Thursday, August 28, 2014

Top 10 Disneyland 2014 Trip Memories (In Random Order): #2 A Swim in Paradise

Disneyland Trip 2014 Memories: A Swim in Paradise

Compared to planning a Disney World vacation, deciding where to stay at Disneyland is easy. There are just three resort hotels, and they’re presented with such transparency. The most expensive is the best. (Who doesn’t love the Grand Californian? It’s inside the theme park. Yes, it has the smallest rooms of all three hotels, but that all works out because you have to sell one of your children to afford to stay there.) The next most expensive is the second best. (The kid-centric Disneyland Hotel has delightful, spacious rooms, the pool to end all pools, magical headboards, and gorgeous grounds.) The least expensive hotel offers the most low-frills experience. (But you’re still a ten minute stroll from Disneyland at the Paradise Pier, so how many other frills do you really need?)

After staying at the Paradise Pier this August, we’ve officially tried all three resort hotels (and I would gladly go back to any of them in a heartbeat). 

Back in the spring when we were planning this vacation, my mother mused, “Since we’re staying at the Paradise Pier, wouldn’t it make sense to upgrade to a room with a view of California Adventure?”

“For the price,” I replied, “it would be better to get a room at the Disneyland Hotel with that fabulous pool complex.”

(When she saw the price increase to upgrade, springing for a premium view immediately stopped making sense.)

Unlike the two more expensive on-property hotel options, the Paradise Pier has just one pool. It’s pretty modest in size, too. They call it a “rooftop pool,” but that’s somewhat misleading because it’s on the roof of the three foot parking structure and doesn’t particularly offer much of a view of anything (unless you’re standing at the top of the waterslide.) Like the other two hotels, the Paradise Pier does offer a waterslide, but it’s just a plain yellow slide that lacks the elaborate theming of the Grand Californian’s Redwood slide or the Disneyland Hotels Monorail slides.

Ordinarily, when we’re in Disneyland, we spend most of our time in the park, so the less-than-spectacular pool didn’t seem like a big deal to me. After all, we have a neighborhood pool at home, but our neighborhood is sadly lacking in a Disneyland. Our kids will swim in anything—a creek, sprinklers, some random stranger’s bird bath—so we thought since we’d budgeted only one afternoon for swimming, the no-frills Paradise Pier pool would be just fine.

Well, it was more than just fine. To my delight, I found the experience of swimming there surprisingly awesome. The experience was so good, in fact, that it forced me to reevaluate my opinion that the Disneyland Hotel has hands-down the best pool. A more accurate statement might be that the Disneyland Hotel has hands-down the most photogenic pool. Its Monorail Slide area is absolutely gorgeous, and we had a breathtaking view of it from our two bedroom suite in the Frontier Tower in 2012. But as I discovered this summer, though the Paradise Pier Pool looks far less ostentatious, it’s still an incredibly fun, relaxing place to cool off for a couple of hours.

 Yes, there’s only one pool, and, yes, it’s relatively small. But there are also fewer guests at the Pier than at the other two (massive) resort hotels. So a smaller pool isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Instead of feeling cramped, it feels cozy, and even though it looked kind of crowded when we got there, once I actually got into the water, I found I had more than enough room to swim comfortably. Another nice surprise was that the pool was heated…and saltwater (just like the other, more expensive Disneyland resort hotel pools). A saltwater pool is always a huge plus in my book since I hate being dipped in chemicals, and in California, a heated pool never hurts. Like all the other Disneyland pools, this one features attentive lifeguards, complimentary life jackets (in three sizes) for children, and a convenient place to get as many nice, big, clean, white, dry pool towels as you want.

From the nook where we waited for the elevators on our floor (the sixth), we could see the pool area below us through the window, and the whole place looked like a lot of breezy fun, so we were excited to try it out but waited until Wednesday, as we had planned. 

In the mid-afternoon, we left California Adventure (soaking wet from Grizzly River Run) and hurried back up to our room (626) to change into our bathing suits. While we got ready, the kids had a huge, dramatic battle with the lightsabers they had built themselves at the Star Trader the night before. 

The instant we got to the pool, both kids made a beeline for the waterslide. 

Grayson went up and down it before Penelope and I even made it to the line. Then he hit the pool and never returned to the slide, so he must not have been too impressed. Penelope and I (on the other hand) thought the slide was completely awesome.

I never would have predicted beforehand that one of the absolute highlights of this Disneyland trip for me would have been the waterslide at the Paradise Pier. But it was. I loved it. It was an absolute blast. I think I slid three times. And each time I thought fondly of the (much smaller) water slide my cousins had in their backyard pool in San Diego. We stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house for a couple of weeks almost every summer when I was growing up, so I have a lot of fond memories of going down their small waterslide into the deep end of their backyard pool. 

The two other Disneyland resort hotel pools also have waterslides, but I’ve never been down either of them because…well, honestly, it never once occurred to me to try. Possibly adults are also welcome to use those slides. When it’s pool time, I always stick with my daughter, and in the past she’s been too young to slide on the big slides, so I’ve never really gone near them. But this time she was five and wanted to try that big, yellow waterslide more than anything, so I went with her up the towering white stairs, thinking that I might have to climb back down again when she slid.

“Am I allowed to slide, too?” I asked the attendant at the top.

