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Flick Clique: March 4-10

Bits ‘n pieces on the films I watched the week before: Anastasia (1956; *** of five), seen just before Netflix streaming dropped it, plushly produced, moribund, talky, liked Ingrid, loved Helen Hayes. Classe Tous Risques (1960; ****), absorbing French film noir, gritty, realistic. Bag It (2010; ****), good documentary with a smug protagonist, my DVD Talk review goes into it a whole lot more.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008). For our new blu-ray player, I wanted to get something special to try it out. I ended up buying Criterion’s The Curious Case of Bemjamin Button for several reasons: I like David Fincher’s films, and this particular one I haven’t yet seen; it was the only used Criterion blu at our local used CD/DVD/everything else store; it had a ton of interesting-looking extras; what better way to break in the blu than a recent, gorgeously photographed (but somewhat flawed) film? Even though it was long and overproduced, I ended up being absorbed by this unwieldy beast of a film. I think what makes it work is Fincher’s attention to detail, and he does wring out some excellent work from Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett and Taraji P. Henson. The aging effects makeup varies wildly from obvious to subtle, and the CGI with an elderly-looking Pitt’s face plastered on small, hobbled bodies is still pretty amazing. Overall, the film is more a series of vignettes than a cohesive whole, with some parts working beautifully although not quite fitting in (the backwards clock saga) and others seeming stagy and overwrought – like the framing scenes with a dying Cate dealing with adult daughter Julia Ormond in a hospital as a hurricane approaches. These scenes came across like little more than a classy version of The Notebook, but where The Notebook is a trashy little paperback whose cover sports raised gold lettering, Benjamin is a two-ton coffee table book chockablock full of visually resplendent images. I’m glad I got this, and the making-of stuff is even more fascinating than the final product.
Fresh (2009). Workmanlike documentary is something of an adjunct to the better-made Food, Inc. Whereas Food, Inc. explores the commodification of America’s agriculture and the shocking ways our food is processed, packaged, subsidized and consumed, Fresh turns a more optimistic eye towards organic farming and the ways in which the enterprising few are bucking the system. I though it was pretty good, with some rather sad footage of industrial farms contrasted with more bucolic chickens, cows, etc. enjoying themselves. Although it’s a noble enterprise, certain parts feel second-hand (re-employing several of Food, Inc.‘s talking heads) and despite its short length it feels padded out. I will have a more comprehensive review posted at DVD Talk this week.
Invictus (2009). Put this on my Netflix queue eons ago because — we saw the giant-sized poster in Burbank? Or perhaps I wanted to see Matt Damon bulked-up and wearing short shorts? Whatever the reason, we sat through this cliché-ridden living history/inspirational sports story this weekend. I tend to run hot and cold with the Clint Eastwood films. Some of the stuff he’s directed has been absorbing although strangely clinical (Changeling), or beautifully mounted and kinda ponderous (Letters from Iwo Jima). Invictus is probably the worst Clint flick I’ve seen. In telling the story of Nelson Mandela’s efforts to boost South Africa’s national morale by gently guiding the country’s rugby team (coached by a befuddled-looking Damon) to victory, it labors to be both a historic narrative and a rousing sports flick and fails on both counts. He gets some decent performances from Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon; the main problem is a dull script filled with shallowly defined characters (racist bodyguards, petulant rugby players, etc.) and interminable game scenes that are a cipher to anyone who doesn’t know rugby. As far as I can tell, rugby is a sexy, manly sport — certainly someone could make a good movie out of that (including locker room/shower footage).
Riding on Air (1937). Immediately after finishing Benjamin Button, I was yearning for something light, fun and old – so I dug out this hoary RKO b-flick from my cheapo public domain comedies DVD set. Riding on Air was one of the first films the athletic, cavern-mouthed Joe E. Brown did after concluding his stretch as a top Warner Bros. comedy star. Here, Brown plays Elmer Lane, a small town newspaper editor/amateur aviator whose (somewhat obnoxious) pursuit of the latest scoop lands him in trouble with bootlegging criminals. Rather dumb, forgettable film with an inscrutable plot. In his Warner comedies, I always found Brown enjoyable in a goofy way (Alibi Ike is perhaps the best); this film demonstrates what a difference good scripts and a competent production make. Leading lady Florence Rice is pleasant, otherwise this is recommended only for Joe E. Brown fanatics (are there any?).
Summer Hours (2008). Gently paced slice-of-life familial drama of an aged French woman (Edith Scob) who regularly invites her grown children and their offspring for gatherings at the country estate owned by her late uncle, a famous artist. Having just celebrated her 75th birthday, she gets together with her eldest son Frédéric (Charles Berling) to talk about how to deal with her estate and the valuable art/furniture it holds after she passes on. Frédéric begs off the discussion. When the woman subsequently dies, Frédéric is committed to keeping the collection and estate in the family. His decidedly less sentimental siblings Adrienne (Juliette Binoche) and Jérémie (Jérémie Renier) have a more realistic outlook, however, which ultimately prevails. Subtle, nicely acted film. This isn’t a film where a lot of exciting stuff happens (Frédéric’s daughter getting busted for pot possession is probably the most drama-filled moment), but it does deal sensitively and realistically with what likely happens in a lot of families. It’s also a great film about the beauty of objects and the perceptions that they hold – this is nicely illustrated in the scene where the old woman’s longtime housekeeper decides to keep one humble memento of her employer – a hand-blown glass vase which, unbeknownst to her, is a valuable antique.

