followed suit - not just in Austin but in other big TX cities as well. It's a great time to be alive if you love beef BBQ!

I hit five BBQ joints in 48 hours and I had immense help from Packy Saunders in prioritizing/planning my tour. If you like food, you should be following Packy on Instagram.

1. Micklethwait Craft Meats
We went straight from the airport to Micklethwait, arriving ~noon. Micklethwait is a food truck with a pretty solid expanded setup, including a separate smoker trailer and shaded seating. I dragged a few of Katie's colleagues with me such that we could try almost the entire menu:
From front to back:

  • beef rib (good flavor but some tough parts)
  • pulled pork (good)
  • pulled lamb (excellent)
  • brisket (very good)
  • lemon poppy cole slaw (good)
  • potato salad (good)
  • carrot cake whoopie pie (very good) - I think this was provided by I Knead That.
  • brisket frito pie (excellent)
  • TexCzech sausage (good)
  • pork spare ribs (good)
  • barbacoa (meh, kind of dry/tough)
  • jalapeno cheese grits (good)
  • beans (good)
Everything was a little saltier than it needed to be but the flavor was good. The hands down winner was the brisket frito pie, although the pulled lamb was a close second. By the time we left (~13:00), they were running out of the non-staples - so I'm glad we got the lamb when we did!

After a short run along the lake to try to combat all the meat carnage, I headed to Terry Black's by myself. 
From front to back:
  • peach cobbler (good)
  • lean brisket (meh, pretty dry)
  • moist brisket (good)
  • mac n' cheese (ok)
  • banana pudding (excellent)
Combining the brisket with the mac n' cheese was a winner but the banana pudding was definitely the standout. There was nothing exceptional about Terry Black's BBQ, but A. I was there near closing and B. I only tried the brisket so I will reserve judgment until I've had a chance to try more.

The weather was unseasonably cool so I began the next day with a long run around the lake - just what I needed to make room for more BBQ! Valentina's is pretty far south (~20 minute drive) and is another food truck with shaded seating. ~10AM there was no line. They had both BBQ and Tex Mex on the menu but my pro tip from Packy was to stick to the breakfast tacos.

Left to right:
  • Smoked brisket taco with salsa and guacamole (very good)
  • The Real Deal Holyfield with brisket, bacon, fried egg, refried beans, potatoes, and salsa (AMAZEBALLS)
Valentina's did not let me down; the Real Deal alone was worth the price of admission. I can't judge how good their BBQ is on its own but the flavor combination in that Real Deal was a knockout
!

After a day of business meetings, I took another 20-minute drive south to this food truck. I arrived right at 5 PM (when their dinner menu opens up) and there was no line. With a pint of Yellow Rose from the next door bar, it was a hell of a way to unwind after a packed day.
  • Mac n' cheese stuffed quail with kimchi and mustard greens (good - neither the mac nor the quail is that exceptional by itself but using a smoked bird as a utensil for conveying mac n' cheese to my mouth is a big winner, plus points for the accouterments)
  • Brisket cookie (very good - they use brisket drippings to give it a little smoke and salt and I wouldn't have minded a little more)
  • L&L burger (not pictured, excellent - brisket burger with cheese, pickles, onions, and sauce)
The menu here was less traditional but everything I had was very good. I love, love, LOVE that they make their BBQ sauce with beets. I don't blame the other BBQ joints for mass producing their sauces with bad ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup but I do strongly prefer this approach.

After hearing about Franklin for years I finally decided to take the plunge. I woke up early, went for a preemptive strike run, and then arrived at Franklin around 8 AM. They offer chairs to the first 30 or so people in line, which made the wait much easier. They also very considerately came out and asked each of us for our intended orders so they could warn people farther back if they might run out of some meats. They opened their doors at 10:59 but, even at #15 in line, I didn't reach the counter to order until ~11:30.
Front to back:
  • ribs (excellent, truly the surprise meat)
  • brisket (very good)
  • turkey (very good for turkey - still not as good as anything else there)
  • sausage (good)
  • pulled pork (very good)
  • Tipsy Texan (AMAZEBALLS - chopped brisket, sliced sausage, coleslaw, pickles, and onions)
  • banana bourbon tart (not pictured, good - very boozy!)
I didn't find any of Franklin's meats to be markedly better than those of the other top places in Austin. What makes Franklin special is really the experience. Sitting around with others "of your tribe" who are excited enough for good BBQ to devote an entire morning to it is something akin to tailgating. I made some fast friends in that line and the wait was over before I knew it. Franklin has the operation down to a science and they are very accommodating, opening up their bathrooms and selling beer long before their 11:00 open time. 

