Sunday, August 28, 2011

The wave has arrived at Disney's Aulani!

The day had finally arrived. Aulani, a Disney Resort and Spa within the Ko Olina resort has opened its doors to the public. It was just a little shy of four years passing since the project was announced in October 2007. I had gone out and shot video of the plot of land when it was barren, untouched ground. Now Phase I has opened on the 21 acre lot located on the Koloha lagoon within Ko Olina. I don't think I could have a bigger smile on my face as I walked through and saw the final product, that is after I picked my jaw up off the floor from all the beauty and grandeur displayed.

Let me say right off the bat that even though I had a long day, I still didn't get done all that I wanted to do. Not including travel time I was there for just shy of twelve hours. I didn't even sit down to eat. I was walking around the majority of the day taking a ton of pictures, talking to cast members and other visitors. I had my list of questions and I did ask some along the way, but lost my way as I kept discovering new items, new detail and flourishes and meeting people. I'll need to go back out for more exploration.

Female greeter costume
When I had been in Aulani two weeks earlier, the product still have finishing touches that needed to be used but none of the cast members were in costume. As I turned into the property from the sidewalk there were three new kii at the base of the taro patches. Walking up the drive way into the porte-cochere area, it was bustling with activity. As I walked into Maka'ala, the bellmen and greeters have costumes that are just stunning. The colors, patterns are silhouettes create an atmosphere that just blends perfectly with the whole look and feel of your entrance into the Aulani experience. They were working in an area that also had some new kii added. To me, all the new kii were a different style than what you would find over on the Big Island at Puuhonua O Honaunau but they still looked amazing.

At Kelepa's, the general store the greeters there were welcoming people with "E komo mai" meaning "come on in!"and as guests were leaving saying "a hui hou" meaning "until we meet again". It was touches like this that as a long time resident of Hawaii I could identify with in addition to having the background from back in the day as a former cast member and being an active part of the Disney fan community and podcaster.

Over the course of the day as I turned around, talked to people, explored visually making sure to look both up and down and straight ahead, I kept saying "oh" and "ahh" and "that's cool" to myself. This happened all day. The executive designer for Aulani is Joe Rohde. I spotted him around the resort but he was usually doing some sort of press. At one point I had sat down to breath and he walked past me as he exited the building. I stopped him, shook his hand and thanked him for what he's done with the project. He acknowledged my thanks and suggested that I talk to some of the Hawaiians and see how they feel.

I did as Joe suggested and did talk to a number of cast members and specifically asked them how they thought the culture was being represented. They all had positive things to say. In particular I had the opportunity to talk with Nani. We talked for longer than I talked with others. It was a good conversation as we discussed the Hawaiian language and a bit of its history and use and how Disney went about asking advisers how can they represent Hawaii as compared to Disney saying this is how we want to represent it. If you're thinking Polynesian Pop and the tiki culture like the Polynesian Resort at Walt Disney World, you won't find that here.

From what I could see on this trip, Disney is upping their game significantly. I saw things here that I hadn't seen at other Disney resorts in both resort details and in the cast members. Steve Eng should be complimented for what he's been able to do with the training. As I talked to the CMs, their training was often brought up as a topic. One aspect I noticed was that many more of the cast members at Aulani as I passed them acknowledged me. Some with nods, but many, many more with verbal greetings. At one point I apparently planted myself where the CMs transition between on and back stage. During that time, almost every one that passed me greeted me whether I was looking at them or not and most of them gave the spoken greeting of "Aloha".

The only shortcoming that I could see was something that I'm not sure Disney could do anything about at this time. With the hiring of CMs for Aulani drawing from the local pool of talent, many of them have not been exposed to the Disney fandom and how a number of items relate to each other. Quick example, the Menehune Adventure: most of the CMs that I talked to didn't know about the Kim Possible World Showcase Adventure. Eventually as any mainland transfer CMs share with the local CMs and the local CMs have their own interactions with the fandom their personal expertise on all things Disney will expand to fill in some of those gaps.

The way that I would describe Aulani is that is not a Disney hotel with a touch of Hawaii. I feel that it is a Hawaiian hotel with a touch of Disney. Everyone involved with the project should be very happy with what they have done. Over the next weeks and months, I look forward to seeing how the resort changes, evolves and grows as they gather more experience working in their day to day operations and interactions with the guests and the community.

I'll do a future post about more specifics of the day including what I saw, did and more of the encounters of the day.

To see over 600 pictures from opening day, Click Here.

