Archive for July, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe – Review with Spoilers

Sunday, July 27th, 2008

As a pretty big fan of The X-Files (I even went to a convention once) back when it was on TV, I was definitely pleased when the news came out last year that a new feature film would be coming out this year. Certainly, my enthusiasm was particularly strong thanks to the fact that stars David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson would both be returning and that series creator Chris Carter would be writing and directing. The resultant film is surprisingly modest, but I also found it to be a spooky and compelling thriller that felt true to the characters and effectively reflected the tone of the series.

With it being 6 years since the series ended (and 10 years since the last feature film), Carter and his co-writer Frank Spotnitz (also a regular contributor to the series), wisely decided to go with a story that very easily stands on its own without substantially involving the complex, and sometimes kind of convoluted, conspiracy mythology that ended up generally dominating the later seasons of the series. The result actually has more of the look and feel of an episode from one of the earliest seasons, back when the main focus was on stand-alone plots about a crime with, often somewhat ambiguous, supernatural overtones. While I did enjoy the conspiracy aspects of the series, if nothing else for its pure complexity, I tended to prefer the more standalone episodes. Because of that, this movie largely fit with what I generally liked best about the series. I can understand pretty easily, though, why this film could feel disappointing to fans that preferred the conspiracy stories or who were hoping for a feature film that had grander ambitions.

It has been pretty widely reported that 20th Century Fox would only green-light another "X-Files" feature if Carter agreed to keep it to a very low-budget. Reportedly, the film ended up costing around $30 million, which is amazingly low for a major studio feature today, particularly one built around a known franchise. Fortunately, they came up with a story that fit the budget instead of trying to cut corners. The film is very dialog-driven and does not feature large special effects sequences or big set pieces. The film builds a fair amount of tension, and is even downright scary at times, and that is largely accomplished via fairly old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, including frequently relying on the viewer’s imagination to fill in what isn’t shown directly.  Score composer Mark Snow (who also scored the entire TV series and the previous film) again contributes greatly to the tension and overall mood of the film.

The scale of the film is small enough that I could see a pretty good argument being made that perhaps they should have done this as a TV movie instead of a theatrical release. They did largely ignore the conventional wisdom that a feature film requires a story that is much grander and larger in scope than the typical TV episodes. The longer running time of the film does provide room for more story development at a more leisurely pace. I suspect that will may find the film a bit slow as it doesn’t have the rapid cutting and frequent action sequences that are typical of most summer thrillers. The pacing of this film is actually quite a bit slower even in comparison to the first "X-Files" film.  The film does also benefit from some effective use of the full wide-screen frame, particularly during a few key sequences set in snow-covered fields as well as during one very well-shot foot chase.  I also think that the somewhat complex and dialog-driven nature of the movie was well served from the generally stronger focus given to a movie in a theater than with the usual distractions of a TV viewing.

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Los Angeles Freeway Construction – A Rant

Monday, July 21st, 2008

I think Caltrans is specifically conspiring to make it as difficult as possible for us to get home from Orange County on a Sunday night.  Last night, we had dinner with friends at Downtown Disney (which was very nice), but it ended up taking us close to 2 hours to get home to Van Nuys, mostly due to multiple construction projects.

We left the Disneyland Resort a little before 11pm and traffic on the North 5 was moving along at pretty much full speed until just past the 91 interchange, where it came to almost a complete halt.  I wasn’t able to see the brake lights until we were too far past the 91 to cut over to it as an alternate route.  The big problem at this point was that they were doing construction work that had all but the far left lane closed.  This brought traffic to a near stand-still, even fairly late at night.

While in this, I heard a traffic report on the radio indicating that there was a Sig Alert at the Slauson exit a bit further north, so I definitely wanted to get off the 5.  I decided to try and exit at either Auto Center Drive or Beach Blvd. and then cut across surface streets to the 91.  It turned out that the Auto Center Drive exit was closed completely, but there wasn’t a "ramp closed" sign until you were pretty much right at it.  That actually resulted in me merging to the right at one point into a lane that was about to end, because I didn’t realize the exit ramp wasn’t accessible.  I then continued to stay as far right as I could, since there were no signs indicating where I needed to be to get off at Beach, assuming that exit was even opened.  It did turn out to be opened, but it took us about 20-30 minutes (I lost track of the exact time) or so to go the 1-2 miles from the start of the construction zone to the exit.