“Of course,” she replied. “Guests of all ages are invited to enjoy the waterslide.”

So I slid right after Penelope, and we both loved the experience so much that we immediately went again.  (I'm making a lot of noise on the video at first because I got used to screaming and shrieking excessively on the roller coasters to reassure Penelope.)  After that, I continued following her up the stairs, but refrained from going down the slide after her because there was a line, and I thought as an adult, I really should defer to the little children waiting to use the slide.  (To be honest, I doubt I would have felt comfortable sliding at the other two hotels because there are more children in line and more judgmental adults watching you while they enjoy a drink from the pool bar and think you're an idiot.)

I was not the only adult sliding, though. Far from it. There were at least three other women (two of them definitely older than I am) and one man who spoke fluent English to me but some other mysterious language to all of his excited children. (It sounded like something Nordic with random words of French thrown in occasionally, so I never could decide quite where this family was from.)

Basically, we stayed at the pool about an hour, and Penelope and I spent easily forty-five minutes of that time just going down the waterslide. I took lots of pictures and video with the pool camera. From the scaffolding that led to the slide, we had an excellent view of Paradise Pier in California Adventure.

Then after Penelope had four or five turns, I told her we needed to take a break and go in the pool for a while (less because we needed to swim than because I noticed other parents doing that, possibly to keep the line manageable for those who hadn’t had turns yet).

I also wanted to get some pictures in the pool. Unfortunately, after less than two minutes of swimming, the pool camera started to behave strangely. First the LCD display on the back showed nothing but blinding whiteness, and then, finally, everything went black. Dismayed, I remembered suddenly that back on the day Dad got his liver transplant, I accidentally forgot to take the camera out of the front of my suit before showering. When I peeled off my swim top, it came flying out and hit the edge of the bath tub really hard. At the time, it seemed okay. (The paint had chipped a bit on the point of impact, but it still took pictures.) Some seal inside the camera must have popped open, though, because in the pool at the Paradise Pier, it abruptly stopping working about thirty seconds after being submerged for the first time.

By the time I finished fiddling with the camera, it was already almost time to get out of the pool, so I offered Penelope one last time down the waterslide. As it happened, this turned into one more time, and then another one more time. The third time, I decided to go ahead and slide with her again. And to be honest, sliding was so much fun that I completely stopped caring about the pool camera. (Yes, I’m sad that Kodak went out of the camera business, so we can’t buy a replacement, but we used that camera really hard and certainly got our money’s worth.)

While we were swimming, there’d been a shift change at the slide. So the friendly young woman who had helped us at first had now been replaced by an even more friendly young man. He was so personable that I ended up having quite a long conversation with him (by my standards since I’m very terrified of strangers). When I mentioned that we had reservations at the Carthay Circle, he told me that he was pretty sure it was the only place in the park with a full bar, then added that he wasn’t necessarily suggesting I get drunk and not to blame him if I did.

As Penelope was putting away her borrowed life jacket, this tiny boy started saying, “I need help! Help me! I’m stuck!” I couldn’t see anyone who looked like his parents anywhere, so finally I helped him take off a life jacket that was too small for him and put on a bigger one. I was a little nervous because I’m not sure guests are supposed to help other people’s children, but I couldn’t tell a tiny child, “I’m sorry. I think helping you would go against protocol.” Nobody said anything to me, which was a relief. I am a mommy, so I guess I’m allowed to do whatever I deem necessary. I do notice that moms tend to be quite bossy and take charge in public, but I keep forgetting that I’m a member of this protected class.

 Anyway, after Nellie and I dried off, we wandered over to the lounge chairs where Derrick and Gray were chatting with a stranger. When Derrick introduced us (calling him “the guy I’ve been chatting with”), the stranger smiled, and his facial expression gave me pause. His gaze was almost expectant, and he had a very unusual look. I felt like I’d seen him somewhere before, and felt even more strongly like he expected me to recognize him. To be honest, his manner seemed a little weird to me and made me nervous because I thought he was just some random lunatic with strange expectations, so I was a little shy around him. But then his wife showed up with his adorable one-year-old son (whose birthday was that day), and he started explaining that he wanted to take his son to Disneyland every year on his birthday and observe his changed reactions to the experience over time. This totally made sense to me, and his baby was so cute, and his wife seemed so nice that I suddenly relaxed and felt very friendly toward this guy.

Then we had to go. (We were on a tight schedule because we had to make a 7:30 reservation at the Carthay Circle Restaurant in California Adventure.) Inside the hotel as we waited for the elevator, Derrick told me more about his conversation with the guy. Apparently, he was from Australia, but his wife was Spanish, which had caused some passport complications. When Derrick had said that we’re from Austin, the stranger had volunteered, “Oh I have a friend who bought a house in Austin recently…Elijah Wood.” Derrick said that he’d tried to react casually to this news instead of seeming like a crazed celebrity stalker, and he thought his was why the guy had continued chatting with him for several minutes.

“I’ll bet he’s famous, too,” I guessed, “and he probably thought it was funny that you didn’t recognize him, so he continued the conversation.”

I just had a hunch that this was the case, so as soon as we got back to the room, I started googling around and discovered pretty quickly that the guy was actually Jason Gann, the creator of the TV show Wilfred (the one where Elijah Wood’s character is best friends with a dog played by a guy in a dog suit). I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve seen tons of commercials for it, enough to realize that Gann plays Wilfred (the guy in the dog suit). What I didn’t know was that the American show is a remake of an Australian original created by Gann.

