Friday, August 26, 2016

Movie Review: The Mechanic (2011)

The Mechanic (2011) directed by Simon West

Jason Statham plays Arthur Bishop, a "mechanic," i.e. an efficient assassin for a shadowy agency that hires out hit men. Often the hits need to look like accidents or to be blamed on someone else. Bishop is great at his job. His mentor is Harry (Donald Sutherland), who is now restricted to a wheel-chair and can't do assignments. Harry can't connect with his ne'er-do-well son, either. A hit takes out Harry. In the aftermath Bishop and the son work together, partly to avenge Harry and keep the story going. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. This is a Jason Statham vehicle, designed to show of his grit and action skills more than to develop nuanced storytelling.

The action is surprisingly sporadic. Some bits are very unbelievable but aren't redeemed by having a fun, over-the-top feel to them. The movie is straight-faced about its drama. Statham is his usual charming self. He's great at the action scenes but they don't showcase his talent like other films (the Transporter series comes to mind). The plot is just enough to string together various action set pieces.

So this is a movie that really could be better with a sequel or reboot. Here's the end of the summer offering Mechanic: Resurrection...

This movie does look like an upgrade for the story. It embraces over-the-top action and has more of a sense of fun. Tommy Lee Jones won't die off in the first third of the film, which I guess is a spoiler but also is reassuring that Statham won't have to carry everything. There was a girlfriend in the first film, but she seemed to be there just for sex and to tie up loose plot threads; she was never a person in her own right. Jessica Alba has the cliche role of the damsel in distress. Happily, she might be fending for herself more than the cliche would allow. Maybe I'll catch Mechanic: Resurrection in the theater; I will definitely rent the DVD!

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Book Review: The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories by Ernest Hemingway

Ten short stories by Ernest Hemingway fill this book with intrigue and excitement:

1. The Snows of Kilimanjaro--A man's man faces his mortality at the foot of Africa's tallest mountain, Kilimanjaro. He's with his wife out hunting and drinking and loving. Unfortunately, he scratched his leg and didn't take care of it. Gangrene has set in and he pretty sure he will die before the plane gets back to take them to safety. The man has dreams or reminiscences of his past, especially of the more important lovers and events in his life. He's a writer and the memories would have made great stories, but is it too late to write them down? The story is the sort that needs to be read twice to get the most out of it, though it is fascinating enough with just one read.

2. A Clean, Well-Lighted Place--Two waiters get close to very profound issues as they wait up till the last bar patron finally leaves. A surprising amount about the characters' attitudes is conveyed in five pages.

3. A Day's Wait--A slight story of a sick child and his father. The ending reads more like a punch-line to a joke. The story is entertaining but not deep.

4. The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio--Mr. Frazer is a patient in an American northwest hospital. A Mexican gambler is brought in with several gunshot wounds and is not expected to live. A nun working at the hospital prays for him, just as much as she prays for the Notre Dame team to win their football games ("They are playing for Our Lady," she reasons). They all look for some transcendence or perfection in their lives but are unable to attain it. The story more poses the question why they can't than provides a pat answer, making it some intriguing food for thought.

5. Fathers and Sons--A father and son are on a car trip when the father remembers his strained relationship with his own father and significant times from his childhood. I didn't really care for this one.

6. In Another Country--A Milan hospital provides care for maimed soldiers with the latest equipment that will supposedly undo the damage of crippling injuries. Nick and a few other characters deal with their injuries and their future. The story is a tough look at hope and despair.

7. The Killers--Two assassins show up at a diner waiting for a certain customer to come in. They have the look and speech of noir criminals (e.g., black trench coats with hats and calling guys "pretty boy" in a derogatory way). Their mark never shows up; when the one customer goes to warn the mark, his reaction is surprising. This story is the sort of hard-edged noir that inspires someone like Quentin Tarantino.