The Beach exit actually drops you onto Auto Center Drive, just a bit north of the exit for that road specifically.  You then turn onto Beach at the next light.  When we got to Beach, we found that it was actually closed as well at that intersection.  That meant that we then had to turn on Stanton instead and then cut over to Beach near Knott’s Berry Farm in order to backtrack over to the 91.  Just to further my rant against road work, I should mention here that we did get stuck behind a sweet sweeper for part of the way as we went down Stanton.

The 91 was basically smooth going.  We then got off on the N-710 and found that they had the 2 left lanes closed on that road as well.  Fortunately, we were only going a short distance there (up to the 105) and traffic is generally light enough on the 710 that time of night that the construction didn’t slow things down that much.  It didn’t take us very long to get onto the 105-W, which we then took over to the 405-N.

The 405 wasn’t too bad through the LAX area, but then slowed to a crawl right around Culver Blvd.  Yes, as you probably guessed by now, Caltrans had a couple lanes closed for construction between Culver and the 10 interchange.  That stretch of road is pretty bad even under the best of circumstances (this is one of the busiest stretches of road in the country), so traffic was once again barely moving.  Obviously, this wasn’t as bad as it could have been during rush hour, but it still took quite a while to get through there.  To make matters worse, I was starting to need a restroom pretty badly, which helped to make the rest of the drive even more miserable.  With the traffic largely stopped, it would have been incredibly difficult to force our way over to the right to get off at any of the exits.  In addition, it was after midnight by this point, so I think there was little chance that there would have been anywhere opened with public restrooms that were both available and safe to use.

Once we got past that construction zone, fortunately traffic was moving pretty much full speed the rest of the way.  By this time, we were all pretty completely wiped out and miserable, of course.  In fact, I ended up getting home and sending a note off to my boss at work that I was planning to come in late this morning (they owe me a few hours anyway…), so I guess I should probably head there once I finish typing this.

I certainly do see the need for construction work on the freeways, and I understand why Sunday nights are a good time to do it, but last night certainly was frustrating.  I couldn’t help but think that there must have been some way that they could have better planned the projects so that someone driving a fairly common route (Orange County to the San Fernando Valley) wouldn’t keep continuously finding construction zones pretty much everywhere they turned.

The Muppet Movie at Arclight Sherman Oaks

Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

The Arclight Theaters in Sherman Oaks and Hollywood pretty regularly run screenings of older movies.  Many of those screenings are done in coordination with the American Film Institute (AFI) as part of their various top-100 lists.  On Monday evening, the theater in Sherman Oaks held a showing of The Muppet Movie.

Having grown up as a fan of the Muppets and with very fond memories of the movie, my wife and I both were very enthusiastic about this opportunity to take our 4-year-old son to see the film on the big screen.  We heard about this screening only a couple days after our son had seen (and liked) the Muppetvision 3D movie at Disney’s California Adventure for the first time, so we felt it was likely that he would be reasonably receptive to the movie.

I suspect that anyone that is actually opening a blog post about this 29-year-old movie has probably already seen it, so I’m not going to spend much time "reviewing" the film.  I think it is likely that even most big fans of the movie probably haven’t seen it for quite some time.  Before Monday’s showing, the last time I saw the movie was probably around the time the DVD came out, which was likely close to a decade ago.  My wife indicated that she didn’t think she had seen it since she saw it as a kid during its original theatrical release. 

With the passage of time, we both still had a lot of nostalgia for the film, but we had kind of forgotten how good a movie it really is on its own merits.  Much of the dialog has a very genuine and rather intelligent wit to it.  As was typical of the Muppets, there is a lot of humor that is directed very squarely at the adults in the audience.  Jim Henson and his team were exceptionally adept at accomplishing this while still keeping the movie completely kid-friendly.  The movie does have its fair share of sight gags as well, although they aren’t as dominant as in the later Muppet projects.  A good comedy is always better with an enthusiastic audience and that was definitely the case at this showing.   Seeing this movie with an audience of fans was really a lot of fun.

