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Video16

Posted on December 28th, 2016

Dave!And it's time once again for my annual wrap-up of movies that came out this year.

Or, more accurately, a "wrap-up of movies I saw that came out this year." As always, there's a bunch of movies I never saw that would have probably ended up on my list (we'll get to that later). And here we go...

   
THE TWELVE BEST...
These are my favorite movies from this year that I actually saw.

Best Movies 2015 Part 1

#1 Captain America: Civil War
Shocker. My love of comic books was rewarded in two fantastic Marvel films, and it was really tough to decide what should come out on top. I ultimately went with Cap because the movie was just so damn good at giving comic book fans everything they dream about in a film. Hero angst? Check. Cap and Iron Man draw the line over a super-hero registration act that leads them inexorably to conflict. Fresh characters? Check. Not only do we get the debut of one of the most awesome characters in the Marvel Universe, Black Panther, we also get a brand new Spider-Man that's more faithful to the concept than anything that's come before. Super-battles? Check. In what has to be the single best super-hero fight ever committed to film, Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man was flawlessly realized. Having a massive surprise come from Ant-Man in the middle of it all was just icing on the best-tasting cake ever. Granted, the plot was a bit flimsy and filled with coincidence and inexplicable story beats... but I just didn't care. I watched Civil War three times in the theater and another half-dozen on video. I cannot fathom how The Russo Brothers could possibly top this in Avengers: Infinity War, but I'm dying to find out. You can read my review of this epic blockbuster right here.

#2 Doctor Strange
After Black Panther, my favorite Marvel comic book hero is probably Doctor Strange. This year I got to see them both on the big screen, and I was not disappointed. This film is an origin story, yes, but it's not like it could have been anything else. Unlike Batman or Spider-Man whose origin has been told to death, Strange is a bit unknown to the general movie-going public. Fortunately, what we get is anything but Yet Another Formulaic Pile of Origin Garbage. Stephen Strange is compelling in all the right ways before he becomes Master of the Mystic Arts. And he's even more compelling before he becomes Sorcerer Supreme. On top of that, we get some mind-boggling special effects that makes Doctor Strange fresh, exciting, and new compared to all the Marvel films that came before it. Yes, I too am a bit flustered by the whitewashing of The Ancient One as a Celtic white woman (deftly played by Tilda Swinton), but I get why. Yes, I am disappointed that the location was shifted from Tibet, but I get why. Avoiding stereotypes and having to be mindful of global box office means that there will be compromises when putting a ton of money into a film of this magnitude. That Marvel did so without completely destroying it is admirable in the face of realities they had to confront. Much of what they got right has to do with the flawless casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as Strange... whom Marvel wisely postponed filming to get. He had absolutely everything the character needed to succeed in a movie, and Cumberbatch held nothing back. Doctor Strange will be appearing in future Marvel films (including Infinity War) but I want a new solo flick that's unfettered from an origin story. Badly. Here's my review of Doctor Strange.

#3 Deadpool
Given how utterly shitty 20th Century Fox treated the character of Deadpool in the utterly shitty X-Men Origins: Wolverine, I fully admit that I was skeptical when it was announced a new solo movie was on the way. But when Ryan Reynolds (who was "Deadpool in Origins as well) promised that we'd be seeing something faithful to the outrageous character we knew from the comics, I became hopeful. It was a hope that paid off in spades. This is the fast-talking "merc with a mouth" that every Deadpool fan who suffered though Origins deserved. Mercenary Wade Wilson is diagnosed with inoperable, terminal cancer after finally finding the love of his life... and agrees to experiments meant to unleash super-powered abilities that will cure him. Unfortunately, things go terribly wrong, and the rest of the movie is Wilson trying to get a cure for the cure while also exacting revenge on the guy responsible. Absolute hilarity and fantastic action sequences ensue. Even in its quiet moments, Deadpool delivers... featuring perfect secondary characters played by TJ Miller and Leslie Uggams(!!!). Rated R for a reason... many reasons... but totally worth your time.

#4 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
It's a Star Wars film. It has mind-boggling special effects. It has a return of characters you love and a new character that's destined to be a classic (new favorite droid K-2SO!). It features a plot that doesn't suck. The story is rough... even boring in parts... but serviceable. And, yes, I agree it's the best Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. So if you're a Star Wars fan, it's a foregone conclusion this movie is going to be on your "Best of 2016" list. That's why it's on mine.

#5 Kubo and the Two Strings
My love of animation embraces all its forms... hand-drawn... computer generated... cut-out... whatever. But the form that consistently blows me away is stop-motion animation, and Kubo is probably the most mind-bogglingly beautiful expression of it yet. Every frame is gorgeously orchestrated for scenes that are a dream to watch. It's just a bonus that there's a really great story behind it all. I will do you the favor of not disclosing anything about the plot. It's enough to know that this film is sheer magic and a must-see. Preferably on the big-screen (and, believe it or not, in 3D)... but if you missed it, home video will have to suffice.