It was easy to confirm that Jason Gann was in fact the person we’d been talking to at the pool since his Wikipedia page alone included a photo and the information that his wife was a Spanish model and their son was born August 13, 2013.

So this was a pretty cool brush with celebrity. Apparently Derrick had chatted with him for quite a while and genuinely enjoyed the conversation, unaware that he was talking to anyone famous.

The lens should not be foggy.  The camera is dead.  At least I got my slide videos!
PS.  I forgot to mention the diverting bonus of getting to watch all the little kids in the hot tub make long, full, Abraham Lincoln style beards out of all the frothy foam.  I personally never use the hot tub because the chemicals are hard on my ridiculously sensitive skin, so I found this superior to usual hot tub experiences because it entertained me.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Boyhood

Date: August 27, 2014
Time: 9:55 am
Place: Alamo Drafthouse Lakeline
Company: Nobody

Food:  Greek wrap with chicken, no dressing, no red onion, Dr. Pepper, water
Runtime: 2 hours, 46 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Richard Linklater

Quick Impressions:
Boyhood is generating a lot of buzz, and of course, the biggest talking point is that Richard Linklater filmed it using the same cast over a period of almost twelve years.  Such a huge risk seems destined to end in either spectacular failure or tremendous success.  So far, given its generally positive reviews and word of mouth, this film is certainly a critical success.  Boyhood will most likely end in some Oscar recognition for Linklater and will almost definitely end in a frantic sprint to the bathroom for most of the audience.

That’s the other thing about Boyhood.  It’s almost three hours long.  When the movie begins, Mason Evans, Jr. (to whose boyhood the title refers) appears to be finishing up first grade.  By the time the movie ends, Mason has just arrived at college, excited to start his freshman year.  Similarly, when I arrived at the theater, I had just dropped my daughter off at kindergarten, and when the movie was over, I had to rush home to pick her up at the end of the school day.

Now movies about boys growing up are not exactly hard to come by.  (And if what I’ve seen in the movies is true, more boys grow up in Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana than anywhere else in the entire world.)  But what makes Boyhood stand apart from other bildungsromanesque cinematic fare is that young actor Ellar Coltrane really is first seven, then eight, then nine, then ten, and so on up until Mason graduates from high school and heads off to college at eighteen.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a (non-documentary) feature film attempt anything similar.  (I wish they’d make movies like this more often, to be honest.  I’ve often wished that stars with long careers/lives would have secretly collaborated on a project of this nature.  I mean, just imagine if Mickey Rooney filmed a scene of a movie every year of his working life!  My kindergartener would have graduated from high school by the time I finished watching that movie!)

It’s really weird to watch actors age naturally over such a long period of time.  At one point I caught myself thinking, They’ve aged Patricia Arquette too much.  Ethan Hawke looks almost exactly the same, and…Oh wait!  This is real.  (I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with the way Patricia Arquette has aged.  If anything, I’m starting to think that Ethan Hawke is secretly a mannequin.)

Early on, Boyhood reminded me a bit of The Tree of Life.  The movies have some obvious points of similarity, although quite soon their pronounced differences become equally obvious.  The Tree of Life is like a visual poem showing us one child’s attempt to make sense of the life he’s experiencing.  Boyhood is more straight-forward, no-nonsense narrative, of the slice-of-life variety.  Ellar Coltrane is certainly a photogenic child, though, with extremely emotive eyes.  Like the kids in The Tree of Life, he’s an immensely compelling screen presence.  What’s weird of course, is thinking, That child actor really shows promise, and then realizing as the movie goes on that in the present day, he’s already an adult.

I think I saw Boyhood at the perfect time.  It’s a refreshing complement to Snowpiercer, the film I watched yesterday.  Both projects are good, but Snowpiercer is pointed allegory, overflowing with “meaning,” which it really lays on thick.  In contrast, Boyhood just likes to show us a bunch of stuff happening as if we’re watching a family’s real life.  Watching the two of them in quick succession is like enjoying a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  The peanut butter and jelly taste better together because their individual flavors are so different from one another. 

(You can tell I have a very sophisticated palette, right?  Even if they’re not haute cuisine, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are so tasty, though, so I don’t know why my daughter keeps not eating the ones I pack in her lunch.  Maybe tomorrow I’ll start making a movie about that little mystery.  I’ll call it Girlhood.  It will be coming to a theater near you in 12-13 years.)

The Good:
This is a great movie.  It’s immediately engaging, and surprisingly fun to watch.  Right away we get musical and visual clues to help us orient ourselves in time.  (“Yellow” by Coldplay plays during the opening scene, and a bit later we see Mason watching Pokemon on what now looks like a completely archaic TV.)  It’s funny to think that these now archaisms are not included only to remind us that it’s the past since the movie was actually filmed when that time period was the present.  I’m wondering if Linklater took more footage than he needed, then (years) later decided to highlight certain objects/ideas/events that would seem particularly dated or ironic at the time of editing.  But it may just be that the world has changed an awful lot since 2002.

