Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Reviews: Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder/West Side Story

Below are reviews of two recent musicals my family and I saw on stage this past year...

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder

I first caught this show in April 2016 in Los Angeles with much of the original Broadway cast intact, but when the touring production returned last February to the Segerstrom Center for the Performing Arts in Orange County, my wife and I decided to take our children. So this is the second time I’ve seen it!

Winner of the 2014 Tony for Best Musical, “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” is closely based on the 1949 Ealing British black comedy film, Kind Hearts and Coronets, which itself is loosely based on a 1907 novel called, Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman. (For some legal reason, the musical did not have permission to use the same title, so it is officially based on the novel, though it hews closely to the film.)

Set in Edwardian England and considered a skewering of the upper class, “Guide” is a crowd-pleaser of a musical about an estranged member of the prominent D'Ysquith clan named Montague "Monty" D'Ysquith Navarro who—both out of greed and the poor treatment of his late mother at the hands of the D’Ysquith family who disinherited her when she chose to marry a musician below their station—proceeds to kill all those in succession before him when he discovers that he is tenth in line to the family’s title position of the Earl of Highhurst. He does so in ingenious clever ways to make the deaths all look accidental, leading to grisly and funny deaths that are hilariously portrayed using clever yet simple stagecraft.

Adding to the fun of the show is the fact that a single actor portrays each member of the D’Ysquith clan murdered by Navarro (including the women). The conceit parallels the same feat performed by actor Alec Guinness in the 1949 film. Each member of the family, of course, has their own unique eccentricity, which no doubt makes the role an actor’s delight. The show’s music is fitting reminiscent of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. In addition to the tension of whether Navarro will get caught, there is also a love triangle involving a lover and a cousin.

The children loved the show.

West Side Story




Many people are no doubt familiar with the classic 1961 film adaptation of "West Side Story," co-directed by Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins, adapted from the iconic 1957 Broadway show by Arthur Laurents (book), Leonard Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), and Robbins (concept and choreography), which was inspired by William Shakespeare's “Romeo and Juliet.” Nevertheless, live performances are a beast unto themselves so it is always a treat to watch a well-known show, particularly when the film adaptation differs from the play.

This touring production was put together by the La Mirada Playhouse and my family and I saw it as a Saturday matinee at the Valley Performing Arts Center at California State University, Northridge. My son had recently discovered the film and very much looked forward to the show.

This is a fine production—it says much about the power of the story and the music that I found myself tearing up at some moments, particularly when Tony and Maria first meet. All the actors—particularly the leads—had beautiful voices, though it probably helped that the mics ensured they played to the back rows.

With that said, I found the first half of the production serviceable, with everyone hitting their marks but not quite transcending the material. That changed in the second half, however, after intermission—both the actors and the production seemed to then fully embody the story and the music. The second half was powerful and effecting. Kudos to the leads, and main supporting players, who provided some of the lighter moments in this otherwise sad and tragic story.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

A Visit to Universal Studios Hollywood


Click here to see the full photo gallery of my April 2017 visit to Universal Studios Hollywood.

While Universal Studios Hollywood in many ways competes in Southern Calfiornia with the likes of Disneyland, Knotts Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, and Legoland for families and thrill seekers, it has the distinction of also being a working film and television studio. So in addition to the rides and attractions, Universal also appeals to fans of television and movies, and seeing the industry behind the scenes.

Though not as often as Disneyland, I’ve visited Universal several times over the years. One of the first times was when I vacationed in California with my family in the mid-1970s while we still lived on the east coast; again in the late ‘70s on a road trip with my brother and east coast friend after we moved to Northern California; then, after I re-located to Southern California for college and work, at least once during the ‘80s, and more recently, several times over the last decade when I’ve visited with my own young family.

At first glance, the studio still feels quite familiar, particularly the tram tour. I always get a kick out of being on studio lots—I’ve walked around the Warner Brothers lot thanks to a friend, and have been on the Culver Studios, Paramount Studio and Fox Studio lots on business or for screenings. (Ironically, I've never been to Sony Studios—formerly MGM—though I live right down the street from the lot!)

In fact, in just the past few months, I've seen the Universal backlot in shows like Netflix's "Love" and TBS's "Angie Tribeca."

