Thursday, November 19, 2015

Season of the Force at Disneyland - Opening Day

We had an awesome day being among the first to check out Disneyland's Season of the Force! Warning: spoilers about the rides and food offerings will follow...

We arrived when the park opened at 9:00 AM and there was a short line to get into the park. Many people were dressed in Star Wars outfits. We even saw a Slave Leia who must have been quite chilly as the morning temperature was only in the 50s. I was glad I had my Ewok winter hat.  

Once inside, we headed straight for Tomorrowland, just like everyone else did, although I was tempted to loiter in Main Street and get pictures with Mickey and Donald who were dressed in holiday sweaters. We grabbed fast passes for Hyperspace Mountain and then checked out the breakfast offerings at the Tomorrowland Terrace (now known as Galactic Grill). Dave tried the Bantha Blue Milk Bread (french toast). He felt the food coloring flow through him. I got the Darth Tamale, which was tasty and a bit spicy. We also got the awesome Chewbacca stein. We saw people waiting in a long line for the TIE Fighter popcorn container, but we passed on that. It's a nice design but awfully unwieldy to carry around during a day at the theme park. I expect lockers were full of TIE Fighters that day.

The line to get into the Star Wars Launch Bay was going to take two hours, so we decided to delay that. We rode Star Tours and enjoyed the new segment based on The Force Awakens, as well as a BB-8 appearance. We checked out the Tomorrowland gift shop. I was glad to see a large selection of Her Universe merchandise. There were other cool new items, including lots of BB-8 items. We went into the theater to see "Path of the Jedi," a highlight reel of all the Star Wars films that culminates with the trailer for the new film. As we moved into the theater, the cast member asked us to fill all the seats and said the theater was seeing more people today than it had in quite a few years (the years of Captain EO, where Michael Jackson's bad acting had been slowly digested by crowds on and off over the course of 29 years). We visited Pizza Port to check out the theme menu items including The Fields of Naboo (salad) and Darth by Chocolate (not salad). We were stoked to find the BB-8 sippers that we'd been told had already sold out, and we also got BB-8 rice krispie treats that were packed with orange and brown M&Ms and iced (in case they weren't already sugary enough).  How many times can I mention BB-8 in this paragraph? Well, that is how hard BB-8 is being marketed.

Now it was time for our fast pass return for Hyperspace Mountain, so we eagerly made our way through the line, appreciating some new Star Wars theming along the queue. We got the front seat and the refreshed ride is truly exhilarating, with great visuals, sound effects and dialogue from the films. It actually felt like the ride was faster, but I think this was just an illusion from the stars and ships racing by us. Everyone applauded as the ride ended. It was about noon when we rode it and they had run out of fast passes for the rest of the day. The ride would have a 60-90 minute wait the rest of the day, even though it was a chilly Monday in November. We felt a little nauseous after riding it, so just riding it once that day was good enough for us.  

By this point, the wait for the Launch Bay was only fifteen minutes, so we checked it out. There's a behind the scenes film and a collection of props and costumes. It seems that none of the model ships on display were actually used in the films, but they are still fun to look at and to appreciate for the fine detail. This is also the area where you can have your photo taken with Chewbacca and Darth Vader (not at the same time). There's a video game room with X-box consoles so you can play the Disney Infinity Star Wars game and tablets for playing Star Wars Angry Birds. The store in the Launch Bay has some very high end items including a $4000 Darth Vader costume and a $3000 six-foot tall Boba Fett that looks like the original action figure (for $3000, shouldn't that rocket pack actually work!?!). You can find the Gentle Giant and Sideshow Collectibles figures in this store, along with some autographed cast photos and artwork.  It's kind of a mini Comic Con shopping experience.

We then moved on from Tomorrowland and met some friends for lunch at the Big Thunder Ranch Barbecue. It was quite crowded as the restaurant will be closing on January 10 to make way for the Star Wars Land that Disney will be building. I will be sorry to see this restaurant go. The ribs just fall off the bone and the service is excellent.  

It's not only the Season of the Force...but also the holiday season...and a lot of the holiday decor is already in place. The big tree is up on Main Street. There's a giant gingerbread house in the Grand Californian, but the tree isn't up in the lobby yet.  I watched the Holiday parade in Disneyland, and tried two of the holiday drinks at Trader Sam's.  The Red Nosed Zebra was a tasty rum punch but the Jungle Bells had too much anise.  Between the anise and the pine branch garnish, it was kind of like drinking Vicks VapoRub.  

We're not sure how long the Season of the Force will be with us (always?) go check it out when you can! 

Check out all my photos from the Season of the Force opening day. 

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Wednesday, November 18, 2015

AFI Fest, Part II: Reviews of Chronic, The Lobster, and Sworn Virgin

Here's some brief reviews of AFI Fest screenings I attended.  