The “story” is told slice-of-life style, in a series of compelling vignettes.  The first time we time jump forward to the next segment, it feels briefly disorienting, but soon we get used to this structure.  For audience members who find Mason compelling immediately, the film is highly watchable and enjoyable right from the start, even though nothing in particular is happening.  This is not the kind of movie that shows exciting events occurring in a conveniently contrived way.  Instead it just gives us small bursts of real life doing what it does best.

One thing I really like about the film is the fluidity of the characters.  As in real life, people change, grow, progress, regress.  On the other hand, we also begin (and rather early) to see that patterns in people’s behavior do emerge over time with some distance.  Initially, Mason’s mom seems like the obvious choice for “better” parent.  (I use the quotes because parenthood is not a contest, but it seems like the movie plans to treat it as one as the story begins.)  At the beginning, Mason's mom is relentlessly devoted to her kids and way more stable and emotionally mature than the father.  But as the movie goes on, our impressions of these characters change, and, in fact, the characters themselves change a bit.  I appreciated this relative subtlety.  (Often movies set up clich├ęd, one-dimensional characters and then never let the characters deviate from those roles.  Real life seldom works exactly like that.)

Another thing I particularly like is the way the film shows us age appropriate (to Mason) versions of reality.  Early on, the kids are really into the Harry Potter books.  (It’s funny because I almost thought, No that was in that movie I watched before Boyhood, but then I remembered that the movie I was watching two and a half hours before the end of Boyhood was Boyhood.)  The presence of Harry Potter is highly appropriate not only as a culturally relevant time marker, but also because J.K. Rowling excels at giving Harry a realistic outlook on life that changes with his age and always seems eerily realistic and age-appropriate.  The same thing happens in this movie.  Near the end, we get to hear so many of Mason’s philosophical views on life.  Instead of focusing on the rest of the family, we’re with Mason almost all the time, hearing all the brooding ideas he seems to believe are relatively original to him.  It gets a bit frustrating, but artistically it works because the reason the movie becomes so obsessed with him is that he’s become a self-obsessed adolescent.  The whole movie is like that.  We feel that we’re seeing what Mason sees, lingering over the details that seem to matter particularly to him.

The characters are reasonably well written and seem pretty realistic.  (You know they’re realistic because sometimes you want to throttle some of them.)  Yes, yes, Mason’s sister is unpleasantly self-centered and his stepfathers are almost ridiculously huge jerks, but that’s because we’re getting this story from Mason’s point of view.  Late in the movie, he remarks that his mother means well, but she’s just as confused about life as he is.  This spoken assessment jives with what we’ve seen of her.  Over and over again, Mason's mom comes across as someone who means well but makes bad choices because she doesn’t know what she’s doing.  Clearly the movie punches those moments because the emphasis we see is Mason’s.  By the end of the movie, we may not know exactly who his mother is, but we know exactly who Mason thinks she is.  While watching, we are shown all the elements contributing to his growing understanding of the world as he experienced them.  This is a very interesting way of telling a story.  When I walked into the theater, I thought, This will be like watching an entire TV series collapsed, but it’s actually more like reading a book written in first person.  There are tons of books done in this fashion, but far fewer movies (and no other stand-alone movies I can think of where the lead actor ages this dramatically during production).

Often Boyhood reminded me of my own childhood.  It made me remember how many times we moved (I went to thirteen schools in thirteen years), how powerless I was in all of that, how often my life completely changed.  Mason doesn’t move quite as many times as I did, but he actually switches immediate family members multiple times, a challenge I never had to endure.  Mason’s ideas in adolescence struck a chord with me, too.  I remember so well feeling controlled and bossed around and manipulated by everyone who had “power” over me (i.e. parents, teachers), and Mason’s insight that “they don’t even realize it,” really resonated with me.  But what really impressed me was the realization that adolescence is just another stage of development we all go through, the final stage of child development.  That’s so easy to see as an adult, but when you’re experiencing it, you feel like you’re making brand new discoveries, that you’re completely an adult now, that you understand things that other people (especially older people) cannot.

The principal actors also give fantastic performances.  Ethan Hawke is absolutely great.  Patricia Arquette brings wonderful depth to an underwritten (though, admittedly, perhaps underwritten by design) character.  If the movie goes on to get Oscar recognition, a nomination for one of them does not seem impossible.  But we’ll see.  It’s incredibly early in the year.

Ellar Coltrane is great at every age (and seemed especially like the ideal exemplar of an adolescent).  What’s odd is that by the end of the movie, he actually starts to resemble Ethan Hawke.  I don’t know if that’s good acting or good luck, but it surprised me because he didn’t look at all like Hawke when the movie started.

Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) also gives a great performance.  She makes the character of Samantha extremely realistic and consistent (and so frustrating and annoying, so aggravating).

I was also really impressed with Zoe Graham as Sheena.  Her performance seems so genuine, so authentic, and she has a special kind of star-level luminance that makes me sure we’ll see her in more movies very soon.

Best Action Sequence:
Second husband #1’s epic, alcohol-fueled meltdown is absolutely riveting and terrifying to watch.  Mason’s mother’s response to this makes her more sympathetic to the audience, and I was fascinated by how differently her son and daughter react to her behavior.