#6 Star Trek Beyond
Rebooting the Star Trek franchise has been met with mixed feelings, and true fans either seem to love it or hate it. I absolutely love it. From the casting, which is a note-perfect nod to the original cast, to the beautiful special-effects, the films soar even when there is a misstep (of which Star Trek Into Darkness probably qualifies). Star Trek Beyond is yet another entertaining entry in the series, this time with an over-abundance of action filling the screen. But there's some real character moments scattered in there too, which is what makes the film work so well. Sadly, Anton Yelchin passed away after filming, which means this is the last time we'll see his perfect take on Pavel Chekov.

Best Movies 2015 Part 2

#7 Moana
Walt Disney Pictures has been on a roll lately, and Moana is probably my favorite film of theirs since Lilo and Stitch (though Big Hero Six deserves a mention here). The film tells the story of a young woman, Moana, who sets sail on a mission to save her people. Along the way she meets the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) and a fantastical adventure follows. The action is bold, beautiful, and larger than life... all animated to stunning effect with lush, sweeping visuals... but it's so much more than just a pretty flick. It's got great music, plenty of magic, and characters with actual depth. If you love computer animation, you owe it to yourself to see Moana on the big screen.

#8 Finding Dory
Revisiting the Finding Nemo universe was a risky gambit. But Pixar completely nailed it. I hesitate to say that it's a better film than the original... but Dory is a jaw-dropping, beautiful, overall joyful effort that will not disappoint Nemo fans. Having Sigourney Weaver drop in (as herself!) on the flawless voice cast was just perfection on perfection. If you love Pixar animation, here's your film.

#9 The Red Turtle (La Tortue Rouge)
Gorgeous animation from Studio Ghibli that's a warm blanket in visual form. The story is a gripping tale of survival that unfolds like a classic fairytale... but ends up being so much more. I truly hope that this overlooked gem makes a return to theaters after the festival circuit so people can see it as it was meant to be seen.

#10 The Nice Guys
Where in the hell did this come from? I completely missed it in the theater, but caught it on a boring cross-country flight. Boy was I glad to have discovered it, because The Nice Guys everything you love in a Shane Black film. And then some. Russell Crowe hasn't been this compelling since Gladiator. Ryan Gosling hasn't been this compelling ever. If you want to see a smart, funny, sophisticated 70's buddy flick that won't bore you (except when it does)... here you go.

#11 Arrival
Color me shocked. Smart, cerebral, original sci-fi getting green-lit for a feature film? Whatever is Hollywood coming to? Oddly enough, I had read the original short fiction on which this film is based, Story of Your Life, and was not expecting that it would translate well to film given the time-bending aspects of the story. I was pleasantly surprised that they managed to get it right. Or... as close to "right" as they probably could. When aliens land on earth, world governments race to communicate with them so that they can unlock their secrets before other governments get a technological edge. The movie focuses on the American team (of course) lead by genius linguist Louise Banks (played by Amy Adams) and fellow scientist Ian Donnelly (played by Jeremy Renner). As Banks gets closer and closer to deciphering the language of the alien visitors, she finds that her perception of time is being altered. An ambitious adventure in cinema follows that's a true treat for sci-fi fans.

#12 The Jungle Book.
If you had told me that a live-action remake of Disney classic The Jungle Book would hit my "best of..." list for 2016, I would have laughed in your face. But here we are. Filled with incredible CG visuals that bring the story to life like never before... and featuring one of the best "young actors" ever to appear in a movie, The Jungle Book is incomprehensibly great. And the voice cast! Bill Murray as Baloo? Ben Kingsley as Bagheera? Idris Elba as Shere Khan? It never ends. I cannot fathom how Jon Favreau managed to pull off such a feat, but I was completely engrossed in the film and truly didn't want it to end. If you skipped it because you were skeptical, now you know.

   
HONORABLE MENTIONS...

Best Movies 2015 Part 2

Zootopia
This is the film that ranked very high on a lot of critic's lists... and it's easy to see why. The characters are beautifully crafted and the world they inhabit feels fully realized. Everything is wonderfully animated and the voice cast is flawless. As if that wasn't enough greatness, it has a real story filled with humor and heart that's brilliantly told. I loved the film... a lot... but it just didn't have that sweeping, all-encompassing wonder that I got while watching Finding Dory and Moana. I struggled as to whether Zootopia or Jungle Book belongs in the final spot of my list, but settled on the latter because it was such a big surprise.

Bad Moms
I was a bit let down by the ending, but everything up to that is funny enough that I didn't care. Surprisingly original with perfect casting.