Weekly Mishmash: April 4-10

Breakin’ (1984). This breakdance opus, a product of the über-’80s cheese factory Cannon Films, was the other netting of our free Showtime weekend. Strangely enough, this and Superhero Movie both star Christopher McDonald, seen here twenty-plus years younger and several pounds thinner as a Hollywood agent with a special interest in a comely dancer (Lucinda Dickey) and her two streetwise, popping and locking buddies (Adolfo “Shabba-Doo” Quinones and Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers). OK, this is one crappily made movie bubbling over with scenes that stretch the credibility of even the showbiz la-la land it’s presenting, but as a period piece it’s fascinating stuff. The great soundtrack of high ’80s electro-funk almost made me forget how stilted the acting was. Almost. Seeing this sorta makes me wish that Turner Classic Movies would do a Cannon/Golan & Globus retrospective. Yeah, dream on.

An Education (2009). The first of what turned out to be two films centering around foolish women blinded by love. In An Education, Carey Mulligan’s preternaturally smart London teenager falls for an older man (Peter Sarsgaard) who introduces her to a world of sophistication she’d previously only dreamed of. More than anything else, this film triumphs in recreating the society and atmosphere of 1961 London. Nick Hornby’s sharp screenplay really underscores that the only options for young women back then were to either marry young or study laboriously for a career and spinsterhood. Mulligan was very good, Sarsgaard couldn’t quite get a Brit accent right, and the gorgeous duo of Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike couldn’t be more perfectly cast as (respectively) the business partner of the Sarsgaard character and his dim but glamorous girlfriend.
poster_letterwomanLetter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Here it is, one of those lost classics I’ve been wanting to see for twenty years. I was so excited to see it on the TCM schedule this month, and I must have not been alone since Robert Osborn noted in his intro that it was the most requested film from TCM viewers. Despite having a plotline that looks annoyingly quaint and un-p.c. on paper, this is one of the great romantic films of all time. In her best performance, Joan Fontaine plays a meek woman who falls for a composer (Louis Jordan) in circa 1900 Vienna. As the years go by, what was a forgotten fling for him becomes a consuming passion for her. Fontaine’s weird passivity and stalkerish behavior might be worthy of a good slap if the film didn’t treat the character with utmost nobility. Indeed, the woman has courage in her convictions and she winds up more admirable than the shallow Jordan. Mostly what I loved about this movie was the dreamy and gorgeously photographed atmosphere conjured up by director Max Ophuls (whose acclaimed European films La Ronde and Lola Montes I found insufferably twee) working on one of his few U.S. studio projects. Some scenes, such as when Fontaine and Jordan discuss their most cherished memories on a fake train, are so impeccably staged that one could get lost in them.
album_lauranyroLaura Nyro & LaBelle — Gonna Take A Miracle. My last eMusic album of the month was this 1971 collaboration that’s like an organic melding of soul and singer-songwriting. Laura Nyro’s voice is a bit of an acquired taste, but this set of covers with funky girl trio LaBelle and Philly soul producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff is an ingratiating listen. Hearing the album is like sitting in on a casual afternoon jam session with lots of finger popping and harmonizing voices. Nyro approaches the material nostalgically, even if the songs aren’t that old (one, “The Bells” by the Originals, hadn’t even been out a year by the time Nyro got to it). With the exception of a shrill and repetitive “Nowhere To Run,” this is an excellent listen.
The Savages (2007). Laura Linney and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as pseudo-intellectual siblings attempting to cope with their ailing father. This film takes on a weird, cartoony tone in its first few scenes, portraying Sun City, Arizona as an oblivious suburb straight out of Edward Scissorhands (it isn’t really that way, although the streets full of pebbled lawns are really something to see). When the scenery shifts to a wintery upstate New York, however, the film takes off with quality performances by the two leads. Elder care isn’t addressed very often in movies, and here it’s addressed with realism and biting humor. Good film.