At Universal, it’s comforting to see some of the same “greatest hits” after all these years still emtertaining visitors, such as the Jaws shark “attack” and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho house, as well as the famous “flash flood” attraction. And I’m glad they still take the time to show off the studio’s history, pointing out landmarks like Hitchcock’s office bungalow and the places where Universal’s early monster films and westerns were filmed. But make no mistake, portions of the tour have also been upgraded and re-imagined. For example, a memorable part of the tram tour back in the day was a wooden bridge that broke apart and shook as you crossed it to simulate an earthquake, complete with (styrofoam) boulders that came barreling down the hill. This was later transformed into some ice tunnel attraction that I vaguely recall; today, it is the impressive King Kong 360 degree 3-D attraction where you’re transported to Skull Island to watch Kong do battle with a dinosaur with the tram riders in the middle of the action. They’ve also added a similar 3D Fast and the Furious attraction, which impressively features several of the film’s stars.

Attractions and shows related to the magic of movie-making have also always been part of the experience. Again, this has evolved much over the years—I recall an show that selected audience members to participate in filming sequences from Airport (complete with a water tank). There used to be an Old West stunt show that is now a Waterworld stunt show. Today, the park offers entertaining special effects and animal shows in small arenas.

However, while the tram and shows related to the magic of movie-making used to be the core of the Universal Studios experience, over the last decade or more, Universal has worked to expand its appeal by adding more traditional rides and themed areas, based on a Universal (or other) popular entertainment property. So in addition to rides like Jurassic Park (a water ride), the Mummy, Transformers, and Shrek, we now have the Wizarding World of Harry Potter area and a Simpson’s Springfield area that expands on a smaller, previously existing Simpson’s Krustyland. (They’ve also added a "Walking Dead" attraction, building on the very popular Walking Dead themed nights they have during the Halloween season.)

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened to great fanfare and anticipation in 2016. It’s an immersive environment that features a snow-covered village dominated by Hogwarts Castle. (Construction of the themed area required the destruction of the Universal Ampitheatre, a concert venue I visited several times over the years.) Rides in the themed area includes a magic motion Forbidden Journey ride and a Flight of the Hippogriff kiddie rollercoaster.

Also relatively new is the Simpson’s Springfield land, which expands on a smaller footprint that included a Simpson’s ride and Kwik-e-Mart. The area has been expanded and features Moe’s Tavern, a Krusty Burger (that turned out to be better than I expected), a Lard Lad Donut Shop, and tons of details that bring the Simpsons’ city of Springfield to life.

Unlike Disneyland, which can easily keep you entertained for a full day and more (especially with its sister park, California Adventures), I used to be ready to leave Universal after about three-quarters of a day. The expansion and new additions now makes it a fuller day. And don’t forget to visit the Universal City Walk right outside the main entrance, with plenty of fun shops, restaurants, and a movie theater complex.

For the full photo gallery of my visit, click here.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Hollywood Costume Exhibit 2017

Every year I try to get to the annual Art of Motion Picture Costume Design Exhibition at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising's museum (FIDM), located in downtown Los Angeles, which is traditionally held in the spring (it originally coincided with the frenzied run-up to the Academy Awards, but that window has shortened a bit now that the ceremony is held in February). This year marked the show's 25th anniversary. The show features the actual costumes worn by the actors in the films.

Although this year’s exhibit just closed, I nevertheless thought I’d post about it, along with some photos, as inducement for people to attend future shows. Though the exhibition isn’t large, the gallery is FREE and an opportunity to see the clothes and costumes from your favorite films. And afterwards, feel free to explore the regentrifying downtown L.A.! The FIDM isn’t too far from L.A. Live, part of the entertainment and sports complex that houses the Staples Center, Grammy Museum and many restaurants. Personally, I usually use my visit to the exhibition as an excuse to visit the revived Grand Central Market foodcourt cafe, that is across the street from the famed Bradbury Building, prominently featured in films like Blade Runner and 500 Days of Summer! (It also recently appeared as a Willie Wonka-type chocolate factory in a commercial for Twix.)

As you’ll see in the photos, this year’s exhibition included (among others) Batman v. Superman; Suicide Squad; Doctor Strange; Star Wars: Rogue One; Hail, Caesar; La La Land, and Florence Foster Jenkins.








Rogue One

Florence Foster Jenkins

Allied

George Clooney's costume from Hail, Caesar!

Hail, Caesar

La La Land

Doctor Strange

Doctor Strange

1925 souvenir program book for Ben-Hur from the FIDM collection


Monday, April 17, 2017

Rob Hanes Adventures to be Collected in Trade Paperback

NEWS RELEASE - For Immediate Release

The long-running globetrotting action-adventure series, Rob Hanes Adventures, will be collected in trade paperback in 4-issue increments starting this spring, said series creator and WCG Comics publisher Randy Reynaldo.

