Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Deals With Our Devils

After several weeks off (but only days since my last review), Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. returned last night with a new episode.

I'm not saying that Star Trek has the monopoly on "characters have been turned into 'ghosts' and everyone else thinks they're dead" story line. Still, The Next Generation did do that exact story, and did it very well. So I think another series is taking on a challenge in trying the same thing. S.H.I.E.L.D., being a far more serialized show with many irons in the fire, had other boxes to check, and this may have crowded out some of the deeper issues Star Trek was able to get at in their take.

For example, the notion that Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie might actually be dead never completely seemed to gel. Daisy didn't believe it from the jump. Even when things started to look grim (and dim) in the alternate dimension, Coulson and Fitz never really grappled with the possibility that they might not make it back. (Emotionally, I mean. The physical struggle with the vortex of darkness didn't really count.)

I guess, putting it another way, the couple of scenes that really did examine the emotions of the situation were fantastic, and I really wish there had been more of them. May's private breakdown (one actually shared, unknowingly, with Coulson) was a great moment about regret and putting off things until it's too late. And Fitz's meltdown at realizing that Simmons would have to hear about his "death" was strong; even with his life in peril, he was thinking more of her.

But speaking of Simmons, her subplot felt to me like an excess element that crowded out time where more of those deeper A story moments could have been found. I'm sure Marvel fans are geeking out over who was hatching from that terragenesis cocoon (if it was made explicit enough), or are geeking out over who it might be (if it was left vague). Either way, it seemed like a distraction in the midst of a life and death situation, and could easily have been introduced in a later episode. After all, between Eli and Ghost Rider and now Aida and her Darkhold knowledge, there are already plenty of ongoing plot balls being juggled without adding another.

The Ghost Rider material didn't quite work for me either. Having the Rider jump into Mack was a neat idea, but the payoff wasn't as exciting. So Robbie doubles down on a pact he's already made? So what? And if the Rider was capable of rescuing Robbie from the alternate dimension all along, why did it leave him in the first place? Wondering about these questions was more time I wish had been spent really grappling with the life-or-death premise at the core of the story.

But while I felt the subplots misfired a bit, I think the overall approach to the script was very strong. Alternating acts, first showing us scenes without the "ghostly" characters, and then revisiting things with them, was a great choice. The higher, meta layer of repetition was effective too -- first, you weren't sure exactly what happened to Coulson, Fitz, and Robbie, and then got to see; second, you got to speculate what those three were doing in the next batch of scenes you were watching, knowing that they'd be there. (If I'm comparing to the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, this was a more sophisticated storytelling technique that really did bring something new to the party.)

I'd peg the episode at a B+ overall. If I found it at all disappointing, it was really just because I recognized potential for something truly exceptional that didn't quite get there. It was nevertheless a very solid hour of the show.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Catching Disney's Wave

Over the holiday weekend, I went to see Disney's newest animated feature, Moana. It was a triumph on many levels -- though I felt it didn't quite reach the heights set by Disney of late.

The movie absolutely continues Disney's push to tell more topical stories with more progressive characters. First, Moana is a welcome addition/revision to the stable of Disney princesses. As the daughter of the chief of a Polynesian tribe, she's "royalty." But as she is being groomed to lead the tribe herself, her destiny is far greater than to be an object of affection. (At the risk of giving a very minor spoiler, there isn't even a romantic subplot of any kind in the movie.) Second, the threat that spurs the whole plot into motion is climate change; Moana's lush island is dying, and her quest is to see a delicate natural balance restored.

A lot of things work well in service of these modern messages. For one, it's simply a gorgeous movie -- I think the most visually stunning Disney or Pixar has ever produced. The movie is stuffed full of fertile vegetation, mighty ocean waves, and menacing lava floes. There are bioluminescent creatures, a character with living tattoos that comment on the action, and scenes set in otherworldly dreamscapes. There are sequences that seem wholly original, and others that seem meticulously crafted to evoke recent pop culture titans like The Hobbit and Mad Max: Fury Road. The Thanksgiving release feels appropriate; this is a Thanksgiving feast for the eyeballs.

The characters also make a good impression. I've already noted the mold-breaking qualities of Moana herself (though I mention her again now to highlight the vocal work of Auli'i Cravalho). Moana also has a fun and memorable grandmother named Tala, voiced by Rachel House. Casting Dwayne Johnson as demigod Maui is a perfect use of his public persona, and a jumping off point for deeper things. And the animators surely had a field day with Maui, probably the most... well, animated Disney character since the Genie in Aladdin. Also harkening back to Aladdin (in this case, to the magic carpet and the monkey Abu), Moana includes a great non-speaking character in the rooster Heihei (proudly labeled by one of the movie's directors as "the dumbest character in the history of Disney animation.")

It's harder for me to peg just what secret sauce was missing for the movie overall. I think one shortcoming -- and I'm sure some Hamilton fans will dispute me on this -- is the music. The songs of Moana are written by Opetaia Foa'i, Mark Mancina, and Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. They definitely capture the Polynesian flavor of the story and advance the plot, but I don't feel they make a lasting impression. Forget "Let It Go" levels of earworminess, I don't even think there was a "Do You Want to Build a Snowman?" in here. (Maybe Maui's self-congratulatory anthem "You're Welcome"?)

The movie might also be a touch too long. In rigid adherence to the hero's journey formula, Moana (the character) goes through perhaps one too many setbacks only to (of course) rebound. Or perhaps it's that the rebounding is sometimes too easy for you to have ever taken the setback all that seriously.

Still, whatever drawbacks Moana may have are minor. And I'd say the film outshines Disney's other effort this year, Zootopia. I give Moana a B+.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Good Samaritan

While I was on vacation in Orlando, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. ran a new episode. Helpfully, from this blog's perspective, it hasn't run a new one since, giving me time to catch up before things get started again.

This was the "Ghost Rider origin story" episode. Specifically on those terms, it didn't feel like essential viewing. It came six episodes into the season, at a point when the show had done a thorough job of showing us what Robbie and his flaming-skulled alter ego were all about. I didn't really need a Ghost Rider origin story to fill in the gaps, unless that back story somehow had some unexpected elements.