One aspect that I hadn’t forgotten (as much thanks to the soundtrack CD as anything) is how good Paul Williams’ songs for the film are.  The most famous is "The Rainbow Connection" (its inclusion in the AFI’s Top-100 Movie Songs list was the reason for the screening) and it really is a wonderful song, but the others are fun too.  I particularly get a huge kick of out Frank Oz’s extremely tortured rendition (as Miss Piggy) of the big romantic ballad "Never Before, Never Again".  The exaggerated vocals combined with the visuals of Kermit and Miss Piggy in way over-the-top parodies of classic romantic movie scenes are really quite hilarious and received an extremely big reaction from the audience.

I hadn’t remembered that the film was as low-budget an effort as it was.  The movie wasn’t a major studio release and, at this showing, there was actually a bit of laughter at the obscure "Associated Film Distributers" logo that opened the movie.  While the movie isn’t as slick as the later efforts (particularly the big-budget Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island that were made for Disney), the puppetry definitely still holds up.  I remember that the scenes of Kermit riding a bicycle got a lot of attention back in 1979 and those scenes actually do still hold up.  Of course, even with the low budget, the film did attract an extremely impressive group of celebrity cameos, including James Coburn, Dom DeLuise, Steve Martin, Telly Savalas, Elliot Gould, Madeline Kahn, Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman, Edgar Bergen (who died shortly afterwards — the film is dedicated to him), Bob Hope, Carol Kane, Milton Berle, Richard Pryor, and Orson Welles.  The movie came out during the run of "The Muppet Show", which attracted a similarly impressive list of guest stars despite being a non-network series.  That says a great deal about how appealing the Muppet characters really were.

I was a bit surprised that there were fewer kids in the audience for this show than I thought there would be.  While I did expect that the movie would be an especially big nostalgic draw for those in the same general age range as my wife and me, I also figured that a pretty large percentage of those attending would be parents that were taking their own kids to see it.  We certainly weren’t the only family there with a small child, but we did seem to be in the minority.  Fortunately, our son was very well-behaved the whole time.  Beforehand, we had emphasized very strongly that he had to stay quiet during the movie and he took that very much to heart.  In fact, we had a bit of a problem with him repeatedly reminding us of "no talking at the movie" when we tried to engage in conversation before the movie started.

This was only our son’s 2nd trip to the movies (the first was "Horton Hears a Who" a couple months ago) as my wife and I both felt strongly about waiting until we felt he was mature enough to behave appropriately in a theater.  While he was very well behaved, I do have some uncertainty about is reaction to the movie.  He certainly did seem attentive to the screen the whole time (other than occasionally peeking back at the projection booth) and he never asked to leave.  On the other hand, the movie doesn’t seem to have made much of an impression.  Our son tends to talk pretty non-stop about activities that really excite him, but he has had very little to say about the movie.  I certainly don’t think it was a bad experience for him or anything, but this is a pretty dialog-intensive movie that is probably targeted at somewhat older kids.

One of the major features of the Arclight theater is that all shows are strictly reserved seating instead of the more common general admission seating that you find at most movie theaters.  When I ordered our tickets, I think they had been on-sale for just a couple days, but seat availability was already becoming pretty limited.  I was able to find us three seats together about 2/3 of the way back, although pretty far over to the side.  Based on this, we were expecting a sold-out show, which definitely turned out to be correct. The demand for the movie actually turned out to be so high that they ended up shifting the screening into a larger auditorium than originally intended. 

This change did cause about a 15-minute delay in the start time since the change of auditoriums messed up the reserved seating a bit.  We picked up the tickets at the box-office about 30 minutes before the show and I later realized that the seats printed on it were different than the ones we had originally ordered.   They were in roughly the same spot, just on the left side of the theater instead of the right.  We later ran into a bit of an argument when another couple showed up believing they had the same seats (I’m guessing they had a "print-at-home" ticket).  An usher did try to get us to shift to the other seats, but I was hesitant to end up in different seat numbers than the ones printed on our tickets, just in case someone else showed up with a claim on those seats.  I was also concerned that there were 3 of us, but the other party with a claim on the seats was just 2 people.  Working with the theater employees, the other couple ended up moving to the other set of seats and we stayed put.  It was obvious that there were quite a few similar situations around the theater and I give the employees credit for managing to sort it all out fairly quickly and without major issues.