Best Scene:
I’m a big fan of Mason’s birthday party with his father’s new family.  So much has changed for his father, so it has to change for Mason and Sam, too.  The thing is, life is really like that, especially for kids.  But what’s nice is that even though Mason and his sister clearly seem slightly uncomfortable with this new way of life, they’re still kind and polite and clearly have a good relationship with their father, treating him with the same respect he has always taken pains to show to them.  (I’m not saying he didn’t fail a lot, but he certainly always tried.)  Clearly the kids have a lot to adjust to.  Things could go south any minute, and yet, by the end of this sequence, Mason and his sister are happily singing a song with their new family.

Best Scene Visually:
Since I’m from Texas, I loved seeing all the locations.  The scenes of hiking at Big Bend and other spots are by far the most pleasing aesthetically, although it was nice to see the exciting and familiar streets of Austin, too.

The Negatives:
It’s too bad the movie stops when Mason is eighteen.  I think Linklater should keep filming it and present the public with a sequel called Manhood in about twenty years.  Maybe he could just keep filming it indefinitely and offer up the final version just before his death.

The problem with the movie finishing when Mason’s eighteen is that Mason hasn’t finished yet.  He’s actually in a stage of growth that can be annoying to non-sympathetic onlookers.  He reminds me of a lot of college freshmen I knew over the years (when I was a college freshman and when I was teaching college freshmen).  For whatever reason, young men seem particularly given to gloomy philosophizing.  This bent often makes the person come across as pretentious, but actually, in my experience, people at this age are surprisingly earnest and genuine (which is a big redeeming factor to consider when becoming annoyed with a self-obsessed, philosophical, idealistic new adult).  I think ending the film here opens Linklater to a lot of criticism because the tone of the movie has definitely changed, and to some people the last part might seem lazy rather than deliberate.  If we got to see Mason emerge from adolescence and the film adapt to his new life stage accordingly, Linklater’s careful artistry might be harder to miss or discount.  I know every story has to end somewhere, but it’s really hard to make a movie about a person feel complete when it ends just as his adult life is about to begin.

This leads me to a related problem.  I get the idea that we’re getting Mason’s view of his mother.  It’s very limited and limiting.  Clearly Mason has the insight to notice (before she does) that she always dates/marries alcoholics who eventually treat him badly, but he never seems to think to ask why.  I’d love to know more about his mother.  We get Mason’s dad’s explanation (which seems fair given the context and speaker, but is about the farthest thing from unbiased). 

I suppose at the end, Mason has come to the related realizations that life happens to people and that he really doesn’t know anything.  That’s definitely the end of Boyhood and the beginning of adulthood, but it’s frustrating for a movie audience to see characters for three hours of our lives and twelve years of theirs and then get only a child’s insights into what makes them tick.  By the time Mason is starting to grow up, the movie is over.  We’ve seen enough of his take on his parents to get a good idea of what his childhood was like for him, but we still don’t really know what any of the other characters are actually like as people.

Of course, that’s part of the point of the movie, I think, that the human experience is vast and unfathomable.  It seems to take us practically our entire lives just to develop something close to true insight about ourselves, and then we die.  We’re all in the same world together, and yet we never really know anyone else the way we come to know ourselves.

It all makes sense.  It all checks out.  It’s just a little frustrating.

One caveat, too:  If you don’t like this movie within the first five minutes, you’re very likely to hate the rest of it.  This is not the kind of movie in which something happens.  The only thing that happens is mundane life.  If you fail to connect to Mason (if watching him hang out with his family just bores you), you will probably hate this movie.  And it’s three hours long, so…don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Richard Linklater’s recent movies (like Bernie and Before Midnight) have been generating so much positive feedback from critics and movie lovers that it’s easy to imagine some Oscar recognition for this year’s Boyhood.  I found the movie consistently engrossing for the entirety of its nearly three hour runtime.  The novelty of watching a young actor grow up is getting this film a lot of attention, and rightly so.  What other movie out there right now offers something like that?

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Summer Movie Diary: Snowpiercer

Date: August 26, 2014
Time: 9:55 am
Place: My living room
Company: Nobody
Food:  ice water and baby carrots
Runtime: 2 hours, 7 minutes
Rating: R
Director: Joon-Ho Bong

Quick Impressions:
I’ve been hearing good things about Snowpiercer for months and planned to see it back in July, but then my own life got unexpectedly derailed.  (See what I did there?  That’s a little train humor for you.  Not very funny, I’ll admit, but you should probably take what you can get now because this dystopian sci-fi film about the last remnant of humanity ceaselessly circling the frozen Earth on a massive, allegedly self-sustaining train is about the farthest thing from a comedy you’ll see in theaters this summer.)

I haven’t reviewed as many non-kid-friendly films as usual this summer.  The thing is, my parents live with us, and normally they stay with our five-year-old on Tuesday nights, so my husband and I can go see a grown-up movie together.

That routine was broken back on July 10, however, when my Dad was taken by ambulance to the transplant hospital in San Antonio where he has remained ever since (a long time, to be sure, but at least he’ll be coming home with a brand new liver).  My mother is staying there with him (on a sofa in his room, if you can believe it), and given the heightened stress created by this situation, we didn’t have any desire to leave our daughter with someone else so we could go catch an R-rated movie.

But yesterday, my daughter started kindergarten, so I decided to try to play catch up on movies this week.  This review is not exactly timely (although Snowpiercer is still playing in some theaters), but soon I’ll be writing up my look back on the summer, and I have the sense that I need to be looking back over a few more movies than I’ve already seen to make that project worthwhile.