After much reflection, these are the top things I had during my whirlwind Austin BBQ tour:
  1. Real Deal Holyfield at Valentina's
  2. Tipsy Texan at Franklin
  3. L & L Burger at LeRoy and Lewis
  4. Brisket Frito Pie at Micklethwait
Noticing a pattern here? None of these are individual cuts of meat; they're all combos in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. I think the best Houston BBQ joints are on par with the best of Austin when it comes to individual cuts of meat (e.g. the beef rib at Killen's). Austin BBQ is distinguishing itself at the moment through inventive flavor combinations and, as much as I love brisket, ribs, and sausage by themselves, these innovative combos are really refreshing.

What do you think? Have I got the right of it or missed the point entirely? Regardless, after all this coverage of smokey, salty meat, let me leave you with a very boozey Guinness ice cream cookie sandwich from Amy's to cleanse your palate:

2018-03-10

Startup Fundraising: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

One year ago today, Smart Office Energy Solutions closed a $1.3M angel round of funding. We've accomplished a great deal since then - expanded the team, finished gen-1 product development, obtained all the requisite certifications for our hardware, and built a large sales pipeline - but I find anniversaries to be a good time to pause and reflect.

This is a presentation on startup fundraising I gave a few days ago to entrepreneurship students at the University of Wyoming. In it, I review the pros and cons of several different startup fundraising strategies, using Smart OES and my previous startups as specific case studies.



Toward the end of the presentation, I take a deep dive into Smart OES's three rounds. The quantitative analysis provides some interesting insights:

  • We had a 0% success rate trying to raise funds from people who were not part of our networks. 100% of our investment came from people we knew or people to whom we were introduced.
  • Former colleagues invested the most (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) in my venture. The trust developed by working with or for someone is a real asset in early-stage fundraising.
  • A similar trust clearly is formed in the academic setting as well because a good deal of our investment came through my school networks. Interestingly, Rice contacts invested more (in total invested, mean investment size, and median investment size) than did IMD contacts.
  • Second-degree contacts became much more likely to invest over time. It is helpful, therefore, for startup founders to engage "smart" money (in this case, investors with connections to other investors) early on.
  • Similarly, the value of repeat investors increased over time, demonstrating the value of engaging investors with the capacity to follow on.
  • Geographically, investors in Texas out-invested investors in Switzerland 2:1. However, using my LinkedIn network size (1,100 contacts in Texas; 250 contacts in Switzerland) as a denominator, the Swiss outperformed the Texans on a per capita basis. Most disappointingly, we didn't raise a penny from North Carolina (where I have 300 contacts!) - and not for lack of trying.
  • Unsurprisingly phone calls and in-person meetings were more effective than emailing or messaging on social networks in leading to investment.
We've just opened up a new funding round (with more than 25% already committed by existing investors!) so we're putting these learnings into practice to be better/smarter/faster this time around.

2018-03-02

Review: The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower The Dark Tower Series Collection: The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, The Waste Lands, Wizard and Glass, Wolves of the Calla, Song of Susannah, The Dark Tower by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow! The Dark Tower series really blew me away. I'm not a fan of the horror genre so I have never read any Stephen King novels before. Of course, as a fan of movie adaptations of his non-horror works, I have long known that he does stray from the genre occasionally but I was never terribly motivated to give him a try.

However, The Dark Tower kept showing up on lists of top FANTASY books, and that is a genre that I truly love. Last year, in preparation for the [bad] Dark Tower movie, I decided to give the first Dark Tower novel a try and - BAM - I was hooked!