Films of the Decade

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Looking through the new films seen over the past decade, I’ve rounded up a dozen as my particular favorites. A great decade for those with the vision to go outside the norm. — with that thought I wish you all a great 2010. In alphabetical order, and with no emphasis on one over the other:
Amores Perros (Love’s A Bitch) (2000) and Y Tu Mama Tambien (2002). Besides actor Gael García Bernal, the emergence of great Latin filmmaking in the ’00s is what unites these two ambitious dramas. The gritty Amores Perros is one of the best examples of the “diverse characters thrown together” genre, and Y Tu Mama is an unforgettable story of two friends and the memorable road trip they shared. Muy bien to them both.
4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Speaking of unforgettable — who would’ve thunk that the country Romania would produce something this uniformly top-notch? Deliberately paced, beautifully made and with a fantastic performance from actress Anamaria Marinca.
In the Mood for Love (2001). Wong Kar Wai presents an achingly beautiful tale of unrequited love in ’60s Hong Kong. Probably the most gorgeously photographed movie of the decade, and Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung make a celluloid couple for the ages.
Mulholland Dr. (2001). A trip, in the best sense of the word. Like David Lynch took 20th century pop culture and mashed it up into a single long, dreamlike reverie.
Spirited Away (2001). Alice in Wonderland filtered through a distinctly Asian sensibility. Only Hayao Miyazaki could accomplish something this visually audacious.
28 Days Later (2002). The gold standard for zombie movies — Danny Boyle envelopes the viewer in a terror that only lets up at the (blessedly peaceful) ending.
United 93 (2006). From fictional terror to real terror. I wasn’t sure about a film examining the events of September 11th so soon, but as far as gripping docudramas go this one was without equal.
WALL•E (2008) and Up (2009). Make no mistake — the 2000s were Pixar’s decade. WALL•E and Up go to touching, warm places that I never dreamed computer animation could go, something almost unheard of in mainstream Hollywood.
Yi Yi (2000). Long, utterly absorbing drama about various generations in a contemporary Taiwanese family. The story is so simple and drama-free, which is probably what makes it one of the greats.
Zodiac (2007). David Fincher’s untraditional serial killer film. Mesmerizing.

My other favorite films of the aughts are classified below, with no further explanation.
Oscar Bait: Crash, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, Flags of Our Fathers, Milk.
British: Shaun of the Dead, Iris, Gosford Park, Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit, Casino Royale.
German: The Lives of Others, The Princess and the Warrior.
Spanish/South American: Nine Queens, The Devil’s Backbone.
Asian: Infernal Affairs, Lust, Caution, Nobody Knows.
Retro: The Man Who Wasn’t There, Far from Heaven.
Musicals: Sweeney Todd, Dreamgirls, Chicago, Moulin Rouge.
More Pixar: The Incredibles, Ratatouille.
Documentaries: Capturing the Friedmans, In the Realms of the Unreal, The Bridge, Show Business: The Road To Broadway, Winged Migration.
Indie: Chuck & Buck.
Scary: Children of Men, Cloverfield, Monster, Dawn of the Dead.
Weird: Donnie Darko, Oldboy, Requiem for a Dream.