Tuesday, November 10 - Chronic

Chronic follows a nurse named David (Tim Roth) who takes care of seriously ill patients in their homes. Roth is very believable as a nurse who brings compassion to the job without being cloying. Yet, David gets overly attached to his patients, even to the point of taking over their lives or imagining different relationships with them. It's uncomfortable and painfully familiar to see how the families have a hard time being natural around their sick loved ones, and their awkwardness forms a sharp contrast to David's easy-going demeanor. David is a broken man also trying to build a relationship with his estranged med student daughter. The film won best screenplay at Cannes, and it's quite intricate in the way the vignettes of different patients build to reveal more of David's character. There's no music in the film. It feels very immediate, intense and intimate. After the screening director Michel Franco and Tim Roth did a Q&A. Roth pointed out some nurses in the crowd who had helped him prepare for the role and coached him on the set. An elderly lady in the crowd stood up to say the film was good but she felt it was missing something, and she just couldn't really put her finger on it. The director took this criticism in stride and said perhaps he would show her his script before he filmed his next project. Chronic is a difficult film to watch, but it's worth the pain.

Tuesday, November 10 - The Lobster

I only got tickets for The Lobster because I thought my boyfriend would like it. The description in the AFI program of the film's dystopian future made me picture Logan's Run or THX-1138, and I am not much into sci fi in general. It turned out to be my favorite film of the festival.  Colin Farrell plays David, a man whose wife leaves him at the opening of the film. In this society, everyone must be coupled. David and his dog are sent to a hotel where he is given 45 days to find a new partner - or else he will be turned into an animal and released into the woods.  But it's not all bad, because he can choose the animal he will become! John C. Reilly plays a man he befriends in the hotel. The film is twisted but very funny and has a lot to say about courtship, how we tend to settle and the compromises we make to be in a relationship. This future world looks pretty much just like today's world, despite the insane rules of the society. Yorgos Lanthimos directed the film, and its quirkiness makes it totally fresh. Farrell gained weight for the role and uses his pudgy midsection to convey a lot about his character's passive, blah nature. The Egyptian Theater was completely full for this screening, and the producers did a quick introduction, but there was no Q&A.  

Wednesday, November 11 - Sworn Virgin

Film festivals are a good opportunity to see films about somewhat obscure topics that probably will never get a wide US release. In Sworn Virgin, Italian filmmaker Laura Bispuri tells the story of Hana (aka Mark), an Albanian sworn virgin, who leaves a remote Albanian village to travel to Milan and experience city life. There she reconnects with a childhood friend and wrestles with questions of identity and sexuality and decides whether or not to keep her vow. Sworn virgins really exist in these remote Albanian villages, where women do not have any rights and are basically property of the men. Some women choose to live as a man in order to hunt, escape being a wife and mother, have jobs outside the home or have more status in society. This is allowed, but they must swear to the elders that they will remain virgins. The cinematography of Albania is breathtaking and the performance of Alba Rohrwacher as Hana/Mark anchors the film with believability. After the film, Bispuri did Q&A and she revealed the film took quite a few years to develop and she had to make multiple trips to the Albanian mountains to win the trust of locals who appear in the film.  I hope this sensitive, thought-provoking film will find an audience. 

Read AFI Fest Part I - Field Niggas, Baskin, and The Lady in the Van

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Saturday, November 14, 2015

AFI Fest, Part I: Reviews of Field N*ggas, Baskin, and the Lady in the Van

AFI Fest doesn't just offer a great selection of films - all the tickets are free! That doesn't mean getting them is easy. I spent about two hours online when they were made available, dealing with website glitches, things disappearing from my shopping cart, etc. Many films seemed to be immediately sold out.  The "voucher" system for galas led to people having to camp out to get a chance for the big films. But for the smaller films or the daytime screenings, I found it was no problem to get in, although showing up 45 minutes early was sometimes necessary to get a good seat. If you didn't get tickets online, you could also show up early and wait in a rush line and probably get into most screenings. This will be the first of two posts offering short reviews of the six films I saw.

Friday, November 6 - Field Niggas

The theater was full for Field Niggas. We saw a videotaped introduction by the director, Khalik Allah, as he was not able to attend in person. The film presents late-night life on the busy Harlem corner of 125th and Lexington. The audio and filmed footage don't sync up, so you will hear a person talking but it isn't always the person you see on screen, or at least you can't be sure. Many of the people are high on K2, and although I have not tried it, I felt like I too was high on K2 while watching the film due to its woozy, dreamlike cinematography and the asynchronous audio. The film is only 60 minutes long, but since there is no narrative, it tends to drag. I found myself wanting to know more about the people that we only saw in brief snippets. It was a bit like Slacker in that way - we just see glimpses of people.  I left the film feeling a little nauseous. I feel it is artistic, and the cinematography is beautiful and colorful, but it lacked character development that could have made it a truly moving documentary.