Unfortunately (but not surprisingly), the back story was instead very Marvel hero paint-by-numbers. We already knew about Robbie's commitment to his brother. We already knew he was seeking vengeance, and against whom. Really, the only added detail we got was that Robbie received his powers from, apparently, another Ghost Rider (as opposed to the Devil himself or some such). And that detail doesn't seem meaningful in any way at this point.

Also in the "doesn't seem meaningful" column was the revelation that Robbie's Uncle Eli is not an ally, but an enemy. In the ill-defined Macguffin that is the Darkhold, that felt to me not like a revelation, but a given. Whatever this Darkhold thing is or isn't, we've watched it pretty consistently corrupt everyone it comes into contact with. That Eli would be corrupt too isn't a disappointment, but it isn't a surprise either. Yet it was played as though it was meant to come as a shocking twist.

But fortunately, the episode wasn't all about flashbacks, and a lot of what happened in the present day was more compelling. Director Mace is quickly being moved into antagonist territory. It makes sense, because while he's maybe a bit simplistic in his views, you can understand why he thinks Coulson is doing bad things here. I'll be interested to see if the show tries to bring Mace around, or if we're just on an express train to all-out opposition.

Even more interesting for the future is the episode's cliffhanger ending. Fitz and Coulson were caught up in the mystical explosion. (Well, so was Robbie, but one might assume him to be immune to any ill effects.) What exactly is going to happen to them? Are they ghostly now too, or will something else happen to them? Well it be the same or different for each of them? The story could take off in almost any direction from here, and two characters who have been around since the beginning are right at the center of it.

This episode wasn't a favorite of mine, but I am interested to see where things go from here. I give it a B-.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Arriving at a Conclusion

Early this week, I went to see the new science fiction film Arrival. It's just as well that I had vacation stories to share, because I found myself really having to ponder the movie a while before (ahem) arriving (sorry) at just how I felt about it.

Arrival is a pure science fiction tale, a more realistic attempt to depict what would happen if aliens made contact with Earth. Twelve ships arrive at twelve different locations around the globe, and countries the world over are struggling to communicate with the aliens aboard them. Linguist Louise Banks is heading up the American efforts to decipher the aliens' strange language, even as she's emotionally wrestling with a personal tragedy -- the loss of her daughter to a terminal disease.

I definitely liked Arrival, and knew it even as I was walking out of the theater. The question in my mind was how much did I like it? Because I definitely think the movie starts stronger than it ends, and processing the movie's final act was not a quick, easy thing to do.

I can say without reservation that the movie's set up is outstanding. It's hard at times to say where the credit should go to the original short story writer (Ted Chiang), the screen writer (Eric Heisserer), or the director (Denis Villeneuve), but the result is pitch perfect. These aliens feel truly alien. Their written language is both unusual, and a perfect reflection of what we ultimately come to understand about them. Their ship is ominous, the process of boarding it is creepy, and the way we follow Louise's first meeting with them is suspenseful.

I was also impressed at the way the movie made linguistics (and, to some extent, diplomacy) urgent and interesting. The middle of the film is largely about the learning process of communicating, and manages to include a lot of complex ideas that aren't inherently cinematic. The story touches on how different cultures approach the aliens in different ways, on the bureaucracy that would inevitably complicate any alien encounter, and on the different ways that people would react to confirmation of alien life. And it does all this while ultimately keeping the characters as important a focus as the narrative.

I'm just not entirely sure about the final act. Here, in my opinion, is where story and script and director don't work as well in concert. On the page, the conclusion does make sense, and is "earned" by everything we see preceding it. But I feel that to put it on screen, some cheats had to be made -- both visual and editorial. I can't get more specific without giving away vital story details that would absolutely rob the movie of its punch. I can only say generally that the pacing of the last act felt a bit off to me. And it didn't quite leave me with the satisfaction of seeing a magician execute a great illusion; I had a twinge of feeling like a con artist had played a shell game. Though as that feeling has ebbed over the past week, my opinion of the movie has risen.

Amy Adams carries the movie ably as the main character Louise. She's put through an emotional wringer throughout the story, and every moment feels honest. To some extent, the film feels gender-flopped from the norm, and in a good way; Jeremy Renner plays the scientist Ian, who often feels like the "sidekick woman" character a more conventional film would have. I mean to say: Renner is fine here, but the movie doesn't ask him to do great things. It's always about Amy Adams' Louise, so much so that I can't even really say much about the rather stock military character played by a freaking Academy Award winner, Forest Whitaker.

Overall, I feel like this movie is riding the line for me between a B+ and an A-. Either way, it's worth seeing for anyone who likes science fiction, the more sophisticated and challenging the better.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

A Few Final Thrills

We've reached the final day of my Orlando vacation. We wrapped it all up by heading back to Universal Studios to check off a few attractions that we'd skipped on the days before.

Transformers: The Ride. True to its namesake, the story of this ride is incoherent. Somehow, you're going to save the planet by sitting there and holding on to the lap bar as robots smash into each other and things blow up. So, just like the movies! But much shorter, and with actual motion. So way better than the movies.

Terminator 2 3-D: Battle Across Time. This show combines a 3D movie with a stage show performance by live actors. It's been around for 20 years, and I'm kind of amazed it's actually still there. A lot of the Terminator-related stuff that's come along since this has well and truly crapped on everything that made Terminator 2 so great. Yet this harkens back to a time when Terminator hadn't become such a joke that only Arnold Schwarzenegger would go near it. Silly, but kind of fun.

E.T. Adventure. Another old ride -- this one dating back to 1990 -- that's shockingly still in operation. This feels like a slice of Disneyland dropped into the middle of Universal, a Peter Pan kind of slice. You ride a "flying bicycle" through a series of dioramas, including a fanciful trip to E.T.'s home world. I can't imagine this ride will stay open much longer.