Weekly Mishmash: November 1-7

American Experience: The Civilian Conservation Corps (PBS). I’m a bit of an American Experience junkie, seeking it out despite our local PBS affiliate running the documentary series on a strange, sporadic schedule. Lately, they’ve been having seasons based on one central theme — last year the subject was presidents (yawn), and this year focuses on the 1930s. The program on the Civilian Conservation Corps was a typically fascinating outing, giving context to what was an overlooked facet of Roosevelt’s New Deal program. The only problem I had was with my local PBS station running this widescreen program on their analog feed with the right and left edges cut off. Having it this way results in a lot of screen text being lopped off and a generally sloppy, unprofessional look. I have no idea why they don’t run the show letterboxed — are they afraid of grumpy old viewers complaining about the black bars? Our station does this with American Experience, Frontline and several other shows, making the issue just annoying enough for me to skip giving them money during all their never-ending pledge breaks.
The Crash (1931). This obscure melodrama made up part of Turner Classic Movie’s monthlong Great Depression film festival. I recorded it mostly for star Ruth Chatterton. “Fussy” would be the best word to describe the stage-trained Miss Chatterton’s acting style, and in that respect she pulls out all the stops in this domestic drama in which she plays a pampered socialite reacting to the devastating 1929 stock market crash. The way the film deals with the consequences of greed is interesting, but it’s hampered by stagey direction and lots of talky scenes that don’t add anything noteworthy to the proceedings. The only positive things I gleaned from the film is that TCM’s print was gorgeously preserved, and Chatterton has a nice rapport with her leading man, dull George Brent (they were married at the time).
Sinéad O’Connor — I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. $1.50 thrift store buy. Who doesn’t remember when Sinéad O’Connor unexpectedly topped the pop charts with “Nothing Compares 2 U”? The very idea of a feisty Irish chick with a chip on her shoulder and nothing on her scalp having a #1 hit is mind boggling, but it did happen in the Spring of 1990. I hadn’t heard I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got since the CD got stolen from my collection around 1993, so hearing it again was a special treat. Aside from “The Emperor’s New Clothes” and “Jump in the River,” the album is made up of introspective songs that hold up surprisingly well (maybe not so much the overlong a cappella title track, but that’s easily skipped in the end). O’Connor still seems like a bundle of contradictions (how can a feminist folkie also worship misogynistic rappers?), but her voice was startlingly fresh for someone so young. If only she lived up to the promise of her first two albums.
Ordinary People (1980). It had been a few decades since I’d last seen this one. Still good, and Mary Tyler Moore makes for a potent Ice Queen of a mother (it’s hard to remember how different that casting was in 1980). Although it didn’t deserve stealing the Best Picture Oscar away from Raging Bull, I was taken aback by how raw and emotional a movie this still is.
Tokyo Zombie (2005). Titling a movie with something awesome like Tokyo Zombie creates unrealistic expectations in me. I was expecting a trashy good time, but this one fell short in all areas. In near future Tokyo, on working-class misfit is training the other to be a judo fighter. The two are just fooling around when it is revealed that the giant mountain of trash that people have been dumping human corpses on is creating standard-issue zombies. Just when the “fleeing from zombies” theme is established, the film takes a bizarre turn five years into the future with the richest surviving humans living in a huge apartment complex/sanctuary — with the remaining non-zombies serving as slaves and entertainment. I think the filmmakers were trying for a crazy, uninhibited feel similar to Kung Fu Hustle here, but they bit off more undead flesh than they could chew. Mostly it was overlong and shockingly chintzy — homophobic, too.

WDW Day Two: Animal Kingdom

Thursday, April 17th 2008 was the day me and my parents explored Disney’s Animal Kindgom. Although we got off to a late start due to a mysteriously un-set alarm, it ended up being very eventful full day and we wound up doing everything we set out to do. After a filling breakfast at the downtown Kissimmee Denny’s, we took the 10:30 a.m. shuttle into Walt Disney World. Our first priority upon entering AK was getting the “forgotten tickets” issue from the day before resolved. Luckily the employee we talked to cheerfully issued us refunds for the lost day on our three-day passes — Jonathan in Animal Kingdom Guest Relations, thank you very much for saving us a lot of heartache!