8. A Way You'll Never Be--Nick is wandering around Italian battlefields (it's the same guy from #6, I think) and meets up with an Italian officer he's pals with. Nick tries to pass himself off as an American soldier sent to bolster the local troops with the hope of more Americans to come and turn the tide of the war. But how many screws are loose in Nick's head? This story is only sort-of intriguing to me, the ending wasn't as sharp or dramatic as I'd have liked.

9. Fifty Grand--An aging boxer goes for one last fight. Can he make some money, keep his dignity, and not get beat to a pulp? The story's plot is practically a genre unto itself. The main character has enough heart and grit to make this a compelling story.

10. The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber--Francis is on safari with his wife. They have a comfortable tolerance of each other that's shattered when things go poorly during a lion hunt. The situation just about destroys Francis. The twists and turns in the story are interesting and kept me riveted.

Overall, the book provides some interesting ideas to chew on. Hemingway's straightforward style is sparse on interpretation, so readers are left to draw their own conclusions.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Part II

Continuing our Walt Disney World adventure from the last post...

We used a FastPass+ to get into Enchanted Tales with Belle, an interactive experience that started with a visit to Maurice's (that's Belle's dad) workshop. A Disney host welcomed us and explained the basics of Belle's story.

Inside Maurice's workshop

The lady explains the mirror is a gift from Beast to Maurice

We then met Madame, the wardrobe, who picked out audience members for the interactive part of the show which would happen in the next room. The animatronics on her face was amazing.

Madame helps get us ready

The final room was Beast's library at his castle, where we met Belle. Those selected as characters (none from my family) told the story of how Beast and Belle met, then she took pictures with the characters and any audience members. My daughter was too shy to go up for a picture, alas.

Getting ready for Belle to appear

Belle talks to Lumiere

Closeup of Lumiere and Belle

Again, the animatronic Lumiere was quite amazing. His "arms" moved quite fluidly and his face looked much like his animated version.

Next we visited Mickey's Philharmagic, a 4D film experience. In it, Mickey is about to conduct a magical orchestra. He leaves Donald Duck with the instruments and with instructions not to use his magic hat from The Sorcerer's Apprentice from Fantasia. Of course Donald can't resist, which leads into a hilarious adventure through various songs and scores from many Disney movies. It was a lot of fun and more sitting down than the Enchanted Tales experience.

At this point, my son said he felt too sick to stay at the park, so he and my wife headed home while my daughter and I stayed. We had reservations at the Be Our Guest restaurant (which requires reservations way in advance). We still had twenty minutes before our time, so my daughter asked to walk through Cinderella's Castle at the heart of the Magic Kingdom.

We walked back to the front of the castle only to discover a musical revue going on. We couldn't get through. This was 11:30 a.m. on a hot July day (high of 97 Fahrenheit). I felt worst for the dancers who were in the character costumes. It's one thing to be Rapunzel in sunny heat, another whole level of no fun to be Minnie Mouse. We watched two numbers and then had to head to our meal.

No walking through here

Goofy with Minne and Mickey and the Princess and the Frog gang

Donald Duck and some ruffians from Tangled

Going for lunch wasn't as easy as it looked online. We used our Fastpasses to get into the restaurant. Then we had to wait in line to submit our orders.

Inside Beast's castle, waiting in line to order food

After ordering, things were much nicer. We had the choice of sitting in the ballroom or the Beast's room. We opted for the ballroom. The food had a French theme. I ordered Croque Monsieur with pomme frites (French for french fries!). My daughter had a grilled cheese sandwich with soup and pomme frites. We thought we'd live it up and order desserts--a cream puff with lemon curd filling and a cupcake with strawberry filling and cream cheese icing. At first, I thought my daughter wanted the cream puff and suggested I get the cupcake, but after the food came she took the cupcake! Both were fabulous, so I can't complain. Even more amazing was the cart on which the food came!

Beast's ballroom

Food cart fit for a castle

Croque Monsieur with pomme frites and desserts

My daughter enjoys her very French french fries

A last view of the ballroom

On the way out we saw the stained glass window from the movie. Again, my daughter was too shy to pose for a picture, so here it is by itself.