Men in Black: Alien Attack. I'd ridden this on my previous Orlando trip, and my shooting gallery skills have not improved. I still choose to blame malfunctioning equipment rather than accept responsibility for my low score at blasting aliens in this themed Hogan's Alley type of ride.

The rest of our day was filled with doing favorites again -- the Mummy ride, both the Harry Potter rides, drinking Butterbeer, shopping in Diagon Alley, and a rising moon over Hogwarts Castle at sunset.
The next ride would be far less entertaining: the flight back to Denver. Still, the feeling of exhaustion upon arriving at home was a pleasant one. We'd had a great time.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016


After a full day at Animal Kingdom and Epcot, there was still more fun in store that evening. And my husband and I didn't know exactly what it was going to be -- our friends were taking us somewhere for a surprise. We wound up at the Icebar.

While the Icebar does have a more conventional lounge area for dancing and drinks, its main draw is a separate room inside a giant freezer. You're given a coat and gloves to wear (a real novelty in Orlando), and then make your way inside an actual freezer set to 18 degrees. Inside, everything is made of ice -- the bar, the tables and chairs, the decorations, and even the drinks themselves. Every drink you ordered (and they were tasty) came in a half-inch thick tumbler made of ice.

When you did leave the freezer for a while to warm up, that didn't mean you had to leave the wacky drinks behind. In the lounge area, there were drinks served in giant test tubes, as smoking dry ice made their cherry garnishes bob up and down...

...and another group of drinks served with a flaming garnish.

After days and days of lots and lots of walking, no one was up for dancing. But we happily rotated between the freezer and the lounge for an hour or two, enjoying the odd atmosphere. It was way too expensive to be a regular thing, so it's just as well it's not a Denver local club. But for a fun, celebratory night, it was great fun -- and a nice change of pace after a week of being various shades of uncomfortably hot all the time.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Rare Sights and Tastes

Our Orlando group of four split in half for the next day of the trip. While our friends opted for a more low-key day around our rented house, my husband and I went in on a second day at Disney World.

We started off at Animal Kingdom, the one of Disney World's four parks we hadn't visited years earlier. Some people say it's a "half day" sort of destination, and I'll add my agreement to that. In fact, I don't anticipate I'd go back again on a future visit to Orlando. Nevertheless, I am glad we did go, as it was an interesting change of pace and did offer some good things to do.

The layout of Animal Kingdom is rather similar to Magic Kingdom, actually. But replacing the Cinderella Castle is a huge tree:

From there, we found our way to a few particular attractions.

Expedition Everest. Our first stop was this roller coaster, which I'd heard described as the best in Orlando. I'd say that overstates things a bit... though it is pretty good. It all depends on what you're looking for. Universal has more intense rides, but Expedition Everest is quite clever. Upon setting off into the Himalayas, you quickly come upon track that's been completely torn up by a yeti. The ride comes to a sudden stop, and then throws things into reverse to take off down a previously unseen path. The ride continues along these lines, playing like an escape from a dangerous mountain and the dangerous monster living there.

Kilimanjaro Safaris. I could probably get a whole post out of this attraction, a bus ride through the wildlife preserve that occupies a major section of the park. In some ways, it's a trip to the zoo (and that expectation is exactly why we'd avoided Animal Kingdom on our previous Orlando Trip). But in other ways, it's a lot more. There's a wide variety of more exotic African animals here. And they have gone to great lengths to design habitats that don't immediately present as "cages." The animals feel mostly out in the open, until you look more closely. (Hopefully, that feeling applies to them too.)

That was really it for Animal Kingdom. We then moved over to Epcot for the rest of the day.

We did do a couple of rides at Epcot (which I'll get to in a moment), but most of our time went to a Food & Wine Festival that was going on throughout the park. As you moved through all of the different "countries" in the park, special stands were selling samples of food, wines, and beers from those countries. We got to taste all sorts of great things. And as we did, we got to enjoy the fact that there are a lot fewer kids at Epcot than at any other theme park in Orlando. Though we were on our feet and walking all day, it felt far more relaxing than anything thus far.
Soarin'. We'd missed this ride last trip, but made sure to check it out this time. It's a bit straight-forward -- you're lifted up in a hanging chair and brought close to an IMAX-sized screen. Small movements generate the sensation of flight, and you hop all over the world looking at amazing scenery. But at the same time, it's a quite effective illusion, simple though it is. After so many rides the day before that involved coasting by vaguely creepy, singing and talking robots, this felt like a welcome change of pace.

Spaceship Earth. It's not that this was a beloved ride from the last trip, but after a full day of food and drink, it was a gentle enough ride not to risk upsetting anything. We took the slow ride through Epcot's famous silver ball, and then were picked up by our friends to end our Disney fun.

But there was still other fun to come that night...

Friday, November 18, 2016

Less Than Fantastic

I'm interrupting stories of Orlando, but staying Orlando-adjacent in writing about the world of Harry Potter. J.K. Rowling is back with a new story in her famous universe. But this time, she's written directly for the movie screen instead of the novel page, with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.

Keeping vague so as not to spoil things for those headed to see the film this weekend, this movie follows eccentric British wizard Newt Scamander as he travels to America in the mid-1920s. His enchanted briefcase full of magical creatures is compromised, allowing a few to escape. Hijinks ensue. Meanwhile, a darker story is set up for the future film franchise to come.

I'm sorry to report that the magic isn't firing on all cylinders in this new movie. It's by no means a disaster; J.K. Rowling has plenty of good elements in the mix, her creativity on full display. But it's quite possible that she needs the sprawl of a novel to communicate clearly, and needs a script writer to adapt her work for optimal clarity.

The narrative of Fantastic Beasts is a confused jumble. Capturing escaped creatures is straightforward enough, but the B-plot is far from it. I'm partly not detailing it to avoid spoilers, but also because I'm not sure I can confidently explain it even after having seen it.