Dinosaur Ride Photo, Disney’s Animal KingdomAlthough we entered Animal Kingdom later than anticipated, that turned out to be all right since I intended to skip some of the more popular attractions and concentrate more on exploring the various areas. The first place we hit was the popular and relatively new Expedition Everest roller coaster, in order to secure Fastpasses for later in the day. This involved walking through the Asian area of the park, which was beautifully themed to look like a crumbling Asian villiage in the Himalayas. It was even hot, humid and crowded — exactly like the real Asia! We then walked to the silly Dinoland U.S.A. area to ride on the Dinosaur attraction. The vehicles for this bumpy ride were modeled on the oversized jeeps in Disneyland’s Indiana Jones ride, only this time you have to travel back in time to retrieve a dinosaur. It was frenetic and fun, a bit on the short side, and the many areas where riders are plunged into complete darkness made me even more uncomfortable than the huge dinosaurs that keep popping out at you. My parents had a blast. Once the ride was over, I bought one of those overpriced photos that they sell you at the end. In the photo, I’m the goofy looking guy sitting upper left.

Since trumped-up carnival rides don’t interest me much, we didn’t explore the rest of Dinoland, USA. Instead, we hightailed it back to Asia and went through an animal exhibit called the Maharajah Jungle Trek. What was interesting about this part weren’t so much the animals (much of whom were sleeping or hiding) but the gorgeous theming of the trail. It was made to look like an ancient temple with statuary and crumbling walls covered in murals. The other guests seemed especially annoying, elbowing their way to find the best viewing spots, but I enjoyed snapping pictures of things others were basically ignoring. That done, we went down the Asian walkway to catch the park’s daily Flights of Wonder bird show. At this point I noticed how the park, nicely designed as it was, was not made to handle high-capacity crowds very efficiently. Smaller than usual walkways, humidity-enhancing extra vegetation, and a crucial lack of shade add up to an unpleasant experience. Luckily we found a small respite at Flights of Wonder. This was a cute ‘n corny comedy show with a wide variety of birds, wrapped up in a superficial conservation message (something that pops up often at AK). Still in Asia, we took a break at the Coke stand which (yet again) was subject to some amazing theming.

Newly hydrated, we decided to trek over to the other side of the park to catch the Festival of the Lion King show. This was an impressive and grandly entertaining spectacle with a huge, energetic cast. If the show wasn’t quite Broadway caliber, it does beat anything seen on a cruise ship — and the family audience ate it up. I captured a bit of the show where huge floats get rolled out and posted it on flickr.

After this we decided to explore the area around the park’s “weenie”, the Tree of Life. Though the tree isn’t an attraction per se, several understated animal habitats and trails snake around the tree’s base. The parents and I spent a long time just gawking at the tree itself, which is intricately carved with animals in its base. A cast member walked by and aptly remarked on how guests just can’t stop looking at it. Later on, mom and dad searched for a guidebook on the carvings — in vain. Apparently Disney can stock about a million pieces of “Princess” merchandise in their shops, but no simple Tree of Life guidebook exists!

It was getting time to head back to Asia to honor our Expedition Everest fastpasses. This attraction definitely lives up to its “E Ticket” status. We ended up getting on in less than five minutes, with me and dad sitting in the front row of our runaway train. This was a quick and bone-rattling ride, climaxing in a view of an animatronic Yeti (which buzzed by too fast for me to really notice it). We had an intense time, and at the peak of the ride I had some time to look out and marvel at how massive the Walt Disney World property is — acres and acres of trees with bits of hotels and such in the distance.

With a 3:00 p.m. parade about to rumble through the park, I decided to get to AK’s African section to find out if we could get fastpasses for the park’s other E-ticket, Kiliminjaro Safaris. It turned out the attraction ran out of fastpasses for the day, so we just decided to go on it anyway. The other alternative was trucking to the park’s other side to see the last daily performance of the Finding Nemo show. We decided to stay put, a good decision since the queue was at most about 15 minutes long (just long enough to call Christopher at work!). The safari was tons of fun. I’d heard that it was better to catch this ride earlier in the day when the animals were more likely to be active, but that turned out to be no problem at all. There were dozens of animals out and I snapped a ton of photos. This was basically a Disneyfied African safari with a throwaway storyline relating to poachers. Me and my parents agreed it was the highlight of the day. After this we explored the Pangani Forest Exploration Trail, which does for African critters what the Maharajah Trek did for Asian creatures. I thought this one was more enjoyable and better put together than the Asian trail, even if the theming wasn’t quite as strong.