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Saturday, August 27, 2011

Movie Review: Our Idiot Brother

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Our Idiot Brother is one of those movies that you watch with your mouth open and think, "can this be real?" You find it very hard to suspend disbelief, but not in a fantasy kind of way. You have a set of characters in what appears to be the real world acting the way that most people do, except for maybe one person. That person would be the brother in question, Ned played by Paul Rudd.

Our Idiot Brother Movie Poster
Ned is calm, collected, very at easy and loves his dog named Willie Nelson. He looks like Jesus with the long hair and beard, is living on a farm and selling fruits, vegetables and weed. Well, he really didn't want to sell the weed to the cop, he just wanted to help out someone who was having a tough week, he was going to give it to the cop, but because he took the money that the cop offered he got busted and went to the joint for eight months although, he got off four months early for being the most cooperative prisoner. The way he acts and dresses you expect someone to come up to him and say "Dude, the 1960s called and it wants all its hippies and flower children back!"

After his release from the big house, he can't go back to the farm so he end up spending time living with his mom and sisters Miranda (Elizabeth Banks), Natalie (Zooey Deschanel), and Liz (Emily Mortimer). Miranda is a tightly wound wanna be reporter for Vanity Fair. Natalie is a care free spirit living with five other people including her girlfriend Cindy. Sister Liz is the dutiful wife to a documentary film maker Dylan (Steve Coogan) and mother of two.

With each stay Ned screws up something. Ned doesn't have a mean bone in his body, but he also doesn't have any filters and doesn't try to read any negativity into what he has been told or sees. That's why you sit there with your mouth wide open. Could you believe there is someone who wouldn't try to impose a darker or screwed up or judgmental meaning on what they have seen or heard? When he is given a lame excuse for a situation, Ned just accepts it as is, no questions asked. It's there where the suspension of disbelief becomes really hard to do. But on the other side of the coin, if Ned started to question and then accepted further lies you'd think differently of him. Then you'd really think he was stupid for not discerning the deceit instead of just having the blind faith to think the best of people and hope that they will give the same back to him. He even goes as far as praising his parole officer for the job the officer is doing. How's that for thinking well of people?

There were a couple of slow points in the movie and a little bit more risque comments and sights in the movie than I expected going in. It was rated R for sexual content including nudity, and for language throughout. It was also one of those comedy movies where the trailer shows you scenes or jokes that don't make it into the final 90 minute cut released to theaters. While maybe not worth the price of a movie ticket, it might be worth the DVD or Blu-ray rental because there was a bit of a lesson in there about one way to view life. When you watch, make sure you stay for the credits as a number of bloopers and out takes pass the time while the words scroll up on the side. I would think a future rental would probably have more of a blooper reel than what was included in the feature presentation.

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Sunday, August 21, 2011

Movie Review: Fright Night

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Slow weekend for choices at the movie theater. You have not one, but two remakes and one sequel. They all appealed about equally on my radar. Conan the Barbarian starring Hawaii born Jason Momoa and Spy Kids: All the Time in the World in 4D which had scratch and sniff cards were two of the three selections available but ultimately, Fright Night won out only because it had the first non 3D showing of the day.

Fright Night Movie Poster
It is a remake of a 1985 version of the same name. Set in Las Vegas, the action starts quickly and keeps moving along. Charlie Brewster (Anton Yelchin) is told by former long time best friend Ed (Christoper Mintz-Plasse - McLovin from Superbad) that his new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a vampire responsible for a slew of missing fellow classmates and families in the area. Charlie doesn't want to believe Ed, after all, what vampire would be named Jerry, right? Charlie quickly figures out that Ed was right after all and sets out to protect his stressed out real estate selling mother (Toni Collete) and knock out gorgeous girlfriend Amy (Imogen Poots) about the danger in the night.

To help with his crusade, Charlie heads over to the Hard Rock Hotel to get advise from a person in the know. This person is Peter Vincent (David Tennent, the tenth Dr over there on Dr Who), the magician whose show is vampire themed and called Fright Night. Of course some actor/magician would know everything you need to know to put down a hard core vampire with mean sharp nasty teeth, because we're dealing with reality here, not some nut job who just thinks they are a vampire.

The movie is rated R for bloody horror violence and language including some sexual reference. My theater must have thought it was scarey enough to keep the house lights on the dimmed but not dark mode for about 20 minutes into the 106 minute running time. Through the whole movie I only found myself startled twice by what happened on screen.