This is a 29-year-old, relatively low-budget film and that was reflected somewhat in the presentation.  The print, which I suspect may have dated back to the original run, was kind of faded, but otherwise in pretty good condition.  The sound definitely was a lot harsher and lower-fidelity than we are generally used to today as well.  With it being just a single screening, they showed the movie using reels rather than transferring it to platters.  The projectionist did miss one reel change slightly (we saw a bit of the leader), but otherwise they did a good job with the projection.  I even noticed the projectionist adjusting the framing and focus on a few occasions during the course of the movie, something that is all too rare at theaters today.

I tend to think the availability of classic movie screenings like this is one of the best parts of living in the Los Angeles area.  I thoroughly enjoyed seeing this old-favorite on the big screen again and was glad to have had the chance to share it with my family.

Disneyland Resort Trips Report – June/July 2008 Part 1: The Food

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

The headline for this post is not a typo.  This report is going to cover two different stays at the Disneyland Resort over just a few short weeks of time.  We first spent 4 nights at the resort on June 22-25 and then stayed overnight again on July 4th.

We have a membership in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) timeshare and had originally planned to make a trip to Walt Disney World in late June right after our son completed his first year of pre-school.  After our October trip last year, we found that our son had become pretty skittish on rides and attractions and we decided it probably would be wise to delay our trip until December to increase the chance that he would grow out of that a bit.  Canceling that trip meant that we ended up with a number of DVC points that we had to use by August or end up forfeiting them.

My parents live in the Orlando area and they decided to come up to visit us during the same period that we had originally planned our Florida trip.  They were interested in staying down at the Disneyland Resort for a few days, so it then made sense to use up those points with a stay down there.  After researching, we discovered that we had the points available to cover the cost of a concierge-level room at Disney’s Grand Californian hotel for those 4 nights in June with enough left over for the 4th of July as well.  We had used points to stay there on July 4th for the last few years (avoiding the need to drive home after the fireworks) and it was very appealing to do that again this year while also having the chance to enjoy a longer, multi-day stay at the Grand Californian as well.

Instead of trying to test my memory with a day-to-day report on our visit, I’m going to categorize my report.  In this first part, I am going to concentrate on our dining experiences during the trip.  I’ll likely add additional parts to this over the next few days reporting on other aspects of the trip.

Character Dining

My parents arrived mid-afternoon on June 22 and we decided that a character dinner would be a good way to start the trip.  Around the 60 day mark before our trip, we made reservations at Goofy’s Kitchen (at the Disneyland Hotel) for that first-night dinner.  Our reservations were at 6pm and we were happy that they were able to seat us within about 5-10 minutes of our arrival at the restaurant.  Walk-up guests were being told that there was a 90 minute wait, so reservations are definitely a very good idea here.

Before seating, they gathered our family together for a photo with Pluto.  About halfway through the meal someone came to our table to try and sell us a pretty overpriced (around $40, if I recall) package of the photos.  They did the same thing when we did the character breakfast at PCH Grill later in the week (this time with Daisy Duck), so this must now be standard at the character meals.  In both cases, we declined as the packages were pretty costly and the photos weren’t that great.  I don’t remember encountering this there before (although it has been a while since we last did a character meal at DLR) and I don’t really care for this system.  I don’t mind the pre-meal photos, but I’d much rather they use Photopass to sell the photos.  At least at PCH, a CM did offer to also take a couple photos with our own camera, something that wasn’t offered at Goofy’s Kitchen.

The food at Goofy’s was ok, but nothing special.  This was consistent with our past experiences there.  We have always found that you definitely go there much more for the character-experience than for the food.  The food is definitely better than a low-end buffet like a Hometown Buffet, but I would also say it is closer to that than it to what you typically find at a high-end hotel buffet such as at the better Vegas hotels or at somewhere like a Hilton or a Hyatt.  Those used to the Walt Disney World character meals are also apt to be disappointed by Goofy’s based on our typical experiences.