My discovery that Snowpiercer is already available for streaming on Amazon (though not for free) helped me decide to watch it first, and Boyhood sometime in the near future (at least, that’s my current hope).

With my husband silently working in his home office and nobody else in the house, this scheme of streaming a current release from home worked out surprisingly well.  And Snowpiercer is as good as I’ve heard (and not quite as bleak and depressing as I’d been led to believe).

The Good:
Now the “quite” there is an important qualifier.  Obviously Snowpiercer is going to be bleak and depressing to some degree because it’s dystopian sci-fi, a genre that often lures me in but then crushes my soul to dust and leaves me wishing I had used the time to go outside and plant a tree instead.

Snowpiercer takes place in the aftermath of a focused attempt to counteract global warming that unfortunately turns the entire planet into a sub-freezing glacial wasteland inhospitable to human life.  The remnant of humanity continuously circles the globe inside a massive locomotive with a powerful engine that must never stop running and a class system pronounced enough to impress Karl Marx.

It’s good to know this information going in because the movie starts immediately, delivering crucial narrative details during the opening credits which definitely set the tone.  Marco Beltrami’s score helps to let us know that we’re in a dystopian wasteland, and the static that crackles over the screen is a nice touch, too.

The first clear image we see lets us know with a visual cue that things are really going downhill for the old human race.

Right away, I felt completely drawn into Snowpiercer’s bleak, richly impoverished world.  The characters have so much…character.  The make-up and costuming is so vivid and carefully considered that the actors look almost like set dressings.  They’re like the larger-than-life characters in a Dickens novel, particularly Tilda Swinton’s Mason, who at times looms so large that I’m amazed that any train can contain her.  She’s so intensely consumed with being who she is that at times I expected her to come flying out of the screen and into my living room.
Intelligent, coherent science fiction is remarkably scarce on American movie screens these days.  I’m not sure why, but even movies that seem at the outset to have lofty intellectual ambitions (like Prometheus or Elysium) often careen wildly out of control in the final act.  (Maybe it’s a bad sign if your dystopian sci-fi is named after a Greek myth.  Easily accessible English titles like SnowpiercerThe Hunger Games, and Blade Runner seem to hold up better, perhaps because they’re less prone to collapsing under the burden of their own titular hubris.)  (Or perhaps I just liked the sound of that sentence.)
My point is, I was pleased to discover that Snowpiercer isn’t just pseudo-intellectual nonsense trying to seem like highbrow sci-fi.  It’s legitimately thoughtful and well-crafted and has more danger of becoming allegory than becoming drivel.  (I’m not a fan of allegory, usually, but this works pretty well because it gives us a hero who seems like a real guy to distract us from all the archetypal supporting players.)

Playing the lead character of Curtis, Chris Evans is much growlier here than I’ve ever seen him.  At the beginning, he’s on the verge of being Christian Bale’s Batman, but then he tones it down a bit as the movie goes on for some reason.  Evans seems to enjoy making artsy sci-fi.  Tonally, this film has a lot in common with his earlier project Sunshine, but I think he gives a better performance here.  He makes Curtis quite believable, which really matters because it gives us a reason to care. He’s intense, yes, but he also seems relatable to everybody without being generic enough to be only some Everyman.

Jamie Bell and Octavia Spencer also play sympathetic characters who feel quite real and three dimensional (though we also sense that they’re representing a larger and more abstract type).  Winning an Oscar has certainly led to better, juicier, more versatile roles for Octavia Spencer.  She and Bell are both quite good in this movie.

Also great are Kang-Ho as Namgoong Minsoo and particularly Ah-Song Ko as Yuna. 

As the spooky but apparently benevolent Gilliam, John Hurt looks amazingly compelling, oversized spectacles adding layers of character to his gaunt, grimy face.

Very early on, I thought to myself, The premise seems almost allegorical.  We’re all on a train together, all trying to get to the front of the train.  Only the engineer in a train has agency.  Everyone else is just along for the ride.  But would you actually call that allegory?  The comparison is subtle…

Then Tilda Swinton’s character showed up and dispelled any of my remaining doubts with her seven minute speech.

“We must all of us on this train of life, remain in our allotted station.  We must all of us, occupy our preordained position.  Would you wear a shoe on your head?”  And then later, “I am a hat.  You are a shoe.  I belong on a head.  You belong on a foot.”

She tries to talk to Mr. Wilford, “the divine keeper of the sacred engine,” but can’t get a response.  “Oh well, Mr. Wilford is a very busy man.  So it is.”

The implication is pretty pointed (maybe even more so because of the punishment meted out to the man with the offending arm).  “You can talk to me.  Mr. Wilford has no reason to visit here.”

No one can get through to the engineer, and his representative, the minister played by Tilda Swinton is cruel precisely because she seems so officious, detached.

Swinton’s quasi-religious language and the whole spooky vibe of prophecy and conspiracy make the movie’s motives clear, yet at the same time consistently entertain.

This, “Wait for the next red letter” business is pretty easy to watch.  Thanks to a very compelling, suspenseful method of presentation, the whole thing manages to be winningly mysterious.