Characters are a bit hit-and-miss. The world is fleshed out with a lot of one-note filler with motivations that serve only the plot -- though you might just have easily said the same of any of the Hogwarts professors after just one Harry Potter book, so this isn't a major complaint. Unfortunately, Newt Scamander himself is a hard-to-root-for character who feels responsible for most of his own problems. And Eddie Redmayne's take on "quiet introvert" comes out much of the time in incoherent mumbling -- you will not understand at least one-third of his dialogue in the film.

But there are bright spots. Again, steering clear of spoilers, I'll just say that the characters of Jacob (played by Dan Fogler) and Queenie (played by Alison Sudol) are delightful, both individually and when paired together on screen. They're easily the best part of the movie, both of them a bit different from what we've seen before in the Harry Potter universe

Speaking of different, it works to the film's advantage that it's a period piece set in the 1920s. It's also great that the action takes place in the real world, rather than remaining cloistered in the wizarding world as most of the Harry Potter stories did. Both these aspects really refresh the universe and provide new elements to play with. Less successful, though, is the hop "across the pond" to set the story in New York. American magic society doesn't feel sufficiently different from British magic society in any way that makes the transposition worthwhile.

The film boasts the most impressive visuals by far in the Harry Potter film franchise. This goes not just for specific set pieces, but really shows in the creature design itself -- a lot of the "beasts" of the title are quite fun. A couple even have personalities more developed than some of the human characters (though that's both a blessing and a curse).

There are tantalizing hints (both in plot elements and in casting) that an intriguing franchise could unfold in future movies. This film alone, however, is decidedly middle of the road. I give it a C+. I wouldn't necessarily rush out to see it at the theater.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

A Magical Day

The next day of our Orlando trip saw us taking a break from Universal Studios... but not from theme parks. We were off to Magic Kingdom at Disney World. The day gave us a healthy mix of repeating things from my first visit years ago and trying out new things.

Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. This was maybe an odd place to start the day, but we had a fast pass reservation at the nearby Space Mountain for a certain time. This was the most interesting gap filler that was on the way... and it turned out to be way more entertaining than I expected. This 10 minute "stage show" had the characters from the Pixar film up on a screen, trying to harness the laughter of the audience. But it wasn't a canned show; the performance was very interactive with the audience. It was a fun mix of "Dad jokes," asking a 7-year-old awkward questions about his dating life, and repeatedly needling the audience members who played along. I admit, I laughed.

Space Mountain. This indoor roller coaster in the dark was a lot better than I remembered. Maybe that's just because my taste for the really intense roller coasters seems to be waning in my "advancing years." In any case, I really got a kick out of the gimmick this time -- the way you want to hunker down in your seat and brace yourself for the entire ride, not being able to see what's coming next (or how close things might be coming to you). It also helped that Disney World now gives you 3 fast passes to use with every ticket, which let us skip the line for this.

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Last Disney World visit, I road Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and skipped the wait for this ride. This time, Big Thunder was closed for refurbishment. That may have made the wait for the Mine Train a bit longer, but it still turned out to be pretty good. Somewhere between a kiddie coaster and a full-blown thriller, the appeal here to me was how the ride mixed things up. There were indoor parts and outdoor parts, fast parts and slow parts, conventional coaster sections and "glide by animatronic diorama" sections. Not too shabby.

Meeting Royalty. I've never met a Disney character, and honestly it wasn't high on my list of things to do. Yet as we were crossing Fantasyland, we were drawn in by one of Cinderella's family. I've forgotten who she said she was, and her costume doesn't match up to any of the characters from the original movie. But the bottom line, she was a hoot. I don't know if it was that she was just thrilled to interact with adults rather than kids for a few minutes, or if this Disney "cast member" was just that good. She came up and asked the woman of our group how she'd lucked out to be traveling with three men, and just ran with it from there. Next thing you know, we're spending 10 minutes playing The Dating Game with her, and all perfectly happy to be doing so. She's pictured at the left with the winner. Great fun.

Haunted Mansion. Where Space Mountain seemed cooler to me than on my last Disney visit, Haunted Mansion perhaps lost a little of its luster. Still, I just love the stagecraft that goes into this ride, all the clever tricks that result in dancing ghosts. statues with turning heads, and more. (But I do wish that Disney World converted their version of the ride over to The Nightmare Before Christmas for the holidays, like Disneyland does.)

Pirates of the Caribbean. Yo ho, yo ho, you kind of have to do this ride. But my biggest memory of it this time around wasn't so much about the ride itself as it was the realization of how much more ubiquitous smart phones have become since even just a few years ago. We'd just had to yell at someone in the Haunted Mansion ride for having their blinding camera light on inside the ride, and now had to do it again in the Pirates of the Caribbean. Do people really not realize how annoying their flash lights and screens are, or do they not care?

Jungle Cruise. I had fond memories of the so-stupid-you-have-to-laugh Jungle Cruise ride from my last Disney visit, and was actually looking forward to the ride this time around. Much to my surprise, however, I didn't get all the same silly jokes as before. That's because, with Halloween now past, the ride had already been converted over for Christmas into the "Jingle Cruise." Boats were renamed, decorations were added all along the river, and many of the standard jokes were swapped for groaner holiday puns. So once again, I was more entertained than I probably should have been.

A Big Parade. We'd circled the park and wound up back in the center, in front of the castle, right as a big parade/dance party came rolling through. We were quickly encircled by the sort of wild display that's Disney's specialty.

"it's a small world." I rode this for the first time this trip. Though I knew generally what to expect, I was still a bit surprised by just how densely packed the ride is -- how many countries are represented (often in "I'm not sure how I feel about this" stereotypes). Not a favorite of mine, but certainly something to say you've done.

Peter Pan's Flight. This was one of the longest waits our fast passes allowed us to skip, and I'm not entirely sure what all the fuss was for. You hang beneath a track and "fly" through a bunch of dioramas depicting scenes from Peter Pan. That's never been one of my favorite Disney films, and it hasn't aged particularly well. Neither, I feel, has this ride.

Prince Charming Regal Carousel. The night was definitely winding down, but we opted for a twilight ride on the carousel. We don't look as exhausted in this photo as we surely were.