The buffet does feature carved prime rib as a main entree and it was pretty decent.  On my first trip up there, I did get a piece that turned out to be quite a bit more rare than I generally like (and I prefer beef to be medium to medium-rare), but I can’t fault them too much for that since I didn’t specify a preference.  On a subsequent trip up there, I was easily able to get another slice that was more to my taste.  I do think they should probably ask before serving the meat that rare, but it still wasn’t that big a deal.  I did think the rest of the selection at the buffet was somewhat more limited than it should have been, which was not unexpected based on past visits.  For example, I was really surprised that they only offered one variety of roasted potatoes (which I couldn’t eat because they had onions) and didn’t even have the mashed potatoes and gravy that are usually commonplace at this kind of buffet.

I actually thought that the children’s section of the buffet was a better selection.  They had a couple different kinds of pizza, chicken strips, popcorn shrimp (I actually had quite a bit of this), macaroni and cheese, and spaghetti.  Our son actually completed finished off two pretty full plates of food, which was a larger meal than we are used to him finishing.  He especially liked the spaghetti and ate two pretty big helpings of that.

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Ranking the Pixar Movies

Tuesday, July 1st, 2008

I read a couple Disney-fan discussion boards and every time a new Pixar movie comes out, there is inevitably a thread or two in which everyone ranks all of their films to date.  This is probably a result of the relatively few films they have made so far (9) and the game will likely start to die out as the number of titles makes it increasingly difficult.  For now, I figured I’ll play along, but do it as a blog entry where I can be more easily verbose with explanations.

I do see a distinction between a list of "favorites" and "best" when discussing works of art or entertainment and this list is going to be favorites.  What that means is that the order is based more on how much I enjoy the movies and am apt to return to them.  Essentially, this is based more on the "fun" factor than on the full collection of merits.  Finally, the rankings can’t help but be a bit arbitrary and I openly admit that the order could easily change, especially based on how recently I’ve seen each movie.

1. Monsters, Inc.  - Of all the Pixar films, this is the one that I am most apt to stop and watch if I come across it airing on TV or cable.  The film succeeds due to great casting, humor that hits the mark with an amazing consistency, truly exciting action sequences, and a story that takes place in a fully-realized and unique world of its own.  Finally, the closing shot of this movie is right up there towards the top of the list of the all time best endings.  While all of this is in service of a somewhat conventional buddy-movie plot, the whole package simply works.

2. Toy Story 2 – Pixar’s only sequel to date brilliantly expanded on the great characters and concept of the company’s first feature to create a more fully-realized film.  The movie is uproariously funny (it has the most out-loud laughs of any Pixar film) and it also quite touching at times.  The new characters created for the sequel (Jessie, Stinky Pete, and Bullseye) are not extraneous in any way, instead greatly expanding the overall storytelling.  The movie also contains the single best musical sequence of any Pixar film with the highly moving "When She Loved Me". This is a very rare case of a sequel that surpassed the original, largely through the careful application of the experience that the Pixar artists had gained with their first two films.

3. Wall-E – If I were putting together a "best" list instead of a "favorites" list, I’m pretty sure this would top it.   Pixar’s newest film is also their most bold an most creative.  I’ve seen some online debate about whether the film (especially the first 20 minutes or so) is mainly charming and funny or if it is mostly dark and sad.  The brilliance of the film is that it is all of those.  They were able to take a fairly downbeat scenario and present it in a way that is both palatable and, ultimately, even optimistic.  Much of this is accomplished thanks to the title character being Pixar’s most instantly endearing and sympathetic creation to date.  The film’s use of visual storytelling and incredibly detailed sound effects design gives it an exhilaratingly unconventional feel.  I can see the possibility that this one could move up on my favorites list as well with additional viewing and the passage of time.

4. Ratatouille – This one has the sharpest writing and most sophisticated story of all of the Pixar films to date.  While all of Pixar’s films have appealed to a fairly broad age range, this one does seem to skew a bit older than their other films, probably because the appreciation for fine food that is at the heart of the story really has to come with age and experience.  The film does still contain its fair share of visual gags and punch-lines, but it also contains a great deal of wit and character-driven humor.  This one would likely be a close 2nd on my "best" list.

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