Several lines resonant rather spookily, like, “We control the water, we control the negotiation,” or Yona’s frantic whisper, “Don’t open it.”

This may sound odd, but at many points during the movie, I found myself thinking of The Secret of NIMH.  Tonally (and also in terms of mood), Snowpiercer just really has a lot in common with that 1980s animated classic.

I also love the cinematography, and most of the lighting and costuming choices.  John Hurt’s oversized eyeglasses should get billing.  They have enough character to warrant a credit of their own, and the cinematographer seems to know exactly how to make good use of them.

And—I feel this so strongly, I must say it again—Tilda Swinton is just magnificent.  Sometimes her performance is almost too much, but I just can’t knock it because I found it impossible to look away from her.  The character she’s playing is so rich and layered and extreme and over-the-top and brilliant, almost Dickensian, larger-than-life.

Best Action Sequence:
The fight scene that begins with a fish is almost mind numbing at first, repetitive, grim, and eerie.  But then they come to the bridge.  What happens here is so strange.  Every society has its rituals, I suppose.

This reminds me quite a bit of reading about wars of the past, when soldiers on the front would stop battle in order to celebrate Christmas. 

But what happens after the chilling line, “My friend, you suffer from the misplaced optimism of the doomed,” is truly inventive.  It also seems like the height of metaphor, probably even (again) outright allegory.

Tilda Swinton does really fine work in this scene, and the “surrender” bit near the end is pretty fantastic.

Best Scene:
The egg scene is intense, bizarre, and unforgettable.

But Curtis’s talk over a cigarette is definitely gripping and perhaps the most memorable scene of the film.

Best Scene Visually:
I really like the early heart-to-heart on the bunk beds.  It’s creatively framed because we’re looking down, and we see Chris Evans and Jamie Bell’s faces pointing in opposite directions

Our last look at the train definitely makes an impression, too.

The Negatives:
This movie is extremely philosophical.  It made me think continuously of Foucault (and trust me, that’s not easy to do).  I also thought occasionally of Bakhtin, Plato, Camus, The Matrix, and those miniature biodomes we had to make out of three-liter bottles in my high school biology class. 

I don’t mind being reminded of great thinkers, but this movie isn’t any too subtle about what it’s getting at.  It’s artful.  It’s entertaining.  But it’s also incredibly pointed.  And I sometimes resent that in a movie.  I think a truly successful movie would transport me to another level of immersion in the story, and only later would I get an inkling that somebody had been trying to teach me a lesson or present me with a dilemma involving sophisticated ideas.

But that’s maybe just a hang up of mine.

I don’t have any major criticisms of what the movie does give us, though.  As long as you know you’re signing up for something extremely philosophical that’s practically outright allegory, then you should be satisfied with what Snowpiercer delivers.  Of course, the premise is contrived (but that’s fiction for you).

As the movie goes on, some of the things that happen seem a little weird.  And many elements don’t exactly make real-world sense.  (I mean, the people in the back of the train are really suffering—sometimes in ways and to a degree that doesn’t quite add up or seem necessary.)  But the thing is, making a philosophical point is more important to Snowpiercer than telling a realistic story.  Some aspects of the narrative seem almost surreal when you step back and think about them in a real-world kind of way.  But Snowpiercer isn’t necessarily trying to tell a realistic story.  It’s trying to make a point.  If you’re okay with that, then you’ll probably like the movie.

Snowpiercer was less depressing than I’d been warned, but just as cold as you would expect.  Still, it’s a very good movie, quite artfully and well made with some excellent performances.  I’m glad I watched it, and I wish American filmgoers were treated to sci-fi this thoughtful more often.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Leaving the Parent Loop

Off to School!

Penelope's Thoughts on Her First Day of Kindergarten

Our Disneyland Trip 2014 Play-by-Play, Part 3: The Voyage Home

Friday, August 15th

Phoenix is in the wrong place. If they had put me in charge, I would have put Phoenix right here--two minutes away from Disneyland. This morning, Derrick was like, "We are leaving no later than six." Hmmm. I hope we do a better job of estimating time once Nellie starts school on the 25th.
8:06 pm

Okay, we are driving through the California desert, and the moon looks like a gigantic orange slice. Seriously, I thought it was full and partially obscured by some kind of arch for the longest time. I have never seen a partial moon so large, orange, and low in the sky! I mean it's 11:00 here. This moon looks like it just emerged. The car bumps too much to get a clear picture.

11:08 pm

Saturday, August 16th

Yay! We’re in Arizona!
12:13 am

It's a Very Rayburn Breakfast starring Derrick and Grayson, featuring Penelope, with a very special guest appearance by Uncle Jason! 

12:46 pm

Okay Gray just blew my mind by making this amazing, perfectly round ball out of a piece of saltwater taffy. This puts my saltwater cobra to shame!

3:06 pm 

Texas Canyon! (Where I dropped my new phone from a great height onto a rock while taking a selfie that didn’t turn out! Remarkably, the phone is basically fine.)

4:52 pm 

Next stop, Rainbow City!

5:53 pm


5:51 pm



6:57 pm (Mountain time) 

Extreme giggling in the backseat. Apparently the kids are laughing at a video they just made. 

7:11 pm 

Sunset Lightning

7:58 pm 

Derrick: Look! The lights of Las Cruces. They're kind of pretty.