Nothing really ground breaking covered in the remake. The standard stakes, crosses, holy water, turning victims into vampires and belief all come up as well as giving permission for the unholy creature of the night to cross the threshold of your home. We did get answers for two variations of the crossing the threshold dilemma. The first, what if it's not your home and the second, what if you can't call the house a home anymore. Does the logic support the outcome?

Keeping with the genre, the big climatic battle scene seems to occur around the vampire's coffin just as the staking is to occur and right after the sun makes its daily graceful exit behind the horizon. The head vamps eyes pop open and the would be vampire killer is grabbed around the neck, hoisted off the ground and thrown across the room if it's an older tale with a castle, or to the other side of the basement if it's a more modern vampire story. The lived up to the standard. Although, I will give Fright Night a little credit. There was a nice twist on the standard vampire dispatch method to finally vanquish the bad guy.

So, while not a top shelf movie for the weekend, it fits solidly within the standard scope for telling the tale of a creature who needs to feed on human blood in order to remain alive. No day time walking, sparkly skin exposing, synthetic blood drinking, I just want to be your friend and marry you while not sucking your life force from two holes I put in your neck to be found here.

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Monday, August 15, 2011

Two weeks to Disney's Aulani opening!

Link for pictures at bottom of article

The date is almost here. The single digit countdown is rapidly approaching and the excitement level is heightening for a couple of different reasons.

Raising the attention level for the resort is the news that broke on Friday night, August 12. Jim Lewis, the head of the Disney Vacation Club, was released from the company. The rumor was that it had something to do with Aulani. Two weeks ago I had heard from a DVC owner with points in both Walt Disney World and Disneyland that points for Aulani could not be sold. They had heard a rumor that there was something with the Hawaii paperwork at issue.

When the news of the firing became public, Jason Garcia at the Orlando Sentinel tweeted asking what people knew. I went to the Aulani kiosk at Ala Moana Center and asked when the person would be able to sell Aulani points and the response was now. When asked about Jim Lewis, the same person responded they didn't know about it. Less than 24 hours later when I asked the person at the on-property DVC kiosk if I could purchase Aulani points, they replied "We can't comment on that." Jason published a report on Monday, August 15 and apparently the release was related to Aulani. Jason's story is here.

In any case, it's providing publicity for Aulani and bringing an awareness of the project and property that wasn't there before. In the long run, that will be a good thing!

My latest set of update photos contain pictures from inside the resort. I went out to the resort and the first thing that I noticed was a change in the entrance. It looks different. Apparently there have been changes to the entrance and Disney is now manning the gate to direct people to the resort.

Around the resort the green construction wall is down except for a small area in the back near the project management office.

Along the beach front they have new beach cabanas available for rental. They were so new that the wrapping still remained on the cover. Not far behind them were stacks of beach loungers that were piled high and chained up for the time being.

There were workers still all over the place finishing up to get the resort ready for the opening date. Something that I didn't know how they did was railings that looked like wood. There were workers putting a putty or clay around the metal pipe and then they were individually creating little pukas (holes) and creases. The clay was a gray color so I'm thinking that after it dries or cures that they will paint it before putting on some sort of sealer. Now I know how they do that!

Walking with a lot of other people into the resort there is something that the operations folks might want to look at. Along the left side of the lo'i (taro patch) is a path leading from the sidewalk up towards the main entrance. It dead ends at the top tier. I saw several people jumping the wall and walking through a garden area rather than walk around. A sign saying no exit or putting a couple of stairs to allow an exit might be a valuable addition.

Walking into the lobby, Maka'ala, was a feeling that I can't fully describe. Here I was walking into a location that I filmed four years previously that was nothing but a vacant lot of land. I was shaking with excitement. I had a huge smile on my face. Here it was, one of my most favorite passions being materialized right there, right in front of my eyes, right under my feet. Just on the other side of the lobby out in Waikolohe Valley, Mickey Mouse was greeting people who were previewing the facility. Disney had come to me in Hawaii instead of me having to move to Orlando or Anaheim!

I walked around and was amazed at the details I saw. The calabashes, the art, the plants, the background music. At one point I did glimpse Joe Rohde. He was sitting on a couch near a wooden statue of a menehune talking to an individual. Across the way a little bit was a pahu (drum). I didn't get a chance to approach him. Someone came up to him and said something. Joe put on his hat and quickly walked away with the requester and another person following them.

On the lanai (patio) looking out into Waikolohe Valley you could hear live entertainment coming from the distance. Immediately below was a fountain where four streams of water were intersecting at a single point. A little beyond that was the line to meet Mickey. Off to the left was a small stage area where later on a trio would be playing live Hawaiian music.