Christmas Lights. Just before the carousel started up, the lights on Cinderella's castle came on. It turns out that it was the very first night of Christmas lights at Disney World. Ordinarily, I'd have been annoyed at the prospect of Christmas decorations on November 2nd. But Disney prides itself on being a magical, not ordinary, place. I kind of loved that our trip had straddled two holidays; two nights earlier we were cruising through haunted houses, and now we were at a massive Christmas display. And what a display it was:

We stood there for quite some time, taking it all in. Impressive, whether you're in a Christmas mood or not.

That wrapped things up at the Magic Kingdom. But it was only the first of two Disney World days...

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Wild About Harry

Halloween Horror Nights was only the first of three days we'd spend at Universal Studios Orlando (and Islands of Adventure). The very next day, we were back to enjoy the theme parks in their normal states, and to see the new Harry Potter area, Diagon Alley, that had been built since our last visit.

Some of the highlights from Day 2:

The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man. We started out with this 3D simulator ride. It's starting to feel a touch long in the tooth next to the Harry Potter ride and others, but it's still pretty fun. The story is almost totally incoherent, though. (Maybe if I'd read more Spider-man comics, it would make sense?)

Skull Island: Reign of Kong. This is the newest ride at Universal, and continues in the current vogue of mixing projection movies, 3D glasses, and animatronics. It's a gentle enough ride that no lap bar is required, but the motion simulation is still convincing enough to sell the ride's various gags. Being brand new, you often have to wait a while to ride it. We waited nearly an hour, and it may not have been worth that. But cut that wait time in half, and it's pretty fun. That said, there was a lot of fun stuff in the queue to entertain you during the wait.

Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey. This was the original Potter ride, in the Hogsmeade section of the park. Riding it again, I'm still convinced this is the best theme park ride in Orlando. All the elements blend together perfectly, really selling the sense of flight. Plus, it features so many of the characters from the films -- including Harry, Hermione, and Ron. I can't imagine visiting Orlando and not riding this ride. Multiple times.

The Hogwarts Express. This is a new ride of sorts, a train that connects the Hogsmeade area of one Universal Park with the new Diagon Alley area of the other. As you're taken across, a movie plays on your window to suggest your journey between Hogwarts school and London. Not worth waiting long to do, as such, but a far easier (and more entertaining) way of getting between the parks than walking.

Diagon Alley. Not a new ride, but the actual new area of the park itself, and worthy of mention all its own. It's fantastic. You get to it just as the book describes. There's a rather bland looking brick wall in the park with two openings; you'd imagine walking around into a stadium bathroom or something. Instead, you walk into freaking Diagon Alley. Shop fronts everywhere, including one that only sells Butterbeer, another that sells only fantastical stuffed animals, and many, many more. There's a dragon perched on the roof of Gringotts Bank. Plus a dark and shadowy path into Knockturn Alley, where a dimly lit store sells only Slytherin and Death Eater themed merchandise. And it's all perfectly hidden from view until you're standing inside it. Brilliantly realized.

Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts. This is the new Potter ride in Diagon Alley. It's a 3D simulator like the Forbidden Journey, but sits you in more conventional roller coaster cars for the trip. The villains take a larger role here, with Helena Bonham Carter and Ralph Fiennes reprising their roles as Bellatrix and Voldemort. This ride is perhaps not as good as the original Potter ride (just because the bar was set so high), but the queue is jaw-dropping, walking you through the lobby and offices of bank, and then taking you (via fake elevator) down into the vaults for the ride itself.

The Hogwarts Express. After spending a long time in Diagon Alley, we actually rode the train back to Hogsmeade just to see what movie played in the opposite direction. It's a little more involved than simply the same elements shown in reverse, but it still is ultimately more of a distraction than a ride. Check it off the list only if you must have the full Harry Potter experience.

That took care of our second theme park day. We'd be back at Universal one more day before the whole trip was over, but our next stop on the trip: Disney World.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

The Horror Is Real

Halloween Horror Nights just celebrated its 26th year at Universal Studios Orlando. For a month-and-a-half in September and October, the theme park closes every day in the late afternoon, is quickly converted over, and then reopens for the evening. Warehouses contain elaborate haunted houses, with many of the usual rides closed so their line areas can be used to manage the crowds. Around the park, multiple areas are designated as "scare zones," places where costumed people try to spook you as you walk through.

Our Orlando trip took us to Halloween Horror Nights on the actual night of Halloween itself, and it was a highlight of the trip. There was so much to take in, but I'll try to touch on it all (in roughly the order we did it).

Halloween: Hell Comes to Haddonfield. This was our first haunted house of the night. The sun hadn't even set as we waited in line, and the house itself was just getting started. We watched as the staff -- dressed in large black robes to hide their costumes and makeup -- marched onto the scene to enter and take up their positions. This turned out to be one of the best of this year's nine haunted houses. You progressed through the plot of the original Halloween II, with some two dozen Michael Myers jumping out of nooks and crannies to menace you along the way. We came back around to this house again, closer to midnight, and enjoyed it just as much the second time.

Tomb of the Ancients. Not directly inspired by a film or TV franchise, this house was an excursion into a mostly Egyptian-themed burial site. There were plenty of great costumes and gimmicks in this house, making it far and away the best of the non-franchise houses.

The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. This house recreated plot elements from the original 1974 film. It was the shortest of all the houses, which might have been disappointing had it not been so perfect in every other way. The outside facade was done up to look exactly like the house from the movie. Inside, the most iconic moments of the film were brought to life -- including the shocking first appearance of Leatherface (and his horrifying use of a sledgehammer). We also hit this house a second time at the end of our night.

Lunatics Playground 3D. Well, they can't all be winners. This house was themed around the mascot of this year's Halloween Horror Nights, the recurring HHN character Chance. An unhinged deranged clown type -- but, in a refreshing twist, female -- Chance herself was great. (More on her a bit later.) But this house was just a gawdy display, rainbow vomit inside a Hot Topic store. You wore 3D glasses while going through, to add dimension to various spiraling neon backdrops. Yet the house itself seemed neither scary nor clever. It was just vaguely nauseating.