The Handmaiden
This is why people go to the movies... a beautiful story that looks stunning and has a dynamite cast. Yes, there were problems along the way and the ending could have used some work, but this sexy, violent gem gets so much right that it's easy to overlook its flaws.

Electra Woman and Dyna Girl
YES, I LIKED IT! A remake of the Sid and Marty Krofft live-action Batman spoof featuring YouTube stars Grace Helbig and Hannah Hart. It's a funny distraction that respects the source material, but is fresh and new at the same time.

Popstar: Never Stop Stopping
A complete take-down of the Justin Bieber stereotype that somehow manages to be funny and entertaining. There were some parts that didn't work which kept it from being a new This is Spinal Tap, but is overall a terrific effort.

Ghostbusters
Was it as good as the original? Oh hell no. It's not even as good as Ghostbusters 2. But it had some funny moments and excellent special effects to make that made it watchable.

   
DIDN'T SEE, MIGHT HAVE MADE MY LIST...

Jackie
Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy? Sign me up.

Sausage Party
Naughty and animated. A great combination I never got around to seeing.

Moonlight
This is the movie that has been most-recommended to me this year. Can't wait to finally see it.

The Edge of Seventeen
Completely off my radar, but I've heard amazing things.

Passengers
A film starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence? Can't help but be worth watching.

Everybody Wants Some
Richard Linklater's follow-up to Boyhood. Who wouldn't want to see that?

   
NOT AS BAD AS THEY SAY...

Gods of Egypt
Yes, they whitewashed the cast. Yes, the special effects were all over the place. Yes, the story was a mess. But at least they tried to do something different. And for that alone, I was entertained. There were some big ideas here that were actually kind of cool and fun to watch... things just didn't come together in a way to make this compelling cinema.

   
THE WORST...

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice
I don't even know where to start. This shitty, blasphemous, idiotic take on two of the most beloved super-heroes in the world was a continuation of Zack Snyder's horrendous Man of Steel. But since it fucked up Batman, it was probably an even worse movie. And while SvB's greatest sin is that it is just no fun (I was bored to tears despite the action beats, which were confusing and senseless)... we did get Wonder Woman on the big screen at last. Gal Godot was perfectly cast and they gave her a look that was amazing. Sadly, she wasn't enough to save this awful, awful mess.

Suicide Squad
This unbelievably tedious movie featured a forgettable assortment of villains forced to be heroes that fight an endless horde of magical zombies. In-between all that is some of the most boring, shitty dialogue you'll find. And, as if that weren't bad enough, Jared Leto's "Joker" was a fucking embarrassment.

Independence Day: Resurgence
Clearly a case of "We're making a sequel to a popular movie, but we haven't a fucking clue what to do, so... SPECIAL EFFECTS IT!" This would probably be the stupidest, blandest, dullest, most unbelievable shitty film of any year... lucky for Roland Emmerich, Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad stepped in to take the punches. I'd discuss the story, but not one bit of it was worth remembering, so I can't.

   

Trabajo

Posted on August 17th, 2015

Dave!Originally I had two business meet-ups and a dinner meeting peppered throughout my trip to Los Angeles... plus a birthday party (happy 95th, grandpa!). After landing I ended up with another meeting, which meant I'd be working every day I'm in the city. This was a major bummer, so I arranged to push all my work to Monday (today!) so I could enjoy time with family and friends over the weekend.

Which was a fantastic idea.

Until I woke up this morning and realized I would be dragging my ass from one end of L.A. to the other. Which pretty much means an entire day stuck in traffic between meetings.

But there were bright spots along the way.

I had time to stop at Pink's for a Patt Morrison Baja Vegan Dog, one of my favorite things...

Pinks!

Pinks Patt Morrison Vegan Dog!

Amazing.

Pinks!

Pinks!

   
After an unexpected side-quest back to my hotel, I was off to Anaheim for one last meeting and a business dinner.

It was at my final meeting that something amazing happened.

We were discussing our impending dinner when somebody said "I'm surprised we're not going to eat at Earl of Sandwich since Dave's in town." I laughed and then broke the news that I don't eat at Earl of Sandwich anymore because they discontinued their veggie sandwich. A colleague then piped up with "Really? I just had one at Disneyland a couple weeks ago."

Uhhhh... come again?

So I look at their online menu and, sure enough, their veggie sandwich is listed. Thinking it surely has to be an outdated menu, I am nevertheless intrigued. This is my favorite sandwich on earth. For years I obsessed over Earl or Sandwich and moved heaven and earth to eat at their restaurants.

With no choice in the matter, I hop in my car and rush to Downtown Disney so I can check it out. As I walk up to the restaurant, I'm starting to hyperventilate...

Earl of Sandwich Downtown Disney!

Sure enough, their veggie sandwich IS back...

Earl of Sandwich Downtown Disney!