From Maka'ala to the left was the Ewa tower that would have the DVC rooms. On the right was the Waianae Tower where the Laniwai spa could be found along with the regular hotel rooms. As a local, it was funny looking at the tower names. Usually when you look mauka (towards the mountains) and you're in Honolulu when you say ewa for directions you usually mean left, meaning out on the west coast of Oahu. With the location of the resort in Kapolei, you are past Ewa so at Aulani, ewa would mean east or towards Honolulu. For locals it may be a little awkward, but for guests who are visiting Hawaii and specifically Oahu for the first time, it will make perfect sense.

There is so much more that I could talk about but I'll hold off until the resort is fully open except for a specific topic. The one item I want to touch on is the refillable souvenir mugs. They've made some news lately as mugs with RFID chips are being tested out at the All Star Sports resort over at Walt Disney World. Get details here. These mugs are molded white plastic with the design screened on. They currently cost $13.99. The mugs at Aulani have a clear plastic exterior with an insert with Hawaiian designs and Aulani logo between the outside and black inside and comes in four design colors. Here's the costs $32.99 for the mug! The sign reads "Unlimited refills available from any beverage station until the end of the stay in which the mug was purchased." When I talked to the cast member, she didn't know about the RFID chips being tested at All Star Sports. She did say that there are three beverage stations in the resort where refills can be obtained. I didn't think to look at the price of a single drink but when I get a chance I'll find out what the price and break even point would be. The $32.99 with Hawaii's General Excise Tax of 4.712% brings the total for a mug to $34.54 so the price does seem a bit high.

Between now and opening day there will be cast members staying on property to give it a shake out. Making sure that the rooms have what they need and the recreation CMs have a chance to test out the patterns and flows of the equipment and crowds will be the point of the stays. So that's it for this moment. I don't plan on going back to the resort until the official opening day although I've heard rumors of a public preview. We'll have to see about that.

Complete set of pictures here

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Movie Review: The Help

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Well I must say, The Help turned out to be much more than I thought based on the trailer. I was expecting more of a comedy about a group of black women working for white families during the early 1960s in Jackson, Mississippi telling the follies of their experiences for the audience to laugh at. It was directed and the screenplay written by Tate Taylor based on Kathryn Stockett's novel, it was a much more poignant look at race relations at this time and place in American history than I had expected. There were scenes that did make you laugh, but there were more scenes that had I been looking at the audience instead of the movie screen I'm sure I would have seen faces of confusion, bewilderment and anger concerning the treatment of the black women who devoted themselves to these families.

The Help Movie Poster
The story is told from the point of view of Aibileen (Viola Davis), a women who doesn't know how to do anything else. Her mother was a maid and her grand mother was a house slave. She's more of a mother to the children in the households she serves than the women who are more concerned about their social standing and appearance in the community. Her best friend Minny (Octavia Spencer) works for the queen bee of the social circle, Hilly Holbrook (Bryce Dallas Howard) who professes "separate but equal" with a proposal that homes with black maids must provide them with a separate bathroom.

Returning to Jackson after graduating with a degree in Journalism from Ole Miss is Eugenia Phelan (Emma Stone) who goes by Skeeter. With a name like Eugenia, you'd probably want a cool nick name like Skeeter too, wouldn't you? Skeeter secures a job with the local paper writing a column about cleaning tips and who better to provide accurate and useful information than a maid. That's how Skeeter and Aibileen get to know each other. But Skeeter wants to be a novelist. She decides after seeing how Aibileen and Minny are treated to write a novel about these black women raising white children from the maids point of view.

It's during these observations that the connections between this group of women and their charges is exposed for what is it. Aibileen proudly states that she's raised seventeen children. These strong black women are taking care of the children in ways that their own parents aren't doing. Even with Skeeter, when she returns home she asks for Constantine (Cicely Tyson), the maid who raised her. When she finds out that Constantine is no longer there, she is heart broken and angry.

The dynamic of this complex relationship is the heart of the film. Mothers abdicating their parental role to other women who are considered help and not worthy of using the bathrooms in their employer's house and yet being charged with one of the most important duties and responsibilities of rearing a healthy and responsible human being. Stockett herself was a product of being raised by a black housekeeper while her own mother was largely absent. Words of affirmation like "You are beautiful. You are smart. You are important." played an important part in Stockett's life and echoed in Aibileen's narrative to those she cared for.