Rob Hanes Adventures, Volume 1 begins collecting the series with issues 1-4. It will clock in at 128 pages and retail for $14.99, and appear under the WCG Comics imprint.

“Given the growth of the back catalog of the series, it’s time to begin collecting the series in trade paperback format,” said Reynaldo. “I hope it will provide a welcoming entry point for new readers who want to check out the new series but might be intimidated by the number of back issues now in print.”

The stories in the first volume include“Where in the World is Rob Hanes?”; “Back in the Game”; “Rob Hanes: Year One”; “Image is Everything”; and “A Changing of the Guard.” The volume will include reproductions of the original cover art and liner notes about each story. Reynaldo plans to quickly follow the release of volume 1 with volume 2, collecting issues 5-8, later in the year.

Two trade paperback collections of earlier material that pre-date the current series are already in print: the Rob Hanes Archives, which collects the earliest material that appeared in zine format, and Rob Hanes Adventures, Volume 0, which collects the first regular comic-book appearance of the series under the title, Adventure Strip Digest.

About Rob Hanes Adventures:
Rob Hanes Adventures is an action-adventure series about a globetrotting private eye and troubleshooter from Justice International who travels the world on assignment, facing adventure, intrigue and romance at every turn!

Launched in 2000, and preceded by a zine and 4-issue comic-book series run under the title Adventure Strip Digest, Rob Hanes Adventures is one of the longest-running indie comics series still going! Inspired by classic adventure comic strips like Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates and Roy Crane's Buz Sawyer but set in the modern day—with dashes of light-hearted humor reminiscent of Will Eisner's Spirit—readers and fans have lauded Rob Hanes Adventures for recapturing the spirit of the classic adventure strip while updating it for modern day audiences. The series has received praise and coverage over the years for its classic, return-to-basic approach, and was listed among the 1000 Comic Books You Must Read  by Tony Isabella.

Though themes and characters recur in the series, every issue of Rob Hanes Adventures is self-contained. The entire series remains in print, including 17 issues to date and two trade paperback collections of earlier work. For more information about the series, previews and to purchase back issues, visit the WCG Comics website at wcgcomics.com or facebook.com/rhadventures.

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Images accompanying this press release may be used for review purposes, with additional downloadable art and images from the comic-book series available here. All art © by Randy Reynaldo. All rights reserved.

The permanent link for this news release is http://wcgcomics.blogspot.com/2017/03/pr-rha-vol01-tpb.html


















Tuesday, January 31, 2017

More Housecleaning: Farewell 2002 Subaru Forester

A few weeks ago, I posted a tribute to my wife’s 1995 Mazda Miata and now I’m here to remember our 2002 Subaru Forester, which we now also have just sold after 14+ years of service.

While I wouldn’t call it beloved, it was a workhorse, purchased as a family vehicle when we were expecting our first child. We were looking into some SUVs, but the jump from the small Miata to an SUV was a bit of an intimidating leap for my wife. I can’t recall what vehicle we were initially looking at, but the dealer also sold Subarus and introduced us to the Forester, which he told us was very popular with families. Though classified as a small SUV, the salesperson noted that this particular model was built on the chassis of a sedan, which was reflected in the drive and handling. I have to admit, it wouldn’t have been my first choice of vehicle (nor the color), but my wife, who would be its primary driver, took to it so we purchased it. Given at that point we were both driving small cars, it felt quite like an upgrade in terms of ride and comfort. (However, once I sold my own small vehicle and purchased a full-size sedan, it felt like driving a tin can!)

It was indeed very family friendly—in fact, when we moved into our current residence, the families who parked in the spots on either side of us had the same exact model Forester, but in different colors! (One of them still has theirs.)

I’m fairly meticulous about my vehicle (I don’t allow eating in my car!), but my wife not as much--though, to be fair, as she often pointed out, she was the one who was mostly responsible for schlepping around the kids, having them eat, spill and, on occasion, throw up in the car. As a result, the interior certainly showed its age and wear and tear.

One big plus about this vehicle, however, was the fact that, like all Subarus, it was all-wheel drive which, as skiers, made it very useful for mountain and snow driving! (All the photos of the car are from ski trips.)