The day was winding down and there really weren’t any other rides I was interested in, so we got a little (disappointing) shopping in and departed the park a half hour before its 7:00 p.m. closing. I always wanted to see the nearby Animal Kingdom Lodge, so we decided to catch a convenient bus over there for some dinner. The main building opens up to a gorgeously designed vaulted lobby with African accents everywhere (even on the floor!). I was hoping to see the fake savanna which hotel guests can see from their room balconies, but when we made our way outside only a huge and noisy pool could be found. This was one of the few times I wished I’d planned better, since we could have made early reservations for the lodge’s delicious looking African buffet Boma. Instead, we made our way to the cheaper counter service restaurant near the pool and had to make due with typical burgers and fries. It was here that I noticed most of the guests were either British or South African. All in all, Animal Kingdom Lodge was a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to stay there (too many kids).

Since the shuttle back to the hotel wasn’t due for a couple of hours, we did some further exploring, taking a bus from AK Lodge to a bustling Magic Kingdom. I wanted to check out the super luxe Grand Floridian Resort, so we waited for a boat ride. In a bit of bad timing, a loud and obnoxious white trash woman got in line behind us and started arguing with her teenage daughter. We ducked out and tried to take a monorail to the resort, but there weren’t any available at the time. Trudging back to the boat dock, we found that obnoxious white trash woman left on the previous boat (or maybe she was fed to the alligators). Finally we got onto a much quieter boat; it was an excellent ride. On the Grand Floridian: what a beautiful resort. This is definitely where I’d want to stay if I won the lottery. All white buildings facing quiet courtyards, done up in understated faux turn-of-the-century elegance. Like the AK Lodge, the Grand Floridian opens up to a huge and impressive lobby filled with sitting areas containing overstuffed chairs and soft lighting. We made our way up to the second floor lounge to enjoy drinks while a live band played Disney tunes in jazzy arrangements. Seeing a couple dressed in evening attire, my mom at first was hesitant to go in with us looking like sweaty, dirty tourists — but she relented and we had a good, relaxing time. I sipped on my first Mai Tai, one of the best drinks I ever had. The resort was wonderful, and even more importantly it was a nice break from the crowded family-energetic atmosphere everywhere else in WDW. The visit was a pleasant capper to the evening and left us rested for the bus shuttle ride back to our comparatively spartan hotel. Next stop: The Magic Kingdom.

Animal Kingdom photo montage

WDW Day One 1/2: Epcot World Showcase

Wednesday I outlined our day at Future World in Walt Disney World’s Epcot. Today I look at our afternoon/evening at the other side of Epcot, World Showcase. This was an inspiring and fun-packed segment of the trip and in a way it made up for the small disappointments in Future World. The W.S. pavilions, each devoted to a specific country, have a timeless appeal and luckily they haven’t been as “Disneyfied” as the rest of Epcot.

We set off by exploring the pavilions in counter-clockwise order around the large lagoon in which they were situated. This meant encountering Mexico first, but before that we needed to hightail it to Norway to get Fastpasses for that pavilion’s Maestrom boat ride. After that (and a bathroom break), it was time to check out Mexico. Unlike other pavilions, Mexico is mostly situated indoors in a gorgeously fake environment meant to be evocative of a remote village surrounded by volcanic mountains. A restaurant patio is situated near an indoor lagoon in which diners can watch people riding the pavilion’s boat attraction, Gran Fiesta Tour. This was a neat effect, reminding me of the Pirates of the Caribbean/Blue Bayou setup in Disneyland. Unfortunately at the time we were there it was both crowded and noisy (a live mariachi band was playing), so we quickly made our way to the boat ride queue. Gran Fiesta Tour is another WDW ride that recently underwent a renovation, this time in the form of an overlay with animated sequences starring The Three Caballeros (only one of whom is Mexican). Although it isn’t earth-shatteringly great, it was a pleasant diversion which I enjoyed a lot more than I thought. Tableau with dancing dolls were lively and fun, and the animated sequences weren’t too intrusive.

Onward to Norway — for some reason, I ended up spending more time at this pavilion than any other (or so it seemed). We needed to kill some time before the fastpasses took effect, so we took in a nice little exhibit on Vikings in the reproduction stave church. At some point my parents decided to relax with beer and wine in the café, which annoyed me since it was only an hour before our dinner reservations. The Maelstrom boat ride was also fun, even if it’s less about Norway than about passing a bunch of scary trolls in a big Viking ship. The ride ends with making guests wait to enter a theater showing a travelogue film. Upon being released, most of the people we were with bolted for the exit. After sitting for another five minutes with no film showing up, we did the same thing.