Davis does a wonderful job as the bitter Aibileen, as does Spencer as the smart mouthed help Minny. But it's Stone's performance which acts as the glue to pull together and chronicle the stories of these maids and their bosses from the disgust of her own mother's attitudes and actions to the unlikely friendship between Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. A story Skeeter felt demanded to be told against the risk of going up against her own social class and the Jim Crow laws while Medgar Evers and President Kennedy ended up being assassinated. Each of the women are strong individuals to do what they did during the time they were in against confusing and hypocritical standards in place in society.

The 137 minute film goes by quickly and is rated PG-13 for thematic material. There were a few swears and smoking. Lots and lots of smoking. They even managed to poke fun at the smoking. The period piece looks beautiful and the story combined with the acting was enough that not only were there times of laughter, but times when you could hear people sniffling and blowing noses in the theater. Having a few tissues on hand couldn't hurt while you watch The Help.

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Saturday, August 6, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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We are now into the dog days of summer and the big movies are starting to wind down as families across the nation start heading back to school. The Movie Monkey has been waiting all summer for this particular movie. Not because it was going to be a great movie, but because one simian should support another, don't you think? While not the top of the movie evolutionary chain, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes in with a very solid upright position.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Movie Poster
While 2011 Academy Awards co-host James Franco, Oscar nominated John Lithgow and leading lady Freida Pinto from Academy Award Best Picture winner Slum Dog Millionaire received the top billing, in my opinion, Andy Serkis in his motion capture portrayal of chimpanzee Caesar should have had his name on top of the other three. As Caesar, Serkis' depiction of the primate with ever evolving intelligence was given through his eyes and body language, not through speech. This is when the acting skills need to be sharp and refined. Tied into the character were the good folks over at Weta Digital, the company started by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson who converted the digital plot points generated by the motion capture and rendered out the hairy bodies that became chimpanzees, gorillas, apes and orangutans.

The original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston came before the public in 1968. The last in the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, released in 1973. So it's been almost 40 years between the last time the series appeared on the big screen and lost to many younger people and now we're given the origin story. It would seem rather risky but at the same time not. In the original, it was never disclosed how the apes became the dominant species and humans below them. This unanswered question left the door wide open for exploration and didn't need to be rewritten or reimagined by Hollywood writers as seems to be the case for many pictures today.

In a number of cautionary tales of man creating something that ends up being his downfall the intent was with good and pure motivations. This origins story can be filed in the "good intentions gone wrong" folder. Dr Will Rodman (Franco) is working for a cure for Alzheimers which is afflicting his father Charles (Lithgow). Animal testing on chimps is going positively, especially on one chimp named Bright Eyes. When Bright Eyes goes on a rampage the program is shut down and all the animals are ordered to be put down but not before it is discovered that there was an off spring of Bright Eyes. In a moment of compassion, Will brings the baby chimp home and raises him. When growing chimp Caesar hurts himself and needs medical attention, it's at the vet's where Will meets Caroline (Pinto) and with prompting from Caesar through sign language the two start dating.

Will is able to hold onto his dad and Caesar for about eight years when things start to fall apart. Caesar was learning, reasoning and communicating from the altered genes passed down from his mother. While trying to protect Charles, Caesar injures a neighbor and ends up at a primate sanctuary where for the first time has interaction with other primates. Caesar is exposed to cruelty from humans and fellow apes. One of the handlers, Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) was a reference back to the original movie. If you saw The Green Mile, Percy and Dodge were cut from the same cloth. Both gave inhumane treatment to their charges and both ended up paying for that cruel handling.

In the third act, Caesar takes charge and leads the rebellion. He escapes from the sanctuary and sets free the other captives at the lab and zoo. Primates rampage through San Francisco using primitive weapons like fence spears and man hole covers to take out the opposition leading to the climatic battle on the ultimate icon of the city by the bay. King Kong had the Empire State Building and Caesar had the Golden Gate bridge...sort of symbolic as he crossed over from living in the world of man to living in the world of apes.

The movie runs for 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language. During the running time there are lots of nods to the original series of movies with names, lines and objects given. If you have seen any of the movies you'll appreciate the little tips of the hat. Don't immediately leave when you think the movie is over. Hang for a few moments as a bit of a set up for any possible sequels is given. After you leave the theater you can discuss with your friends some of the moral dilemmas offered ranging from animal treatment and animal experimentation to how far would you go for the care of a sick family member.

There are a few plot holes, but don't let that detract you from the overall experience. My biggest was were there really all that many of our evolutionary cousins located within the city limits of San Francisco? But still, the movie is a solid movie for the summer season praiseworthy of a bucket of popcorn and a cup of soda.

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