Earl of Sandwich Downtown Disney!

And it is just a glorious as it ever was.

So, even though it spoiled my dinner, a tremendous THANK YOU to Earl of Sandwich for bringing back one of my most favorite things to eat. Amazing. Delicious.

Since I was at Downtown Disney, I decided to use a Disney Dream Dollars gift card that's about to expire. I ended up getting a Disney 60th Anniversary pin and lithograph, which is pretty cool. Also cool? Now that Disney owns Star Wars, they are doing a super-sweet job of integrating their new property into the Disney parks...

Darth Vader Does Disney!

Darth Vader Does Disney!

BWAH HA HA HA!

The dinner meeting was short & sweet, and I was on my way back to my hotel at 7:00... arriving by 7:30... in bed at 8:00. Not a bad end to a pretty great day... especially food-wise.

   

Princess

Posted on March 12th, 2015

Dave!I'm going to leave this bit of awesomeness right here...


   

Not enough for you? Whitney Avalon has you covered...

   

   

   

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Monumental

Posted on February 25th, 2014

Dave!Yesterday I went and saw The Monuments Men. Given the high-caliber cast (George Clooney, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Matt Damon, Hugh Bonneville, and Cate Blanchett), I expected this was going to be a killer film. But it turns out that the cast was about the only thing I enjoyed. There just wasn't much of a story... the characters broke up into pairs and wandered around Europe trying to save art during the final days of World War II. The End. I was told this was a "caper" film... kind of like Ocena's 11 or something. But other than trying to blow a mine open before the Russians arrive, there wasn't much of a "caper" to speak of. I was bored.

Which is a shame, because the movie is based on real events that sound anything but boring.

Oh well.

I did see this poster in the theater...

Maleficent Poster

That's Angelina Jolie starring as Maleficent.

Which would be the evil witch from Walt Disney's Sleeping Beauty.

Heaven help me I actually want to see this film.

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Sanfrisco

Posted on January 22nd, 2014

Dave!"I DON"T LIKE SANFRISCO ANY MORE!"
        —Kid waiting in line for a cable-car ride this morning.

Much like the side dish made famous as a "San Francisco Treat," I find Sanfrisco delightful. I fall in love with the city all over again every time I'm lucky enough to come here and never pass up on an opportunity to visit... even if it's just for a job.

After breezing though mountains of paperwork and a presentation, I was able to escape for an afternoon of bigtime fun with long-time blogging friend, Jester (right after randomly running into another bloggity friend, Dickie Maxx!).

First it was lunch at Boudin Sourdough (where we both got a slight case of food poisoning?). Then, after neither one of us could think of anything to do, I remembered an ad for "The Walt Disney Family Museum" I had seen yesterday, and away we went.

The museum is a pretty big deal, encompassing three buildings in The Presidio. I never quite figured out what a museum dedicated to the life of Walt Disney is doing in San Francisco, but they couldn't ask for a more beautiful location. The view from the back of the museum's glass panorama wall is great...

Walt Disney Family MuseumView

Having nothing to do with the mega-corporation that is The Walt Disney Company, the museum is a non-profit organization dedicated to Disney's life, and was founded by his eldest daughter, Diane (who sadly died last November).

Everything about the museum screams "quality," and the numerous displays all look as thought they could have been designed by Disney Imagineers (and who knows, maybe they were!). The lobby features some of the many awards won by Disney, including his Emmy and numerous Oscars...

Walt Disney Family Museum Lobby

Walt's early days are explored via audio recordings of Disney himself, which are accompanied by fantastic Monty Python-esque animation screens. Throughout the displays are many photos, letters, and other personal effects which are (as with everything in the museum) beautifully exhibited...

Walt Disney Family Museum Early Days

Walt Disney Family Museum Animator

Eventually... inevitably... you get to Mickey Mouse, whose creation is given an entire room. Here begins Disney's many, many innovations when it came to animation, including the way audio was recorded via visual cues. There were no multi-track recorders during those early days, so coming up with the sound for a cartoon was an elaborate affair involving several people working together at the same time. An interactive display shows how it was done...

Walt Disney Family Museum Sound Station

And, of course there is a nice chunk of Mickey memorabilia...

Walt Disney Family Museum Mickey Poster

Walt Disney Family Museum Mickey Clocks

The animation process is explored thoroughly, and displays include many props... including an original Disney animator's desk and the revolutionary multi-plane camera, which added depth and realistic camera panning...

Walt Disney Family Museum Desk

Walt Disney Family Museum Multi-Plane Camera

Animation cels, color tests, production drawings... it's all here...

Walt Disney Family Museum Drawing

The section on Disney's war-time contributions is interesting. In addition to anti-Nazi propaganda, Disney artists did all kinds of things to support Allied war efforts... including illustrating pin-ups for the troops, which I did not know. Why children were included in the drawings I can't fathom, but there you have it...