From the opening lines of the novel, King uses evocative language to captivate the reader. He creates rich, complex characters and an interesting, immersive world that leaves the reader wanting to know more about it - and about how it came to be. With eight novels to date and probably more to come (King has claimed to have been done with the series multiple times before but it keeps calling to him.), the series scratches that itch satisfyingly.

Interestingly, different novels take on very different tones. Some might be considered dark western fantasy; some might be considered time travel mystery; some might be considered dystopian future sci fi. They provide substantial variety - but always with the same core of well developed characters, so there is a mix of familiarity and novelty.

The series began as a few short stories that were kind of mashed up into a novel. Then King had an idea for a follow-on novel. Then another. Then a prequel. Then a three-novel meta-series that would tie the Dark Tower into all of his other works. Then another prequel. Organically The Dark Tower has grown into his magnum opus over the course of more than four decades.

In some ways I think King's reach exceeds his grasp and he stretches a little too far trying to massage tie-ins of his other works into the later books in this series but, still, I found every book to be very interesting without a single disappointing entry.

It's hard for me to qualify a recommendation for this series with "if you like XYZ genre" because the series is so broad and expansive. So, let me leave my recommendation as such: I see now what the big deal is about Stephen King.

View all my reviews

2018-03-01

2018 Winter Olympics Wrap-Up

Another Olympics has come and gone so it is once again time to take a look at who "won" the Games by several different metrics. Per my previous posts, I continue to use a weighted scoring system to tally up Olympic medals by country. This year I once again tracked not just the medal counts but also economic and demographic metrics for each country - you can see my full spreadsheet here.



Norway was the clear victor in medal scores, winning in every category: golds, silvers, bronzes, total medals, and weighted medal score. The top performers by weighted medal score were:
123 - Norway
107 - Germany
89   - Canada
75   - USA
64   - Netherlands
Norway went from a weighted medal count of 75 in 2010 to 80 in 2014 to explode this year - a true success story! Meanwhile Russia has gone the opposite direction, from 91 (#1) four years ago to 37 (#12) this year. Russia was technically banned from competition this year for doping . . . and yet three Russian athletes competing as individuals were caught for doping at this year's games anyway!

Because Norway is so small, it crushed the competition even (especially!) when normalized by population. The top performers by weighted medal score per million citizens were:
23.43 - Norway
5.60   - Switzerland
5.49   - Sweden
4.59   - Austria
3.77   - Netherlands

These countries are all pretty affluent, though, so how do things change if we normalize instead by GDP? Not much! The top performers by weighted medal score per $B GDP (PPP) were:
0.33 - Norway
0.14 - Liechtenstein
0.10 - Sweden
0.09 - Austria
0.09 - Switzerland

We can mix up the leaderboard a little bit if we normalize by GDP per capita. The top performers by weighted medal score per $1,000 GDP per capita were:
2.12 - Germany
1.84 - Canada
1.71 - Norway
1.51 - China
1.35 - Olympic Athletes from Russia

Many congratulations to Norway, a small country that absolutely crushed much larger and richer countries than itself at this year's Olympics - well done! Keep up the good work and we'll hope to give you more competition in four years!


2018-02-26

Escape To Margaritaville

Exactly five lunar years after our last trip to New York City, Katie and I traveled to NYC last weekend and, while we were there, we saw Jimmy Buffett's new Broadway musical, Escape To Margaritaville! Here is my spoiler-free review:


THE GOOD
  • The vocal talent is awesome - especially the women! If you're a Buffett fan, it's really cool to hear familiar songs sung with range, multi-part harmonies, and vibrato! It's especially interesting to hear some classic Buffett songs sung by women, which makes for an entirely new tone - and even meaning - to songs you know by heart. I can't wait to get my hands on the cast recording!
  • The song list is a good mix of well known hits and more obscure songs from the Buffett catalog. 
  • The musical takes full advantage of the medium and creates some truly fantastic scenes. If you're a Buffett fan, you've been waiting your entire life to see the full audio-visual realization of Cheeseburger, Volcano, and more - even if you didn't know it! Seriously; a few of the music numbers are worth the price of admission all by themselves.
  • Some parts of the show are just really, really fun. There is one scene, for example, that makes no sense whatsoever, and seems like more of a "Jimmy said that, if this is a Broadway show, it has to have THIS element in it," but it still totally works because it's so fun. The ending also does a really faithful job of recreating the experience of being at a Buffett concert - so much fun!
  • The show is really self aware. It doesn't take itself or its source material too seriously, which is very coherent with its fun tone. There is subtle - and not-so-subtle - political commentary slipped in too, which I really enjoyed.
  • The show is loaded with references to Buffett songs. Sometimes those are paid off eventually with a musical number but sometimes they are left as Easter eggs for fans. Because the show is still in previews, it's possible that these references are actually "orphaned" setups for different musical numbers that we didn't see in our show because they are still playing around with the final set list but, either way, I enjoyed all the additional references.
  • There are some good characters and plot arcs - especially including some strong women!

THE BAD
  • Many of the songs stop prematurely; one or two verses are sung and then the actors return to their dialog. As I have blogged previously, Jimmy Buffett is a storyteller; each of his songs has its own narrative arc. Aborting the song before it reaches its conclusion felt unfulfilling to me.
  • Many song lyrics were changed to fit the song into the overall narrative of the show. Some of these changes keep the song's intent but some of them completely change the song's meaning. I totally get why they did it and, in some cases, I found it to be quite clever. In many cases, though, it subverted my expectations so kind of took me out of the song. 
  • In a couple of places the show weaves multiple songs together into a revolving medley of sorts. Further to my point above about the song lyrics, in some ways I think it was quite clever (E.g. they blend together Coconut Telegraph and Head Hurts / Feet Stinks, both of which march through the days of the week.) but overall it doesn't quite work for me. I feel like it's almost there but its reach just exceeds its grasp. Again I understand why it was done for narrative purposes but it came at the cost of the music.
  • The crowd, at least at our show, was really timid. You could tell that many people really wanted to sing along but weren't quite sure whether that was encouraged or even allowed. During a couple of numbers - and increasingly as the show progressed - people threw caution to the wind and belted it out, which was really fun. If the show could find a better way to make it clear early on if/when singing along is encouraged, I think it would really enhance the experience.
  • There are some bad characters and plot arcs - unfortunately including the central love arc.


THE UGLY
  • Nothing to see here!

FINAL THOUGHTS

Buffett fans might be disappointed by some of the changes to songs they know and love but overall will love the Broadway spectacle-ization of his canon. Non-Buffett fans may not experience quite the same highs as those who already love the music but also won't have any expectations to be subverted by the changes. Those seeking serious theater should probably stay away (Duh?) but this is a really fun, light-hearted jukebox musical with great music for everyone else. Attending this show will definitely change your latitude/attitude for a few hours!

2017-12-20

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Katie and I saw Last Jedi opening night, of course, and this was my initial, knee-jerk, non-spoiler reaction: mixed feelings. Some aspects I loved; some I wasn't so sure about. Some comedy was lol; some fell flat. Some emotional beats gave me #allthefeels; some felt unearned. Some plot points confusing but mostly good tension that kept me guessing.



It's a long movie with a lot going on so it has taken me longer than usual to unpack and process. After a second viewing, though, and much discussion, I am now ready to share my full review. WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW! OK, let's do this thing.