Dead Man's Wharf. We'd started at the back of the park, breezing through four haunted houses in a very short stretch with most people starting near the front. So this was our first trip through one of the "scare zones," an area where dead pirates back from the grave prowled amid bedraggled ropes and crates. I quickly learned the appeal of these scare zones; it was great fun watching other people not spot where the next jump would come from.

Survive or Die Apocalypse. This scare zone was essentially Mad Max: Fury Road brought to life, complete with actual music from the film's soundtrack. As a post-apocalyptic dictator bellowed from a scaffold stage to distract passers-by, scavengers would dart up from behind and scare the crap out of them. Great fun.

The Walking Dead. Back to the haunted houses, this one based on the AMC show. Entertaining but not great, this house felt only tangentially connected to its source. The hordes of zombies inside mostly could have been in any haunted house, and the few nods to the show didn't seem all that thrilling. (Yup, that's Daryl's motorcycle. I guess.) This was the first time I was really glad we'd decided to purchase "fast passes" for the evening, getting to skip the line. It wouldn't have been worth a 60 minute wait, but was decent enough getting to stroll right in.

Ghost Town. Another non-franchise house, this one used an Old West setting. It felt like our timing through this house was just off. As you rounded most every corner, performers had just done their thing and we're getting reset, ultimately to do their schtick to the people behind us. That basically rendered most of the experience as "a walk through creepy, empty Western settings." Seeing as how you can walk through actual abandoned Western towns here in Colorado, I wasn't terribly impressed.

A Chance in Hell. This scare area differed from the others, in that it was mainly a stage from which the Halloween Horror Nights mascot, Chance, could regale (taunt and play with) the crowd. It sort of felt like the Halloween cousin of that Renaissance Festival staple where a quick-witted performer dares you to hit them with a tomato. One of my friends, having attended Halloween Horror Nights several times before (and being a particular fan of Chance) embraced the photo opportunity.

The Exorcist. This haunted house served up iconic moments from the 1973 horror film. There was no projectile vomiting, but you got spinning heads, levitating above the bed, a possessed priest, and more. It's probably heresy in some circles for me to say that I was never as big a fan of this movie as some, but I thought this homage was great fun.

American Horror Story. This house incorporated elements of three different seasons of FX's anthology show -- Murder House, Freak Show, and Hotel. Unlike the Walking Dead house, which was content just to imply connections to the series, the AHS house was filled with recreations of major characters. All had dead ringer costumes, and some even had convincing makeup and masks to make you believe for a moment (at least, in the dark lighting) that the real thing was there. One of the most solid houses of the evening.

Krampus. Inspired by the recent horror movie, there were lots of inspired touches in this haunted house. (As a murderous gingerbread man spun in the garbage disposal, the kitchen actually smelled like gingerbread!) If there hadn't been so many other exceptional houses at the park, this would have been pretty impressive. But the bar was set pretty high this night.

Vamp '55. This scare area had a 1950s high school prom vibe -- where the prom is attended entirely by the dead. Letter jackets, poodle skirts, doo-wop music... and gory makeup. A big departure from everything else in the park, and a lot of fun.

Academy of Villains: House of Fear. The dance troupe Academy of Villains performed live on stage for a charged crowd. I guess they've been on America's Got Talent, though I don't watch that show regularly enough to have seen them. Still, the group's acrobatics, high octane choreography, a neat shadow puppet segment, and other gags made for a great show.

Lair of the Banshee. This scare area (that we went through on our way back to doing the Halloween and Texas Chain Saw Massacre houses a second time) was the spookiest by far. Poorly lit and lined with lots of fake trees to hide the scarers, this section of the park was genuinely creepy.

...and though I don't believe it was labeled on the park map, there was one more scare area where performers chased people with "chain saws." This seemed to be the area that scared some people most of all. Guests were actually running at full speed to get through the area, being chased by a chain saw wielding "killer" every step of the way.

I won't lie -- Halloween Horror Nights is an expensive proposition if you don't live in Orlando. You have to travel there, pay to get in the park (so you can get to things first), pay for the special event itself, and potentially pay for the fast pass if you want to make sure you do it all. But the event really does try to give you your money's worth. We packed a lot of Halloween fun into a great night.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Denial of Service

Three weeks.

I said last month, of the season premiere of The Walking Dead, that I thought the series had actually served up a good episode again. Though I'd been thinking of quitting, the premiere earned enough goodwill for me to continue watching for a while.

That lasted three weeks. In the subsequent three episodes, The Walking Dead was carried on the backs of a few incredibly skilled actors. The show itself, I thought, hadn't really gotten better after all.

First we had the boring episode in the Kingdom. Melissa McBride can elevate any material they throw at her, so we got some fun moments from Carol. And Khary Payton was key to anything interesting about King Ezekiel, not the CG tiger.

Then we got the monotonous "torture Daryl" episode. The format, chosen to try to make the audience understand Daryl's plight, was just as much a "torture the audience" episode with its dull repetition. In Negan's few minutes on screen, Jeffrey Dean Morgan provided the only interesting moments of the episode.

Then came this weekend's episode, "Service," the latest in The Walking Dead's unfortunate tradition of making 90-minute episodes out of material that really can't sustain more than the standard 60 minutes. Once again, the major reason to watch was to see Jeffrey Dean Morgan chew the scenery with relish. But the story lacked any real turns; it simply took 50% longer to get to its end that it otherwise would have. And in that time, you could see how -- fun as Jeffrey Dean Morgan's performance is -- that it's simply not going to be enough in the long run.

The entire premise is impossible to buy at this point. The premiere did a good job of breaking down Rick and placing him in a place of total despair. I can't say it did the same for any of the other characters. Indeed, the episode showed you how Carl, Michonne, and Rosita in particular are all still wound up for a fight. What it failed to justify is why all of them would choose to go along with Rick's "plan" here. It's simply hard to believe the story is continuing in this way. The far more believable outcome (though one not conducive to a weekly TV series) is that everyone would elect to go down in a hopeless blaze of glory. Negan overruns Alexandria. The end.