Walt Disney Family Museum Hitler

Walt Disney Family Museum Pin-Ups

It's not all fun, games, and gratuitous cartoon nudity though... the museum also takes a look at the not-so-nice stuff that Walt went through. Including a cartoonist strike (which Disney attributed to a Communist plot... but wasn't everything back then?)...

Walt Disney Family Museum Strike

And then things get really interesting because... DISNEYLAND!!! Here the museum pulls out all the stops, and leads you through all the planning that went into making the park...

Walt Disney Family Museum DISNEYLAND!
Click photo to embiggen in a new window.

Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland Map Plan

My favorite part of the museum is a relief map of Disneyland... not as it exists, but as Walt Disney had dreamed it would one day be. So much of it is the same as what we ended up with, but very different at the same time. Space Mountain, for example, had the roller coaster on the outside of the structure instead of being a dark ride inside of it. Thunder Mountain Railroad was not the high-speed thrill-ride it turned out to be, but a scenic ride through the American Southwest (and included a ride under a waterfall). It's all just so fascinating. If you're a Disney parks whore like me, you could stare at it for hours...

Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland

Walt Disney Family Museum Disneyland Space Mountain

The museum is a cradle-to-grave experience, and includes a nice video montage retrospective of his life as you exit...

Walt Disney Family Museum Death

Walt Disney Family Museum Legacy

And, no, you don't get to see Walt Disney's cryogenically-preserved body at the end. You do get to see a very nice tribute to one of Walt Disney's favorite artists, the incomparable Mary Blair, if you go down to the restroom level though...

Walt Disney Family Museum Mary Blair Tribute

Walt Disney Family Museum Mary Blair It's A Small World Artwork

   
All in all... the museum is worth your valuable time to visit. I had a great time, could have spent the entire day here, and thought it was worth the $20 price of admission because there's just so much... stuff... to see.

Since taxis didn't seem to exist in The Presidio, we decided to try an Uber driver. For those not in the know, "Uber" is an iPhone app that allows you to call a car to your location and have them drive you to your destination. It's pretty cool, because you are given a map with a real-time GPS location of your driver, the driver's name, a car model, license plate number, and an estimated time of arrival. For the budget-conscious, there's an Uber-X service, where you can hire regular people driving their own vehicles to give you a ride. In San Francisco, the price is up to 35% cheaper than hiring a taxi. Needless to say, this is not without controversy. Taxis are regulated... have experienced, knowledgeable drivers... and operate under safety standards dictated by the city. With Uber, you're just getting some dude and their car.

The first diver I tapped was nearby and had an estimated arrival time of four minutes. But, even after calling me, he couldn't figure out how to enter The Presidio and ended up driving all around it trying to find a way to get to us. It was pretty comical watching his GPS location on the map, because he'd drive one way... get frustrated... turn around... drive the other way... get frustrated... turn around... AND EVENTUALLY CANCEL OUR PICK-UP BECAUSE HE COULDN'T FIGURE OUT HOW TO FIND AN ENTRANCE! I was relieved to get the cancelation, because the ETA went from 4 minutes... to 8 minutes... to 12 minutes... and I was going nuts (on the bright side, we got to watch the worst 20-minute parallel parking job EVER).

When I tapped a new driver, he was much more knowledgable on how to get to THIS MAJOR CITY LANDMARK, and picked us up in just five minutes. Nice guy too.

If you want to try Uber for yourself (and live in a city it services) you can get $20 applied to your first ride by using the promo code ba9az (just tap the little "person" icon in the upper-left corner of the FREE Uber App and go to the PROMOTIONS link).

   
Anyway... Jester and I goofed around the Mission District for a while, and eventually decided to find a tapas bar for dinner. Yelp suggested a tiny little place called Lolo, and off we went...

...to a fantastic meal. Seriously delicious food. The guacamole was flavorful and amazing... the chips super-crispy... the corn with crema was so tasty and sweet it was like candy... the quesadillas unique and mouthwatering... the flaming cauldron of melted cheese was creamy and dangerous*... the berries and mascarpone with honey crumbles was mind-blowing... everything was great, and the service excellent as well. Highest recommendation for Lolo!

Lolo Flaming Cheese Cauldron

*Dangerous because the cheese is kept melted under an open flame and, if you're not careful (like me), you can set your chips on fire!

   
Thus ends my first day of adventure in Sanfrisco, and how great was that? The kid complaining about the city this morning obviously didn't spend time with Jester, Mickey Mouse, and a flaming cauldron of cheese.

   

Day Two – Mekong Delta

Posted on October 8th, 2013

Dave!And so today my Adventure by Disney officially begins (yesterday was just an add-on that I booked so I'd have a little time to recoup from the flight).