THE GOOD

  • Let's start with the obvious: this is an audiovisual tour de force. Both times I have seen it have been in IMAX and it has simply been breathtaking - literally! During the silent period during which Holdo's ship light speeds through Snoke's, there were audible gasps all around me.
  • The movie doesn't just look beautiful; the score is amazing as well. John Williams has come through once again. This time he didn't invent any iconic new themes, but he did blend many familiar ones in ways that really heighten the emotional impact of what is happening on screen.
  • The actors brought their A games. There are several emotional scenes and, because the actors killed it, I had all the feels.
  • Last Jedi features some of the best action we've seen yet in the Star Wars universe. Rey and Kylo's fight against the Praetorian Guards was very well choreographed and I loved Kylo and Luke's Samurai / Western standoff on Crait. By giving each character a distinct fighting style they illuminate the differences between them. I also enjoyed Poe's aerobatics more in this movie because they weren't undercut by the extremely contrived, "That's one hell of a pilot," as the were in The Force Awakens. In Last Jedi we get to see what makes him "the best pilot in the Resistance." 
  • There are some genuinely LOL moments (although I'll discuss the downside of them in the BAD section).
  • Yoda returns to form as a puppet and as a whimsical, laughing, old Jedi. I missed this version of him!
  • I'm really glad that Rey's parents turned out to be nobodies. I think the message that you don't have to be born into a "pureblood" family to be strong with the Force is a really great one - and is reinforced by the child we see at the end.
  • The film sets up payoffs far in advance. For example, Kylo says to Rey that she can't be Force projecting herself across such great distance because the effort would kill her. Much later, Luke Force projects himself across a great distance . . . and the effort kills him. Luke tells Rey early on that everything she said was wrong . . . and then tells Kylo the same thing at the end. I appreciate the attention to these little details.
  • While The Force Awakens featured many familiar beats that seemed repetitive, familiar beats in Last Jedi were often subverted. Snoke's throne room showdown, defending a base against ground assault on a white planet, etc. - these are all things that seem familiar but then, to paraphrase Luke, they don't go the way we think. In such a way, these beats "rhyme with" previous beats rather than repeat them. The repeated subversion of our expectations also builds good tension.
  • One way in which expectations are subverted is that, in multiple subplots, our protagonists actually fail to achieve their objectives, which I really like. Because Star Wars is more fantasy fairy tale than it is sci fi, we come to expect our exceptional heroes always to win out - and it really throws us for a loop when they don't. That's refreshing and, moreover, it is thoroughly coherent with one of the movie's messages that it is OK to fail.
  • It was a bold move to kill off not only the primary antagonist (and before the third act!) but also the greatest hero of the franchise. I appreciate that this movie took more risks than The Force Awakens - although not all of them paid off (See below.).
  • I remain really impressed that, after 40 years and eight films, they are still innovating creatures and vehicles. Every movie features some interesting new stuff and this one is no exception.
THE BAD
  • I'm far from the only person to call this out but the Canto Bight subplot didn't work for me. It felt like a monolithic side quest that took a lot of time and really didn't add much to the narrative or characters. Moreover, I was really underwhelmed by their entire realization of Canto Bight. Given an infinite budget and the goal to create a galactic version of a casino planet, what do we get? Basically a terrestrial casino with a slight alien "skin" over it. Really disappointing and not very creative at all.  
  • Although I found some of the comedy pretty funny, I found much of it to be tonally incoherent. In a film that did a good job building tension, setting the stakes, and bringing real gravitas to the plot, I too often found myself pulled out of the movie by jarring humor that just didn't seem to fit.
  • The other side of the expectation subversion coin is that I felt the movie tried too hard - and too frequently - to introduce "twists." From the opening bombing run to the throne room showdown, to Holdo's light speed maneuver, the film tries over and over again to lure you into thinking things will go one way only to reveal that they unsurprisingly are going the opposite way. This trope gets old very quickly for me. Some reveals I thought were fantastic - like Luke Force projecting himself - but these myriad others were cheaper and generally unnecessary.
  • The basis for a major portion of the plot makes no sense. Fuel isn't necessary to maintain a constant speed in space; it is necessary to accelerate (and possibly maintain basic ship functions). If the Resistance ships were lighter and faster than the star destroyers, they should have been able to run away from them. I don't lean too hard on sci fi movies to get everything right, but this is really basic.
  • I didn't buy the Rose-Finn romance at all. It came out of nowhere and seemed completely unearned. It also seemed cheap that Rose - a career mechanic - was able to pilot a snow speeder deftly at the end. Because . . . the plot required it I guess?
  • For the second movie in a row, Domhnall Gleeson was completely wasted. Hux went from being a total caricature of a petulant child (with poor writing to boot!) in The Force Awakens to being a total caricature of a petulant child and a foil for comic relief in Last Jedi. It makes no sense that this character would be a general at all.
  • And speaking of wasted actors, it was nice to see Gwendoline Christie get a little more screen time in this film but she was still largely wasted. Other than cool armor (Why don't all the storm troopers have it since it seems to be the only armor that actually protects against blaster bolts??) her character doesn't bring much to the narrative and that's a shame.
THE UGLY
  • The worst part of this movie by far was the Holdo-Poe subplot, which felt ridiculous and entirely manufactured. Poe has been described as the best pilot in the Resistance and he is clearly a leader among his squad. It seems entirely goofy to me that he and Leia would not be on the same page regarding the objectives of his squad's mission (evacuate safely, not destroy the dreadnought) and then everything he does after that seems even more contrived. We really didn't see much of Poe in The Force Awakens so I can't claim that this writing is incoherent with his established character; it just didn't seem very believable to me.
  • On top of a manufactured conflict from Poe, Holdo then seems written in an equally unbelievable way. She is condescending and insulting to Poe and then she is deliberately keeping her crew in the dark about her plans (She then chastises Poe for doing the same thing.), which is piss poor leadership in a crisis situation. You can do some mental gymnastics to explain away her behavior but it also feels very contrived.
  • The entire point of this sub-plot seems to have been to teach Poe a lesson - but what lesson? That the Resistance should strive for blind obedience to authoritarianism - the very thing that they are fighting??
  • The consequence of this subplot is that this is the first Star Wars film that feels really episodic to me. It reminds me of a Clone Wars or Rebels episode: there is some manufactured conflict with one character clearly needing to learn some lesson; hi-jinx ensue until said character learns his or her lesson. That formulaic heavy handedness is appropriate for a half hour kids show - but not for a Star Wars film.
  • Also, why didn't Holdo turn around immediately and go light speed through the ship instead of waiting until many Resistance transport ships were lost? Everything about this subplot is wrong.
THE AMAZEBALLS