The next pavilion on our tour was China. For the Flower & Garden Fest, this pavilion was decorated with cool little seed topiaries depicting the animals of the Chinese New Year. Since it closing in on dinnertime, we just milled around browsing the shops. Although the Beijing Olympic mascot merchandise was tempting, I decided to buy something cheaper — a lovely blue silk shoulder purse. I have no idea what I could use it for:

WDW souvenir Chinese silk bag

I also bought a bag of a Chinese candy called White Rabbit (pictured further below), which is kind of like a subtly sweet vanilla Tootsie Roll wrapped in edible rice paper. Ever the weird candy connoisseur, I was hoping to get a wide variety of goodies from around the World, but alas I only ended up with stuff from China and Japan.

The afternoon sun was setting, almost time for our 5:00 p.m. dinner reservations in the Germany pavilion next door. My dad picked out the Biergarten, which coincidentally was one of my top choices since I love German food. Biergarten is a buffet-style eatery with live music and communal seating with eight to a table. I was looking forward to meeting the guests we’d be seated with, but unfortunately they were a dud. They didn’t speak a word to us or even look in our direction! (And, no, they weren’t a foreign tourist family.) Luckily the restaurant made up for that in every other department. Our server was gracious and eager to talk about her hometown of Frankfurt, and the food was deliciously filling. I had (among many other dishes) two schnitzels with hunter sauce and two apple strudels for dessert. Waddling out of the restaurant, we browsed some of the German shops. I was so hoping to find some of my favorite chewy raspberry candies in the candy shop, but alas they had mostly gummy bears.

Italy was next on the agenda, and since that pavilion has no attraction it was a brief visit. We only spent about five minutes there, but I got some good photos of the pavilion’s faux Renaissance architecture. At this point, the sun was setting and we bolted to America for another bathroom break. A viewing of the audio-animatronic extravaganza The American Adventure was to be in store, but the next showing wasn’t starting for at least a half hour.

While mom waited in the pavilion, dad and I took a quick trip next door to Japan. It was beautifully crafted with a pagoda and nice gardens. I checked out the Mitsukoshi department store, hoping to find some cool toys — maybe a Kubrick Disney action figure or some hip Oswald the Lucky Rabbit branded stuff? Unfortunately, they had a bunch of Hello Kitty, Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh merchandise that’s already familiar to most Americans. Exploring further, I did find a couple of things to get. One was this wonderful cat-shaped teacup which I bought for Christopher:

Japanese yellow cat teacup

In the candy section, several bags of a gummies made by a company called Kasugai caught my eye. These were in a dizzying array of flavors; I picked out a pineapple one. What a treat — very flavorful and delicious!

Epcot Candy

After my dad and I breezed quickly through a cool little exhibit on vintage Japanese tin toys (boy, I wish I could’ve stayed longer), we went back to the American Adventure to meet up with mom. This was a beautifully mounted and super-corny show hosted by audio animatronic versions of Ben Franklin and Mark Twain. Things got so sugarcoated and patriotic that I almost felt guilty that I was moved by the ending. This is one of the best shows in WDW from an imagineering standpoint — the craftsmanship on display is top-notch.

By the time the show let out, it was nearing the end of the day and the showing of Epcot’s nightly IllumiNations fireworks display. Five minutes before starting time, we managed to snag a great viewing spot on the island located between the French and British pavilions. We found some empty spots on the stairs and it was nice just to get off our feet. The show was beautiful, although I was a teensy bit disappointed given the hype I’d previously read. Mostly it’s lots and lots of fireworks — beautiful, awe-inspiring fireworks, but fireworks nonetheless.

With the closing of IllumiNations it was closing time on our Epcot day. Unfortunately we never had time to visit the Morocco, France, United Kingdom and Canada pavilions, but I did get to look at the buildings on the crowded walk out of World Showcase. Trudging to the monorail ride back to the WDW transportation hub, I was impressed with the efficiency Disney has to move thousands of bodies where they want to go in a timely manner. Everybody got out in a timely manner with little jostling or stress. We returned to the hotel room exhausted but happy that we had a first day to remember. Tomorrow we’d be back on our way to Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park.