For once, the camera flash hits a perfect spot

After lunch we used our second Fastpass+ to ride Thunder Mountain again. The plan to switch to two children so the lap bar would be low enough to keep my daughter from flying out of her seat didn't come to fruition. She had to put up with sitting next to me. We still had fun.

Once we finished that ride, my daughter said she was tired and wanted to go back. We rode the train around the park to the main entrance where we took one of the boats back to our resort. It was around 2:30, so I think she got a good day's worth of park in.

After a rest and dinner, the kids decided to stay with Granny and Grandpa at the cabin. My wife and I headed back to the Magic Kingdom. She was interested in trying out a new interactive collectible card game offered by Disney. Visiting the Firehouse on Main Street, we registered with their system and received a map and some playing cards, along with instructions on how to play.

Main gate in early evening

Firehouse/magic training center

Map of secret locations

A sampling of cards

The cards have magic spells that are used to defeat various villains throughout the park. The map shows locations where the villains are hiding. Once at a location, players hold their MagicBands by a keyhole to activate the portal and fight a villain. We came up against Cruella deVille and used Pongo's Soot Bucket against her. It worked like a charm.

Symbol on the ground showing the right spot

The key on the bottom and Cruella in the display

We hadn't ridden anything in Tomorrowland and I wanted to go on Space Mountain, so we left off villain conquering for another visit. We had our last Fastpass+ for Space Mountain in half an hour, so we rode the Peoplemover to fill the time.

Entrance to Tomorrowland

View of Tomorrowland from the Peoplemover

More of Tomorrowland

The ride didn't take very long, so we thought we try out something with a short line. The Laugh Floor was a five minute wait, so we went to that.

Tomorrowland's Laugh Floor

Inside was a theater where Mike from Monsters, Inc., was host to a standup comedy show for monster trainees. It was an impressive blend of animation and improv comedy, using cameras to select various audience members to be part of the show. One woman in the back was texting on her phone, so one of the animated comedians kept making fun of here. Then they started making jokes about characters from Monsters, Inc. When they started talking about furry Sully, the camera came on me! I had fun playing along but was glad none of my children were there to witness it.

When the show was over, we headed over to Space Mountain, which had a 70 minute wait without a Fastpass+. We walked through quickly and rode this amazing coaster through the darkness of space. I loved this ride as a child and still do!

Terrible inside picture

Space Mountain seen from one of the ferry boats

We peeked in at Merchant of Venus, a store which really should be called Merchant of Tatooine. All the merchandise inside was Star Wars themed (or so it looked from outside). We headed over to Adventure Land.

The Swiss Family Robinson House was closed for refurbishing (we had watched the movie in preparation for coming) so we went straight to the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. The wait was longer than advertised but it was a lot of fun. I thought it might be overhauled after the blockbuster movies came out but it was mostly the way I remembered. They did have animatronic Johnny Depps Captain Jack Sparrows at several points, but otherwise it was just like I remembered it from twenty or thirty years ago.

Pirates of the Caribbean entrance

We wanted some ice cream at a sit-down place to cool off but had waited too long. Most of the restaurants in the park were full and Main Street was starting to get packed with squatters for the evening parade. We realized the parade wouldn't start for another hour and we were tired from a long day, so we rode the ferry back to our resort and bought Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars as our treat from one of the trading posts.

It was a great finish to our day visiting the Magic Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Magic Kingdom, Walt Disney World, Part I

We began our trip to the Magic Kingdom much like any other day, getting up too early because the kids wake up too early. For once, it worked in our favor. We were able to eat breakfast and be on our way from the Fort Wilderness Resort cabin long before 8 a.m. Grandpa offered to drive us to the entrance, which turned out to be much more of a drive than we expected. After about twenty minutes, we made it to the drop off point for cars and buses, which led us to a ferry over to the Magic Kingdom entrance. Probably the ferry from Fort Wilderness would have been just as fast. Even so, we arrived at the gates of the Magic Kingdom around 7:45 a.m. Our MagicBands (wristbands that let us into our cabin and into the park and kept track of our FastPass+ rides).