Though it was still running well, it was starting to require more engine work in the last year, including problems that couldn’t be entirely solved, even after our mechanic took it to a Subaru dealer’s service garage for a few weeks, which it did under warranty at no cost to us! Over the past two years, my wife and I had agreed it was time for us at some point to purchase a new vehicle, but at the time there was no urgency—but given that repairs on the Subaru were starting to become a financial sinkhole, we finally got our act together and purchased a new car which triggered the sales of both the Forester and the Miata on Craigslist. The mechanic who purchased the Subaru told us that he didn't buy a lot of cars of that age, but said that model had a good reputation and remained in demand.

Anyway, like any expensive longterm possession, we were sorry to see it go, but at the same time we knew it was time and overdue to let it go. So farewell to our Subaru Forester!


Friday, January 20, 2017

REVIEW: Gabriel Over the White House - One Bizarre Film!

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) is a movie I’ve been meaning to write about for quite some time, and the transition of presidential power we are seeing today brought it back to mind and seemed a perfect time to finally do so.

I caught this film on the Turner Classic Movies channel many years ago. A website overview accurately describes it as a "you-have-to-see-it-to-believe-it movie” and I have to say it’s probably one of the most bizarre, batsh*t craziest films I’ve ever seen. This is a film that I pretty much watched with my jaw dropped virtually the whole time.

It’s been many years since I saw the film so I did some research to refresh my memory about its storyline, and, giving credit where credit is due, I quote extensively from those plot summaries below.

Set in 1933 at the height of the Great Depression, Walter Huston plays newly elected President Judson Hammond, a corrupt slacker and product of cronyism,

who is involved in a serious car accident and, while recovering, receives a visit from the Archangel Gabriel. Forced to acknowledge the desperate state of the country due to his poor leadership, the President vows to set the nation right, fires the crooked cabinet members who got him elected and transforms himself into an all-powerful dictator who wages war against organized crime, all in a determined bid to restore social order in America. [The film is a] political allegory that was one of the first...to openly address the problems resulting from the Great Depression such as unemployment, homeless people and the rising crime rate. [from TCM] 
He becomes a champion of the working man, redirecting the angry unemployed toward rebuilding the country on the government’s nickel. Hammond becomes an enemy to crooked men of all stripes, having them removed from positions of power, and in some cases, tried and executed by makeshift military tribunals. Meanwhile, on the global stage the president uses the United States’ military might to persuade the nations of the world to pay off their war debts and sign disarmament agreements. Hammond accomplishes all this by declaring a state of national emergency that allows him to bypass Congress and the courts.... [from A.V. Club]

The clip below from the film features one of the film’s most crazy, surreal scenes, where a bunch of gangsters are tried by a military tribunal and immediately executed!


The film was released by MGM and co-produced by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of his day (and perhaps most notoriously, the model for Charles Foster Kane, the titular character of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane) and released just as Franklin Roosevelt was entering his first year in office.

At its core, the film is essentially a call to the new president to assume full totalitarian powers in order to restore prosperity, security and ensure world peace. In case you think I’m exaggerating, the film includes the President dissolving Congress when they try to impeach him for overreaching, deputizing the army to act on his orders, and utilizing star chambers not only to prosecute criminals but to also immediately execute them (as seen above)!

As noted by Noel Murray at the A.V. Club website, the film
seems like it should be a cautionary tale, warning American moviegoers of what’ll happen if they’re not more diligent about the leaders they elect. But that’s not what Hearst had in mind at all; rather, he wanted this movie to show how great America could be if, to quote one of Hammond’s lackeys, we could “cut through the red tape of legal procedures and get back to first principles.” Throughout the film, the story keeps seeming like it’s about to take a turn that never comes, to show how Hammond’s un-democratic defense of our democracy is misguided.
I should add that the film ends on as bizarre a note as any random scene you'll find in the film (but no spoilers here!)

Ironically, once Roosevelt got into office and began pursuing a policy at odds with Hearst's values and interests (Hearst was particularly opposed to the New Deal, though this film is full of the president enacting such policies), Hearst turned on Roosevelt. (It’s been noted, that Hearst had a predilection for fascism, as this film amply demonstrates.)

Typical for this day and age, I came across message boards about this film where some posters tried to paint it as the product and fantasy of left- or right-wing propaganda/fantasy. In fact, as Murray notes, the movie is a “curious mix of left-wing piety and right-wing law-and-order rhetoric.” Regardless, it's good to know that both sides think the movie's premise went a little too far!