Penelope (with extreme suspicion): It looks dark to me. Why did they make Cruces so dark?
8:35 pm

Whataburger!!!! (Gray and I are bored and taking pictures of everything. )

8:45 pm

Penelope: (telling us a story from the backseat) And the unicorn had a name. His name was Ross Daffodil...
9:20 pm

Penelope:...And then over the hill, the unicorn and the kitten caught up with their long lost kitten brother. And his name was Ross Alexander. He was like, "Hey! Hey! Hey guys!"
(We all laugh because her cadence is so funny and so out of place.)
Derrick: Was this kitten Cartman?
9:26 pm

El Paso (now with lightning!) 

9:39 pm

Penelope: I'm Pistol Pee. (Repeat a million times)
Me: You're Pistol Pete?
Penelope: No! I'm Pistol PEE!
Gray (giggling): Okay, so here's a joke. There are these two cows who walk into a bar. One is named Anita Pee. The other is Ben Dover. Then one of them orders a hamburger...
Me: Is this a real joke?
Penelope: So ANYWAY then the unicorn came to another hill...
9:47 pm

Derrick: Wow! That was quite a burst of lightning! It crawled across the sky like a spider on a hot tin roof!
Gray: A spider on a hot tub?
Derrick: A spider on a hot tin roof.
Penelope: What's a hotten roof?
9:49 pm

Me: (as lightning strikes between the windshield and passenger windows): Arghh! It's right in my crack!
Gray (Laughing hysterically): I think that one might have struck something.
Me: I think a lot of things have been struck.
Derrick (in a dandyish voice): My fancy for one thing!
Me (laughing): This will be a lot less funny when the lightning strikes us!

10:06 pm 

Lightning just struck the ground about a quarter mile to the side of us. The ground glowed white for a while, and now TONS of lights are out. It looks like an entire town just disappeared.
10:23 pm

Sunday, August 17th

Penelope: I have to go FF.
Gray: FF?
Penelope: I can't say P or E or it will make me have to go badder!
12:22 am (central time)

Care for an apple, dearie?

12:51 am 


12:58 am 

Finally in Van Horn! After driving through lightning for over four hours straight, we were starting to get nervous.

1:02 am

This motel brags about having 150+ cable channels. They neglect to mention that at least 130 of them are either home shopping or porn.
1:10 am

Last night...
Gray: Is there sugar in Propel?
Derrick: I don't think so. Why?
Me: He wants to know if he can drink it after he brushed his teeth. I wouldn't, just to be safe.
Penelope (wandering by with a hotel glass tipped toward her mouth): I'm drinking sink water. It's not as good as you think.
10:45 am

Graymazing saltwater taffy sculpture!!!

1:43 pm

"I am Iron Man!"

1:54 pm 

Penelope: Look! It's a foot broom.
All of us: A foot broom??!
Penelope: It really looks like a foot broom to me.
Derrick: We all laugh, but one day she'll be a millionaire from inventing the foot broom.

The funny thing is, Penelope can't actually eat the taffy because of her dental work, but since Gray and I were having so much fun sculpting ours, we gave her a yellow piece to play with because the banana tastes weird, anyway.

2:11 pm

We picked up a very sophisticated mustachioed hitchhiker, as you can see.

2:11 pm 

Me: (peering at what I had thought was a piece of tire in the road, in great surprise) That was a pirate hat!
Derrick (laughing at me): It was a buzzard.
4:31 pm

Taffy Ray!

4:40 pm

Penelope: (in the gas station restroom) What does vacant mean?
Me: Vacant means empty. Sometimes motels will have a sign out front that says "vacancy," which means, "We have empty rooms left, so you can stay here." Then when they sell all their rooms, they change the sign to read, "No Vacancy," which means, "There are no empty rooms here. You will have to keep going until you find somewhere else with a vacancy."
Penelope: They needed signs like that when Baby Jesus was born.
5:59 pm 

At La Margarita...
Penelope: Daddy, are these limes for sniffing or...?
Me: Daddy always gets limes for sniffing.
Derrick: You may have one.
Penelope: Like this one or...?
Derrick: Yes, the one you are touching is a good one for you to have.
Penelope: Can I use this to make limenade?
(We all laugh)
Gray: Limenade?
Penelope: (suckling on a lime) Ewww! Limenade is gross!
7:26 pm

As the balloon glows in the backseat...

Derrick: Did somebody turn on that balloon?
Penelope: (with forced nonchalance) Why?
8:14 pm

Trip Timer: 46 hours, 51 minutes, 20 seconds
2,825.4 miles
9:01 pm

And a related post…

Monday, August 18th

Somewhere in Taylor on a very dark road...
Derrick (gasps in alarm): What???!!!!? What is it?!!!!
Me (showing him my phone): See that WAS Chris Colfer on Pirates of the Caribbean! And I'll bet that's why they closed the line down for a few minutes in that weird way. See because here's a picture of him at Disneyland on the day we saw him, and he's wearing the same clothes...
Derrick: Sweetie...
Me: Remember he was riding next to a cast member? I knew that was Chris Colfer! It's weird that I recognized him when we don't even watch Glee...
Derrick: Yes, sweetie, you did an amazing job recognizing him, and that's very impressive, but you have to quit yelling out things dramatically like that while I'm driving or you are going to KILL ME!
9:19 pm