The name of this tour is apparently "Jewels of Southeast Asia," though the official website page doesn't show a name at all. Unlike most of the "Adventures by Disney" which are designed as "family vacations" which include activities for kids, this is an "adults only" tour.

Usually, I'm not big on organized tours, but when you don't have time to plan things out, it's just easier all the way around. Disney is more expensive than other companies I found, but I decided to just bite the bullet and go for it because Disney is a name I trust to do things right.

The day started when everybody boarded a bus for the Mekong River Delta. The interior was a bit unexpected, with decorations plastered everywhere...

Tour Bus Teddy Bear

There were symbols of good luck lining the dashboard, which makes sense given the insane traffic you have to navigate through here in Saigon...

Tour Bus Good Luck Charms

Half-way through the drive, we stopped at a rest area, which is unlike any rest area I've seen before...

Rest Stop Lily Pond

Lotus Flower

It was a long drive, but you're never bored because entertainment is always just outside your window. A guy riding a motorcycle with a washing machine while texting? Got it. Entire families of five people on a motorcycle? Yep. Babies on motorcycles? Of course! Saigon has it all...

Motor Bike Refrigerator Haul while Texting!

Motorcycle Momma... Literally

Eventually we made it to a small fishing village on the Mekong River where we boarded boats to explore life on the river...

Mekong River Boat

Mekong Cruise on the Boat

Passing a Boat on the River

River Homes of the Mekong

Mekong Homes

Mekong River House

Mekong Fruit Seller

Mekong Houseboats

After wandering around a while, we stopped off at a family-run candy factory. One of the candies they make is from popped rice. The popping itself is accomplished with large woks filled with hot sand. The sand and rice is mixed together and, almost instantly, the popping starts. The sand is then filtered away in a sieve and, violĂ , rice has been popped. It's then mixed with sugars and flavorings, pressed onto a cutting table, then sliced into bite-sized pieces and wrapped for selling...

Mekong Popped Rice Making

Mekong Vietnam Rice Candy Shop

The company also hand-makes rice paper for spring rolls and such. It's a hot, tiring, difficult job, but the woman working there made it look easy...

Vietnam Mekong Rice Paper Making

Rice Paper Drying in the Sun in Vietnam

Another item on the menu... SNAKE WINE! Wine that it cured with dead snakes in it for some reason...

Mekong Vietnam Snake Wine

All throughout the factory there were dogs laying around. We were warned that dogs here are not petted and cuddled, so trying to make friends is a bad idea. The dog may think that you reaching out to pet him is an attack, so you'll get bit...

Mekong Dogs of Vietnam

And speaking of dogs... prosperous homes sometimes have dog statues standing guard in front. I've seen it more often than you'd think, and most times it's these exact same statues over and over again...

Mekong Dog Statue Guardians

After an incredible lunch of fresh local foods, we zoomed back along the river so we could drive back to Saigon. Dinner tonight was on the 51st floor of the Bitexco Financial Tower, which is an easy building to spot because it has a helicopter pad sticking out the side of it! The view of the city was quite nice and the food pretty darn tasty...

Dinner in Bitexco Tower

Since this is a Disney tour, they hand out pins for you to collect. On the first day I got a welcome pin with Pluto...

Welcome Disney Pin!

Then today I got a Donald and Daisy Duck Mekong pin...

Melodic Mekong Pin

Pretty nifty.

And tomorrow starts early, so off I go...

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Californian

Posted on April 19th, 2013

Dave!The best piece of advice I give when people ask about visiting Disney World in Orlando is to stay on-site in a Disney hotel. It's part of the experience, it has all kinds of benefits, and even the cheapest Disney property assures you of a clean, comfortable, convenient place to stay. If I had the option of going to Disney World today and staying off-site... or saving my money for an additional six months so I could stay on-site... I'd wait the six months.

Disneyland is a little different, because the off-site hotels are often just as close and convenient as The Disneyland Hotel and Disney's Paradise Pier Hotel... even though you don't get the "Magic Mornings" early-entry and other benefits. The exception would be Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa, which sits inside California Adventure...

Disneyland Map with Grand Californian Hotel

The hotel has its own private entrance to both California Adventure and Downtown Disney, which is pretty special.

But the biggest draw for me is that it's yet another architectural triumph from Peter Dominick, who designed Disney World's awesome Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge. Sadly, he died back in 2009, so I guess this is the last Disney hotel we'll be seeing from him. Staying at his hotels is an experience every bit as awesome as visiting Disney World or Disneyland...

Grand Californian Downtown Disney Entrance
The "Downtown Disney" private entrance to The Grand Californian.

Even the frickin' front doors are magnificent...

Grand Californian Doors
No joke... just walking up to those big main doors with the sun shining through is an amazing experience.