Monday, November 9 - Baskin

The trailer made me very excited for Baskin, but the film didn't deliver. It's a Turkish horror film that tells the story of five cops who respond to a distress call from another cop and end up at a creepy dilapidated building in the woods, where of course a cult is performing violent rituals and in need of humans to sacrifice.  None of the cops are particularly likable, so we don't care too much about their fate. The middle sequence of the film, where the cops arrive and start exploring the building in the dark, is very suspenseful but the final act doesn't really go anywhere. It does provide some gross-out moments, and the high priest (Mehmet Cerrahoglu, a parking attendant making his acting debut) is quite mesmerizing. Argento was cited as an influence, and the film does have a supernatural bent. It mixes the supernatural with low-grade torture porn in the Eli Roth vein, but never quite has the squirm factor that Roth's films do. The director Can Evrenol revealed during the Q&A that the script was written very hastily, after Roth saw his short film and asked if there was a feature-length script. The director fibbed and said he had a script and then had to write it quickly.  Hopefully, he will spend more time developing his next script.  The title also makes no sense. When asked about it, Evrenol admitted only that it was kind of an in joke and that he had some regrets, since it gets lost in search results on twitter for Baskin Robbins. The theater was only about 1/3 full, but it was a 1:00 PM weekday screening.

Monday, November 9 - The Lady in the Van

It's always a treat to watch Maggie Smith, and this role is totally in her wheelhouse. Based on a true story, The Lady in the Van tells the story of a homeless lady in the van who creates a stir on a nice upper middle class block of Camden Town by daring to park her van there. The playwright Alan Bennett is the neighbor who treats her with the most compassion. When overnight street parking becomes restricted, he agrees to let her park the van in his driveway. As the years go by, they trade quips and Bennett learns more about her true identity and what brought her to this lowly state.  Smith is really just a smelly version of her Downton Abbey character, so it doesn't require her to stretch much. Still, it's a pleasure to watch, even if it's not groundbreaking cinema. It's kind of a like a story you might have read in "The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met" section of Reader's Digest and enjoyed but quickly forgot. There was no Q&A at this screening, and it was a full house.

Stay tuned for Part II - Reviews of Chronic, The Lobster, and Sworn Virgin.

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Wednesday, November 04, 2015

Courtney Love and the Kansas City Choir Boy Take Culver City

As a long-time Courtney Love fan, I couldn't pass up the unprecedented opportunity to see her on stage a mere two miles from my condo. She is currently co-starring in Kansas City Choir Boy at the Kirk Douglas Theater, running until November 8.  

This was my first time to this theater and it was arranged for this show with seats on three sides of the action. The staging area for the musical was quite small, and it felt very intimate.  This is not the kind of show I normally like, as it has very little narrative, but I found myself really enjoying it.

Todd Almond wrote and stars in the musical, as the unnamed Kansas City Choir Boy, who recounts his relationship with Athena (Courtney Love) in flashbacks after seeing a TV news report that she was murdered in a park. Girl meets boy in Kansas City, girl dreams of being an actress, boy writes music, girl leaves to pursue dreams in New York, girl meets a tragic end, boy struggles to go on and seeks her inspiration from beyond the grave.  That's about as much of the storyline as I could gather. It's never really explained why he doesn't want to go to New York with her, since he has artistic aspirations, too.

Besides the two principals, there's a group of women known as the sirens who form a Greek chorus. The choreography for the sirens kept things interesting, as did the creative lighting.  At times the sound mix was a bit muddled, so it was hard to make out what the actors were singing. A string quartet plays at some points and provides refreshing interludes. The songs were appealing, but I couldn't hum any of them a day after seeing it.

Courtney is mesmerizing with her alabaster skin and commanding presence, however she doesn't have much to do and her character isn't really developed. She basically functions as a muse.  At one point, she appears in a black dress that is just spectacular. It's hard to keep your eyes off her. I have been glad to see her in Empire and I hope she continues to focus more on acting. Her singing voice is not for everyone but since the material here is rock-oriented, it works. It would be even better if the script was developed further. It's more of a sketch than a fleshed-out story. 

There's palpable chemistry between Almond and Love, and anyone who has loved and lost will find something relatable in the show.  Almond based it on his own experience growing up in the midwest and watching TV news and seeing the face of an actress he had been working with who had been murdered in a park.  

After the show, there was a talkback, and most of the audience admitted they had no idea what they had witnessed or what the story was about.  One woman mentioned she had not been familiar with the music of Cyndi Lauper before seeing the show - clearly, she had her singers with the initials CL confused! Most enjoyed the show for its creativity in lighting, staging, and music. The musical is only an hour, so I think it can get away with its vagueness without wearing out its welcome.  

Although I bought tickets through Goldstar Events, we ended up in the front row, and I felt a bit starstruck to be so close to Courtney. A girl next to me could hardly sit in her seat due to her excitement at almost being able to touch the rock icon. I realized the last time I was this close to Courtney was way back in 1994, when I saw Hole on their Live Through This tour at a small club in St Louis. 21 years later, she is still mesmerizing, raw, and a very real presence in an ethereal musical.  

Kansas City Choir Boy official website

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