  • I found Luke's final act to be awesome in just about every way. From the epic Samurai / Western showdown (audiovisually stunning) to the reveal that he is Force projecting (another moment when there were audible gasps in the audience) to his peaceful death before a binary sunset, I just loved it. Rey said the Resistance needed a legend, to which Luke responded, "What do you think I'm going to walk out with my laser sword and take on the entire First Order?" And then he does exactly that. Except he does it in a way that outsmarts his opponent rather than beating him physically. Rather than beating Kylo with a lightsaber, he beats him through a much higher command of the Force. It is transcendent and it is glorious.
  • The messages in this film may be some of my favorite in the series. Anyone can be strong with the Force. Failure is a great teacher. No one is ever really gone. This last message struck me particularly hard as I recently lost a dear family member. Given this trilogy's role in moving away from the original trilogy characters we have loved for decades, Luke's final words weren't just to Kylo; they were to us.
The Last Jedi has plenty of good and plenty of bad. After two viewings, I find that the good strongly outweighs the bad. The good is really good and the bad is mostly contained. It probably helps that it finishes on such a strong note. This film provided many surprises and explored new territory. It took some risks, not all of which paid off. But, as Yoda teaches us, "the greatest teacher, failure is."

I, for one, will rewatch Episode VIII many more times and I am looking forward to Episode IX!

2017-10-15

Blade Runner 2049 Review

I found Blade Runner 2049 to be positively captivating. It was long and slow but very immersive and I enjoyed almost every minute of it. Villeneuve deftly walked the line between paying homage to the tone and style of the original and exploring new, interesting territory. It is brilliantly directed, very well acted, and realized spectacularly through cinematography and score.