Equally hard to understand is why Negan would actually allow any of our heroes to stick around. Sure, he has to send the message that those who oppose him will be crushed. Breaking the strongest group ever to stand against him, making them work for him, is one way to do that. But so would just burning their city to the ground and pissing on the ashes. And after what Rick and company did to Negan's outpost, that's exactly how Negan ought to plausibly respond. But here again, not conducive to a weekly TV series.

It certainly didn't help that Westworld served up its best episode yet on the same night.

Good actors can only do carry an audience along with badly written characters. For me, it appears to have been about three more weeks. I'm pretty sure I'm out.

Friday, November 11, 2016

A Ripley Effect

Halloween was a busy day on our Orlando vacation. We started off with a visit to the Ripley's Believe It or Not Museum.

Despite there being several of these museums in cities around the country, I'd never actually been to one before. I suppose I was just expecting a collection of unusual items from around the globe. And of course, there was plenty of that...

...but also plenty of amazements that didn't hinge on cultural differences. There was an entire room dedicated to sculptures you could only view under microscopes, created inside the eyes of needles by an artist with steady hands and incredible patience. There was a perception-distorting angled room that actually began to give me nausea as I stood inside it.

Then there were just opportunities to play, like an opening display of funhouse mirrors (and the chance to watch video of what you did in them later on). And the giant "pin-pression" board kept us entertained far longer than it probably should have.

Ripley's Museum isn't really a can't-miss attraction on a shorter vacation, but was fun enough to be worth a visit if there's one near you. And on Halloween of all days, it seemed particularly appropriate.

In the afternoon, we made our way over to Universal Studios theme park. The park was closing early to transition over to Halloween Horror Nights -- our main reason for being there. All of that fun will warrant a post of its own, but being inside the park ahead of time gave us the chance to be first in line for the haunted houses to come. Plus, with the extra time we had before all that, we got to enjoy again a few rides from the last time we'd been to Orlando.

The Mummy may be far from a hot property these days, but the Revenge of the Mummy ride is solid enough, even if it is more than a decade old. (I guess I found it both better and more memorable this trip than last.) The fun indoor roller coaster is a great combination of video segments, actual animatronics, and over-the-top fire effects. And being one of the park's older attractions, the wait to ride it is trivial.

Then we rode on the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, the high-intensity coaster of the park. Things had changed since our last visit to Universal. For one, metal detectors were now in place to prevent any riders from bringing a cell phone on the ride. For another... well, I'm getting older, and it seems I just can't take a good coaster the way I used to. Halfway through the ride, tunnel vision was starting to close in around me, and I started to get queasy. Thankfully, there was no indecorous vomiting as on my last amusement park trip. Still, I was just as happy afterward that we weren't there for more rides that day.

It was time to head to a "holding area" -- one of the designated places in the park where people with Halloween Horror Nights tickets could wait for everything to be transitioned for the evening, and be released first to go enjoy it.

Nine haunted houses and five "scare zones." Those were up next...

Thursday, November 10, 2016


So, Orlando!

Over Halloween, I traveled with my husband and two friends to that fun-filled vacation spot. Our primary reasons for going were, as you'd expect, theme park related. But it would actually be a few days before we got to that.

Day one of the trip, after our flight, was really just about getting settled. We'd decided to rent a house together rather than getting hotel rooms, saving us a lot of money and getting us a lot more space. We ate dinner out at a wings place, but we also didn't want to eat out for every meal, so we did some grocery shopping. The rest of the evening was just relaxing. Thoughts of using the screened-in swimming pool in the back "yard" were quickly dispelled when we found it to be crazy-cold.

We awoke on day two to a chainsaw massacre happening right outside -- the trimming of palm trees along the central lake in the housing development.

This kicked up a dust in the air so fine it penetrated the screen out back and left a gross film on the pool that the filter never really caught up with. I don't know if that swimming pool ever warmed up; we never used it for the rest of the trip.

But no worries, as there was plenty to do. This was to be our one "non-theme park" day of the trip, and after considering ways to fill it, we settled on a visit to Wekiwa Springs State Park. We took a short walk through local nature, getting far different scenery than a hike back in Colorado would yield.

It was a relatively short visit, but probably about right with so much walking to come on the rest of the trip. And in any case, we had tickets for dinner at a quirky destination: Medieval Times! You may have seen this sort of thing in Las Vegas (at the Excalibur hotel), or in the movie The Cable Guy. If not, Medieval Times is a two-hour dinner show inside a castle -- part Renaissance Festival, part Casa Bonita. You eat stereotypical medieval food (without silverware) and watch as six knights compete in a series of events.

The evening culminated in a staged joust, with the guests divided into six sections to cheer for a particular knight. We were in the green section, enthusiastically cheering on our "hero." And though he won his early bout, it was his turn to fall (as the script demanded) to the red knight -- a particularly galling outcome, given the ribald Trump fan in his section who thought it appropriate to actually shout "Make American Great Again" in the middle of the show. At least the blue knight later vanquished red and won the tournament. (Though obviously, I'd have traded this proxy battle for a different result in the election.)

Medieval Times was schlocky fun. Subpar food, fight choreography that was spotty at times, but still charmingly silly and enjoyable. I don't know that it's something I'd want to do it again, but it's an experience I'd probably recommend to anyone who hasn't tried it -- and to lovers of fantasy and horsemanship in particular.

The next day would be Halloween, and the jam-packed centerpiece day of the trip.

Wednesday, November 09, 2016

The Signs

Today was going to be the day where I started in on Orlando vacation stories. I was going to simply ignore the election results (demure and magnanimous, I'd imagined), and just carry on with business as usual.

Nope. I can't do that.

But I guess I really did enjoy that vacation, because I was caught up enough in having fun that I didn't really see the signs that probably pointed to the outcome of the election. Literally, the signs.