People can read into it what they like, but the film essentially presents the case for enacting totalitarian rule in the United States—a message that this film ultimately fails miserably at since every act by Hammond and endorsed by Hearst and the film's makers, are all clearcut violations of the Constitution and due process, let alone American tradition, values and democracy. (I should add that the filmmakers further unwittingly undercut Hammond by making his transformation the result of a visit from an angel, which in my mind calls into question his very sanity and fitness for office. A friend also reminded me that it's subtly implied in the film that Hammond has been actually "possessed" by the angel, which still isn't very comforting given the outcome.)

Fortunately, as reaction to the film even in its day demonstrates, people were troubled and appalled with the film's message. At the same time, though unintended, the film exposes the dark side of populism. As history has continued to show (and as we still see today), in times of fear and uncertainty, people the world over—even people of influence like Hearst—are often willing to give up some freedoms and allow a strongman to rule—until, of course, that dictator's promises do not pan out or make things worse. By then, however, it's often too late.


NOTE: The TCM website notes that the film will be aired next on April 6, 2017 at 7:45 a.m.


Wednesday, January 18, 2017

End of an Era

Having written previously about my workhorse yet sporty '93 Mazda MX-3 that I sold back in 2010 after I upgraded to a roomier, sporty family sedan, I thought it fitting to write a tribute to my wife's 1995 Mazda MX-5 (or, as it is more commonly known, the Miata), which we finally sold earlier this week with a little more than 108,000 miles over 21 years!

The Miata was introduced in 1989 and basically revived the roadster, continuing in the tradition of the MG and Triumph Spitfire. My then-girlfriend (now wife) purchased the Miata in 1995, replacing another convertible, a white VW rabbit.

As one can imagine, it was a fun, zippy car, perfect of course for the Southern California lifestyle where we live. We took many memorable, enjoyable trips in it, which included taking it to the mountains for a ski trip (I recall we even had to put chains on it) and, one new year's, to Las Vegas.

(On that trip, we drove back to L.A. from Vegas on New Year's Day—after watching the Rose Bowl game at a casino—and got caught in awful traffic on the drive back through the desert. We decided to stop at a hotel at the Nevada-California state line and agreed that if a room wasn't too expensive, we'd stay the night. As it turned out, many people thought the same thing and we were fortunate to get the second-to-last room available. (We know this because the couple on the elevator with us told us they got the last room, right after us!) When we turned on the news in our hotel room, we learned the trip back to L.A. was taking 7 hours, double the normal time! The next morning, we returned to L.A. on a fairly open road.)

My wife and I married in 2000 and had our first child in 2001—shortly after, we purchased a more sensible family car, a Subaru Forester, which became my wife's primary vehicle. The Miata became a third "pleasure" vehicle—to keep it running well, I actually commuted in it to work one or two times a week for many years. When I purchased my own new vehicle in 2010, the Miata no longer got driven as much. (As you can see, we keep our cars for a long time!)

Since the Miata was a third car that we didn't have space in the garage for, we parked the Miata on the street, where the combination of direct sunlight and debris from trees played havoc with the finish. It cleaned up nicely, but after a wash, it only stayed that way for a few days. Over time, the back plastic window turned gritty (I believe current models have glass windows) and the back window zipper became difficult, which discouraged us from driving with the top down.

In fact, for the past several months, it's been sitting in our mechanic's garage—though the engine was actually still running well, I had to take it in because it began backfiring and probably needed to have the timing adjusted. I told the mechanic there was no urgency since it was a third car that we no longer drove that much and he took me at my word—I would periodically check in and he assured me he was looking at it!

At this point, I started mentioning to my wife that it was probably time for us to let the Miata go—my wife agreed, but she joked she still needed to go through the grieving process. It was her dream car.

In any case, after making the decision to purchase a new car for my wife to replace the Subaru, we agreed it was also finally time to get rid of the Miata as well. By then the battery was dead since it had been sitting at the mechanic's for so long, but the mechanic kindly agreed to let me sell it from his lot.

It says a lot for the legacy of the car that I sold it inside of three hours, having received a lot of offers within minutes of posting it on Craigslist (despite the fact that I was upfront about how much work it needed and that it wasn't even running yet due to the dead batter!) I ended up selling it to an individual who actually was rebuilding a Miata and already had a '94 and '96 model.

I'm sure we have pictures somewhere of the car back in the day, but the ones accompanying this post are the ones I took on the day I sold it for the Craiglist posting.

Postscript: Regarding my old MX-3—I sold it back in 2010 with 250,000 miles on it and got an email from the buyer about 6 months ago who told me he was still driving and enjoying it!!