***WARNING: THERE BE SPOILERS BELOW***

The Good

  • The story is solid. There is a point of view out there that this movie looks pretty but has a weak plot; I don't buy it. I found the story - while not perfect - to be very compelling. It has elements of a classic hero's journey but it also has twists that subvert viewer expectations, thus rendering the mystery more . . . mysterious. I didn't see the primary twist coming at all and I really enjoyed how it wasn't a climactic twist (a la The Sixth Sense) but instead marked a huge shift in the arc of the protagonist. This way I could enjoy not just the twist itself but its implications in the third act.
  • The characters - even the minor ones - are interesting. I especially enjoyed that, although characters from the previous film are present here, this movie really isn't about them. Pre-existing characters are part of the context but this story belongs to the next generation.
  • Acting and directing are on point. This film isn't devoid of dialog but there is a lot of "white space," shots in which characters have to convey information through emoting and blocking rather than through speech. With rare exception, the entire cast acquitted itself with aplomb. I'm no fan of Ryan Gosling because it seems like all he ever does is brood on screen, but that approach worked really, really well here. And any time you can get Harrison Ford to throw himself into a role these days, it's a win.
  • This sequel asks the same philosophical questions as the first film - but it asks them differently. What does it mean to be human? What is love? What is life? Where are the boundaries between what is artificial and what is "real?" The original Blade Runner was hardly the first sci fi film to ask these questions but it did so in a way that captured the imagination, touched the heart, and incited decades of debate. 2049 asks the same questions but through different enough "lenses" as to be just as captivating and thought-provoking.
  • Viewers will be rethinking, analyzing and debating this film for years. Not only the abstract, philosophical questions but also the specifics of the plot and characters invite post-facto discussion. Some details become apparent later in the film but some weren't obvious (to me, at any rate) until hours of thinking about it and discussing afterward. For example, while watching the film, I wasn't terribly moved when K discovers that he isn't Deckard's child. Only afterward, while remembering how earnestly he questioned Deckard about Rachael (believing her to be his mother at that time), did the revelation really hit me in the gut. I imagine that this film - like its predecessor - will benefit from rewatching.

The Bad

  • There is some clunky exposition. For all the tightly woven narrative and artfully shown (just enough)-not-told plot and character points, there are a few moments when the film beats the viewer over the head with overt exposition. I don't know if this was due to low confidence in moviegoer intelligence (probably justified) or sacrifices to reduce the run-time (in which case I can't wait to see an extended director's cut) but each of these moments stick out as wholly incoherent with the rest of the film. They actually pulled me out of the film in those instances but, due to the competence of the rest of the movie, I quickly found myself sucked back in
  • The science of some key elements is questionable. I know, I know, you're supposed to suspend disbelief in sci fi but, when something goes against the basic laws of physics, it's hard for this scientist/engineer not to object. Once again, though, it's a credit to the quality of the rest of the film that it could pull me in regardless of my incredulity.

The Amazeballs

  • The cinematography and sound are simply outstanding. They aren't just pretty to look at and nice to hear; they conspire to create a truly immersive cinematic experience. There were moments in this film when I felt positively hypnotized, floating along wherever the director wanted me to go; it was sublime. Deakins (cinematography) and Zimmer (score) are the "it" people in their respective fields and this film showcased exactly why. Excepting for the few moments that I was pulled out of the film (See above.), I thoroughly enjoyed being immersed in this world - and that is saying something after 163 minutes!
  • The film captured the tone and style of Blade Runner but extended them enough to offer something truly original. Blade Runner 2049 incorporates enough of the past to honor its heritage but also offers enough new to be interesting. It is more than an homage and less than a copy - more like a variation on a symphonic theme. Doing anything with a movie as beloved as Blade Runner risks alienating fans but I think 2049 hits as close to the mark as can be done. Kudos to the entire team for the care that was taken with this precious IP.

I have been increasingly impressed with Denis Villeneuve's work. Most recently I found Arrival to be a refreshingly different type of sci fi movie - much less action-centric and more cerebral than other big budget Hollywood films in the genre. Indeed, Villeneuve's style was a perfect match for Blade Runner, which was itself a slower and more pensive sci film in a time when Star Wars had turned the genre into a special effects arms race.

When a Blade Runner sequel was announced, I was skeptical. It didn't seem to me that anyone was clamoring for more Blade Runner, especially not after Ridley Scott's Final Cut left the film in such a good place. When Villeneuve was attached to the project, I dared to hope but still tempered my expectations. Now, having experienced the final product, I find myself surprised and frankly, elated. Given all of the misses in attempts to reboot or revisit old, beloved franchises, perhaps Blade Runner 2049 will serve as a reminder of just how high the ceiling is if you can get it right.