Entrance before 8 a.m.--not too many people

Main Street U.S.A. was a little more crowded

My daughter wanted to walk through Cinderella's castle but it looked like it was blocked off. I offered to take her picture with the castle in the background. She politely declined.

She turned on me!

Castle viewed from one of the sides

Back of the castle looks less blocked

We headed for the new, hot ride--the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train in Fantasyland. The queue said 15 minutes for people without Fastpasses, so we were happy to walk almost right onto the ride. Walking through the line took a good eight or nine minutes, thanks to the interactive displays along the way (and the Disney hidden line system).

Gem sorting!

Spinnable barrels make images on the ceiling!

Pretty soon we got into the mine carts and went for a fabulous ride that even my less adventurous daughter loved.

The mine cart boarding area

At the end of the ride we saw Snow White dancing with the dwarfs in their house. A sinister presence was lurking outside!

End of the line

We had a great time. Since we were already in Fantasyland, we tried to become the English monarch.

My son tugs on Excalibur

My daughter pulls with all her might

I try one-handed...might as well be lifting Thor's hammer

Grandpa had warned us about the brainwashing effect of "It's a Small World." He said the ride would get its iconic tune trapped in our heads and we'd be pestered by it for the rest of the day, if not for weeks on end. We tried it and our children loved it.

"It's a Small World" entrance

Irish part of the small world

Asian part of the small world

Carousel part of, well, you know

We were surprised at the end to see our names on the "goodbye" screen. Somehow the ride must have detected our MagicBands!

A personal goodbye

The song was not as intrusive as Grandpa claimed, maybe because it only had intelligible lyrics at the end. The music played throughout the ride and without the lyrics it was less hypnotic or drilled into our heads.

We crossed the street and rode the Peter Pan ride. It also was fun but slightly scarier than "It's a Small World." Of course anything is scarier than that. My son was fascinated that we went through the ride without any tracks under our car. I explained that the car was attached to a track on the roof. He thought it was cool.

Peter Pan's Flight ride

On the much scarier side of things, we went to the Haunted Mansion next. Since it was still only about 8:20, the line was quite short. In line, we saw a haunted hearse without a horse and someone giving a lecture.

Haunted Hearse

I think she's talking about the history of the mansion

The exterior, under restoration

The ride was fun, with only a few changes that I remember from my last visit over 15 years ago. I was surprised that Orson Welles narrated the ride. He hammed it up nicely. You can't go wrong with the classics.

We headed over to Frontierland. We had a Fastpass+ scheduled for 1 o'clock on Thunder Mountain but wanted to ride it early. The line was again very short so we got through the queue quickly, barely with time to photograph the entertaining bits of the line.


Shipping the old-fashioned way

The safe

The ride

The rollercoaster was fast and fun. Even my daughter liked it. Right next door is Splash Mountain, a log flume ride. The wait was a little longer but mostly shady. We were surprised how long the actual ride was. In addition to the usual ups, downs, and splashes, we went through a bunch of animatronic displays. The ride was themed on Br'er Rabbit and Disney's classic animated film Song of the South. We enjoyed everything about it, even the final five-story drop. We didn't get too wet.

Our next stop was back in Fantasyland, so we took the railroad from Frontierland around the back of the park. The displays along the way were fun and frontier-themed.

Entrance to the railroad

Thunder Mountain seen from the railroad

An old village along the railroad

A native American village

Once in Fantasyland, my daughter saw a camel spitting water on guests. She wanted to cool off some more, so she ran over where everyone else was. She took a few tries to stand in just the right spot to get hit.

Camel-spitting fun!

I think the giraffe almost visible in this picture was spitting too

We were right by the Barnstormer, featuring Goofy. We rode it and had fun.

A fun, kid-friendly roller coaster

My son was starting to feel poorly by this point (turns out he had strep throat!). He mustered on for a few more rides.

More in the next post...