Trump/Pence campaign signs were everywhere in Orlando. Really, there were political signs of all kinds, all over the place -- congress, sheriff, and so, so much more. I thought I was prepared for that. Yes, Florida's a battleground state, but so is Colorado. (And Colorado always has a dozen initiatives on the ballot every presidential election too. Though it seems that's now going to change.) But the thing is, Florida is worth more than three times as many electoral votes as Colorado. So it really shouldn't have been a surprise to me that it had probably three times as many political signs.

Most populated cities in the country (and most tourist destinations) tend to vote Democrat. So I was surprised to see Trump everywhere. A Trump/Pence sign on virtually every street corner. A loud mouth in a "Make America Great Again" hat shouting out that slogan during the show at Medieval Times. I figured something like, "oh, I guess Orlando is like a Colorado Springs or something -- one of those cities that bucks the trend."

Even in the most partisan enclaves, there are contrarians. Denver is staunchly blue (and Colorado last night voted for Hillary Clinton), but still, every day, on every drive to work, I'd see Trump bumper stickers. But in Orlando, I saw not one single pro-Clinton shirt, sign, or sticker in the course of an entire week. (The people I was traveling with told me they spotted a lonely few signs tucked way back up in the windows of an apartment complex we drove past almost every day, but I myself never spotted them.)

Perhaps I should have read the signs. Perhaps all those signs should have been a tip at how profoundly animated Trump voters were. Perhaps that total lack of any visible Clinton support pointed to what was about to happen.

Not that 10 days more warning would have really prepared me to deal with how I'm feeling right now. But I guess the signs were there.

Tuesday, November 08, 2016

A Higher Ark

Before I got started with my "vacation proper," I spent an evening at the symphony. It made for a special level of exhaustion on that early morning flight the next day, but it was totally worth it for what I got to see.

A few times each year, the Colorado Symphony Orchestra presents special movie screenings -- a film is projected on a screen above the stage, and the orchestra plays the entire score live in sync to the picture. Past screenings have included Back to the Future and Psycho. This time out, the featured composer was John Williams. The movie was Raiders of the Lost Ark.

First, a few quick words about the film itself. Raiders is still one of the great action romps. It is as relentlessly paced as many modern blockbusters, despite being released in the early 1980s. What's more, its plot is far more thought out, and its characters more sharply drawn. It remains one of Steven Spielberg's very best movies, even after the dozens he's made since.

This is also one of John Williams best scores. Amid a career of several indelible themes, the "Raiders March" still stands out. It's triumphant, swashbuckling, and loud -- not content to hide in the background, but instead an integral part of the film experience. The sweeping romantic theme for Marion is just as strong, as is the ominous theme representing the Ark itself.

Seeing all this music performed live was a real treat. This score lives in the brass section, and you could watch how the different instruments -- trumpets, trombones, french horns, and tuba -- all worked to create the whole. You also got a display of the musicians' incredible skill on a number of cues in the score. The piece that really brought the house down was the "Desert Chase," seven-and-a-half minutes of uninterrupted music with virtually no dialogue, that plays as Indy climbs on top of (and is subsequently dragged under) a moving truck. The intensity keeps ratcheting up, the instruments playing louder and louder, the tempo accelerating faster and faster -- and all of it in perfect sync to specific moments on screen. The crowd erupted in thunderous applause at the end of the sequence.

As an extra added bonus, with the show taking place on the Friday before Halloween, several people in the crowd saw fit to dress as Indiana Jones -- men, women, young, old, each adding to the fun atmosphere of the night.

As much as I love Back to the Future, this was probably the best film/score concert from the Colorado Symphony Orchestra I've seen yet. And John Williams fans have two more promising events to look forward to as the season continues into 2017 -- Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, and E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.

I say every time that I can't recommend these shows highly enough. That's why I'm talking about one again. I can't recommend them highly enough.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Stranger Things

Hello, readers! I've returned from a week-long vacation to Orlando, with some stories I hope you'll enjoy. But pop culture kept rolling along in my absence, so I'm going to squirrel those away for a bit and start by playing catch-up instead. And I'll start with the big new movie I saw upon my return, Doctor Strange.

The latest entry in Marvel's mega-franchise is not quite the departure from formula needed to be truly exceptional, but it does shake things up just enough to avoid being "more of the same." I was entertained, if not blown away.

The visuals are a real triumph. Doctor Strange picks up the baton from several other films, Inception and Dark City in particular, but blends it all into its own concoction that dazzles throughout. And for once, the 3D version of the film definitely adds to the experience (despite being a post-production conversion). It feels like the sort of movie that would reward multiple viewings, as there are so many places to look in so many scenes.

Doctor Strange is also an impeccably cast movie -- everyone is selected perfectly to do the thing they do best. Benedict Cumberbatch again demonstrates his mastery of abrasive-but-compelling. Tilda Swinton transforms, chameleon-like, into another unusual character. Chiwetel Ejiofor is another film's moral constant. Rachel McAdams is again a perfect foil by being more of everything the main character is -- more lovable, more witty, more clever. And Mads Mikkelsen oozes his blend of creepy and charming as another intriguing villain.

In many ways, the movie is a hybrid between Iron Man (the pompous and reluctant hero) and Thor (fantastical, "magical" displays). Often times, this worked, but there were a few elements of those films I do wish hadn't been repeated here. Rachel McAdams' character, like Natalie Portman's (and Gwyneth Paltrow's, before Iron Man sequels punched her up a bit), is hardly developed as her own person -- the film relies on the actress more than what's on the page to make a character. And the villain is once again rather generically ambitious without particular grievances depicted on screen.

The role of magic works for and against the story in different moments. The ability to hand-wave things that had to be explained by technobabble in previous Marvel movies is certainly a time saver, and the lack of specificity makes it harder to poke holes. Yet what few limitations the story actually puts on its magic prove to be guidelines and not rules, all violated in act three to speed (perhaps too fast?) to a conclusion.

Still, it all goes down rather easily, and very prettily. I'd give Doctor Strange a B+ overall. I guess it speaks to the current state of superhero movies that even a mark that high still puts it at only the third best superhero movie of the year.