The rooms are quite nice, and everything reminds me very much of staying at Disney's Wilderness Lodge...

Grand Californian Room

And now... a word about the view.

Since I was already paying the huge expense of staying at The Grand Californian, I felt I might as well go all the way and get a "Premium View" room... which either faces Downtown Disney, the parks, or the pool courtyard. Downtown Disney is noisy, and I've seen many noisy pools, so I picked the "Premium Parks View."

Only to find that my third floor room had no view of the parks. All I could see was trees. And the snout of Grizzly Mountain... if I went to the extreme edge of my balcony and leaned out.

So I went back down to the lobby and complained. There it was explained to me that the trees have grown over the 13 years the hotel has been open, so the lower floors don't have the view they used to. This was kind of upsetting, because they still sell them as Premium Park View Rooms! If they KNOW that there's no view, why do they still sell them as such? Well, money. And "technically" it still is a "parks view" since the parks are in that direction... you just can't see them.

In any event, I got moved up to the fifth floor, which was better... but still not the sweeping view of the parks I had imagined. Mostly just trees...

Californian View Pano

You can see a little Space Mountain and Soarin' Over California easy enough to the left. And if you squint you can see Tower of Terror and Cars Land. And there's Grizzly Peak hiding behind a tree there. So, yeah... it's a parks view. Just not much of one.

So, if you stay at The Grand Californian, skip paying extra for a "Premium View" that's not very premium. If you must have a "Premium View" room, I'd probably go with the "pool courtyard" view. Sure you've got kids screaming at the pool all day long... but at least there's something interesting to look at.

Anyway...

I didn't have any camera except the one in my iPhone, so I don't have any photos of this amazing hotel.

Well, okay, I have two I took one night...

Grand Californian Lobby

Grand Californian Pool at Night

Overall, I give Disney's Grand Californian Hotel and Spa my highest recommendation if you're visiting Disneyland. Yes, it's expensive. Very expensive. But it will enhance your Disney experience, and is likely worth the money (though I'd probably skip the "premium view" expense). I had a terrific stay, and would absolutely stay here again.

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Disneyland: Day Three!

Posted on April 18th, 2013

Dave!No work today and a late flight home.

It was a golden opportunity to goof around Disneyland and California Adventure so I could do all the little things I never got around to for the past two days. Which, given the massive number of attraction closures, wasn't a lot. California Screamin'? CLOSED. Soarin' Over California? CLOSED. Radiator Springs Racers? CLOSED. Space Mountain? CLOSED. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad? CLOSED. I mean, come on... even the frickin' "Golden Zephyr" was CLOSED...

Disney CLOSED

And The Jungle Cruise is scheduled to close for refurbishment next week too.

Though it's not like Disney has to give a fuck. People don't pay to ride the rides... they pay to enter the park. So long as they open their doors, they're making money, regardless of how many attractions they're actually bothering to open. The problem is that with so many of the most popular rides being closed on a busy day like today, all the rides that are open are overwhelmed with massively long line. It makes for a pretty shitty day at Disneyland.

Well, not so much for me. I've ridden all the rides here dozens of times. But can you imagine the family who saved for three years to take that magical trip to Disneyland only to arrive and find tons of shit closed? Pretty harsh.

Oh well. Even with half the good shit not being open, Disneyland is still a fun place to be, I suppose. And I did get to ride Mickey's Fun Wheel, which I've never done before...

Paradise Pier and Mickey's Fun Wheel

Mickey's Fun Wheel

There's quite a view from the top...

Mickey's Fun Wheel View

I also stood in line for an hour-and-a-half to ride "Toy Story Midway Mania" because it's Just. That. Fun.

Time to fly...

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Disneyland: Day Two!

Posted on April 17th, 2013

Dave!Today I actually got to spend a little time in the parks, which was fun. The weather consisted of flawless blue skies with a nice breeze to take the edge off the heat.

And now some quick comments on the rides I got to see as I rushed around The House of the Mouse...

DISNEYLAND!

  • Jungle Cruise. This ride needs a major overhaul, as it just isn't aging well. Making it be self-aware and "funny" (when it used to be narrated seriously) hasn't helped much.
  • Indiana Jones Adventure. A bumpy, jumpy jeep ride through vaguely Indiana-Jones-esque settings. I always thought this ride was kinda disappointing because it doesn't seem very immersive (even if the queue is beautifully themed). With the exception of three appearances of animatronic Indiana Jones robots, it could be anything.
  • Pirates of the Caribbean. The theme park ride to end all theme park rides and my all-time favorite. Unlike Indy, this attraction is sublimely immersive. It helps that the Disneyland original is 16 minutes long when all the clones in other Disney parks are half that.
  • Haunted Mansion. While still a nice attraction with some great effects, it sure seems like they could upgrade this older ride with some amazing new technology. Oh well. Still a classic.
  • Tarzan's Treehouse. I can't really figure out why the Disneyland treehouse was re-themed for Tarzan when the Disney World version is still "Swiss Family Robinson Treehouse." I do like the Tarzan version better... but wish the character sculptures were animated.
  • Splash Mountain. Closed for temporary ride break-down.
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. Compared to the Disney World Pooh attraction, this is lame. Compared to the Tokyo Disneyland Pooh attraction, it's complete shit. Why Japan put the money into a great Winnie the Pooh ride when the US versions are cheap and crappy remains a mystery.
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Closed for refurbishment.
  • Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters. I used to think this shooting attraction was pretty amazing... until "Toy Story Midway Mania" hit the scene. It's still fun, just not as cool as an experience as the later shooting rides are.
  • Space Mountain. Closed for refurbishment.
  • Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage. I have mixed feelings on this. The "Nemo" parts are great... even if they are dark and hard to see. But everything else, which is most of the ride, if so painfully boring because nothing is happening. They really need to refresh this so it's all Nemo all the time.
  • Star Tours: The Adventures Continue. The original ride was great, but the update that happened back in 2011 made it remarkable. Even though I've ridden the Disney World version a dozen times to see all the random scenarios play out, this was the first time I got to see "hologram Yoda," which was very cool.
  • Disney Railroad, Main Street. Closed for temporary ride break-down.

CALIFORNIA ADVENTURE!

  • California Screamin'. While not the most exciting coaster in the world, it's such a long, smooth, beautiful ride that it is nevertheless one of my favorites.
  • Toy Story Midway Mania! One of the best new Disney rides to come along in years. It's a brilliant take on video games that only Disney/Pixar could imagine.
  • Grizzly River Run. A really fun (and wet!) attraction that simulates turbulent river rafting. A vastly superior ride than its bastard twin sister, Kali River Rapids, over at Disney World.
  • Soarin' Over California. Closed for refurbishment.
  • Radiator Springs Racers. I thought this was a nicer, smarter, cuter take on the technology from Epcot's "Test Track"... but it's hardly worth the 90+ minute wait to get in.
  • The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. While not as immersive and interesting as the superior Disney World version, it's still a fun "faster than gravity" fall ride.

If you're thinking "Holy crap that's a lot of closed rides! you'd be right. And the horrible thing is that they're mostly the big "E-Ticket" rides that people most want to see... Splash Mountain, Space Mountan, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Soarin', Dinseyland Railroad... so it's a major bummer. Especially Space Mountain and Soarin', which are only closed because (apparently) Disney stupidly ignored OSHA warnings that were given last year. Oh well. I've riden them all before... many times... but it makes me sad for all the people who came all the way to Disneyland to experience them, only to be told "no."

Anyway...

After dinner I stopped by to see Abigail for a few minutes and get a new wallet, so that was a nice end to my day.

Now it's off to sleep before another busy day tomorrow...

   

Disneyland: Day One!

Posted on April 16th, 2013

Dave!The nice thing about working in Anaheim? DISNEYLAND!

It's the perfect place to take extended lunch hours for a ride and a meal. And, for this week at least, visiting an exhibit on Iron Man Armor to promote Iron Man 3... arriving in a theater near you on May 3rd!

They relocated Tony Stark's "Hall of Armor" to the Innoventions pavilion in Tomorrowland...

Iron Man Hall of Armor!

Iron Man Hall of Armor!

But the best part? You can SUIT UP to BE Virtual Iron Man!

Iron Man Suit Up!

It kind of works like an Xbox Kinnect game, where you stand in front of a screen with a camera to control the action...

Iron Man Suit Up In Action!

When you start up, the armor comes flying onto you so you can dance, shoot stuff with your repulsors, and fly around...

Iron Man Me!

Really, really cool.

I opted for a pricey (but delicious!) lunch at Wine Country Trattoria, because you can get a dining package which inclides priority viewing for Disney California Adventure's "World of Color" show. The dessert plate was awesome...

Disney Dessert

Off to Paradise Pier for the show...

Paradise Pier at Night

I didn't want to get soaked, so I decided to watch from the second level reserved area, which was perfect. It reminds me of a show I saw as a kid called "Dancing Waters" which was at Sea World in San Diego...

World of Color

It's all water, colored lights, lasers, and projected animation.

World of Color

Pretty cool. And totally worth buying that expensive lunch pacakge to get such great "seats!"

YESTERDAY...

The drive over the mountain passes was pretty harsh. It was snowing like gangbusters, and there was water a half-inch thick on the roadway...

Snowy Passes

Snowy Passes

But, when I got to Seattle, the sky was on fire, so it all turned out okay in the end...

Sky Fire Seattle

Annnnd... I'm spent.

   

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